Saturday, 11 August 2018

Camping & Caravanning Club Escorted Tour. Estonia & Russia. Part 2

Day 12 & 13

Today we crossed another border and entered into Estonia. We were heading to Tartu the "number two" city in Estonia. On the way we stopped at various war memorials including this one which commemorated the battle of Paju.

We also stopped at the German War Memorial just outside Tartu at Valgamaa.

Both sites were very touching, peaceful and beautifully kept.

We pressed on and were soon settled into the campsite by the marina just outside Tartu. Not the best site we had stayed on! Sanitary facilities were appalling, there was a cafe where we could use toilets and showers when they were open and a disgusting container with one unisex shower and two dirty toilets with no lights, for when the cafe was shut. Very inconvenient as the cafe closed  at 5 pm and at 10 am on the Saturday morning when we left, was still closed! Not a site to linger on. Fortunately, we were able to use our own facilities. Electric points were also at a premium but us hardy souls, shared and  managed. 

A dash cam showing our journey and arrival.

On the positive side, there were good views of the river and it was only a 20 minute stroll into Tartu. The site was by the marina and there were shops and supermarkets nearby.

On the second morning we set off by taxi for a guided tour of the town. Tartu is a university town and filled with the exuberance of the young. Our local guide worked at the University and took us in for a look around.

The Kissing Students. This scuplture was finished in 1998 by Mati Karman and is in the town square.

This statue summed up the generations. Mother and daughter bridging the generations.

The 13th century cathedral remains, now part of a park. There are lots of open public green spaces in Tartu.

We  made a visit to  the Lutheran Church of St John and spent some time on our own browsing the various city sites. Following a lovely lunch in the main town square we strolled back to the campsite. We really enjoyed our visit to the city.

Day 14

Our next destination the following day was Lake Pepius on the eastern border of Estonia. In fact, the border with Russia runs across the middle of the lake. Lake Pepius is a huge fresh water lake and the campsite was very near to the lake with a small patch of sand.

 The campsite or "resort," we were heading for filled us with some hope, as we were longing for a really long, hot, clean shower. Slightly optimistic! The Suvi Hotel, turned out to be a former soviet camp, rather reminiscent of a scout camp. The communal facilities were well past their " sell by" date. The shower block was in a dilapidated bunkhouse and the restaurant, turned out to be more like a canteen. The grounds however were very pretty and well kept. We parked up amongst the trees and ventured out for a bike ride.

The road around the Estonian side of the lake. Very little traffic in these parts.

A winding country lane  took us to the lake a great bike ride and very little traffic. A bit too far for us ( me.) to ride all the way to the border. We rode back to the camp site at least the bikes had been aired. We decided to drive via the Russian border the next day.

The Russian border turned out to be rather a "non-event". There were a few fishermen, a couple of houses, a very pretty convent, a closed church and not much else. We were trying to work out where the locals did their shopping!

Buzz at the border. I think he was dreaming about all those lovely fish in the lake! After all he is a bear.

Day 15

We travelled on to the beautiful Russian Orthodox Monastry at Kuremae. A beautiful place to visit, said to be a place of holy healing. According to a 16th Century legend, a shepherd witnessed a divine revelation near a local spring, the water is venerated as holy.  The monastry is actually a convent. There was a service going on so we didn't go into the church but the grounds were beautifully kept and despite the visitors rather serene.

 We were on our way to the Estonia Mining Museum.

Another facinating trip underground. The guide showed us around and also operated some machinery which was still working. A dusty place but well worth spending a couple of hours to see the conditions the poor miners laboured in.

We travelled down in the train.

Our guide was a former miner. A mixture of an English Audio guide and a few gestures said a lot.

From the mine we were soon on the way to the last campsite before Russia at a place called Toila. We were hoping for a "proper" campsite this time as some members of the party were staying there while the rest of us moved on to St Petersburg. 

Dash cam of the journey to the campsite at Toila.

Thankfully the campsite at Toila was fine. A proper campsite with proper showers, toilets and a kitchen. There was even a lovely restaurant across the road and it was near to the beach, with some nice walks, it could have been a perfect place for a short break. Shame we were crammed in like sardines.

Believe it or not, someone was put on pitch 13 later that day. Getting out could have been tricky!

Following a longish daily meeting (which was becoming a chore) then a group meal in the restaurant, we were finally set up for the next day's expedition to St Petersburg.

The beach at Toila.

Day 16 - 21

Dash cam of our trip through the Russian border and towards St Petersburg.

The next morning 8 units set off to the Russian border. Not too much waiting. Sabine had booked a timed crossing and we had all filled in our forms correctly. The border guards were relatively friendly and interested in looking into our vans. We queued on the border bridge for a few minutes and we were soon on Russian soil. 100 miles to St Petersburg!
We filled April with a good tankful of cheap Russian diesel and we were off.

Russian roads are mildly entertaining and full of potholes, although they seemed to be fixing the roads to St Petersburg. We thought the world cup may have been something to do with all the road activity. With a lot of help from Madam Satnag who could obviously read Russian fluently, we were after a couple of hours on the outskirts of the city and the ring road, scary. Her directions seemed a bit odd, but we had faith! Two of our fellow travellers were following us, as their satnav had decided it was not going to read Russian. We hoped we would find the hotel. A few odd turnings down some back streets and we were there. Security gates were opened and we were in. Hotel Phlogiston.

Not the most picturesque setting and for some reason we had to squash up two to a pitch. We were never quite sure why, as there was lots of space in the car park. Toilet facilities were just adequate and there was a kitchen. Two couples from our party actually stayed in the hotel. We were glad we were sleeping in April. It was all a bit dismal, noisy and very dusty. I think if we had been doing the trip again, it would have been better to pick a good hotel with parking and stay in the hotel.

The first evening we were really tired. We were escorted to a local supermarket around the corner. 

If we had not been with a guide we would not have recognised this as a supermarket.

Around the corner from the hotel. Russians are such interesting drivers!

St Petersburg suburbs.

That evening the whole group made for the hotel restaurant. A big mistake, the waitress who appeared to be the only member of staff in the restaurant was also the cook. Needless to stay, the meals took for ever, the waitress/cook got confused and when the meals finally arrived they were not of a great standard! Just as well there were no other guests in the hotel. Fawlty Towers, springs to mind. Sadly not a good introduction to Russia.

We were staying in St Petersburg for 5 nights. The next day was a heavy dose of tourist activities. We were introduced to our guide and soon we were on the road to see the sights. A comprehensive coach tour of St Petersburg followed.

After our coach tour we went to The Hermitage. Massive queues there but we were in the safe hands of our tourist guide who whizzed us through and in the back door. Inside it was packed but we managed to get around most of the important bits without loosing our guide.  Later that evening we did the "White Nights" tour. Drove around St Petersburg a number of times, crossing all the bridges and got some interesting pictures, daylight until 11 pm. Unfortunately for us, the bridge display we were all waiting for until 1 am, did not take place, so the main event of the tour was a bit of a disappointment. Never mind we soaked up the atmosphere instead. A very late night , or should I say early morning.

There was some entertainment! 

The buildings were beautifully lit all around the city.

The bridge that never lifted! We were assured that it really did on most days.

Over the next few days we did excursions to Catherine's Palace at Pushkin and spent an afternoon exploring the fountains in the  Peterhoff Gardens on the last full day.

The fountains were pretty spectacular.

 We really enjoyed a day out on our own and travelled on the metro, gosh it's a long way down. 

We went window shopping in Nevsky Street and ate out in a Russian canteena, an interesting very cheap, experience, rubbing shoulders with the locals.

We went to The Old Fort and the cathedral of St Peter & Paul, where the Tsars are all buried. Another very touching experience.

The sumptuous throne room at St Catherine's Palace. The amber room was stunning too. Sadly no photos allowed.

All in all our 5 days in St Petersburg was soon over. We went for a very nice meal in a local Turkish/Russian restaurant and made friends with some locals.

 The rest of the party opted for kebabs cooked in the sauna at the hotel.

Day 21
All too soon it was time to say farewell, to The Phlogiston. We washed some of the dust off April and followed the potholes back to Toila in Estonia.

A dash cam of the journey back from St Petersburg to Toila.

Would we find our way back to Russia again? Maybe, but not on an escorted tour. The return journey was fairly uneventful although our V 5 Logbook was thoroughly scrutinised at the border with the EU in Estonia. 

Back in Toila we squashed onto our original pitch. We were told we would need to make room for another group of 20 motor homes. Sabine's company had booked another tour group on to share the campsite with us. Not good planning, we were packed in again. Don't worry we were told the convoy will be leaving at 8am! They did, we heard them.

Day 22
Facilities were somewhat stretched, not a relaxing stopover. We did manage a nice meal in the restaurant and a stroll to the beach. We paused at the German war cemetery near the camp site and wondered if any of our relatives were there?

We hoped 19 year old Grenadier Artur and 23 year old Leutnant Werner Schwarz were sleeping in peace. Such a waste.

The beach at Toila.

Day 23

Today we were off to Palmse Manor. A restored house with museum and gardens. A nice house with beautiful gardens but a little "over restored" for our taste. Still, we whiled away a pleasant couple of hours.

We were recommended to stop at Kamsu at "The Captains Village". We wandered around the museum which was very strange as the house was lived in by a family. We felt a little uncomfortable looking around their kitchen, as they had a meal. All a bit odd really. 

There was nowhere open for lunch so we pressed on to the next campsite at Tallinn.

A dash cam showing the journey from Toila to Tallinn.

We arrived at Tallinn and were very disappointed to find we were basically going to be  staying on a large car park. The sanitary facilities were dreadful with huge communal showers. At that point we almost decided we were were not going to stay but as it was late and we were tired we thought we would stay the night. The next morning we were going on a guided city tour for the morning and then lunch. We intended to leave that afternoon. 

The city tour was long and somewhat dreary! We went to a forest cemetery and then to the place where the Estonia singing festival is held, it was massive. 

The scale of the stadium was very deceptive it was huge.

The old town was interesting but really crowded. We felt everywhere was over commercialised and Tallinn was certainly not one of our favourite places but the churches were worth a visit.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Tallinn.

We had a traditional meal in a local restaurant but didn't really feel we had seen the real Tallinn. We left the restaurant to explore on our own just as a huge rain storm came over. We were rather damp when we found our way by bus back to the campsite. No hot showers here! 

It was at this point we decided to leave the "escorted tour." We attended yet another evening meeting. After the meeting, we asked Sabine if the next campsites we were going to at  Sarreema Island and  then Riga were better. She could not give us a positive answer, so we told her we intended to leave and do our own thing. A very positive move for us, although we would miss the last 7 days of the escorted tour, we were very excited at moving on the next day. We had enjoyed The Balkans but felt we would enjoy it even more, doing our own thing!

Having made the decision to leave the tour we were off to find our own adventures.
We decided to head south.

Dash cam of our arrival at Camping Solar.

Our first stop was still Estonia. We found a delightful little site not far from Pardu at a place called Ardu on the coast. Solar Camping. A German run site which was brand new. Beautiful toilet block with brand hot new showers. Laundry with Miele washing machine for 3 euros. We thought we were in heaven! Huge pitches and a 10 minute bike ride to the seaside. we took full advantage of all the facilities.

Washed and showered! All our washing done and beautiful surroundings. We were in heaven. We took a bike ride down to the sea. After a peaceful night we decided to move on. Ever southward. Our next stop was on the coast at Tuja, Camping Jurasdzeni.

A dash cam of the journey to the seaside.

Another beautiful site over looking the sea. Quite tidy sanitary facilities and a sea view.

The view from our van.

We took a stroll along the beach and had a meal in the beach cafe.

It was idyllic.

Even Buzz enjoyed it!

We met up with Graham and Beryl from the tour. They had also briefly escaped and we spent a very pleasant evening in their company.

The next morning we moved on our next stop was The Hill of Crosses at Siauliai. A place of pilgrimage.  Well worth a stop off and very moving!

It was actually a very quiet moving place of prayer.

We were looking for a place to spend the night and came upon Sunny Nights. A delightful campsite. Very Bohemian. Converted from an old post office and run by a young couple. We had a lovely meal of dumplings with home made cider from the orchard and spent a night among the trees. A really quirky lovely restful place. Clean, tidy with hot showers. We were so pleased we had escaped the "escorted tour".

Our dash cam of the arrival at Sunny Nights.

Our final resting place before leaving the Baltics and heading back into Poland was at Marijampole on the border of Lithuania. Another delightful site and so friendly. We arrived on the night of the celebrations for midsummer. Another beautiful site complete with swimming lake. We were soon settled in.

A dash cam of the dirt track road on our way to this campsite. Well worth the journey.

There was even a heated cabin overlooking the swimming lake.

Later that evening we enjoyed a party to celebrate Mid summer! A huge bonfire BBQ and Chinese lanterns. A special evening which we really enjoyed!

We wrote messages about things we wanted to stay goodbye to, on planks of wood which were then burnt. 

We sent lanterns up with our thoughts for the future. A return to Lithuania perhaps.

A very friendly bunch of lovely young people who were so welcoming. A beautiful end to our time in Lithuania.

The next day found us back in Poland. We were going to stay in Seeblick but found a much better campsite just up the road.

Very clean, very quiet and very cheap.

We were on our own.

all too soon our trip to the Baltics was over. Lots of highs and lows but very friendly people and stunning scenery. A visit another day definitely  planned for future years.

Our next adventure very soon, tomorrow we are off to Italy and another escorted tour of Greece. Can't wait!!