Monday, 30 July 2018

Camping & Caravanning Club Escorted Tour. Lithuania & Latvia. Part 1

We finally made it to the start of the actual Camping and Caravanning European Escorted Tours The Baltics. With some in trepidation we arrived at Camping Seeblick in Northern Poland. We had really enjoyed our two weeks getting here and were looking forward to the trip.

Day 1

Camping Seeblick near Mragowo was in a beautiful spot, over looking a lake with stunning scenery. We had booked an additional night to the tour. We parked April at the top of the terraced site, overlooking the lake. It was a lovely sunny afternoon.

Here is a short dash cam of our drive to the start of the tour. ( approx 3 mins )

Even Buzz was excited about the trip! Here he is soaking up the sun.

The following morning dawned a bright day but deteriorated quickly into an enormous rain shower. We were so pleased we had arrived the previous day, fortunately the rain was short lived and as the ground was so dry, the water was quickly absorbed. 

We soon met with our fellow campers and the tour leader Sabine. The first group meeting was organised for that evening. Everyone was very pleasant and friendly. There were 12 units in all.  We were a real mixed group of people, mainly retirees, with lots of travelling experience between us. We had an assortment of campers and motor homes, so we had much in common. Sabine had brought the only caravan. We all introduced ourselves, before we were briefed on the next days activities. We were given a wine glass and Sabine kindly provided the wine to fill it.

Later that evening we had our welcome meal, a traditional Polish home cooked meal. 

The restaurant overlooking the lake.

 The site was pretty full and the facilities not really able to cope with the numbers of people using them. Nevertheless, we settled ourselves in and had a pleasant day taking in the magnificent views and visiting the resident stork.

Day 2

We travelled through some fabulous countryside before crossing into Lithuania and made sure our watches were put forward an hour. Our first stop was at Drunskininkai a lovely little spa town. The campsite seemed very pleasant and we each had a hedged pitch.

We set off for a first group visit to the Russian Orthodox church in the town.

The town was compact, a lovely resort with lots of hotels and bars. After we had been to the church we wandered off on our own. We stopped in the square and had another drink and watched the fountains. There was a cable car that went to the nearby mountains and an artificial ski slope, The Snow Arena, completed in 2011, one of the biggest indoor skiing slopes in Europe. So lots for the energetic to do! During the winter Druskininski is a popular ski resort, some of the party took a trip up in the cable car.

We enjoyed strolling around the old town. We even manged to get lost but a friendly Lithuanian couple helped us out.

Day 3 & 4

The next morning following instructions, we headed for Grutas Park. This is a place which contains over 80 former Soviet statues from all over Lithuania. The car park was pretty full with all our campers! 

We saw a pretty impressive collection of Soviet statues brought from all over Lithuania. There was also a children's playground and an art gallery.

 After wandering among the statues for a couple of hours we headed to Trakia and the next stop, a farm type site. After a happy hour or so sorting connections out and waiting for an electrician, we were all on the site and connected. Toilet facilities were in the barn, which mirrored the electrics. Was this really a campsite? At least the water was hot. We coped.The evening meal and entertainment was surprisingly good. The folk group was fun and the food was good traditionally, home cooked, using produce from the farm. 

The next day we were off to Trakia by coach with a guide, for a visit around the 14th century Trakia Castle. This was followed by a trip around the town and then lunch out. We tried Lithuanian dumplings, kibinai in a local restaurant, like pasties really, very tasty. We enjoyed the tour of the castle but would have preferred some more time on our own to explore or take a boat trip on the Lake Galve. There were lots of interesting shops selling Baltic amber which is very popular.

Day 5 & 6

Off again. This time we were heading for the capital city of Lithuania, Vilnius. The campsite at Vilinius was situated next to an exhibition centre a bus ride into the town. Sanitary facilities were in solar powered containers but satisfactory. Hot showers and quite clean and tidy. 

Fairly sized pitches here, although it was a busy site. Hop On, Hop Off buses went from the site.

Vilinus is a town worth visiting and we did a guided tour with the group. We would have liked longer to actually go inside some of the buildings we looked at. The guide took us to all the main highlights of the old city including the Republic of  Uzupis and the Jewish quarter. It was all very bohemian and in some cases rather bizarre.

Anyone for a dance down by the river? There were also a lot of weddings going on.

In the city there are masses of things to see and the people are very friendly. Certainly a place to go back to!

The Gate of Dawn. It houses the famous Madonna who is said to have miraculous powers. It was painted in the 16th century and placed over the gates to protect the city. Sadly there was no time to visit her.

We took a stroll up the hill and a lift to the top of the Vilinus TV Tower with Sabine and some of the group. A very pleasant hour was spent with a glass of wine, spotting landmarks from the panoramic windows in the revolving restaurant. This was a prime site when Lithuania went for it's independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. There is a small museum on the ground floor and markers in the grounds which show where Lithuanian people died whilst trying to maintain the blockade against the Russians. 

We returned to Vilinus by public transport on our own the next day and went to the KGB Genocide Museum. A very thought provoking place. We did not realise how much the Lithuanian people wanted to split from the Soviet Union and how many of them suffered for their independence and were consequently shipped off to Siberia. The museum graphically shows what happened in this place and in our own life time.

Cells in the KGB Museum. A frightening, grim, place which houses the original death cells.

A memorial to some of the freedom fighters.

Day 7 & 8

We were off to the Open Air Museum in Rumsiskes. This is an open air museum with reconstructed buildings from around Lithuania. The morning dawned rather dark and dreary, by the time we reached the museum it had started to drizzle and the mozzies were out in force. Not to be deterred it was macs on and mozzie spray out!

The lucky campers were taken around the site on a bumpy, damp, horse and cart ride. The unlucky ones, us, followed in Sabine's warm, dry, comfy car.

Despite the wet it was a very enjoyable day out and the tour guide was very entertaining. From here, we set off for Kaunas, Lithuania's second largest city and another city centre campsite. The campsite here was by a man made beach. The beautiful weather helped. 

As the sun comes out so do the locals.

Some hardy souls actually went for a swim. Kaunas City Camping was a secure site and the facilities were not too bad. Toilets and showers in containers, although there was a proper kitchen. Easy to get to the town and we used public transport again.  Kaunas of course has a castle and some strange street art.

There are lots of churches in Kaunas. Inside the Jesuit Monastry we climbed up to the roof terrace, from where you can see right across the city.

We found a very nice local restaurant for lunch.

Later we finished our trip to Kaunas, by climbing up the hillside in the furnicular railway. Not much to see at the top but the ride was exciting!

Day 9

The dash cam of our journey to the campsite at Kaunas, then onto Birzai.

Our next destination was the town of Birzai, well known for it's strong local beer and castle. The campsite was down by the river, by a sports stadium. Toilet facilities were adequate. Our group were the only campers there and we just about squeezed in around the trees. 

Soon we were off for the short walk from the campsite to Birzai Castle built in 1586 and now beautifully reconstructed.

A large manor house destroyed in 1704 and reconstructed in the 1990's. Our visit here was one of the trip highlights. The very knowledgeable curator was our tour guide. She shared many interesting facts about the museum and we ended the evening sampling the local beer and being entertained by a local folk group in the cellars of the castle.

We rounded off a pleasant evening with a lovely meal in the cellar restaurant.

Day 10 & 11

The following morning we were off to Latvia. First stop was at Rundale Palace, sometimes known as the Versailles of the Baltic States. We managed to follow the scenic route but made it eventually meeting up with the group for a tour of the castle. Rundale Palace was truly spectacular!

The Castle tour was well done and it was not too busy, although there were a lot of tourist groups there. From the palace we moved onto the next campsite at Sigulda. The campsite at Sigulda turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. Absolutely beautiful location by a river, under the trees. There was plenty of room either on the grass or hard standing by the edge of the site. Shame the showers only had cold water! Fortunately, we had our own facilities and were able to use our own shower.

 The view through our sliding door.

The river was used for canoeing and you could actually swim in the water if you could brave the temperature.

From the campsite we had a local tour guide who took us by coach to see the sights. 

We went to Turaida Castle.

We did manage to climb to the top of the tower and saw the fabulous views across the countryside.

We looked at all the love messages on the wall at Gutmanis Cave and heard the story of the estranged lovers.

 We bought some local delicacies, homemade sweets and gingerbread, a speciality of the area.  Next we travelled to Cesis and had a wander around the old town and finally lunch in a local restaurant.

A short dash cam of the journey from Lithuania into Latvia.

Tomorrow off to another country Estonia.

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

Camping and Caravanning Club Escorted Tour. The Baltics. Poland

Still travelling towards the first site for the escorted part of the tour, we soon arrived in Poland. We had decided to take a week travelling around Poland before meeting with the other tour members in Seeblick, which is in the north. 

We crossed the border from Germany heading for Wroclaw. Wroclaw is the largest city in Western Poland. As soon as we crossed the border into Poland the roads changed. We travelled on a road which was worse than many we had travelled in Africa. As April bounced along we began to wonder how things would hang together. The potholes were huge and there were enormous lorries on the road. Just as we thought we had made a massive mistake coming to Poland, things improved! The roads got better and although it was a 6 hour drive to our first campsite we were soon entering the suburbs of Wroclaw.  

A short web cam of our journey from Germany to Poland.

We had actually booked the site but again it was unnecessary. After a few false turns we were soon on the back streets. Tucked away behind a security gate we found Camping Wroclaw or Camping Wroc. Lots of campsites in Poland seemed to have more than one name, depending on where you look and also, harking back to the communist era, they also are called by a number.

Situated in what appeared to be someone's back garden, we were soon settled on a freshly mowed grass pitch. Pretty cheap at 25 euros with good electric and a tidy sanitary block.

The site filled up pretty quickly mainly Germans and Dutch. All very friendly.

 Without Madam Satnag the camp site would have been pretty difficult to find. We still had to stop and consult the locals. They were all very helpful and understood English and after a few three point turns we had arrived.

Good security we announced our arrival and the gate opened. Although turning in was challenging we made it. We were glad we were only 6.3 m long.

After settling in we ventured out for a little look around on foot. Not the best neighbourhood. There was a lovely little church around the corner but also lots of almost derelict houses and not many shops.

 Lots of churches in Poland. This one at the end of the road by the campsite was St Mary the Virgin. A very pretty local church.

Not so picturesque. Lots of apartment blocks in this part of Poland. Many of these blocks were pretty sad looking. However later on, we did see some beautiful architecture.

 We were only staying at this site for one night, so we did not have time to investigate Wroclaw Centre. The tram went from outside the site so it would have been an easy journey. Perhaps another time. We did get a beer in a local hostelry though! I thought I would have a white wine, but it was only beer or vodka...interesting!! Still, very cheap. 

The next morning after a very quiet nights sleep, we were up and off early on our way to Auschwitz or to call it by its real name the town of Oswiecim on the National Road 933. We had decided to camp at the Centre for Reflection and Prayer. This is a catholic hotel/retreat with camping in the grounds. It is a very quiet peaceful place with good facilities and beautiful campsite. At 85 PZ not the cheapest place, but worth it. Auschwitz - Birkenau is a 10 minute walk away. 

Our web cam of the journey through Auchwitz, Krakow and arrival in Warsaw.

The system for going into Auschwitz-Birkenau is pretty straightforward. You do not buy a ticket but you have to get a timed one from reception as they restrict the number of visitors. There is a free shuttle bus that runs to Birkennau which is about 15 minutes away. We went there first but wandered around on our own as we did not want to join a guided tour. It was a very hot day and busy but we were glad we went. We were able to wander around by ourselves and view what we wanted to. 

The train terminal at Birkenau.

The welcome gates at Auschwitz "Work Will Set You Free".

 Both the sites were full of young people in school groups. I think for us the saddest part was watching some of the young people posing for selfies in front of some of the monuments. We were glad we went but it was quite emotional at times walking in the beautiful sunshine in the steps of the people who never went home. The vastness of the site at Birkenhau is overwhelming.

Moving on with our tour of Poland we decided the next day we would visit the salt mines on the way to Krakow where we had booked in for 2 days.

The Wieliczka Salt Mines are just outside Krakow and well sign posted. A 3 hour conducted tour in English is included and it would be very easy to spend the whole day there. Campers can stay the night in the car park. Underground is massive and includes a cathedral sized church with massive chandeliers. It was slightly chilly but very dry underground. To get down into the mine you have to go down over 300 steps. Fortunately there is a lift to get back up at the end. We really enjoyed a lovely day here and were pleased we stopped on the way. 

The underground church at the salt mines.

Our campsite in Krakow was Camping Clepardia on the outskirts of Krakow.

A very nice tidy site well placed for a bus ride to the old city which took about 40 minutes and cost 7.50 PZ for both of us.

A good pitch with plenty of space. The supermarket was just up the road and there was a cash machine there. Good wifi on the site too which was free.

The next day we caught the bus into the centre of Krakow which was really busy. We strolled along the river and up to Wawel Castle.

The castle was busy and as all the separate areas were individually priced, we went for the Castle, Royal Armoury and Tower which came out at 88 PZ. 

Very busy at Warwel Castle with school and tour groups. It pays to go early.

We spent the rest of the day looking around Krakow it was very hot at 26 C. Loads of very impressive buildings.

Of course the ubiquitous horses and carriages were everywhere.

Quirky statues.

Some more intellectual than others.

Finally of course shopping. The arcade in Krakow's main square.
Our 2 days in Krakow flew by, we were soon on the way to Warsaw.

Warsaw another beautiful Polish city. We were staying at Camping Wok, a good 6 hours drive from Krakow. Camping Wok on the outskirts of town was in a beautiful spot amongst the pine trees. A brand new lovely sanitary block and a small restaurant and bar. The bus stop to the city centre was just around the corner. Shame about the midges!!!

We really enjoyed Warsaw. We paid our respects at the tomb of the unknown warrior, quite moving. A pity the tourists had to do selfies everywhere!

We went to the Royal Castle and learnt about the Kings and Queens of Poland.

We said "Hello" to Copernicus. We would encounter him again when we went to Torun on our return.

We ate Polish dumplings and had a drink in a Warsaw bar, watching the world go by. I was amazed at how many young Mums with babies in buggies went by. Poland certainly has a young and growing population. We got soaking wet. Yes, it actually rained while we were in Warsaw. 

We finished our trip to Warsaw with a visit to the Warsaw Up Rising Museum. Again, a moving experience and a complete contrast to the castle. It was very busy but very well done and worth the long walk to find it.

Before long it was time to say goodbye. Another beautiful city to return to. 

Our next stop was actually in the North of Poland at the start of the escorted tour but I'll cover that in the next blog. We did visit a bit more of Poland on our return journey after we left the escorted tour so I'll put that bit in here. Hope any readers are still with me!

Our journey back through Poland took us first to Malbork. We had heard good things about Malbork Castle and felt a visit to Poland would not be complete without a trip there. The nearest campsite was Camping Nougat in Malbork so we headed there.

Camping Nougat, not the best place we have stayed but within walking distance of the castle. We settled on the campsite and went up to the town to buy tickets for the next day. Sadly that was not to be as there was a Presidential visit to the castle and it was closed! We took pictures and found a local bar but really Malbork is the castle and there wasn't anything else going on. We walked back through the woods to the campsite. The next day we spent a few hours exploring the castle. Highly recommend the audio guide which was the best we have encountered. We finished the day immersed in Teutonic Knights history and had a meal in a local restaurant which was great.

The Madonna and Child on the reconstructed Malbork Castle.

The final two places we visited on this Polish adventure were Torun and Poznan.

We had not actually intended to visit Torun but when we looked at the map the drive from Malbork to Poznan was a long one. Torun happily was right in the middle so a good place to stop. Torun was the birhtplace of our old friend Copernicus who we had already met in Warsaw. The Campsite, Camping Tramp was just on the outskirts of the city and about a 20 minute walk over the bridge. We arrived in the early afternoon with just enough time for a little reccie.

Torun is heavily visited by tourist operators, its compact size and wealth of attractions make it a perfect tourist destination. We walked along the river to the old town walls.

We explored the old fort.

We found our way to the open air museum and spent an hour or two browsing around the old buildings. 

Inside the house of a wealthy farmer.

We enjoyed a very pleasant lunch here. There are loads of things to see in Torun and you can spend some time walking through the narrow streets. We went into St Johns Cathedral and looked at the medieval font that Copernicus was said to have been baptised in. The churches were magnificent in many different styles. Some of the more modern buildings like the University were stunning. Certainly Torun has much to offer we were so pleased we made the diversion.

Our last stop in Poland on our way home was at Poznan. Poznan was a very surprising place. We had booked into the campsite just outside the centre by the lake. A nice hedged pitch. Camping Malta.

When we booked we did not realise there was a Triathalon going on and we would only be able to leave the site before 6 am or after 4 pm. We were booked in for 2 days so decided an early start before 6 am on the day we were leaving would be the best choice. There was a lot going on and all the competitors were at the lake. We had a beer and watched a few rounds. The next day we set of for the town centre at Poznan, a walk to the tram stop and 6 stops to town. Unfortunately having bought our ticket, we were told by a local the tram was off and the road closed for the bike racing. We walked to the next stop and were helped by a friendly French guy to find the right tram.

Eventually we made it to the old town centre. We made friends with the battling goats in the town centre tower.

We spent a good few hours looking around and found our way to the most amazing shopping mall we had ever been to. Built in an old brewery it was a surreal mixture of architecture, art and the super shopping experience.

This place held a lot of appeal. Some of the prices were scary!

We had a very nice meal here, before setting off back to the camp.

Poznan is certainly a lovely place to while away a few days. A fine mixture of old and new in a very exciting city. We happily caught the steam train back to the campsite and were sad that our lovely stay in Poland was over.

As we drove out of the campsite at 5.45 the next morning we were so pleased we had taken the time to discover Poland. Rubbish drivers but lovely people, in a beautiful country with some amazing old towns and clean modern efficient transport systems. We did not realise that Poland was so vast, certainly a place to return to.

The next part of this  blog will be about the escorted part of the trip through The Balkans and our drive to St Petersburg. We took 2 weeks to arrive at the start of the tour and 2 weeks after it finished to get home. A total of 8 weeks on the road. From Warsaw we were on our way to the Masurian Lake district in Northern Poland, Camping Seeblick was the first stop. We were looking forward to our trip through the Balkans to St Petersburg and to meeting our fellow travellers.