Europe: the Baltics to the Arctic

Back in 2015 I took the opportunity to agree a few weeks of time off work to allow myself to travel. Up until then I had never had more than two weeks off at a time (in ten years), and I had never taken a trip which was largely unplanned – there had been no gap year between university and starting a career. September and October in 2015 set that straight. It was a trip which took me from the beautiful old towns of the Baltic countries, south into Poland, on to Germany, then all the way up through Denmark and Sweden into the north of Norway. Starting with sunshine and beaches in Finland and Estonia, ending with the chill of the Arctic Circle.

The totality of my planning was:

1. Fly into Helsinki;
2. Take the ferry to Tallinn the following morning;
3. Stay for at least two nights in Tallinn; and
4. Meet some friends in Copenhagen on a certain weekend in October.

I packed light and had a rough idea of some places I wanted to see, but aside from that played it by ear; travelling onward when I felt like it and generally booking no more than a day in advance. It was truly magic.

Finland and Estonia

Helsinki was familiar, after I had visited Southern Finland earlier that year to see the capital, Tampere and Turku. There was a feeling I had on my first night away which has stayed with me since. On this September evening, it was glorious sunshine, t-shirt weather, and there was a lovely atmosphere about the city as people were enjoying their Saturday night.

I dropped my bag off in my room and left to wander around the city, find a bar and some food. The sense of freedom felt wonderful; it’s a feeling that comes back whenever I think about this first night away. But it was more than that; it felt like I was entirely relaxed for the first time in years. After an exceptionally difficult few years for family reasons, and the period that followed, stepping out in Helsinki made me feel like, for the first time in many, many years, I was genuinely happy.

Coupled with that, the excitement of several weeks of not knowing what I was going to see, where I might end up, and having no responsibility whatsoever aside from doing what I wanted to do, it’s an incredible feeling.

After soaking up a bit of the evening sun in Helsinki, I bar hopped before settling down for the evening.

The morning ferry the next day was a short trip across the water to the stunning old town of Tallinn. In hindsight, while Tallinn remains one of the nicest old towns I have visited, it does have a slight Disneyfication feel to it; a place where tourists visit but locals don’t live. That said, it was a great place to explore, and outside of the old town, Paterei Prison provided some interesting history from recent past.

Continuing south, I stopped at the Estonian summer town of Pärnu. Being off season it was wonderfully quiet and perfect for what turned out to be a short stopover. The evening in Pärnu is one of my favourite nights I’ve had on any trip. The main street was deserted, and the beach was peaceful. I sat there watching a sunset which lasted a couple of hours, without a care in the world. Work, by this point, was a distant memory, and I still had what felt like forever in front of me to explore wherever I pleased.

The Baltic Coast

Still moving south, I left Pärnu to visit Riga then travelled on to the Latvian coast to Liepāja. The town itself isn’t particularly memorable. Locals on the beach were wearing scarfs and big coats while I was fine in a t-shirt. A little north of the town is Karosta, a seemingly trouble hit area which has fallen into a state of disrepair, at times resembling scenes from a post-apocalyptic film. The most interesting part was an old naval base, which is being reclaimed by the sea as time goes on.

Klaipėda was my first stop in Lithuania and was another one of those wonderfully relaxed nights away. It’s a lovely little town, by the Curonian Spit, making it an interesting place to explore. While Klaipėda was a nice introduction to Lithuania, my next stop, Kaunas, was a let down. Perhaps it was relative expectations after some nice stops on the coast and visits to Riga and Tallinn, but Kaunas was a place I was happy to leave earlier than expected.

Poland and Germany

A bus ride to Białystok followed by six hours of sleep, I was on an extremely slow train taking an extremely slow route to the north of Poland, to Gdańsk. There was an awkward moment as the cabin I had to myself gained a visitor, an elderly woman, who it turned out was almost entirely deaf and almost entirely blind. She thought I was a chair at first and tried to sit on me. Taking a seat across from me, she sat looking awkward, probably nervous at this foreigner she didn’t know, who was talking away in English. She was whisked off somewhere else not long after.

As historic towns go, Gdańsk is one of the most stunning. Mixed in with the Solidarność movement that started here and its impact on labour and the Soviet Union, it is a fascinating place to visit. I had an apartment with a piano and spend a few hours picking away at some songs I used to play over 20 years earlier. It’s amazing how something can come back to mind with a little effort, even after all that time.

Another slow train took me west to Berlin, a city that grew on me during my few days there. It was a more much lonesome trip in Berlin. Or a lone trip, but not a lonely one. I met far fewer people being just one in amongst the great hordes of tourists. It’s an interesting city, as expected, but not one I’d rush back to. Even exploring the more out-of-the-way neighbourhoods, mostly during my search for interesting food and beers, Berlin didn’t leave a particularly lasting impression despite being perfectly enjoyable. My efforts to order some food and drinks using my high school German were rebuffed as I was scowled at and told “say it again, in English.” Confidence levels: obliterated.

Hamburg was different. It was still a less-sociable visit but definitely an enjoyable one. From the fun Miniatur Wunderland, to the epic maritime museum – something I’m somewhat randomly interested in and which I assume was passed down from my Dad to me – and the awesome docks of the city, Hamburg is a great place to visit. It has a no airs and graces feel to it, much like I’m used to in Glasgow, and, on my visit, also had the weather to match.

Migrant movements

Travelling north to Copenhagen on the train is when things started to feel a little different. This was a time when there was a large increase in people fleeing war-torn countries for safety and a new life in Europe, and many headed for Germany and Sweden. The route from Germany north into Sweden is from Hamburg via Copenhagen, and turning up at Hamburg Hbf, it was quite evident. Lots of people hanging around, many carrying what I assume is all they had to their name, and heading north to a new life in an almost unthinkably different type of climate and country from what they’ve known before.

It puts things into perspective seeing people in this kind of situation. And all through the rest of my trip north, right up to the Arctic Circle, there were people displaced by troubles at home who were making a new life and settling into a completely different culture.

My own trip north – which continued by train by ferry (the train actually boards a ferry) – stopped in Copenhagen for a sociable weekend with friends from Scotland, Canada and the USA. This was my fourth visit to Copenhagen and somewhat shamefully yet another where I saw the inside of bars more than anything of the city. But given Copenhagen is perhaps the best city for beer in the world outside of the West Coast of the USA, and that I always meet up with friends there, it’s perfectly understandable. I think.

Sweden and Norway

The trip took on a very different feeling again in Sweden. After an afternoon in Malmö and a night in Norrköping, Stockholm provided another wonderful sunset, a wander around the beautiful Gamla Stan, a beer and a night sleeping on a boat. The following morning I made my way up the east coast of Sweden to Umeå and, later, to Luleå. It was the turn of the season, the weather cooled, the clouds arrived, and the leaves were showing their colours. Both Umeå and Luleå had the feeling of winter being just around the corner, yet there was something so incredibly relaxing, tranquil, about the atmosphere of both places. They are relatively quiet and sleepy places compared to many I had visited in the past few weeks, but this time of the year brought about a silence and peacefulness that I haven’t experienced before. The walks I did outside of both towns gave me hours without seeing anyone else, with perfectly calm weather, a still river. It felt like having the whole place to myself.

A night in Luleå gave me my first glimpse of one of the greatest natural wonders. After an evening out where I ended up watching the local basketball team, I went for a beer then was ready to head to bed. In what had become habit by this point, I checked the forecast of the Aurora Borealis, knowing it was clear sky over Luleå. Aurora activity suggested there was a good chance, and finding a spot just away from the overhead streetlights, by a duck pond by the water, I sat and waited. There was a faint, white streak across the sky. It looked like cloud, but the longer I stared at it, it looked to be moving around, slowly, and as my eyes adjusted I got my first proper sighting of the Northern Lights. It wasn’t the spectacular aurora seen in photos but there it was, over the town, silently moving around. It was incredibly exciting to see it for the first time.

The trip further north felt like the final part of an adventure. Leaving Luleå in the morning, I had an eight-hour train north on the Iron Ore line via Kiruna, arriving in Narvik in Norway. It was, up to then, the longest train ride I had ever taken and the furthest north I had ever been. The Arctic Circle provided a bit of mystique as the train passed through Abisko, over the border and along the side of the stunning Norwegian fjords as daylight disappeared. Setting foot in the Narvik, inside the Arctic Circle (and in weather warm enough to wear a t-shirt!) was awesome.

To end the journey, I had a five-hour bus trip from Narvik to Tromsø, with each part of the way taking me further north than I had ever been before. At the bus station in Narvik I had a broken-English conversation with one of the few fellow passengers waiting for the bus, and it turned out he was a refugee who had travelled to Europe from Iraq and was being relocated in Tromsø. A culture shock beyond imagination.

The scenery was spectacular while the daylight lasted, and arriving in Tromsø in the evening, much like flying into a new place at night, provided that thrill that makes travelling so addictive. From the sunshine, the cities and beaches of a few weeks ago, I had ended up in the Arctic, ready to chase the Northern Lights and explore the polar north for the first time.

Sadly, the trip ended somewhat prematurely due to a family bereavement. It meant those wonderful few weeks ended with a hastily arranged trip from Tromsø to Oslo, on to London and then Glasgow. It meant the best of the Arctic – The Tromsø I was so keen to see – was saved for another time, as I returned home to see family. But little over a year later I returned to Northern Sweden, this time to Kiruna, and later to Tromsø via Narvik, and did this last part of this European trip a second time over in what was one of the best two weeks away I have ever had.

When looking back on a trip rekindles so many memories, as this one does, it will likely be one that stays with you for a long, long time. The first few days of glorious weather and the genuinely switched off feeling from work, from Helsinki to the perfect sunset in Pärnu, is perhaps the most relaxed I have ever been. The fun few days in Gdańsk followed by the sociable weekend in Copenhagen provided a bit of contrast to the northern parts of Sweden and Norway. And the change in weather from start to finish, the contrast of the cities with the nature towards the end, was majestic. It made the whole trip feel like an adventure.

This trip, my first big trip, changed my outlook towards work, my career, my travels. It provided the sense of adventure that I continue to seek out in different ways. And when I think back to the relaxed feeling during the few weeks off, it immediately takes me back to a very, very happy place.

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