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  • Day1059

    Orijos Paplūdimys, Lithuania!

    May 21 in Lithuania ⋅ 🌧 21 °C

    We have arrived in Lithuania!

    To watch a video of our first day, click here:

    This will be the 19th country we'll explore in depth on our big European tour. It feels like a very long time since we've been in this position, so we are thrilled to be embarking on this new adventure that will extend over the next 8 weeks!

    With this amount of time we could drive north and tick Latvia and Estonia off our bucket list, but we plan to embrace the joys of slow travel, savouring experiences, favouring quality over quantity, giving ourselves time to plan, to learn about the Lithuanian language, the people, the landscape and to reflect. In Lithuania we hope to find a balance between discovering towns and the countryside, keeping up with day to day chores and maintenance as well as indulging in our favourite outdoor activities, and relaxing with indoor hobbies.

    Driving along the A5 we stopped just before the border at what looked like a rest area supermarket, in search of groceries, but it soon became clear that 'Super Alko' sold only drinks. There were no border checks as
    we 'time travelled' over the Polish - Lithuanian border to GMT +2. Our first job was to choose one of the many fuel stations and fill our almost empty tank. As well as the time, the currency had changed from zloty back to the familiar euro and at €1.26 per litre, the diesel is significantly cheaper here.

    We didn't have far to go to the wild camping spot Will had programmed into the sat nav. We hoped to stay there for several days so were relieved to find a supermarket in Kalvarija, one of the few towns between us and where we were headed. Unfortunately the car park wasn't designed for vans like Martha so we looped round and parked on the street. Within 15 seconds of setting foot on the pavement we were accosted by a persistent beggar who trailed alongside, imploring us in Lithuanian. A bit rattled, we dived into the Maxima shop. Vicky kept peering out, keeping an eye on the van while Will focussed on food. It's always a bit disorientating with a new language and culture and it took us a while to get our heads together. We obviously drew attention to ourselves, looping around the fruit and veg stands several times, not to mention Will wearing his kilt and Vicky in her patchwork hippy skirt and dreadlocks. We got a few sideways looks and a few more direct stares, but nothing hostile. Near the end, a pensioner in tweeds and flatcap came up to us and said 'Irish'. It turned out to be one of the very few English words he knew but he was keen to talk so we pulled out good old Google Translate and had a broken conversation of sorts. His name was Jacob and we gathered that he'd never left Lithuania. He offered to be our interpreter and we repeated a few lithuanian words (eye, nose, hair, ears) but they went out of our heads as soon as we heard the next one! Jacob welcomed us to his country and wished us good health and an enjoyable stay. What a lovely person!

    Driving out into the countryside we followed a narrow, hard sand track and came to a small concrete parking area overlooking a tiered, grassy bank. Orija Beach had a band of pine trees growing either side and a rustic wooden bench stood adjacent to a small circle of bricks that was used to contain campfires. At the bottom of the clearing, a T shaped wooden pier led out into the sparkling blue waters of Orija Lake.

    We believe this is one of a number of free campgrounds in the country. The only facilities here are bins (that unfortunately haven't been emptied in a long time), parking, flat ground to pitch a tent and space to have a fire, but oh what a beautiful view!

    Will bounded down to the lake edge and was in the water in a flash while Vicky climbed a ladder and sat on the small platform at the end of the pier, taking in our stunning surroundings. When Will came to get changed he found a huge brown bug on his kilt, one of many Cockchafers we were to see over the course of our stay (also known as May Bugs and Doodlebugs).

    After lunch we took a walk up the sandy track, exploring a broken down pier with an angular wooden boat, before passing by fields of wheat and rape. Homesteads were dotted here and there, one with a little old tractor, another with a man scything long grass. Each sat inside their own generous plot of land. It was only a mile to the end of the track but it turned into a real nature walk as butterflies and ungainly cockchafers flittered through the air. We spotted a couple of White Storks in their nest, which was built on a specially designed pole. The White Stork is the national bird of Lithuania, which has one of the largest breeding populations and the highest breeding density in the world! If this wasn't enough, we spotted a Common Crane strutting through the long grass just 20m ahead of us, before it took off and flew away. At the end of the track we were drawn towards a repetitive choral sound which we thought may be some other exotic bird, but we narrowed it down to a pond and concluded it must be frogs. We couldn't see any in the water but we'd seen many squashed on the way here.

    The heat of the day made the lake very enticing when we got back to Orija Beach so we both went for a longer and wonderfully refreshing swim, followed by a cuppa and varškės spurgos (lithuanian curd donuts!). As the afternoon wore on, Will took his fishing gear to a nearby pier. Lithuania allows those over the age of 65 to fish without a licence so there was no need for him to try and buy one. People came and went on foot, bikes and in cars with music blasting from their stereos. Locals of all ages brought picnics, bathed and generally enjoyed the beautiful natural surroundings and warm weather.

    After a glorious sunset people drifted away and we were left with the peace and quiet of nature. We suddenly felt very tired, although with all the excitement and the change in time it was difficult to sleep, especially when we were woken by a dog raiding the bins early the following morning!

    We spent 3 blissful nights at Orija Beach, relaxing, fishing and swimming every day. Will caught several fish and even kept a perch for his tea. The second night we were joined by a German couple with two toddlers in their small campervan and on the third an older German couple took their place in a motorhome with a deflated tyre. On the morning we left, a recovery vehicle jacked up their rear axel and took both their wheels to have replacement tyres fitted. The couple didn't need anything when we asked, but said that the puncture was down to the poor roads. We are keeping our fingers crossed that the same fate doesn't befall us during the coming weeks!
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  • Day1090

    Midsummer at Šeirė Campground, Plateliai

    June 21 in Lithuania ⋅ ⛅ 22 °C

    We've returned to the beautiful Plateliai Lake. Previously we'd spent three wonderful days in the woodland grove we named Dragonfly Dell, but we're now here to join the midsummer celebrations and as such, have chosen Šeirė; a free campground close to Plateliai yacht club and about a kilometre away from the town centre.

    On our last visit we'd quized the tourist information officer and found out a midsummer event was taking place at the yacht club on Sunday 23rd of June. We couldn't quite believe it when Will found an overnight spot just a couple of hundred metres away! Arriving early afternoon on the summer solstice the long car park wasn't too busy, but it soon filled up. We had a view over the grassy hill leading down, through a border of trees to the water, where a dual plank pier led out through green reeds. What looked like a homemade pedalo was moored along with a few wooden rowing boats. Visitors could hire these from a character wearing a sailor hat that lived in a caravan on site.

    We took a walk down to the yacht club which had standup pedalboards for hire, something we've never seen before. There was a bar and café but for some reason neither of us felt it was our sort of place. White dinghies floated in line along a couple of jetties and beachgoers lined the narrow strip of sand where the cut grass ended.

    The weather was great throughout, with blue skies and temperatures averaging 25°C. Vicky's health wasn't good but Will canoed, fished, swam and took her for a short paddle around a nearby island. The water was incredibly clear; perhaps the cleanest we've ever seen. There is a cycle route all the way around Plateliai Lake, which we explored a short section of on foot, finding a viewpoint on a small rise. From here we could see islands and trace the line of the serated shore. The European Union had part funded the path, a couple of large, well used insect hotels and information boards showing some of the diverse wildlife living in Žemaitija National Park.

    Cars spilled in and out each day. Groups erected small tents and gathered around the many picnic tables with bbqs and fire pits they'd brought with them. Music blasted intermittently but we didn't mind. We'd come to experience midsummer in Lithuania and this was part of it!

    Lithuanian midsummer festivities have become somewhat mingled with St John's Day in the country's move from Paganism to Catholicism. While Christians celebrate Joninės, the whole community, regardless of faith, come together for midsummer, known as Rasa (Dew Holiday) or Kupolė (a name linked to the collection of herbs).

    It was extremely difficult to find any information about the event at Plateliai online. There were no specifics in English, but somehow Will came up with the timetable, so we knew roughly when to expect things on the evening of the 23rd, although much of the translation didn't make sense.

    Preparations took place during the day on Sunday. The long grass in the field between us and the yacht club had been cut and raked into hay stacks. Tree trunks wrapped in oak leaves formed an arch and two tall poles were erected, one with an oil can and wick on top and the other with sawn off branches sticking out in all directions. A pyramid of logs stood ready to be lit while a smaller assembly of branches stood atop a raised stone fire pit. A gazebo, bench seating, audio and light rig was arranged at one corner of the concrete platform that was a permanent fixture at the base of the hill.

    The festival began at 8pm with a troop of singers dressed in traditional clothes, leading the way through the Gates of Kupoles (the oak archway). Plenty of people were dressed normally, but a large number had handmade flower or wheat garlands on their heads and some men even wore large oak leaf garlands. As each person stepped under the arch they washed their hands and face with water poured from a earthenware jug. We think the water represented dew, which is believed to bring good health to humans, all animals and even gardens. It seemed anyone was welcome to join this ritual symbolising renewal, so we too passed through.

    By this time, hundreds of people had gathered. There were plenty to fill the concrete floor, joining those in costume in group dances accompanied by accordions, drum and singing. Will joined in with a few at this point too!

    After a while, 'Čerauninkė' signs on wooden stakes were driven into the hillside. We couldn't find a direct translation for this word but gather it meant some sort of fortune teller, as a wise looking person sat at each sign, while people lined up to present them with small bouquets of wildflowers and have 3 minutes of insight imparted.

    All the while the music and dancing continued. As the sun set, a party lead the way to the small fire, throwing grasses and flowers into it and singing. A torch was lit and carried in procession to the tall poles, where the flame was transferred to a long stick and used to light the wick. At the same time, the large pyre farther down the hill was ignited.

    Next, the singles of the party (mostly young women) faced away from the second pole and threw their garlands over their heads, hoping it would land over one of the branches sticking out.

    The merriment continued until dark, when a little girl was presented with a lantern, oak garlands were given to the organisers as signs of gratitude, then torches were set flaming and wooden crosses in the shape of an X were distributed with tea lights at their centre. People's garlands were placed around the candles and a torchlight procession wended its way to the water. Here, the offerings were placed into the lake and slowly floated away from shore. Traditionally the wreaths would be made by girls with 9 or 12 different herbs and the faster they floated away, the faster the girl would get married.

    After the torchlight ceremony we nipped back to Martha for some revitalizing coffee and hot chocolate, then rejoined the rather more sedate revellers. We mused to ourselves that in Germany, the event would be surrounded by beer and bratwürst stalls, in Italy there would probably be wine and pizza and in the UK, burger and icecream vans. Although there was a few people eating and drinking at the yacht club and a few that brought snacks and beverages from home, there was more of a focus on community and the event than spending money, eating and getting drunk. The lack of commercialism (and litter) made for a great atmosphere.

    Solar midnight passed at 1:35am and the sky began to get noticeably lighter. A waning gibbus moon rose behind the pines, its silver rays sparkling off the ripples on Plateliai Lake. Dancing continued until about 2am, after which a small group gathered to sing traditional songs while the floodlights, audio equipment and gazebo were packed away. About 30 people were left gathered around the warmth of the fire, dropping clumps of hay on to keep it flaming. The vibe was chilled, mordern music sounded from various dispersed groups and a tenting party continued their singing and accordion playing, becoming more raucus as the early morning wore on.

    Only ourselves and another two couples were left at the fire when park employees arrived at 4am to dismantle the oak gate and chuck it on the embers. Vicky had been looking forward to a ceremony where you cleansed your face and hands with the dew at sunrise, but the fiery glow rose above the horizon and nobody could be seen collecting any dew (well, except us!).

    Dawn was beautiful over the water. Will captured drone footage while Vicky went to the shore to take photographs. Here she discovered our canoe, tied neatly to the end of the jetty. A little confused, she mentioned it to Will. Why would he leave it this far away from the van? It turns out he didn't and there was no way it could have floated away from the reeds he'd beached it in. He reckons the 'captain' hiring out the rowing boats set it loose and someone must have brought it to the club. Whatever happened it gave us a wonderful opportunity for a dawn paddle a few hundred metres back to the sandy beach near the van. The view heading over the water towards the sunrise was incredibly beautiful.

    At around 5:30am we willed ourselves to bed after a night of new experiences. We felt very privileged to have been able to attend this amazing community celebration.

    To see an 8 minute video of the event, click this link to the VnW Travels You Tube channel:

    The following day must have been a bank holiday because the area was packed with people enjoying the long day's sunshine. We'd planned to move on but suspected that anywhere near water would be difficult to park so kept our spot for a fourth night and enjoyed a paddle on the lake, landing on one of the wooded islands then getting away from the crowds of rowing boats, pedalos and sailing dingies. Finding a deserted stretch of shore, we took a midsummer day wild swim together. A perfect end to our Baltic midsummer night.
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  • Day1096

    Ginkūnai, 3 year vaniversary!

    June 27 in Lithuania ⋅ ⛅ 18 °C

    Today is our 3 year vaniversary. On this day in 2016, we drove away from our bricks and mortar home for the last time and have been living in Martha Motorhome ever since! We didn't mark the occasion with a big celebration like we did after the first 12 months of travelling, but we did quietly reflect on how settled we are with life on the road and how content we feel when looking forward to continuing this lifestyle over the coming few years.

    A long strip of slightly sloping mown grass in Ginkūnai is where we've chosen to overnight. On our left is a band of reeds in which a channel has been cleared, giving access to a tree lined lake (handy for Will's fishing). On our right are meadows, divided into building plots. Some already have homes on them. It appears that individuals have purchased the land, because the modern, low key houses all seem unique and at different stages of construction. Their walls are shades of cream, beige or grey, with shiny plastic tiles on shallow sloping rooves.

    On the way here we topped up with water, LPG and diesel at a Circle K station as well as dropping into a Maxima. It's not uncommon to see fruit stalls outside supermarkets and this seller's strawberries looked particularly delicious, so we picked up a punnet. The owner displayed a printed certificate to show their licence. We can't see the likes of TESCO allowing this in the UK.

    While settling in at our overnight spot we noticed the wind had picked up and brought a little rain with it, subduing the temperature to a pleasant 24°C. Come evening time a huge flock of Starlings flew by the van, diving down to roost in a tree. The wind blew dried leaves through the air. Midsummer has only just passed, but already we are noticing changes heralding the coming season.

    On the way here we had planned to visit the Hill of Crosses, but Vicky's health wasn't good, so we stayed one night, did a day trip and returned to this same spot afterwards (see separate post). On the second evening, Vicky was lucky enough to spot a Bittern as it flew along the lakeshore before cruising into its hidden reed nest. Although we've hear a number of the distinctive 'Bittern booms' since arriving in Lithuania, neither of us have ever seen one, so it was a special moment.

    The grassy parking area had been relatively quiet, just a few fishers with little boats coming and going, but from just after midnight, Will heard the cars starting to arrive. When Vicky woke the following morning the place was packed with empty boat trailers and the locals were out on the lake having enjoyed a bit of night fishing.
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  • Day1097

    Visiting the Hill of Crosses

    June 28 in Lithuania ⋅ ⛅ 18 °C

    The Hill of Crosses is one of the points of interest flagged up by the Lithuanian Tourist Board (and the Hairy Bikers). Thought to have started in the early 1800s following an uprising against Russian occupiers, people have been placing crosses, crucifixes and other religious tokens at this spot, a former hill fort, ever since. In the beginning it was to remember fallen fighters whose bodies could not be found. Over the years Catholic Lithuanians have used it to pray for peace. They placed crosses here to symbolise their allegiance to their religion and country, continuing to do so despite the Soviet authorities, who banned religion, bulldozing the hill on more than one occasion. It is a modern day place of pilgrimage.

    We were in two minds about whether to visit. As atheists our ideology is very different to those who believe in a god or gods and we have issue with many things that have been done in the name of religion. However, this site, with more than 100,000 crosses is obviously a big deal to many Lithuanians, whose culture and history we have come here to discover. With this in mind we set off on the short journey from our overnight spot at Ginkūnai.

    The paying car park (€2.90) easily accommodated Martha. Before we got to the short tunnel leading under the road to the hill, we passed by permanent stalls selling a multitude of wooden crosses, amber and carved wood souvenirs. The tourist information office was also home to an 'amber museum' with cabinets and display cases full of jewellery, decorated spoons, amber trees and a whole host of other amber infused items for sale.

    Approaching the hill, it was smaller than we'd envisaged, with one central walkway leading between the crosses and smaller paths branching off to the sides. The crosses themselves varied in size from 4m tall to just a few centimetres. Some were clay, others metal, but most were wooden, many with beautifully intricate carvings portaying effigies, inscriptions and elements of nature such as oak leaves. Rosary beads and small crosses hung on strings provided a background tune as they clattered against each other in the breeze.

    Anybody can place a cross and at points it was impossible to see the earth beside the paths because they covered it completely. It was certainly a striking place. Articles we had read talked of a sense of awe, love and hope for the future. As we wandered around the hill we pondered what feelings the site was eliciting from us. We weren't awed as we sometimes are when marvelling at the great architecture and atmosphere in cathedrals, nor did we feel any great sense of love or hope, if anything we felt a slight unease. Perhaps the hundreds of crosses for sale at souvenir stands just a few hundred metres away had clouded our view. Perhaps it was our own ideologies and preconceptions. We appreciated the unique aesthetics like we would Love Locks on a fence. We admired the artistry of carvings and forgings as we would sculptures in a park. We are glad we visited because it helped us learn more about Lithuania's history and expression.
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  • Day1111

    The River Gauja, Dieveniškės Appendix

    July 12 in Lithuania ⋅ ⛅ 18 °C

    You know somewhere is going to be 'interesting' when locals stare at your van with wide eyes and slack jaws. Today's adventure takes us to the Dieveniškės Appendix. As we can see from people's expressions, not many visitors make it this far; which is one of the reasons we wanted to!

    If Lithuania's eastern border were coastal, the 'appendix' would be called a headland. As it is, 110km of the perimeter extends into Belarus like a tongue. The area within it is known as the Dieveniškės Appendix and has protected status as a historical regional park. The story goes that when redefining border lines, Stalin placed his pipe on the map. No Soviet officer had the courage to move it, so they merely drew around it! In reality, the small number of Lithuanians living here expressed a strong desire for their homes to remain part of their homeland, so despite the majority of people identifying as Polish, the land remained Lithuanian.

    Upon entering the Appendix we were required to pass a border control of sorts. There is only one road in and out. It is a lot easier to manage access at this point than patrol the 110km perimeter. No passports were needed, we merely slowed to 30kmph over a couple of speed bumps while two officers sized us up then waved us through. As we understand it, the Belarusian border has a barbed wire electric fence all the way around the Dieveniškės Appendix. With Lithuania's accession to the EU it became part of the Schengen area. This meant abolishing borders with other EU nations, while reinforcing those with non EU countries like Belarus. The fence, completed in 2007 runs through the middle of small settlements and has divided families and friends. There are few cars in this mainly agricultural land, poor infrastructure and poor public transport. We read about a case of an 85 year old woman needing to take a 90 mile round trip via the nearest border crossing, to visit her sister who lived just a mile away, in the same village, but on the other side of the fence.

    Driving between patchwork fields we came to roadworks on the mainstreet of a village. There being so few roads in the region we were required to drive through a section that was being worked on, in order to reach the detour. Bearing in mind the road we'd been driving on was unsurfaced, we were hesitant, but there was no other way round so Vicky steered Martha past the dumper truck and onto the soft sand road surface. Honestly, it was like driving in a nursery school sandpit; diggers and lorries with big wheels forging deep tracks in the sand. Squeezing alongside the yellow JCB, workers stared at us, seemingly trying to figure out if they were really seeing a couple of nervous looking Brits in a big white motorhome with canoe on top, slipping and sliding along a dead end farmland route... we could hardly believe it ourselves!

    Relieved not to get stuck, we stopped for lunch by a lake in Poškonys; one of the few villages whose residents are predominantly Lithuanian. We were almost tempted to stay, but decided to delve further into the appendix to a place Will had found on Park4Night. The two spots were only 12km apart so we could easily return if we wanted to spend the night in Poškonys.

    We are so glad we carried on! A small gravel car park gave access to one of the most wonderful nature reserves we've ever visited. The Gauja botanical path ran in a loop of about 1km around a small, sandy bedded river of the same name. The valley was overflowing with flora and fauna. The scent of Meadowsweet hung in the air while hundreds of butterflies of many different varieties flitted between brightly coloured meadow flowers. Looking closer, the flowers and seed heads overflowed with insects. A boardwalk made up much of the path, with regular information panels showcasing plants, animals, the geography and management of the Gauja valley reserve. Some even had a paragraph in English. They cleverly left it until the 7th board to share information about the adders that called this place home! From meadows, we were led through forests of pine, spruce and juniper. The alders took over as we reached the bog, lush with springy moss and grasses. We enjoyed seeing froglets hopping in front of us, but stopped and stared in amazement as a couple of baby Common Lizards darted between shadows of foliage amongst the wooden slats! We thought on first sight they might be newts, but with a lot of research, found these creatures, who measured 3-4cm long, were new born lizards!

    To see 2 minutes of the drone footage we filmed, click here:

    The reserve is less than 3km away from Belarus, a country Vodafone classes as 'rest of the world', (not part of the free EU roaming zone). We were aware of being caught out like we had been in Tariffa when our signal attached to a Moroccan network, so manually selected a Lithuanian provider. Sure enough, a text came through; 'Welcome to Belarus!' Vodafone snuck a cheeky 60p charge into our bill all the same but it wasn't enough to argue over. Interestingly this is the first time we've seen Trip Advisor totally stumped as to what to do or where to eat nearby!

    Will's desire for a swim and a fish took us back to Poškonys for the night.
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  • Day1062

    Honey Valley Camping, Nemunas Delta

    May 24 in Lithuania ⋅ ⛅ 19 °C

    We've found ourselves a little bit of paradise here at Honey Valley Campsite, just a few hundred metres from the Nemunas River.

    After having spent three idyllic days wild camping at Orija Lake, our cupboards were in need of restocking, so we set off along the country roads towards an Iki supermarket Will had found on the sat nav. The roads were narrow, often with sandy grit augmenting their edges. It was disconcerting when we encountered the ruts made from car and lorry tyres that threw Martha off course, but as the journey wore on we became more used to them.

    Once again the supermarket car park didn't have space for us, so we found street parking nearby. The Iki was a reasonable size, serving numerous mid rise apartment complexes around it. We've been enjoying the good range of organic produce in France, Belgium and Germany of late, but there were very few 'bio' items here. However, there was an amazing cake counter, displaying beautifully crafted gateaux and tortes. The server spoke a little English and kindly halved a sumptuous lemon cream cake, presented with a slice of lemon and pansy flowers. We asked them to teach us how to say 'thank you' (ačiu) which we remembered easily because it sounded like a sneeze (achoo). We usually rely on the DuoLingo languge learning app to pick up words and phrases, but it doesn't cover Lithuanian. Google Translate is useful but it doesn't have speech output for this country, so pronunciation is a problem.

    We'd done our research before arriving and found that like Britain, Lithuania doesn't cater specifically for motorhomes. There aren't dedicated filling and emptying points or low cost stopovers like in many european countries. The price of campsites is also comparable to the UK, with an average of €20pn. We've therefore decided to alternate between wild camping and campsites every 2 or 3 nignts, so we don't break the bank or worry about finding water and emptying points.

    Arriving at Honey Valley campsite (€18pn) we drove up a track lined with tall acacia trees. A small gravel area was bordered by three dark stained flapboard cabins. One roof was covered in photovoltaic panels, one with felt tiles and solar water heating panels and the largest, a two storey construction with balcony, had a beautiful thatched roof.

    We'd looked the site up online so we weren't surprised to see shelves of honey for sale in the small office. As you might expect, from the name, the owners of Honey Valley Campsite keep bees. They introduced us to the different types on sale; two Spring honeys, one harvested just the previous day and the other a week ago, both very runny and light. The forest honey from Autumn was hard, much darker and made from the sticky substance aphids deposit on tree leaves. We could see the pale honey foam around the edges of the jar, showing it wasn't overprocessed (a bit like the blob of cream that used to form at the top of milk bottles). We bought a jar of the freshest Spring and one of forest honey. We had to restrain ourselves from going back and buying more when we sampled them later!

    After registering us for 2 nights, the manager slotted a small Union Jack into a display alongside German, Swiss and Lithuanian flags, before showing us the emptying and filling points, washbasins, small kitchen, shower and toilet blocks. Without the need for electric hookup (thanks to our solar panel) they said we could park anywhere we chose and that Will could fish in any of the four small ponds, although he would need a license for the river. After learning how to say hello in Lithuanian (laba diena), we scouted out the best spot on foot. There weren't alloted bays, just a lovely grassy clearing, dotted with trees - our kinda place! Pipped to the post by another couple in their overland vehicle with roof tent, we settled quite happily into our second favourite loction, between the smallest pond and a wooden picnic table.

    Honey Valley had lots to look at on site; most things were constructed of natural wood, including the thatched outdoor eating areas and a children's playground with a swing bench for grownups. Two small sleeping pods provided minimalist accommodation for those without a van or tent and a pedalo on the largest pond provided entertainment for people staying in the hostel. Campfires were set up, bbqs free to use and communal washing lines strung between trees.

    As well as being a haven for us, Honey Valley was also a haven for wildlife. Thousands of tadpoles wiggled around the edges of two of the ponds and frogs jumped in as we walked by. They were really noisy, their croaking drowned out the birdsong when they really got into it! Butterflies and cockchafer beetles flew above the seedheads sprouting in the grass and Will accidentally scared a mother duck off her nest, layed low in the grass with 7 white eggs. It was so well camouflaged, we wouldn't have known it was there had she not spotted us and flown off.

    While Will fished, Vicky made use of the €3 per cycle washing machine, before we both sat on a picnic bench and tucked into the delicious lemon torte that tasted as good as it looked.

    There didn't appear to be much to do off site, but then we didn't really feel the need to leave, other than to take a stroll down to the
    Nemunas River on our second afternoon. The largest river in Lithuania, it runs most of the way to the coast before breaking up into many smaller watercourses that form the Nemunas Delta, one of the most wildlife rich areas in Lithuania. Just 30km from here, the river meets the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad Oblast and runs between the two countries, forming the border line. We arrived at a sandy beach from where we watched a swan paddling in a backwater. Three little Sandpipers played on the shore and we spotted a Stork flying overhead. We spent a little time strolling along the beach but the undergrowth meant we couldn't go far so we returned to Honey Valley for some indulgent rest and relaxation!
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  • Day1085

    Vilnius Day 1

    June 16 in Lithuania ⋅ ☁️ 16 °C

    It's time to explore Vilnius, the largest city in Lithuania and its capital! A barrier controlled, tarmac car park near Gediminas Hill is our home for 2 days. There are no specified bays for motorhomes but they are mentioned in the pricing, which can be charged hourly, or €9 per 24 hours. Number plates are scanned on entry and you can pay at a machine by card or cash when you leave. It is a pleasant spot with the Vilnia tributary river running along one side, a border of trees, a few other motorhomes and most importantly great access to the centre! We'd been anxious about how difficult it would be to drive in, but the Sunday morning traffic was minimal and it all went smoothly.

    We'd planned to visit Vilnius with our sister and brother in law, Sue and John this time last year. With unexpected medical appointments we made the decision to stay in the UK while they went ahead with their pre booked flights. We were therefore particularly keen to explore the city we'd waited so long to see.

    The weather had swung from searing sunshine to overcast rainy skies. We clad ourselves in waterproof coats and grabbed our brollies. Crossing a little bridge and walking through a park we arrived in the central square, with the imposing form of St Stanislaus and St Vladislav Cathedral Basilica looming above us. The rectangular building with its white pillars and statues appeared quite modern. It's cylindrical bell tower which stood separately didn't seem much taller than it.

    We'd marked a few sites on Maps.Me but the white canvas of market stalls on the main street, Gediminas Avenue, caught our attention. Two beautifully constructed lifesize floral mannequins stood in the roadway, with a sign welcoming visitors to the 'herb market'. Within it we found two sellers wearing fresh garlands while bouquets of wildflowers and grasses decorated the stalls. The items for sale were similar to those in Palanga a few weeks ago, although with a little more variety; honey, herbs, amber jewellery, clothes, especially linen, cheese, street food including the Gira drink, and woodwork. There was real individuality and skill expressed in the crafted products. There aren't many things that are practical for us to buy but Vicky persuaded Will to get a beautiful wooden trivet, made from cross sections of small tree branch arranged in a pattern.

    Having done a bit of research we knew the weekly changing of the flags was due to take place at the Presidential Palace at noon, so this was our next port of call. The two storey pale yellow building had rows of white pillars like the cathedral, but was more subtle in its communication of power and wealth. Sure enough at 11:50am four armoured knights marched onto the public courtyard. There was nothing subtle about them! Next came four officers, each in different uniforms, whose job it was to prepare the flags by untying their ropes, before standing aside for the marching band, from which a further four officers emerged. The flags of the EU, Lithuania, Vilnius's Coat of Arms and NATO were in turn lowered, folded, exchanged, unfolded and raised with much pomp and ceremony. By now the rain had begun falling hard, soaking the uniformed assembly who, credit to them, remained professional throughout.

    To see an abbreviated video of the changing of the flags go to the VnW Travels YouTube channel:

    We were grateful for our umbrellas as we trudged through wet streets into the Užupis neighbourhood; described as a 'breakaway state' for artists within Vilnius. The self proclaimed Republic of Užupis even has its own president, anthem and 41 point constitution! Last summer we'd visited Freetown Christiania, an independent state within Copenhagen and had expected a similar setup. However Užupis residents seemed far less extreme than Denmark's rebels, to the extent that (to our inexperienced eyes) we didn't notice much difference when crossing the bridge into the 4000 strong community. Passing by the small main square with a large bronze angel statue (a symbol of Užupis) and a collection of generic looking eateries we found a small café, with tables and mismatched chairs on a narrow pavement. We were seated on antique cushioned chairs with a fresh carnation on the table and a small cover above our heads that managed to protect us from the worst of the rain. We were a little nervous about cars that could have drenched us by splashing through a large puddle, but thankfully drivers were considerate. Keen to sample the national cuisine we ordered Lithuanian sausage and potato pancakes from the friendly manager, along with a beer and freshly made apple, carrot and courgette juice. The juice and sausage were delicious, but Vicky's fried pancakes were a bit too oily for her.

    From our lunchtime seats we'd seen groups of tourists admiring 37 silver plaques that stretched out along the wall we'd been sitting next to. Each displayed the Užupis constitution in a different language (additional versions can be found on the internet). The more we read the more we liked it. Our favourite decrees included;
    "Everyone has the right to be happy.
    Everyone has the right to be unhappy.
    A dog has the right to be a dog.
    Everyone has the right to die, but this is not an obligation.
    Everyone has the right to make mistakes.
    Everyone may be independent.
    Everyone is responsible for their freedom."

    The rain really started to come down as we navigated through the quiet, Old Town cobbled lanes towards the B&B Sue and John stayed in last year. We don't mind a bit of rain but this was the sort that bounced back once it hit the pavement to soak through your shoes. Water overflowed gutters and pelted our umbrellas. Downpipes were backed up and spurting like fountains at their joints. Water streamed over paving slabs and formed large puddles stretching right the way accross the road. We were becoming fed up, so decided to call it quits. Heading back, we took refuge in the cathedral where a choir and organist were practicing in the stalls. They helped mellow our mood as we admired the beautiful, white, arched ceiling dotted with plaster flowers set in to circles.

    When we emerged, the rain had all but stopped. After a welcome cuppa in Martha the clouds began to clear and typically gave us a blue sky evening!
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  • Day1086

    Vilnius Day 2

    June 17 in Lithuania ⋅ ☁️ 19 °C

    Thankfully the weather was kinder to us on our second day in Vilnius; Lithuania's capital city. After a late start we began our mission to find the Cat Café! Will's sister Sue had discovered this place when in Vilnius last year and we'd been keen to visit ever since. Maps.Me showed it on the other side of town so we were confused when we came accross it while walking up the main street. It was early for lunch, so double checking the map we decided to investigate the other location.

    Further up Gediminas Avenue we found peope's names inscribed on the side of a building with origami paper doves, exhausted candles in glass jars and fresh flowers layed against the wall and a stone memorial. After a little research we discovered it was the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights (previously the Museum of Genocide Victims) and Memorial of the Victims of Soviet Occupation. On this day (June 17th) in 1940 the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania fell under Soviet Occupation. This place, which had previously been used as headquarters for the Nazi Gestapo was taken over by the KGB. People were imprisioned, tortured and executed in its cells, before being buried in the gardens. There are so many histories within different countries that we have very little awareness of. Coming accross the tributes was a sobering experience.

    Just around the next corner we found the old Cat Café that Sue had visited, with a note saying it had relocated. Our curiosity satisfied, we looped back via the Neris riverside. Several bridges crossed to the opposite bank; a real contrast to the historic old town, with glass walled skyscrapers belonging to big name companies such as Barclays and Huawei.

    Entering the new Cat Café we were required to place protective covers over our shoes and wash our hands before being seated. A list of rules, such as not stroking sleeping cats, was clearly displayed. The establishment is home to 15 cats. They all appeared very healthy. Some sat in the picture windows watching the world go by, others lounged in cat trees, on chairs or strolled accross the floor inspecting visitors' bags, doing what cats do best and ignoring the humans that vied for their attention. The whole place was very clean. Chilled music played, photographic portraits of each cat hung on the walls together with a few large anthropomorphic cat paintings.

    None of the cats was interested in a cuddle, but several came close enough for strokes and we petted those that looked keen. The food was good, with cold beetroot soup and dumplings for Will and a feta and beetroot salad for Vicky, which she accompanied with a freshly blended mango smoothie - yum!

    Since seeing the 57m high bell tower in Cathedral Square the previous day, Vicky had been keen to climb it. The interior was mixed. A super narrow, spiralling stone staircase led to modern platforms of glass and metal with electronic displays, including CCTV feeds of the surrounding area. Joysticks, zoom buttons and presets allowed you to control their direction and see specific sights. Steep wooden stairs gave access to higher levels with a row of bells for you to play, a couple of old clockfaces leaning against the walls
    and solid timber frames surrounding the huge hanging bells, which we were strictly forbidden to play, however tempting! The top deck had arched windows open to the elements, with just some nylon mesh accross and good views of the cathedral and mainstreet.

    Exiting the tower we took a few minutes to search for the Miracle Tile set into the pavement. Legend has it that those who turn 360° on the tile and make a wish, will have it granted. In fact, this was the point from which, on 23rd August 1989, 2 million people formed a human chain, stretching over 370 miles, through three countries and three capital cities, ending in Tallinn, Estonia. This peaceful demonstration was a stand against Soviet rule. Two years later the Baltic countries gained independence. Further round the tower was another understated installation commemorating this incredible, revolutionary stand. A second tile with two huge footprints was layed in 2013 with a time capsule underneath. Identical 'footprints for freedom' tiles link Vilnius with the two other capitals through which the chain passed; Riga, Latvia and Tallinn, Estonia. When they were layed the Mayor of Vilnius made a speech: "Famous French writer Victor Hugo once said that we all walk the same roads in life, but that not everyone leaves the same footprints. The footprints of those people who stood here 24 years ago in the Baltic Way will remain for all time".

    From Cathedral Square we wandered the short distance to the cobbled streets of the old town, lined with trinket stalls, terraced bars and buskers. After a while searching for groceries (harder than it sounds) we ticked off another of our aims for Vilnius: to find and eat black vanilla icecream as Sue and John had done on their visit last year. Vicky cheekily sampled some of Will's double scoop in a black cone. It was tasty, but its flavour paled in comparison to the servings of mango and strawberry vegan icecream with 'natural ingredients' that she ordered from the stand over the other side of the street.

    There was one last stop on the way back to Martha; Vilnius Castle on Gediminas Hill. During our time in Lithuania we've appreciated the lack of commercialism and advertising, but we could really have done with some better signage for the entrance to the castle grounds! After what seemed like an age and with some help from a local, we found our way to the base station of the small funicular railway. Vicky said hello to the attendent and asked if he spoke English. An exasperated 'PLEASE!' was his reply- she was only asking! The glass and metal carriage was more like a diagonal escalator, with a self service call button and internal control pad. Standard entry to the broad round tower was €5. We thought this a bit steep in comparison to other Lithuanian attractions, but our decision was aided by a sudden downpour and the fact that as an OAP Will got in for half price, so we coughed up.

    The quality indoor displays validated the price. While rain torrented down we sat half way up the tower, watching images projected onto screens in front of each large, arched window, creating the illusion of a view to the outside. Images told the story of historical events taking place outside the castle over the centuries, of wars and development. There was also a whole level dedicated to the freedom movement and the human chain, with moving photos and video footage.

    The weather had driven others away, so when the front passed, we were lucky enough to have the open air platform at the top of the tower to ourselves. There were amazing panoramic views of the surrounding hills, old town, Neris River, the modern and residential areas. We found it all the more interesting having investigated a little on foot. It was a great way to end our exploration of Vilnius! We love how compact it is. There is so much to see within a small area, yet it doesn't feel crowded. Whilst we spent two days here, you could easily spend longer and enjoy disvovering more.

    That evening there was a knock on the door. David was a Brit travelling in his motorhome from Switzerland, where he lived with his Swiss partner Marlyse. He invited us round for a drink and nibbles! When we were settled, there was a knock at their door from their Swiss neighbour Leila, who was travelling with her Springer Spaniel Kiki. They had the same make of van, so each was interested in taking a look 'through the keyhole'. David and Marlyse were good hosts and the 5 of us spent a relaxing evening chatting about vanlife and travelling to far flung places like Russia, Iceland and Morocco. Vicky especially enjoyed having Kiki with us! If any of you are reading this, then thank you, we wish you well on your future voyages!
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  • Day1105

    Visaginas, Soviet era city

    July 6 in Lithuania ⋅ ⛅ 18 °C

    Visaginas's fascinating history and current social dynamic drew us to visit this small city in the far north east of Lithuania, near the Latvian and Belarusian borders.

    Apologies for the information overload, but we found our research really interesting and hopefully you will too! Back in 1975, in the time of soviet rule, four existing settlements were demolished to make way for this brand new development. Its purpose was to house families and workers involved with the construction and operation of the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant; Lithuania's only nuclear generation facility and one of the world's most powerful. In 2004, as a condition of accession to the European Union, Ignalina began the process of closing down; its design was very similar to that of Chernobyl and there were fears over safety. We've not watched it ourselves, but apparently scenes from the recent mini series 'Chernobyl' were filmed here.

    Plans were made with Latvia, Estonia and the Chinese company Hitachi to build another plant. However the country is turning more and more towards renewable energy and these plans stalled in 2012 when 65% of voters rejected nuclear in a referendum.

    Visaginas's original design had intended it to look like a butterfly from above, but this was never fully realised as the city suffered massive depopulation and construction was halted. Interestingly, more than half the residents are ethnic Russian and this is the main language spoken. The rest of the community are mostly Lithuanian, Belarusian, Polish and Ukranian.

    Emerging from the forest, we came to a shopping complex and parked up at the Iki supermarket. Nothing unusual about that. After buying some groceries we set off on foot to explore the city. We've seen plenty of high rise apartment blocks since arriving in Lithuania, but these have always been mixed with individual houses. Here, there were no houses, just flats, many of them identical precast concrete panel affairs, with a few more modern red brick edifices. Although there were roadworks on the good quality main street, adding cyclepaths and walkways, many homes looked in poor condition, their outer walls stained with damp. The blocks were close together, following the curve of a road like you'd expect two up two down semis to do. Cars lined the residential byways. We imagine parking is a real difficulty round here with so many people per square kilometre. A few of the ground floor residences were being used as businesses. We passed by a hairdresser but went and bought some wine and cheese from a cramped newsagents with a friendly east asian proprietor who spoke no English.

    Communal areas existed between the rows of flats, with sparce children's playgrounds, colourful washing lines and even a homemade dove cote! After a while our path led to a couple of large, insulated pipes running overground to the accommodation. Intrigued, we followed them, finding a small valve that was warm to the touch. Translating a label, we discovered they were drinking water pipes! Now that's something we haven't seen elsewhere!

    After exploring the residential district we visited the recreational, administrative and another commercial area. Visiginas's open air, track and field sports stadium sits behind a wire mesh fence with green, yellow and red plastic chairs set into concrete stands. Beside it is an astro turf football field, also fenced off, were a few teenagers kicked a ball around. We may have expected there to be more people, considering the high density housing, but like the rest of the country there were very few others out and about on the streets. Passing through the grounds of the utilitarian looking administrative building, we came to the Visaginas geiger counter; a relatively uninspiring cuboidal column topped with a silver metal sculpture of a Crane in flight. This bird was chosen as a sign of caution and vigilance in the city's coat of arms. Although the red digital sign displayed the date, time, temperature and humidity, we were disappointed not to see a readout from the geiger counter.

    There is something about Visaginas's story we found intriguing and to be able to see the place for ourselves, soak in the quiet, calm atmosphere and discover features such as the overland water pipes was a great perk of vanlife.
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  • Day1077

    Nemunas River car park

    June 8 in Lithuania ⋅ ☀️ 26 °C

    We've found ourselves back at the Nemunas River, close to Honey Valley campsite where we stayed a few weeks ago. We'd planned on sleeping at another stopover but as we drove along the riverbank we saw a number of car parks and decided to set up home by the water instead.

    On route we'd managed to fill our depleted fresh water tank at a Circle K fuel station. Having not used a lot of diesel or LPG, we weren't able to buy much of these fuels to repay them, so we decided to join the many others getting lunch from their takeaway. Will's chicken hotdog was easy to order, Vicky's request for something vegetarian proved more complicated. Google Translate helped out and through her experience of different languages she was able to recognise when they offered her a tuna sandwich. Luckily she'd scouted out the pastry counter beforehand and helped herself to a spinach and feta pasty along with a couple of cinnamon rolls when there was no veggie option at the hot counter.

    Arriving at the Nemunas car park we rolled the awning out to shade the side of the van from the scorching sun. A couple of people were sunbathing on the stony shore, the occasional damselfly flitted by and a small fishing boat made several trips upstream, floating back down with a rod dangling over the side.

    As the temperature rose we waded into the water to keep cool. Despite the fast flow there was a smell to the river and even a bit of scum in places. Sediment meant we couldn't see what was under the surface and Vicky kicked something that cut her foot. We got out shortly after this but Will slipped on the stony bank and cut his thumb. Oh well, not all wild swims are fun and at least we had plenty of water for a shower.

    Later on a family drove by to cool their hot German Shepherd in the river. The heat wave is taking people, including us, by surprise. For the second night in a row we saw lightening and heard thunder but very little rain fell and the temperature remained high. We left all the windows open until midnight when Will got ready for bed. Vicky was woken by panicked expletives and pulling back the bedroom curtain saw a swarm of flies inside the van. As Will had opened the fly screen to close the windows, they'd rushed in. We don't like to use strong chemicals but the Moskill coil came out and did its job. Vicky spent an hour the following morning wiping dead flies off the table, seats and fly screen as well as brushing them off the outside of the van. Hundreds of them had attached themselves to the leeward side with something similar to spider's silk and died without us having anything to do with it. We've never seen anything like it!

    Driving off, we looped back to a nearby castle we'd found on Maps.Me. Raudonės Pilis was built in the 19th century but previous castles have inhabited this site since before the 1500s. Walking through the grounds, we passed by several people in medieval costume and 3 ponies grazing, but saddled up ready to take little ones for a ride. There were also an archery target board, and a sword stuck in the ground. The actors greeted us and we continued on past the small lake to the grey plastered walls and towers topped with orange terracotta tiles.

    The entry price of €2 each was reasonable. A large part of the building is now used as a school but there were some displays showing what the kitchen would have looked like and at the base of one of the round towers, a hole in the floor leading down to the dungeon, in which a white plaster budda seemed to be sitting. We're not sure what that was about! The real attraction for Vicky was chance to climb one of the towers. There was conceptual and photographic art on the walls as we climbed one of the steepest wooden staircases we've encountered in public (the steps in the Dutch windpump we had a private tour of were pretty steep too). The loft space had a conical ceiling and overhanging wooden beams, but set into the terracotta tiles were small windows you could open for views over the surrounding countryside and river, reminding us what a green country Lithuania is.

    Down in the castle courtyard were 3 gazebos with stalls selling dehydrated seed and fruit strips (which we sampled but weren't persuaded to buy), handmade lace and leather adornments, soaps, creams and organic herbs, spices and teas. We chatted with the organic stall holders and got some chamomile. We mentioned how difficult it had been to find organic produce here, but they didn't seem to think it was a problem. Perhaps it isn't if you know where to go, but we don't.

    Just a kilometre or so along the road from Raudonės Castle was a small car park with a hilltop viewpoint, accessed via flights of very new wooden steps. We had a spot of lunch, shut the blinds on the sunny side of the van in an effort to keep it cool, then set off up the steep (but thankfully small) hill. There was a good view stretching along the Nemunas River and its shallow, green valley. A gravel footpath (also newly created) stretched down the other side and into woodland, but the day was too hot to do much walking, so we drove on to our next overnight spot, grateful for Martha's air conditioned cab.
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You might also know this place by the following names:

Republic of Lithuania, Litauen, Lithuania, Litaue, Lituwenia, ሊቱዌኒያ, Lituania, ليتوانيا, ܠܬܘܢܝܐ, Litva, Літва, Литва, Lituyani, লিথুয়েনিয়া, ལི་ཐུ་ཨེ་ནི་ཡ།, Litvanija, Lituània, Lituanya, Lëtewskô, Lituania nutome, Λιθουανία, Litovujo, Leedu, لیتوانیا, Lituaanii, Liettua, Litava, Lituanie, Litouwen, An Liotuáin, લિથુઆનિયા, Lituweniya, ליטא, लिथुआनिया, Lityani, Litvánia, Լիտվա, Litháen, リトアニア共和国, ლიტვა, Litwania, Litaueni, លីទុយអានី, ಲಿಥುವೇನಿಯಾ, 리투아니아, Littaue, لیتوانایا, Lithouani, Lisuwenya, Litouwe, Litwani, ລິເທີເນຍ, Lietuva, Litoania, Litovia, Литванија, ലിത്വാനിയ, Litwanja, လစ်သူယေးနီးယား, Lituantlān‎, लिथुअनिया, Lithuanie, Litvu, ଲିଥାଆନିଆ, Litaun, Litwa, Laītawa, Lituânia, Lituwaniya, Lituaniya, Литуания, लिथ्वानिया, Lituana, Lituanïi, ලිතුවේනියාව, Lituweeniya, Lituani, லிதுவேனியா, లిథుయేనియా, Lituánia, ลิทัวเนีย, Lifiuenia, Litvanya, Litua, لتھوانیا, Łituania, Li-tu-a-ni-a (Lithuania), Litown, Lietuvän, Litwaneye, ליטע, Orílẹ́ède Lituania, 立陶宛, i-Lithuania

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