Reflecting on the past couple of months we came to realise that the first part of the trip up to Nordkapp had been conducted at quite a lively gallop. Fair enough, we didn’t actually want to be fighting through pack ice and eating our dog à la Shackleton Expedition, so a moderate amount of speed was understandable. But since then we had made a conscious effort to apply the brakes – although not too heavily. We were now, in effect, surfing south on the breaking wave of autumn. Leaves on the deciduous trees were beginning to turn slightly orange and yellow as we travelled along, the evenings were not so light nor the temperatures so high and there was a distinct feeling that winter was on its way.
As an aside, this phrase was currently very much in our minds because we had just started watching the entire boxed set of ‘Game of Thrones’ where every time one of the main characters wants to make a point they come out with the enduring refrain, “winter is coming”. And yes, we do realise that we’re months and years behind the viewing trends – but we don’t care. Back to the Baltic States (or if you prefer, the lands south of the Northern Wall).
So the pressure to keep on drifting south was still there, but at a much reduced level. Time for a planning session. We didn’t really want to drive through snow and ice if we could avoid it and the notion of wintering on the shores of the Mediterranean had a very strong appeal. That was enough planning for now, we felt. No need to get out the road atlas and work out where we should be heading for or roughly when we might arrive there – all we needed to know was that we should keep on in a more or less southerly direction, taking our cue from the leaves on the trees as to whether we should speed up or not. Marvellous.
After our prolonged stay we felt energised and ready for anything and aimed the camping machine at Lithuania. Of the three Baltic States, this one turned out to be by far the cheapest to live in. Diesel could be got hold of for about £1.00 per litre, beer was not far off the same price and the rest of what we needed to live, move and sightsee seemed to be pitched at the same thoroughly agreeable level. Cheered by this discovery we pressed on, stopping briefly to admire the House of Pans.
The story here was that the householder wanted to carry out some upgrading work on his half of the semi-detached building that he shared with a neighbour. The neighbour refused to join in with this commendable project, so your man went all out to wind his neighbour up and started coating his half of the building with old pots and pans and other random bits of metal hardware. I imagine he succeeded.
Next stop was the Hill of Crosses. It seems that this hill had been the place for frequent and regular cross placings by folk who sought Divine intervention in deserving cases since the 19th century. The Godless Soviets would have none of this though and repeatedly cleared the crosses away, at one point even turning the Hill into a giant rubbish tip. But the locals, in their turn, would have none of that, and crept out at night to put crosses back again. The post-Soviet era has seen a rapid increase in the numbers of visitors and crosses alike, one of the more notable visitors being – yes, you’ve guessed it – the Pope, who placed a whacking great big cross on a huge marble base. Fair do’s, we thought, the Lithuanians had been the ones who kept the tradition going through thick and thin, so it was quite right that HHTP should reward them with a cross of his own.
To keep things balanced our next port of call was a former Russian strategic missile base that had been turned into a Cold War Museum. What a belter it was. One of the four vertical missile silos and the former command and control centre were open to visitors and stuffed full of what was a surprisingly interesting series of displays. And to top it all, we were the only visitors that day and so even though we’d timed our arrival to fit the guided tour programme, the guide just handed us a pair of headsets and a recorded set of briefings and invited us to conduct a self-guided tour. More than happy! We had a fine time wandering through the deserted subterranean maze on our own, feeling slightly as though we shouldn’t have been there, and eventually emerged from the top of the missile silo blinking in the daylight. Here are some photos…
As if to echo the apocalyptic nature of the museum, the weather soon turned nasty. Having parked up for the night in a pleasantly wooded area in the port and beach resort of Palanga on the small but perfectly formed Lithuanian coast, we were rudely disturbed after supper by a loud and prolonged sort of cracking, ripping, crashing sound. You know the sort of sound I mean; it normally occurs just after the chainsaw stops and a voice cries, “Timber…!” Even the dog looked perturbed and we ventured out to take a look around. Sure enough, ten yards away was a large and horizontal tree that had expertly fallen over right across the road we came in on, blocking our escape route. And escape was what we needed to do – with trees all around us and a wind that seemed to be picking up speed and ferocity by the minute, neither of us wanted to hang around any longer. A quick recce revealed a gap in the remaining trees that led, via a huge puddle, onto some sort of sports pitch. It would have to do. Kate led the way on foot waving a torch to show the way, while I trundled the van after her. Weaving expertly around a couple of goals and what looked like a small outside loo, we regained the road by way of a wide but luckily deserted pavement and set about finding a new home for the night. Every couple of minutes we’d pass a fire engine with blue lights flashing, or notice another fallen tree across a side street. Using all of our considerable cunning to outwit the treacherous satnav, we found our way to a massive car park outside a sports stadium. Perfect – the nearest surviving trees were at least 100 yards away so we were safe. Relatively safe, anyway, for it turned out that the enormous car park also played host to the town’s car-owning youth who, in between playing dubstep and/or hip hop at window shattering volumes, enjoyed doing doughnuts and J-turns on the pleasingly slippery wet tarmac. “Stuff ‘em”, we thought, “They’ll get bored of it and go home soon”. They did, and we got our heads down at last, leaving nature to go on destroying itself while we slept.