Archives for the month of: June, 2014

The weather pattern changed with two further days of cloud and rain  as we departed for the town of Parnu on the Estonian coast and then up to Tallinn.
The roads were in better condition and after a bit of difficulty we found our campsite “Hotel camp Salzburg”. It sounded very grand but wasn’t. Some of the English was amusing. There were many doors for the staff marked “personal”!
It was a very different set up from the usual campsites with a small forest,a rough parking area  with electricity and we were given a room in which to shower. At 15euros a night we were not complaining. The receptionist was extremely helpful albeit with no personality. Maurice did actually get a smile out of him on the third day.
The 12 degrees the following day with rain and a stiff breeze encouraged us to have a lay day and do some planning for the further phase of our trip.

A sunny day gave us an early start and we caught the ultra modern train (complete with smartly dressed conductor) to Tallinn city where we transferred to a bus directly outside the station to the “Eesti Vabaohumuuseum” Estonian Open Air Museum about twenty minutes from town. It was located in an enormous parkland and forest area called “Rocca al Mare” – most un-Estonian. The museum was fascinating with original Estonian farmhouses, tavern and school from the eighteen hundreds which had been relocated in  the sixties and seventies from their sites all over the country. Unlike Poland where they hadn’t heard that English was the international language, every plaque was in Estonian and English and laminated notes in several languages were available. The only other place we had seen this was in Gdansk at the maritime museum.

The locals working at the museum dressed in period costume and we were lucky to catch a troupe of all ages who gave performances of Estonian music,songs and dancing. They didn’t take it too seriously and teased each other and had fun themselves.  The public could wander around the farmhouses or sit and watch the singing and dancing.
The museum was situated on the Baltic sea and covered many hectares. The various styles of farming houses were dotted around the forest and park.  It was very peaceful with few locals or tourists which was surprising given the sunny Sunday.
In one such farmhouse we sat and watched a renenactment of courtship and wedding traditions which was more like a Charlie Chaplin movie with bad subtitles. It was a hoot but also interesting to watch.

Estonia was nearing their Mid Summer festivities on the 21st June which really did make us realise the differences in climate in the very northern hemisphere when referring to “mid Summer”. For us 3-16degrees during the day did not constitute Summer! We felt it should be renamed.
The only concession to Summer were the long hours of twilight and not really getting dark at all at night.

We caught the bus back to the railway station and walked into the old town which was not crowded, except for a handicrafts market in the town hall square. The old part of town, a lot of which was  hilly covered a vast area and  was surrounded by many parks and gardens with fountains and cafes.

We had not gone overboard with souvenirs on our journey firstly because we didn’t want to clutter up the house (when we eventually did go home) and secondly we could not carry large or heavy items in the van (being full already). We tended to buy one small souvenir from each country and some of them were useful – a wooden spreader knife from Latvia, A small wooden trivet from Lithuania.

Monday 16th June looked a nice day so we again set off on the train but did not realise that two cruise ships had arrived  and the old town was swarming with tourists. We actually met six Australians in a cafe and two from Perth. That makes four people that we have met from Perth in the last 2 1/2 years. We had a  recommendation from a young local for a good little restaurant which was off the tourist route and we were the only non locals eating there which was pleasant.

Tallinn was the most complete example of a medieval city that we had seen with much of it’s city wall, towers and municipal buildings still standing. Plaques on many of the houses detailed their history.

Many people in Estonia of all ages spoke some English and Estonian was softer and more lilting to listen to than the Latvian or Lithuanian and was more similar to Finnish.

The country in general appeared much more affluent than it’s baltic neighbours of Latvia and of Lithuania with modern housing and
appartment blocks and an absence of alcohol shops every few metres.

Surprising to us were many shops selling Sushi.   There was an absence of rubbish anywhere and the city and surrounding areas were all neat and tidy even though there was some graffiti.  The large supermarkets were always interesting to explore with many different foods from that which we would find at home.  A lot of the packaged goods were were writtten in Estonian and Russian with some key words in English but some choices we made were through plain guesswork.

On all our travels through Eastern Europe we have seen no wildlife (apart from a dead badger by the side of the road) even though there appeared to be many deer and elk around with all the signage to avoid hitting  them but luckily they were absent from the roads.

Three days before Mid-Summer festivities it cooled to 3 degrees with some hail so we were glad after having the van washed and obtaining another gas bottle to be leaving for Helsinki the following day for the two and a half hour trip on the Eckero ferry.   We thoroughly enjoyed our five days in Tallinn.

The Eckero ferry to Helsinki was more like a cruise ship and we enjoyed the 2 1/2 hour crossing.

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Latvia greeted us with a terrible road and then about 20kilometrs of roadworks.  Health and safety in Australia would have a fit if they saw the set up. Previously we had been stopped with red lights in order for one way traffic to proceed along for the length of the roadworks but not here! For many kilometres the road had been cut away on both sides leaving a drop of about half a metre. There was not much room for error when large trucks came the other way and we had to pass each other.  The car and truck and bus in front of us were doing 90kms in a 30km zone so we followed them without any problems.

Just over  the border  there were a few of the abandoned and vandalised buildings near the border and we had seen the same in Lithuania.

We always calculated the time it took  to get to our next city or stop but I always added about an hour because every country we have visited have had roadworks or detours in place.
We reached Riga in the early evening and after missing the off ramp and driving around a bit we found our way to the campsite where there were the largest number of campers and caravans we had come across since we left Italy.  It had been a beautiful sunny but cold day so we were glad we had been in the van for most of it.
The pattern of one day sun and one day rain was kept up with us waking the next day to a miserable cool drizzly day. We wanted to go into the old town and explore the city so we walked to the main road and caught a trolley bus (much more modern here and in better condition than those in Lithuania) into town.
There were many modern trams as well but they still had a “points man” along the way who waited by the tram tracks and then ventured over to where a tram had been to change the points for another tram going in a different direction.  In Vilnius we had seen this but they economised with the tram drivers having to get out and change the points before continuing on their way.

Two tall round appartment buildings were well underway and a few innovative new office blocks were also under construction.  The city didn’t have as many high rise appartment blocks old or new as we had seen in Vilnius.

We waited out the rain in a art deco cafe from 1910 and when the sun came out we too ventured out onto the mainly cobbled streets to see the lovely old town and the vast indoor markets (which were located in several old buildings used previously for Zeppelins). One entire shed was for fish and one for cheeses and sausages, another for meat and another for breads,
biscuits and sweets.

Outside these was another vast open market where in the main enormous amounts of cherries and strawberries were on sale. I did wonder what they did with all the unsold fruit as there were so many stalls there was no way they could sell all the produce within a few days.   On the way on the backsteets we found a funky men’s clothing shop with armchairs in the window and a cafe counter in the middle so we sat and after tea and
a wifi break we trekked back to the trolley bus and on the way back to the campsite met a lovely English couple.  We joined them after dinner in their camper for drinks and a chat.
Most people assumed that we were British given our British numberplates.
There were more Russian numberplates on cars and more Russian tourists than we had seen previously in Riga.
I found that if the some of the locals in shops could not speak English they tended to just rattle away in their own language as though you we understood.   I got used to to chatting back to them in English.  It was most annoying!

The camping place was busier than any other we had experienced with most campers from Germany, a few from France and Finland and a few Brits.

We left Riga and drove north towards Estonia.

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We had a very pleasant leisurely drive through the lakes district which continued into Lithuania and we chose some picturesque places to stop for coffee and lunch along the way. The disused border buildings were still in evidence and we noticed immediate differences crossing from Poland to Lithuania with many wooden houses and many carved wooden totem poles dotted around the towns and near the lakes.

A bright red squirrel ran onto the road in front of us and luckily ducked back in time into the forest.  The storks were out in force with their amazing large nests atop power poles, houses and street lights and many had babies in their nests.

There was little traffic on the roads (there are only three million people in all of Lithuania) and most of the population live in a few large cities as the rest of the countryside was dotted with  small villages or farmlets.

We had planned our route so that we crossed into Lithuania from a corridor (only about 50 kilometres long) otherwise we would have struck Belarus on one side and the small Russian pocket on the other side for which we had no visas or insurance coverage for the van.

By the time we reached Vilnius and our camping site 5 kilometres from town it was sunny and 23 degrees. Lithuania was one hour ahead of Poland so by the time we had plugged in it was after 6pm but still bright sunlight so we decided to head by trolley bus into town. We received a few directions once there to a restaurant (which had been recommended)in the old town where mainly locals were eating. The food was tasty and we had a very good value meal with drinks.

There was no pedestrian area in the old town but little traffic so many people walked on the wide roads and in a large square Asian dancers were performing on a stage and stalls from India, Indonesia and various parts of Asia were selling their food.

There was some confusion catching the trolley bus back to the campsite as it was not clear as to where to catch it.
We decided to ask only younger people who we found all spoke some English and were very friendly with it. By the time we did get the trolley bus it was 11pm and still fairly light which was an advantage with finding our stop.
The weather continued to be changeable with a lot of rain the next morning so we decided to have a housekeeping/cooking day and although it was not cold and the sun came out again in the afternoon. Maurice had a slight mishap and was walking briskly when he ran  into the corner of the side van window (which is at a bad angle when fully open) and split his head open and fell on the ground. He didn’t pass out or have concussion so nurse Teresa washed the cut, removed a bit of hair and dressed the wound.
Luckily he enough hair to do a combover!   A day later a piece of his tooth fell out which had been damaged by his plate when he ran into the window. A visit to the dentist we felt may be on the cards!

A good sleep and a sunny the following day made Maurice feel better so we headed back to the old town to do some more exploring.  We came upon a special service at an Orthodox church (they follow the Russian Orthodox rite)with many priests and a head honcho in gold robes. The whole congregation stood and all the local women had their heads covered. The choir was excellent and we stood and listened until the end of the service.

We sat and had our packed lunch on a greened strip which went the length of a street with cafes and benches down the centre.
We then wound our way through squares and parks to Vilnius castle where we afforded ourselves the luxury of the funicular up to the top instead of walking!   There was little left of the castle however it was a good vantage point to see the panorama of the city.
There were few tourists and the only groups we saw were local ones. We crossed the river and walked to the modern Europa shopping centre for a look around and then had a lengthy walk back to the central station where we caught the bus and staggered back to Vilnius City camping.

The roads were good overall (not as bad as we had anticipated but still needed a lot of work) when drove on the back road to Kaunas passing many beautiful lakes along the way. By the time we got to the excellent camping site in Kaunas located on a large lake, it had reached 25degrees and the lakeside “beach” was littered with many people sunbaking and enjoying the COLD water.

We left the van and caught the ancient trolley bus into the old town. Maurice had left an adapter plug for our electrical van connection at the previous campsite so we walked a long distance down a lovely long avenue to a shopping centre where we had been told we could buy a new plug – no such luck! We had met a lovely young Lithuanian girl who walked with us to show us where the shops were and she also gave us a brief overview of the city which was very sweet of her.  We walked for a few hours and got back to the van plugless but having seen a lot of the old town.

We saw a postcard showing the castle of Trakai and as it was on the way to our next stop Kaunas we decided to have a look.
The castle from the 14th century in the middle of a lake had been lovingly restored over many years and held thousands of artifacts from all over Europe.  It was the only place in Lithuania where we encountered a couple of large tour groups from France.

Lithuania was the last of the Baltic countries to join the EU and it was evident. Many of the buildings in the old towns had been restored and many new appartment buildings had been built however a lot more work was needed with their public transport,  secondary roads and general building maintenance.

It was a country of great contrasts. The remnants of the old system were evident with the occasional horse and cart on the road, the abandoned and partly destroyed houses and factories, rusted  trolley buses and broken pavements everywhere.  There were still many grey looking unpainted tall appartment blocks, some with bricked in windows and there were also still many dirt roads leading to small villages.

It was sunny and 22 degrees leaving Kaunas the next day and within half an hour of going towards Siauliai (pronounced showlay) it had turned cloudy and dropped to 16 degrees so we changed from shorts and short sleeves to long sleeves, windcheater and long pants.
We stopped at a roadside restaurant/cafe for coffee. Most of these highway establishments are beautifully appointed places and have outdoor settings
complete with rugs to keep you warm.

On the outskirts of Kaunas there were a lot of factories and vast logistic buildings and then wide open plains full of green grain crops. There were quite a number of trucks on the road.

I learnt a few words of Lithuanian and thank you was easy to remember. It was Aciu pronounced (a-chew)as though you have sneezed.
We missed the turnoff to the hill of crosses north of Siauliai and I  found a nice helpful man repairing a car in a shed.
I tried the “do you speak any English, German, Italian, French” and he answered with “Ruski” so when we discovered we had no common language he had a good idea and drew a straight road on the sand and roads off it and crissed crossed a road so I said “choo choo” and he nodded and with that we found the place shortly afterwards.

I had read about the “Hill of Crosses” but was not prepared for the small hillocks with literally millions of wooden crosses covering them. Many people came by the busload on pilgrimmages to the site. They gathered up their crosses which were then added to a larger cross and placed on the hills. There were some interesting crosses – one from the French airforce who were supporting the Baltic states to a greater independence and a row of ten white crosses which represented the ten districts created to fight for the freedom of Lithuania. They were in memory of over 20,000 partisans who died in various gunfights with the  Soviet Union in their struggle for independence in the years from 1944-1953.

It was a strange looking pilgrimmage site but it was amazing to see how many people had been there and deposited their crosses in memory of someone or  as a religious gesture.

We both found the older Lithuanian people to have quite expressionless faces and to be non- smiling and thought this must have come from years of suppression or as Maurice had once read from lack of sunshine!  An English lady we met described them as “grim and grimmer”. The younger generation most of whom spoke some English were much more relaxed with more carefree dispositions.

We made our way out of Lithuania and drove the forty odd kilometres to Latvia.

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We caught the rickety old tram into the centre of town and found a “Costa” cafe to start us off  for the day.

The old town of Gdansk which is quite large and has so many magnificent buildings, many restored after World War II. We walked for a number of hours around the interesting streets with their striking Hanseatic architecture.   There happened to be a  contemporary art exhibition at the old armoury building which was fun to see.

Food from the market stalls and cafe/restaurant  food could be very cheap in Poland with a warming bowl of chicken noodle soup for only $2.50.  You only had to keep away from the main squares.

The covered market had many separate shops for cheese, meat and sausages and Pierogi as well as the well stocked liquor shop!   The upper
levels were full of clothing and other items but the quality didn’t look very good. We stocked up on fresh fruit and vegetables, good rye bread and spinach and potato pierogis to be cooked later.  The outdoor fruit and vegetable market was equally as good.   The nectarines and peaches from Spain with their wonderful aroma and fresh raspberries and strawberries were delicious as well as the Polish fresh produce.

The shipyards in Gdansk where over 20,000 people worked has now been reduced to only 2,200 workers and this may be the reason that we saw a lot of men – young, middle aged and older drinking in the street and many were a sorry sight. The old appartment blocks looked very grey and some had been abandoned. There were however many new appartment blocks with their name and number written down the side of the building and some were painted in pale green/orange or yellow.  They must have made an enormous amount of the same colour as we saw no other colours on  the appartments the city.

We found the  “Road to Freedom exhibition in the city which is located underground near the monument to the shipyard workers who died in the 1970 uprising. The shipyard’s famous gate number 2 is located nearby.  The exhibiton was a  history of the Solidarity movement with many pictures and much footage of Lech Walesa and the struggle over those years against the communist regime.  The displays and photographic and written documentation and film of the Solidarity movement was very
comprehensive and gave a real insight into that era.

We took a small ferry the next day to the opposite side of the canal(which only took  two minutes) to get to the maritime museum. We got to the museum by about 11am but we were the only visitors at the time which we thought was amazing given the excellence of the museum. We both agreed that it was the best museum of it’s kind that we had visited. The exhibits covered three floors and were incredibly interesting with a vast number of models of the old sailing ships and their layouts as well as the history in film of early shipping to explore the rest of the world from Poland.  We could even enter a model of a ship and move an old canon up or down into position and “light” the fuse to fire on the ships shown on the screen in front of you.

There was a young school group in the basement area who had been outfitted with period costumes and were being directed to bow to the king in turn.   The museum included the first ship to be built in the Gdansk shipyards, the “Soldek” which lay in the canal next to the building.

We took Van Mauriceson out the next day to go to see the murals advertised in the guide brochure in the “bedroom suburb” of Zaspa. It was so called because there were so many appartment buildings there and many more were being built.   There were no signs as to the whereabouts of these murals and after driving around for a while we went into a shopping centre to have a  coffee and to ask where we could find them.   Little English was spoken and the one person who did speak some told us that they are dotted around the suburb and hard to find.   A little deflated we set off for another part of Gdansk and we happened to see one mural on our way out so we did an about turn and went into the side streets of the appartments and were lucky enough to find more and more of the murals some quite unusual but all of them brightened up the otherwise block appartments.
We did pass by the longest inhabited appartment building (supposedly in the world) which is nearly one kilometre in length and has over 6,000 inhabitants!  Built in a wave pattern and although not our cup of tea for a dwelling it did look better than some of the matchbox built grey buildings.

We left Zaspa and went over the other side of the city to see the area of “Westerplatte” where the Germans invaded Poland in September 1939. There was a large monument to the fallen as well as a three storey building which was left as it was after the bombing.

We were lucky with the day as we had cloud and a bit of sun and it only started pouring with rain when we got back to the camping ground and it continued well into the night.

We spent five days in Gdansk and enjoyed the city immensely. The weather could have been a bit warmer (15-17degrees with cold winds) and we got sick of having to wear our thick coats again. One day was quite warm 22 degrees and it lasted well into the evening but we were back to layers of clothes the next day.

We left Gdansk and stopped in a quaint  little town of  Elblag for coffee and then overnighted in Elk another beautiful town with a pretty lake.  We decided to leave the next day as there was to be a Triathlon and all the roads were to be closed.

We headed north east towards Lithuania and drove through the stunning Mazury lake country with it’s hundreds of  lakes and the wide open plains and undulating hills which were incredibly green with lush crops.

The people we encountered were friendly even if they could not speak English and I learnt enough to ask for one or two of something and wrote down from google translate some food items I wanted. I learnt good morning, goodbye and thank you and this was sometimes not advantageous as people would then reply in Polish. I did find however that if I made an effort with any words the people appreciated me trying and were even more helpful.

Gdansk, Krakow and Torun were our favourite places in Poland and we really did feel that Poland could be promoted more as a tourist destination.  We did see busloads of tourists but they seemed to be mainly from Poland.  We thoroughly enjoyed our two weeks in the country.

The predominance of nationalities in the camping sites were in the main German with a few Dutch,  Finnish and French numberplates.  The few Brits we encountered thought that we were English of course because of our British numberplates but didn’t seem too disappointed when we told them we were from the Antipodes!

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Tuesday 27th was nice and warm again and we had good driving weather. We set off for Warsaw from Swiecie and travelled about half of the six hour trip on small backroads and the rest on the main road with the van bumping and rattling a lot less. We were surprised to see so many older people with their shopping walking along the road or many on old bicycles riding around the countryside in both the Czech Republic and in Poland. We passed what we thought was a flower show so turned around and went back to have a look. We had to laugh because it turned out to be a cemetery with dozens of flower stalls in front of it. There were kilometres of orchards of apples, pears and apricots along the main road to Warsaw. We experienced more erratic and impatient drivers here in Poland than anywhere else on our travels. We stopped at a service station and saw many men gathered around tables having a a break and drinking alcohol before they hopped back into their vehicles. Gave a new meaning to drink/driving. In some smaller towns and in the cities we found 24hour “alkohole” shops packed to the rafters with every kind of alcohol. Even the campsite had an extremely well stocked bar with all varieties of liquor!

We had lunch by side of road and then on to “Wok camping” about 25mins out of Warsaw. I didn’t know if “wok” was a Polish word or if it vaguely referred to the mixture of people at any camping site. It was our most expensive stay to date at $50 a night but they at least had good wifi connection. It rained overnight and was very overcast in the morning and started raining as we caught the bus and then tram into the city and walked  two kilometres into the “old” town. The old town was almost completely destroyed in the 2nd world war but in the 50’s and 60’s the the buildings were  restored to  their former glory.  There were a myriad of cafes and restaurants throughout the old town so we stopped a girl and asked her where we could have authentic polish food. She directed us to a cafeteria like place which seemed a left over from the communist era with tiled walls,old lace curtains and older women doing the cooking and waitressing. They had an extensive blackboard menu and an A4 dog eared piece of paper with interesting translations in French and English but that didn’t help much as they only had half a dozen things on offer. Everything I pointed to the woman shook her head and she then pointed to what was available. I just nodded and after paying her she handed us a small bit of paper which we then passed on to the cooks who called out the dish when the food was ready. I kept dashing to the counter every time they shouted something but we eventually got our food and enjoyed a delicious mushroom and dumpling soup, a potato and vegetable soup and some pierogi (cheese and potato dumplings) and mushroom and sauerkraut pancakes.

We made our way back to the tram in the rain and we were glad to get back to Van Mauriceson before it turned very cold. It was very cold night although we were snug in our boiler heated van .  The next morning but we braved the cold and as it wasn’t raining went into the city again .  We did spend a lot of time in various shops and had a bowl of soup at lunchtime to warm ourselves. The forecast was not that good – back to winter for us again, a cold 14degrees with cloud for the next few days so we decided to move on up to Torun the next day where Maurice’s namesake, his uncle Maurice was a prisoner of war after Dunkirk until the end of the war. The camp was in the forest to the suoth but nothing was left of it. The highway petered out for a while after leaving Warsaw and we travelled alongside kilometres of grain crops, rape and strawberries fields with many roadside stalls selling fruit, honey and jars of mushrooms. We saw a few “night workers” plying their wares during the day in lay bys alongside of road. We passed an array of enormous factories in the industrial areas close to Torun.

It took of much of the day to get there with many roadworks so we decided to continue on to Swiecie (north west of Torun) to a very small but lovely camping ground which was more like the owner’s garden. It was right next to a castle from the 14th century with the river flowing nearby.  A amily run concern with a middle aged couple and their son and with a mixture of English and German we got by.  When we left they shook our hand and wished us well. The day we left they had wheeled into the garden an ancient wood fired stove on a trailer in which they had a pressure cooker and three other compartments with which to cook the potatoes and vegetables. Maurice called me over to see an older man collecting hay with a horse pulling the old harvester and two men with pitchforks piling up the hay.  Some old practises are still around the countryside.

We were surprised at the number of McDonalds and KFC’s in Poland on the highway and in the towns. The people in general were not terribly well dressed and didn”t seem to be as affluent as their neighbours further south. We did see  houses painted and some with colour but even after 25years since the fall of communism but there were still a lot of grey buildings. There is practically no English spoken by anyone over about 25 years of age around the towns and in the countryside (which is more understandable) and only a little German by the much older generation. Most of the staff in the larger commercial camping sites have enough of several languages and in all cases the staff have been most helpful and friendly giving us tips on how to get to the city,what to see and where to eat. Torun looked like an intersting old town so we decided to drive an hour back to it on the Sunday to have a good look around. It was beautiful and sunny with not a cloud in the sky as we made our way to the old town where there were many pedestrian streets.  Most cities or towns here had an old town and a new side of town where there were more shops and large appartment blocks. We visited Nikolas Copernicus’s house and being a Saturday the town was crowded with mainly Polish people shopping and relaxing in the many cafes and bars. Torun is situated on the fast flowing Vistula river and is a very neat and tidy town with wonderful historically important edifices. It had the most impressive looking gaol we had seen complete with round tower. There was of course a McDonalds, KFC and the largest Tesco we had come across just outide the town. Parking for the van was easy and well signposted. There was a lot of roadwork in town and we had to look out for the many trams and trolley cars moving around the town. We then headed for Bydgoszcz which was a much poorer town although it did have some lovely buildings and a large park along the river and a  large market square. We had a good coffee here at a beautiful cafe and just got back to the van in a very timely manner as there was a torrential downpour for half an hour and we had inadvertently left one of our hatches wide open. We were the only campers when we left the camping ground but when we returned there were scores of bikers enjoying food and much wodka!  They were a friendly bunch but luckily most of them had left by the evening and we could just hear the band in a tavern across the river which played until midnight.

The 1st June saw us drive from Torun to Gdansk via another old town called Chojnice where we there were  two large churches and people standing outside to hear the service as there was no space inside. Opposite the churches were two shops side by side – a very 1950’s style clothing shop and next to it a shop selling drug paraphenalia – very strange indeed.

We drove to  Gdansk passing the shipyards and saw the old townwhich was very imposing with many magnificent buildings. Our camping site “Stogi” was located very close to the beach in the middle of a small forest. We put our boiler on in the van that night as it was getting colder and by the next day it had got down to 14degrees and it was back on with the winter coats again – yuk!

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