10:18

Baltic Adventure Part 3

When we left the Åland Islands it was in fresh autumnal sunshine. Landing in Klaipeda in Lithuania two hours later it was close and muggy; you can forget that you have traveled the  equivalent distance as from Salisbury to Middlesborough or from London to Paris. Anyway the dry suit was shed gratefully. 

Lithuanian aviation hardware

The aerodrome was also quite a contrast: similar to many in the UK; WW2 vintage hangers and a general aura of decay - and some interesting aviation hardware. Vladimir, who ran the field was in keeping - welcoming but smelling of a liquid lunch, and he delivered us to our taxi (which smelled the same) with warnings that all taxi drivers were 'terrorists'.

Klaipeda until 1945 had been called Memel and has always been disputed by someone or another being on the border between East Prussia and Lithuania, most notoriously in 1939 when Hitler stood on the balcony of the theatre and declared Anschluss with Germany in his last such act before attacking Poland. 

The balcony where Hitler declared his last Anschluss

It is an important port with a strong English connection: in 1792 nearly 800 English merchant ships visited Memel to export timber to build the fleet that then ruled the world. Memel also had its moment in the sun after the catastrophic defeat of Prussia at the hands of Napoleon at Jena in 1806 when the Prussian king and court made it their capital having been forced to abandon Berlin.

It suffered badly when the Russians and Germans fought through it at the end of the war and even worse under the USSR which has left its customary legacy of the worst of 20th century architecture - though it's pleasant enough place with good restaurants and prices half those in Sweden. 

Memel pre 1945

Klaipeda today

Our aim he been to travel down the Curonian Spit to Kalliningrad - the old Koenigsberg and capital of East Prussia - which is now a land-locked Russian enclave with all the welcome and diplomacy of the motherland: visas were not impossible - but hardly worth the three day wait - confirming the old adage that the crappier the country the more difficult it is to get into.

Curanian Spit 

The Spit was something of a disappointment. It is geographically remarkable - sixty miles long enclosing a lagoon large enough for its other side not to be visible at its widest point - but the road runs slap down the middle, hemmed in on both sides by pine forest so you see neither the lagoon nor the seaward dunes from your transport. Nida, the village/town at the Kalliningrad border was a popular seaside retreat in its Prussian heyday and Thomas Mann had a house there - but it's now a place dominated by tourists. What did not disappoint were the huge dunes - nearly 500 ft high - that feel more like the Sahara than the Baltic and from the top of which you can gaze into Russia. 

Kalliningrad in the distance

Like many such tourist spots, the Spit would be best visited in a gale in January when you would have it to yourself and be able to appreciate its elemental rawness.

Kalliningrad turned out to be an aviation pain in the neck. Flying across it was clearly neither possible nor wise. In order to get to Gdansk in Poland we would then either have to go round landward or seaward. The former was littered with thunderstorms - not conducive to aviation happiness - so that meant the alternative of a huge dogleg around the Kalliningrad airspace that juts out into the Baltic. It turned out to be a three hour trudge over water into a strong headwind to the Danish island of Bornholm that lies off the south coast of Sweden. What a paranoid and malign presence Russia is....

The next day we had planned another day of heavy flying to get us as westward as possible while the weather held out. It turned out to be unexpectedly beautiful along the Baltic coast of Germany from Peenemunde - on the Polish border where Werner von Braun honed his rocket making skills for the Nazis in the form of the V2 before going on to send Americans to the moon - all the way to Lubeck. It is a sparsely populated coast line of capes, beaches, lagoons and deltas that we are keen to visit on the ground - or even better on the water in a shallow-draft boat.

German Baltic coast

Lubeck is another Hanseatic port with all the mediaeval wealth implied - and public buildings on a magnificent scale. Even though it was bombed, there is little evidence of that - unlike most German cities - and it would have been good to have spent more time enjoying it.


Lubeck

We were planning to revisit the Frisian islands for the night but we were told by the Bremen air traffic controller that Ameland airport would be closed by the time we got there. As is often the case, the controller, who as a species you speak to in clipped aviation-speak (and this is Germany so it is even more clipped and curt than usual), turned out to be a pussy cat - and became our travel agent, recommending us to Gronigen in northern Holland. It turned out to be good diversion as it is a pretty - and large - university town where we have never seen so many bikes. What struck us was that these were all practical means of transportation, of the sit-up-and-beg variety, with baskets, back-boxes and mudguards. Contrast this with London where every bike seems to be modelled on something that Bradley Wiggins rides, ridden by Lycra-man with a streak of dirty spray up his back. Go into a bike shop in London and see how many bikes have things like chain-guards.  I know which camp I'm in - but Lycra-man would say that I'm an old fart - and he has a point.

As we travelled across Holland we realised how lucky we had been with our Baltic weather. Every field had that saturated look and most had standing water, which you only get after sustained rain. There were also huge areas of forest interspersed with sand patches indicating soil that was good for little else. My mental image of the Netherlands has always been of intense Fenland style agriculture from corner to corner - so this was unexpected - and shows the limitations of even Dutch ingenuity in reclamation.

Northern Holland

England was equally damp - as I found out when we landed in a stubble field in Kent to drop Amanda off to see her mother. At this time of year the whole of England is a landing field for our little plane. In Europe you are restricted to airfields only and the sort of Biggles aviation that I practice isn't possible. 

Nor is there the same patchwork of fields and woods that makes England a jewel that we don't appreciate enough as we hammer up and down the motorways and trainlines that, after all connect the crappy bits: look at what the M6 links together and you will get my point. Only a few miles either side of these arteries is a remarkably unspoilt England that it is the great privilege of the aviator to appreciate and love. Flying the last leg of over three thousand miles and seven countries, Alfred's Tower stood out against the sunset with the beauty of our part of Somerset spread out beyond. 

Alfred's Tower

I felt very lucky.

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