“To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring.” ___________George Santayana.
Bi-Polar Weather Through Four Countries
“In the Spring, I have counted 136 different kinds of weather inside of 24 hours.” said Mark Twain. I testify that there is solid corroboration for that statement. After rambling through Europe for over a year and being blessed with cooperative weather, for the most part, our first-ever European road trip trekking to northern Poland and across three Baltic states broke our lucky streak. This recent excursion in April, by car, through four countries was a chapter of ‘the unpredictable, terrible, horrible, bad weather of spring’.
On April 24th, we left Suwałki, a little town in the Podlasie region of Poland, not far from the Lithuanian border. It was a sunny day and we had hope for a stimulating but relaxing road trip across Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. The big sky was open, boundless and moody. The landscape was active with spring agronomy and the motorway was full of ubiquitous, massive trucks. Through Lithuania and Latvia, the weather was dramatic and perplexing, changing from hour to hour with pathological mood swings. Sun, clouds, showers, sleet, snow then sun and puffy clouds again appearing on a blue horizon. More dark clouds appear again in the distance; the whole pattern repeats in several shifts over the course of the day. Cleverly, this pattern is called ‘spring’ in the Baltic States: a mesmerising weather anomaly where serene, white clouds morph to dark, shadowy, threatening nebulas within minutes. They opened up over our little car with sheets of icy rain, sleet and blowing snow, throughout the day. It was surprising each time peppered with ‘yikes’ from the passengers. God bless Noel, the driver of our expedition, for his patience and dauntless focus on the road, the trucks, the weather and his ability to distance himself from our repeated cries of alarm.
On and Along the Road: the Coffee Breaks
The road trip started in Kraków (home) and proceeded to the Podlasie region of Poland near the Lithuanian border. The dominant, rolling Polish farmland with dreamy clouds on a deep, distant horizon kept company with the little VW hatchback along with occasional snow flurries and rain squalls. The roadside accommodations in Poland for snacks, restrooms and gas, indistinguishable from American rest stops, beckoned for a stretch of the legs and a caffeine-bump. Inside, the Polish labels on the food packaging made the variety of snacks and food more interesting along with the staples of American snacks like Lays and Kit-Kats.
For a couple of Ex-Pats from the U.S., the golden-arched ‘M’ appearing on Polish roadsides was a convenience. Inside the ambience was so routine that I caught myself reverting to English while ordering my coffee. In that context, a subconscious language-switch was beyond my control. Going on a road trip in Poland is just like going on a road trip in the States; you don’t have to travel with a thermos and a roll of toilet-paper. My Polish friends will cringe when they read this but Americans can be really clueless about life here. They still have some very old ideas of rural Poland and I hope I’m crashing their stereotypes.
In a gas station convenience store, we merged with a bus full of Chinese tourists on their way to Warsaw. They had been on the road for several weeks in their big white bus and had just finished a 1-day sojourn in Kraków. It was an ‘awh-gosh’ moment as they expressed regret for having spent too little time in beautiful, historic Kraków. They were friendly and full of good cheer and chatter. We communicated through a young man who was the only English speaker in the group. He was surprised to find that all four of us, two Americans: Greg and I, one Irishman: Noel, with one Polish lady: Jaga, all lived in Kraków. Our party was as interesting a mix to them as their enthusiasm in touring Poland was to us.
As we drove north of Warsaw and further into the country, there were not as many venues for stretch and caffeine stops. At one juncture, we settled on Rocco Latte because it was advertising as open 24 hours for food and lodging. We meandered cautiously into a dark, cold but spotless interior with modern decor featuring large, grey, beachball- type plaster globes suspended from the ceiling on wired-rope reaching to within 12 inches of the floor. The room had black wallpaper with silver curlicues and modern chrome and black dinette furniture but no dinette food for consumption. The signboard had promised lattes and cappuccinos and we were listening for the welcome, whirling sound of milk steaming in an automated coffee monster. There was a group of Polish ladies sitting at the only occupied table enjoying beers. The room-heater was off and it was dismally cold amidst the clean, contemporary decor. We asked for lattes but only Nescafe was available. We settled for instant coffees and a teabag in a cup of hot water and hit the road again quickly. It was one of the more memorable stops; contemporary but resonant of another era.
Different Strokes for Different Folks
Some very evident differences found in the Polish road-scapes that are not found in the U.S. are the wind turbine fans. They appear in arrangements over the agricultural lands and in the beautiful horizons. They do not spoil the scene, they add to it as a play off nature and with nature. The natural world providing resources in a non-corrosive and smart way. These white turbine giants are important and integral in the rural areas as a source of affordable electrical power and an alternative to the burning of coal. In Latvia and Estonia, we also saw the nostalgic, traditional windmills on the roadside. These evocative structures of a bygone era were quaint and beautiful. They have transformed to museums, shops and restaurants yet remain as a reminder that wind power was always important in the agricultural world whether for grinding and milling grain, or producing water and energy.
There’s a Stork on the Road
Spotting a stork scavenging the roadside for frogs, worms, and whatever else storks find delectable was exciting. My first ever stork sighting! Over the coming days, we saw many of the long-legged, long-billed, large, white birds. The very large nests, perched on the favoured high masts and poles, are almost always near homesteads and were easy to spot in the open fields. The nests are constructed of branches, sticks and lined with twigs, grasses, sod, rags, and paper. The monogamous stork pairs reuse the same nests every year on their return from Africa in March. They add to the construction of the nest each summer so they get bigger as they get older. Some can be over 6 feet in diameter and as deep proportionally. The storks are encouraged and invited to build on a property as they are an auspicious symbol of prosperity. We spotted storks into Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. As we drove and discussed storks, one did a low flyover the roof of the car and gave us a start. It was stork territory and stork high-season in Eastern Europe.
About storks in Poland from the NY Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/22/travel/poland-storks.html
In Poland, a 4-Star Hotel is a Roadside Motel
It was to be an 834 mile (1,342 kilometers) trek from Kraków, Poland to Tallin, Estonia. Younger trekkers might be able to drive 834 miles in one fell swoop. Not so for we relaxed, older retirees. We all agreed to break up the journey with an overnight rest before crossing the Lithuanian border. We stopped in Suwałki, a commercial town and business center, close to the Polish and Lithuanian borders. I was a skeptic with some inherent reservations stemming from the suggestive name of the hotel, “The Hotel Velvet.” But it was a sweet surprise. The staff greeted us with class and charm. It was a comfortable oasis; clean, modern and far and away not your average American Red Roof Inn or Motel 6. There were spotless, spacious and contemporary rooms. High ceilings and large skylight-type windows covered by sheer curtains let in just enough vitalizing light to help recover from an all-day sojourn in a car. The restaurant at the hotel was called the Nova and it was a foodie’s delight. Beautifully presented, delicious food was certainly not what we expected at a short overnight stay in a town that above all was a convenient location. No fast food here and we were grateful. A magnificent dinner and a delicious, sumptuous breakfast and then on to the next leg. We all agreed before we left the Velvet to book a room for the return and we did. And it was as lavishly velvet on the next stay.
Here’s a link for more information on the Velvet hotel in Suwałki, Poland. http://www.hotelvelvet.pl/
New Borders, No Borders
The next morning we crossed the Lithuanian border. For me, this was a historic event. My father, who was in the Polish Army, was taken prisoner in 1939 on the Lithuanian border by the Soviets at the outset of WWII. Additionally, an aunt that now lives in Wrocław grew up in Lithuania in the 20’s and 30’s when it was under Polish control and then fled from the Soviets with other ethnic Poles in the early 40’s. Reading the books of Czeslaw Milosz framed and formed my curiosity for and love of Lithuania.
The old abandoned border crossing stands as evidence of political transformation. A large, white complex of buildings with empty windows that stare out like blank forlorn eyes is still located at the left side of the road. Soviet in style, it is a reminder of a dismal and tyrannical era. The blue and gold flag of the European Union waves proudly next to the Lithuanian flag over the wide road which is full of traffic. We drive into Lithuania like passing through a looking glass into another land. The formal borders no longer exist. We performed this kind of seamless crossing twice more on that day. Latvia’s Soviet border crossing buildings were also still standing abandoned on the road with the flag of independent Latvia and the EU. And we crossed into Estonia as if moving from one village to another over a bumpy road and bridge, paying more attention to the “Y” split in the road then to the border crossing.
The release from the yoke of Soviet occupation binds the three Baltic states. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are thriving, beautiful and historically eloquent. They had been shrouded by the curtain of Soviet Russia which blended the cultures and language to reflect the occupier. The people’s conviction and courage survived that guarded era. The culture of each Baltic country is distinct. It is a mistake to meld the Baltic countries together as they evolved from different tribes with each having a unique history, language, and customs. It was a privilege to be able to explore their roots and history. We struggled with menus, languages, and customs on our sojourn through the Baltic countries. Our road trip was a collage of experiences, a kind of tasting menu of small bites in culture, history and landscapes.
Roadside Stops: Latvia
Latvia was a revelation. It is a beautiful, heavily forested country with handsome houses, pastures, fields and quiet roads. The remnants of a long history are embedded into the land; there is a distinct, presiding, ancient aura. Large complexes of Soviet style apartment blocks remain on the outskirts of every town. Fortunately, the forested scapes are long and green and help to temper the stark ugly lines of the blocks. At our roadside stops in Latvia, we were met with courtesy, friendliness and a prevading, positive impression.
At a burger haven called the HessBurger, mid-journey through Latvia, we met Leega from Riga. Her friendly, easy and helpful ways left an impression. She piped right up to help us when she heard us speaking English while trying to navigate the Latvian menu. There were pictures of the food but the ingredients were still so confusing. Her English had a slight Irish brogue. She spoke with Noel for a time and told him that she had learned English in Ireland while working and attending school. In a controlled, pleasant way, she made sure we understood everything and had everything we needed. There’s that lovely Latvian aura again from Leega from Riga.
On the day we were returning, the weather was bright and sunny; sleet and snow had been exhausted. Near a sparkling blue lake, we stopped for breakfast at a spot that looked like a landscaped natural playground for children. This was the Guest House Mazais Ansis in a town called Rubene. Rolling lawns were interspersed with eccentric, wooden carvings of animals and fantasy creatures. Spring flowers were planted in neat arrangements. This was a vacationer’s resort anchored by a massive log building framed with a wrap-around porch full of rockers and chairs and overlooking Lake Vaidavas. Boats and rafts were moored and waiting. Hand-made carved wooden playground equipment was waiting for a frolic.
Breakfast was waiting in the lodge on a sunny day near a lake! What could be better? A most sumptuous over-sized bowl of porridge with a spoonful of blackberry preserves. It was so delicious. The grains were dominant, infusing the oatmeal with a lovely nutty flavor and color. It was reminiscent of mother’s kitchen on a winter morning. Where were you dreamy bowl of oatmeal when the snow and sleet were blowing in my face just a couple of days ago?
Noel and Greg settled in for a country breakfast which came served in a tureen; eggs, potatoes, bacon and onions in a soup pot. Breakfast was consumed with gusto. The service was excellent; sincere, upbeat and efficient. No formality here; it was down home and cozy. Seriously, if you are considering a trip to Riga, this resort is only an hour away from the city.
About the Guest House Mazais Ansis: http://www.mazais-ansis.lv/
Discover Latvia: http://www.latvia.travel/en/article/discover-latvia
Roadside Stop: The Milk Bar in Põltsamaa, Estonia
On the day we drove to Tallinn from the little town of Otepää, we left in the early morning with the intention of finding breakfast. It was mid-morning by the time we found a petro stop named “Olerex Põltsamaa tankla“. Hopeful, we wandered to the back of the petro station to a dull grey concrete building with a small graphic of a chef carrying a steaming tray. We meandered into the building block to find only a store. Ready to settle for snacks, when Noel appears from his own investigation to announce there is a restaurant on the 2nd floor. We walk up the plain, grey concrete staircase with the metal bannister to enter a large, bright room where there is a short cafeteria line in operation.
In Poland, this type of establishment is called a “milk bar” (not to be confused with the Australian milk bar). The milk bar is a Polish form of cafeteria, a hold-over from communist times when meals were subsidized for the proletariat. But this was Estonia. Had we had found an Estonian milk bar? The long menu on the left wall was markered onto a whiteboard. It was all in undecipherable Estonian. Beyond the cafeteria line, there was a large dining room with red-violet curtains framing tall, light-filled windows. There were groups of workmen entering and ordering substantial delicious looking lunches and carting away their trays to enjoy them at functional tables. Hmmm, definitely milk bar routine. We eye the platters with some envy as they look delicious.
Back to the menu written on the white board. It was extensive and overwhelming. We get some help placing orders from a young woman who, I believe was the manager. It would have been difficult to survive without the young people who knew a smattering of English in countries like Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia where the language was way beyond our multi-cultural grasp. I wonder how many Americans are able to help travellers in their native languages back in the United States.
We have coffees, omelets, goulash stews and the Estonian staple: brown bread. The cost is about 20 Euros for 4 people.
On our return trip from Tallin, I write down place names as we retrace our route in the car. I Googled those place names to see if I can find the name of this memorable milk bar. My notes say: “Puh-risti söögimaja“ is located near the “Olerex Põltsamaa tankla“. I am gob-smacked when I find photos of this stop on the internet. Translating the name on Google translator, howevr, is hilarious: ” Inflatable transverse feeder.” Really? Alternatively I come up with: “Blow-out cross eatery”. Yes, Google translator is so often useless and comical. I name our restaurant “The Estonian Milk Bar of the Red-Violet Curtains.”
Here is the link to the Facebook page which features pictures of the food. Notice that it is listed as “Public & Government Services” which means it’s truly a holdover milk bar. https://www.facebook.com/puhurist/
All photos of the Puh-risti söögimaja courtesy of and, from their FaceBook page
Now only the Memories
The crazy spring weather will be remembered as drama during our travel by car to northern Europe in late April. As will the storks. And the eateries on the road side. And the people we met. While organizing my notes, I found that the stories of the people we met, too briefly, who helped us so honestly were the champions of our tale. The weather was terrible but the denizons of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland were so very excellent. Daunting weather on a 1,668 mile road trip with fine company and sincere hospitality make for incomparable memories. We returned to Kraków on May 3rd. The lilacs were in full bloom.
For more of Greg Spring’s photos from our travels in Europe, see Assignment 2017 at the following link: http://bit.ly/2oGmtX6
Wanderlusting Dreams is a blog written and produced by Grace Nagiecka with photos by Gregory Spring. Kraków, Poland 2017. Please let us know how you like our travelogues.