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east from south to north

There’s a lot to say about our trip up north, but I think that the keyword here is: contrast. Cultural differences, priorities in life, incomparable historic backgrounds, childhood opportunities, food and cuisine, attitude concerning nature preservation, styles in architecture and housing, traditions or the lack of them, openness towards others, landscapes, the amount of daylight and so much more.

There’s only one thing that was a constant during our drive up north and that was the absence of litter. Everything was so clean. It is a huge difference with the eastern, south-eastern and southern part of our trip.

So many different impressions, so many things we did or saw. It’s unbelievable. Sometimes I have the feeling that my head will explode.
It’s an exceptional year in which we’ve been super busy with only fun and interesting stuff and… with ourselves. We do what we want (and can afford) when we want it (or when it fits our timeline). The freedom we decided to take, is an absolute privilege and a rare luxury.

Like I said, we left beautiful Slovenia and the mesmerizing Soča and began our final drive to the last of the outer parts of Europe, Lapland and Cape North.
We slept one night in an Austrian guesthouse before we got to Brno. The indicator light of our car warned us about the brakes and we had to replace them. They couldn’t be more helpful in the VW garage. It only took some rescheduling and a few hours before we could continue our driving.
Like a lot of eastern European cities you can still feel the communist past of the city, but nowadays they are mixed with modern and hip architecture, fancy coffeebars, trendy shops, designer clothing, concept stores and what more. For those who believe that eastern cities and people are behind (or criminals)… They’re wrong!
And don’t forget, it’s been only 30 years since the fall of the iron curtain and the struggle for independence of many countries in the region.
The same feeling we had in Brno, goes for Krakov, Vilnius and Tallinn. And what’s more… we loved it. We prefer those cities with rough edges. Cities with a past that are creating a new and modern identity but which still respect their, sometimes not so beautiful or peaceful, heritage. We like cities, which are a home to those who live there and where tourists are welcome but mere short-term guests.

From Tjechia we drove to Poland, the country with the worst air quality in Europe. Luckily we come from Antwerp so we easily fitted in. I can joke about it now but we really experienced it in the south on the rainy and foggy days. There were places where a foul smell hung in the air. I don’t know what they were burning but it didn’t feel good. Luckily it got better when we drove up north to Kazimirs Dolny (they have good food and beers there) and after that to Białowieska where we saw the primeval forests. They left a huge impression, which I wrote down, in a separate article.
Poland is a big country and a bit boring to drive through. I think it’s a country with lots of highlights like Krakau, the salt mines, Auschwitz, good food and drinks,… and a lot of (or maybe to much) space between them. The landscapes and the changing surroundings while driving didn’t leave a lasting impression.

After our compact visit of Poland, it was time to visit the Baltic area. From Vilnius (Lituania), a very interesting city, we drove to Latvia where we did some serious camping again. We spend a week on the riverbank of the Gauja river in Gauja National Park; relaxing, paddling and cooking on open fire before we traded that in for the sea and the island life on Saaremaa.
It’s flat, peaceful, empty or what a lot of people call: boring. We loved it. Especially the tiny villages with the traditional wooden houses were a delight to see. Also cool are the RMK zones where you can camp freely. They have a fireplace, shelter, toilet, there’s always firewood and the best of it all… the Baltic is your bathroom.
With only one Baltic week left we drove to Tallinn (Estonia), which is a nice city to visit. The old part of town is a must-do, but it get’s more interesting outside it where the focus is less on tourism.

From the busy city life we went to the quiet-get-back-in-touch-with-nature Estonian Bushcraft Festival. Apparently, this festival is one of the better organised and biggest in Europe, although it was only their second edition.
We spent three days in the forest, carving spoons, making fire with different kinds of techniques, learning survival techniques, building rocket stoves, making bracelets, colouring wool, making paper, writing with wooden pens and ink, carving animals and whistles,… There was so much to do and the atmosphere was amazing. It’s not something we’re familiar with though. For a lot of the participants it’s a place where they wear the traditional, handmade clothing or where you can walk around with 6 knives, an axe and a firesteel in your belt without anyone looking funny at you.
The evening program was filled with sauna sessions and local music. I love saunas, I really do. But I don’t like it when they make a spiritual event of them. I know that for sure now, I guess I’m a bit more of the sober-no-fuss kind of guy.
The music was great. It was mostly traditional and folky songs but it was obvious the crowd was waiting for them. As soon as the band started playing, people started dancing inside a huge, wooden tipi that was an absolute delight to see and to be in.
The relaxed atmosphere made our weekend. The four of us could do as we pleased. While I was trying to make a fire while turning a stick between my two hands, Katrien was carving a spoon, Jule was making paper and writing with a self-made pen and ink and Guust was finishing his wooden spatula. It was absolute freedom.

Our last day in Estonia we spend at the beach and in Tallinn where we the night “camped” on a parking lot before we took the ferry that would take us to the final chapter of our trip.

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pictures by Katrien de Troch, Studio Gloria

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