Unexpected visit to Russia
Saaremaa (Estonia) to Sandomierz (Poland), August 2013

After we visited the Estonian islands of Saaremaa and Hiiumaa, we brought a short visit to the city Haapsalu before we headed to Estonia’s capital city Tallinn. And as Latvia’s capital city Riga, Tallinn is a tremendous beautiful city with a fairytale atmosphere. But unfortunately, the city is becoming more an amusement park than a real city (see also our photo impression about Tallinn). If you add to that the hundreds of daily ‘booze cruise’ visitors from Finland who come here to get drunk as much as possible, and you’ll understand that we were around ten years too late to visit the city. How beautiful must have this city been in the time of the Soviet Union or just the couple of years after that? It is now totally focused on tourism.

After the visit to Tallinn it was time again to visit a greener environment. We went to Lahemaa national Park, just an hour away by car from the city. We eventually spent more than a week in this nice national park. The reason was that we decided to bring a short and unexpected visit to Russia. We read on the internet that it is necessary to have visited Russia recently, if you want to apply for a long term visa for this huge country (a six or 12 month visa). And now we were very close, so we decided to make a short city trip to St. Petersburg. We headed to Narva, the Estonian border town with Russia, and applied for a tourist visa. The waiting time was 8 days, so we headed back to the camp site in Lahemaa NP to wait for the day that we could pick up our visa. And we had a great time in the national park. It wasn’t only a nice park, but we also met fellow-travelers Mark and Nancy (also Dutch) who travelled in a 1981 Land Rover through northern Europe. We had a great time together and when we headed back to Narva to pick up our Russian visa, they drove to Tallinn.

Mark and Nancy with their 1981 Land Rover

We visited St. Petersburg before, so we already knew that it is a special city. Unlike cities as Riga and Tallinn, St. Petersburg is still a real city. Of course, there are many tourists, but they are just a fraction of the total number of people living in this metropolis. We had a lot of rain on the first day, but the second day was sunny. We spent the nights on a parking of a hotel. The parking doubles as a small campground in the summer time. We were just three metro stations away from the city center. We got the necessary stamp in our passport and headed after two full days in St. Petersburg back to the border. The border formalities went smoothly, so we also got our first experience with crossing a tougher border (see also the article about the border crossing between Estonia and Russia). When we were back in Estonia, we continued our journey southwards, through the eastern parts of the Baltic States. The eastern part of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are poorer than the more central and western areas. It seems that these eastern regions are one of the poorest regions in the European Union.

In the north eastern part of Lithuania is a small town called Visaginas. It houses the once most powerful nuclear power station in the world. It had two reactors, which were of the same type as the reactors in Tsjernobyl, and we all know what happened to this power station. When Lithuania became part of the European Union, they had to shut down the reactors, because the EU didn’t want to take the risk of having their own Tsjernobyl disaster. The last reactor shut down in 2009, and since then it is a normal power station, which means that you can drive all the way to the front door without having any questions asked. We drove an hour further southwards to the Aukstaitija National Park. The park isn’t very famous, so you will probably have it almost all for yourself. The landscape of rolling hills, forests and beautiful lakes is very beautiful. It is also a good place to see something of the traditional Lithuania (see also the photo impression of Aukstaitija NP). The next stop was the last capital city on our trip through the Baltic States: Vilnius. Our experience was the same: beautiful city but very touristy. However, not as touristy as the other two capitals because of the fact that cruise ships can’t make it all the way to Vilnius. On the city camp site we met Mark and Nancy again. And as in Estonia, we had a great time together.

A place along the way (Latvia) where farmers put their milk to be picked up by the milk truck

It wasn’t far anymore to Poland. But we had one stop to make in Lithuania. Near the spa resort town Druskininkai is the bizarre statue park Grutas Park. It is the initiative of mushroom king Malinauskas, who earned a fortune by selling canned mushrooms. He bought a lot of old Soviet statues that once decorated the parks and squares in Lithuania. He was of the impression that people would like to come to his park on their weekend days to ‘admire’ old Soviet sculptures. And he was right. He made a sort of amusement park around it, complete with children’s play garden and mini-zoo (see also our article about Grutas Park). A day later we crossed the border with Poland again. We drove further south along the Belarussian border to the famous Bialowieza National Park. This park holds one of Europe’s last vestiges of lowland forest. We did expect that the forest was much bigger than it appeared to be, but we still had a great time. And yes, we saw a wild European Bison, Europe’s largest land mammal and still very rare (see also our photo impression about Bialowieza NP). By the way, sleeping on the quiet camping wasn’t always easy, thanks to a group of noisy Dutch farmers, who were on a study trip (see also the column about the farmers).

On the same camp site in Bialowieza village, a Polish family told us to go to Poleski National Park, 200 km further south, and a good place to see Crane birds. So we did, and we saw them. The migration was still not in full swing yet, but we saw at least 100 of these beautiful and noisy birds. It was another one hour drive before we arrived in Lublin. The city is not very special, but we decided to bring a visit to Majdanek, once of Nazi Germany’s concentration and extermination camps. The site is not as famous as Auschwitz/Birkenau, but it is at least as impressive. There are not many visitors, so you get all the time and space to take a look around and to realize yourself how brutal people can be. Horrifying! The town Sandomierz, already on the tourist radar of the Polish tourists, but not yet famous among foreigners, is a great place to take a break after the depressing things we saw in Majdanek. A small and medieval town with an exceptionally beautiful old square and cathedral.

The once very powerful nuclear power station in Visaginas (Lithuania)
The island castle of Trakai near Vilnius
An old Russian Orthodox Church in Druskininkai
The fence of the Majdanek concentration and extermination camp in Lublin (Poland)

The beautiful interior of the Cathedral of Sandomierz (Poland)

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