Saturday, 21 July 2012

Lithuania – The first European sand dunes

July 2-3

Hello everyone!

Lithuania possesses many places of beauty within its relatively small borders. One such example is the home of some of the only sand dunes in Europe. Definitely worth a visit, don’t you think?

You have to be committed to a long journey in order to get from the capital, Vilnius, to the area known as the Curonian Spit. It involves multiple forms of transport – train, boat, bus and foot – and consumes much of a day. It is, however, worth the arduous journey.

The Spit is a very narrow peninsula to the west of Lithuania. The Curonian lagoon separates it from the mainland on the east, and the Baltic Sea crashes onto the western side. It is not solely Lithuanian territory, with Russia possessing the southern tip of the land mass. Yet, in spite of the influence of these two culturally rich nations, it reminded me more of Britain. This is possibly due to the overcast conditions that we ensured for most of the two days spent here, but it has a quiet atmosphere that resembled one associated with a quaint, peaceful British seaside village.

As mentioned, this stretch of roughly 50km is home to some precarious and fragile sand dunes. They are in fact so delicate that it is prohibited to walk along the sides of them, as each step pushes seven tonnes of sand down. The picture that we were shown, contrasting the height of the dunes in 1960 and 2002, was alarming. They have halved in stature. The locals are very proud of these natural wonders, and obviously keen to protect them.

The Curonian Spit is sensually very pleasing. This was the first time on this latest adventure that I genuinely felt like I was in Europe. The dampness of the fresh air. The dark green of the firs that swamped the forest. The peaceful tweeting of small birds that gave life to an otherwise silent woodland. It was very pleasant to be reminded of the beauty of nature, particularly as it is often difficult to find in Kazakhstan.

The most famed dunes are about halfway up the Spit, meaning that we had to cycle about 20km from our base in the south, a village called Nida, to reach them. Many of you are aware of my apathy about getting on a bike. Even cycling through this lovely scenery, I can’t say that this feeling towards these two-wheeled vehicles has changed just yet.

It has to be said that the view of the lagoon from atop the main ‘dead’ dune, after a significant hike up the sand, was worth getting on my bike for. It was particularly fascinating how some of the sand was shaped in a similar way to rocks.

There was more to see in and around Nida itself. Our hostel provided a free walking tour of these sights. It wasn’t until over halfway through the excursion that they told us it was their first ever tour, which made their knowledge all the more impressive.

They also included some interesting and funny anecdotes as we were walking towards the Russian border. One of them was the fate of people who illegally crossed the border during the Soviet occupation. The punishment was not death. It was not prison. It was not a fine. No, you were sentenced to…

Peeling potatoes for two days!

Myth or not, it was funny to hear. Something that did really happen was that the large obelisk standing proudly on one of the hills was blown over by a treacherous storm in the late 1990s. This is why there seem to be two different rock colours on the pillar. The timings of this are slightly off, but this is compensated for by the fact that the peak of this hill is the only place in Lithuania from which you can see both the sunrise and the sunset.

This is a great place to visit. You can be active by cycling or running around the island, or it is acceptable to turn into a sloth on the Blue Flag beach. Going in the sea may not be the finest of ideas, as it is a bit chilly.

It was refreshing to get out into nature after traversing around so many cities. The Curonian Spit is a rare gem, and should be an indispensible visit on any Baltic itinerary. Just visit before the dunes get too much lower, and don’t cross into Russia without a potato peeler…

Love you all


Friday, 20 July 2012

Lithuania – The first cepelinai

Lithuania – The first cepelinai

July 1, 4

So north we head, over the mystery that is Belarus, to the Baltics. There are three of them, and my final stop on this current adventure is the most southern of the trio – Lithuania. Home to arguably the stodgiest food on the planet.

Early flights are the norm when flying from Astana, so a 7am flight can almost be regarded as a blessing. We arrived in Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, just after lunchtime via a quick transfer in Riga. It quickly became apparent that the pleasant weather had forgotten to board the flight. Looking up we saw a murky, overcast sky dominating the day ahead.

For reasons that will become apparent in the next blog, I had very little time to explore and enjoy Lithuania’s largest city. It is steeped in history, for this was the home of an Empire that ruled much of Eastern Europe in the 14th century. The large Gediminas Tower, and the models inside it, highlight the strategic importance of Vilnius throughout the epochs.

As with many cities in this part of the world, the ‘Old Town’ is the most culturally rich and interesting area for a traveller to see and immerse themselves in.

Of course, the aforementioned Empire has been redundant for a long time. Lithuania has long been carefully looking over her shoulder to the east, where a very large, powerful and occasionally aggressive nation sits. Lithuania was part of the USSR, but was the first country to claim independence in March 1990.

There is one amazing story about this, particularly the protests before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, that started in Vilnius. Well, started or ended, depending on which end you were at. The square below, outside Vilnius Cathedral, says ‘stebuklas’, which is Lithuanian for ‘miracle’. In 1989 a human chain was made from Vilnius to Tallinn in order to protest against the USSR. Tallinn is in Estonia, hundreds of miles away. The chain spread over three countries. It is amazing what people can achieve when they work together!

Though the city has a nice vibe that befits its status as a small capital city, it seems to lack anything that would make it memorable. One potential attraction could have been the ‘breakaway’ republic (I know, another one) of Uzupis, a suburb of Vilnius. It was established by artists who felt restricted. It has its own constitution, amongst other things. Clearly the constitution doesn’t state that there should be anything of interest to people who aren’t particularly interested in art.

What does interest me is local food, and we had been informed in our wonderful little hostel that the national dish was called cepelinai. Lithuanian food was described to me as ‘peasant food’, and based on this particular meal I can understand why. These are large potatoes which seem to have been cooked for too long, giving them a wet and slightly soft, almost gelatinous texture. They are then personalised with a topping, and then served with sour cream. Two come on a plate – eating both is your meal for the whole day, even at breakfast. Bland and too heavy, though when I had them fried a few days later they seemed nice – more like squidgy potato wedges.

The beer snacks were better, particularly kepta duona, which is fried bread smothered with cheese. I would gain some serious weight eating these with beer on a regular basis if I ever lived in Lithuania.

It was after eating all of this that we watched the final of Euro 2012. I was stunned to find that most places showing the game were empty. Aside from a small group of passionate Italian fans stood in the drizzle, the streets seemed quiet, but the bars we went to were barely occupied. I guess it summed up Vilnius for me – nice enough, but a bit too quiet and lacking in passion for me to remember it too fondly.

 Love you all


Friday, 6 July 2012

Ukraine – The first cannon shot

Ukraine – The first cannon shot

June 28-30

If you have been following our adventures around the Southeast of Europe, you may have noticed a theme running through these blogs. Not so much running as firing. AK-47s, pistols, crossbows, longbows…but the loudest and oldest has been saved for the south of Ukraine.

We were based in the southern port of Odesa, having taken a bus across from Moldova. Avoiding Transdniestr and any border crossing issues that may have arisen, we were instead delayed by something more common – a puncture.

Nonetheless we arrived in the sweltering sea town that was surprisingly overlooked as a host city for Euro 2012. Having asked a couple of locals about this, they aren’t too happy that other cities, in particular Kharkiv and Donetsk, were chosen ahead of them. They said that the stadium had even been renovated in preparation for it being involved.

The face that a tourist-friendly city was overlooked in favour of mining towns can be seen as either expanding the tournament across the whole country…or a very bad decision that cost the Ukraine many visitors and a lot of money. Depends which way you look at it.

One of the main attractions of Odesa is its location on the Black Sea, meaning that locals and Russians alike flock here to the Arcadia beaches in the summer to get some sun, sea, sand…and any other words starting with S that you can think of. Yes, the obvious one…shashlik. It is a party town, which renders it unfortunate that this is the time when I had the first feelings of lethargy and fatigue on my travels thus far. Being melted by the sun in the day probably didn’t help – it is particularly strong here.

 If the beaches have a vibe that wouldn’t be out of place on certain Spanish or Greek islands that annually morph into Little Britain horror shows, the town itself is quite pleasant without being overly impressive. Sights include a famous set of steps that were in a renowned horror movie, many monuments to Shevchenko (the poet, not the footballer – yet), and a bustling market.

One new experience offered to me in Odesa was Salo. Around the world there are many different foods which are sold to accompany beer. In Britain, it is crisps or peanuts. In Korea, it is sticks of fish and M&Ms. In Ukraine, it is salo.

As you can see, it is essentially a strip of pork fat. Delicious, I know. They try to flavour it with salt and garlic, and you eat it on black bread. I have to say that I wasn’t convinced, but compared to the other beer snack we had in Odesa they were a delight.

Below are pig’s ears. They are revolting, and were an insult to my mouth. The place where we tasted these awful things also refused to allow us to play cards, which I have never experienced before. The fact that they couldn’t give a reason merely annoyed us further, and left an unfortunate taste in the mouth. Not as bad as the pig ears, though.

We did venture out of Odesa for a day, which turned out to be the undoubted highlight of this part of our travels. A 2 hour bus took us to the remote town of Belgorod-Dnestrovsky. The reason we came here was that one of the guys in the hostel in Chisinau said that there was a fortress here. Within her crumbling walls was a cannon. The rumour was that, if you parted with enough Ukrainian hryvnia, that you could fire this beast.

The rumour was true. Admittedly a cannon ball doesn’t exit the barrel, but the bang is still ringing in my ears.

At this delightful fortress we also witnessed medieval fighting…played to a background of metal music, which I’m sure they had at that time. The great views of the sea merely added to the aura of this fascinating find on the south coast of Ukraine.

It is now time to fire ourselves away – in a plane, as opposed to a cannon – from Ukraine. The plan had originally been to head north through Belarus. Being told that a visa would cost $228, and may not arrive in time, promptly forced a rethink. Instead, Belarus has been bypassed as we flew north to the Baltics. Ukraine has been a fascinating country, and the cities of Kyiv and Lviv were a particular highlight. Being able to read the signs and converse slightly with locals has made an immeasureably positive difference to the trip, but as the region opens itself up to tourists as part of the Euro 2012 legacy, English will become more widespread and more people can enjoy its culture. Just not pig’s ears…

Love you all