Week 46

Before we left Warsaw, I just had to be taken to the palace of gastronomic delights – aka KFC – and, of course, take a photo of the boys so they would remember the wonderful experience. They realised straightaway that with me back on my feet, the chances of such extraordinary food would be zero!!

Lithuania was our next port of call. We stopped in Vilnius, the capital, and were very pleased to find an excellent place to park within five minutes walk of the centre.

Vilnius is small for a capital city; in fact, it is only the size of a medium sized English town. This makes getting around very easy with most of it walkable. There is a mixture of old and new buildings, which for the most part, works well. The city has a very up-beat feel to it with modern restaurants, bars and shops. It would be a good place for a weekend break.

The Arkikatedra Bazilka is the focal point of the town and is a magnificent white edifice that seems to shine in sunlight.

We visited the Museum of Genocide Victims, which was as grim as the name suggests. It was used by the Lithuanian KGB during the years of Soviet occupation, for torturing confessions out of people, but they weren’t always told what they were accused of. It was a chill, macabre place with the terror still palpable in the appalling cells. People could be arrested for anti-Soviet behaviour on the basis of reports from just about anyone, including people they had fallen out with. The system was brutal and unthinking and induced terror into the citizens. A morning there was enough.

A more uplifting Soviet legacy is the sculptures on the green bridge over the Vilna River. They are magnificent in a way that only soviet monuments can be. For some reason, they all bring a lump to my throat, it must be something to do with the size and proud look on the faces, but whatever it is, it works.

The icing on the cake in Vilnius, was the laundry service. Laundry had become a major issue; in fact we had all worn all of our clothes for far too long and had had to buy more. It was located down a residential street and at first we were not at all sure that we were in the right place. When we found it, the lady who owned it was delightful and though she spoke no English we managed to sort out that we had about a ton of washing to do and that it would be ready the following day, before 6pm.

We found a campsite at Trakai, about half an hours drive away. The setting was lovely on the banks of a still frozen lake. The owner was at pains to point out that although the showers weren’t working, we could use the ones upstairs. Gary and the boys decided to try them out, but were bemused to find that they were in the man’s bedroom, still you can’t complain about that sort of service. I decided to wait…

The next day we went back to Vilnius, to do some shopping. Gary bought a model boat, mainly because the man had made it himself and Gary didn’t like to say no! A “Russian computer” - an abacus of the same sort that we had seen being used in the shops in Lviv and various other trinkets. When we saw the amber necklace, we had run out of cash, so Gary went back to the motorhome to get some more. When there, he noticed that there was a puncture in the front tyre and it was quite flat. Disaster! They are large, non-standard tyres and not easy to replace.

We went to a garage to put some air in and started the quest to find a place where it could be replaced. Not easy and we were directed all over town, each place helpfully suggesting the next place until we found someone who could do it. But they were just closing up for the night. Luckily, they took pity on us and agreed to do it anyway. It seemed that only just the very tip of the nail had gone through the tyre, so they were able to fix it quite easily, although it did take a while.

We left there at ten to six, so, if we had a clear run, we just had time to make it to the laundry. We got there about five past, but the place was entirely shut up, with not a soul in the place. We couldn’t understand it, until I noticed that there clock said five past seven. Once again, we had been caught out by a change of time zone, it made it even more amazing that the guys were prepared to work on the tyre.

Next day, (having collected the laundry early, just to make sure that there were no mistakes!) we went up the Gedimino Hill using the funicular railway, as always, it is better to have arrived than to be travelling in it. I know they are perfectly counter-balanced, perfectly safe and perfectly designed for the job, they just don’t feel like it when you are in them! The boys loved them. They also loved rolling down the near vertical grassy slopes at the top, while I kept saying pathetic things like “be careful” “watch the tree” “mind you don’t fall”, they, of course, ignored me and had a great time.

A couple of years ago we were in a restaurant and got talking to our Lithuanian waitress who recommended Nida on the Neringa peninsula, so we thought we would go there; particularly as the guidebook described it as “as close to heaven as you are likely to come”.

It is divine. We were lucky that the sun was shining, so the brightly coloured houses looked even prettier than they might have done in the rain. It is a national park, and you have to pay a fee if coming by car. You also get given a list of do’s and don’t s by a large policeman, at the point of entry. It underlines their commitment to keeping the environment intact.

Another small town (village really) on the peninsula is Juodkrante it has the most amazing wooden sculptures throughout the forest. They blended in so well, the effect was quite startling when you first realised they were there. The photographs emphasised the camouflaged effect, so the one I have picked is a detail of a larger group. At night, I imagine that it would be the most fun, most terrifying experience. I could have spent hours there.

Vilnius is a great city and I was sorry to leave, but if we are to see all that we want to, we have to keep moving.

On the road to Riga, Latvia, we noticed that the forest had huge numbers of silver birch. I took a picture, just so we would remember it, little knowing that the silver birches would be with us for another 1500 miles north and keep with us on our journey south!

Week 47

Riga is also a compact, pretty town that just happens to be the capital city. When we were there it also happened to be hosting a youth ice hockey tournament, so there were English people everywhere. It seemed very strange to hear English being spoken all around us. I wasn’t sure if I liked it – it was great being able to tune into other people’s conversations at will, but I wasn’t so sure I wanted everyone else being able to listen to what we were saying!

The main square is huge and magnificent. The first two photos show the town hall and the oddly named House of Blackheads, which was originally built in 1344 for the Blackhead’s guild of unmarried merchants, it was decimated by the Soviets in the 1940’s and rebuilt from scratch in 2000 and looks as good as new.

We visited the extraordinary Museum of the Occupation of Latvia. The Latvians have been ruled by foreign nations for most of its history, but finally gained independence on 18th November 1918. Ironically, the first nation to recognise its independence was Russia.

On 17th June 1940, the Soviet army occupied Latvia and a few months later forcibly incorporated it into the Soviet Union. On the night of 13th/14th June 1941, later known as the Night of Terror, thousands of Latvians were forced out of their homes, into cattle wagons and taken to Siberia, by train.

In 1941, Soviet occupation was replaced by Nazi rule; at first the Nazis were seen as liberators and welcomed. Ninety per cent of the Jewish population was murdered.

In 1944, the Soviets again went into occupation and by 1945 it was under total Soviet occupation.

On 25th March 1949, over forty thousand Latvians were deported to Siberia.

On 21st August 1991, Latvia again declared independence, this was recognised by the USSR in September.

Small wonder then, that the Latvians have been so keen to further its links with Europe.

Obviously the above facts are just the very bare bones of the suffering endured from Second World War and similar fates were suffered by the other Baltic States. What I found sobering, was that I had had no idea at all that such atrocities were being carried out; if the truth is known, prior to this trip, I had only the haziest idea where the Baltics were.

Despite an appalling recent history, the Latvians seem to be looking to the future and not dwelling on the past.

Riga is now a great place to visit, with a good combination of new shops and stunning architecture. They also do fantastic cakes!

We took the A1 towards Tallinn and I have to say that the countryside was less than thrilling; in fact it was mostly brown flat plains and forest. Beautiful to begin with, but it did pall after a while. I am not sure if the photos show it, but if not, just think brown!

Tallinn is another splendid Baltic capital city. The old town is walled and simply stunning. However, it is not cheap, as it has been “discovered” by just about every tour company in the world – well, certainly Europe, America and Japan and eating out was an expensive business. The main square is very picturesque and is surrounded by restaurants with outdoor seating. The weather was good while we were there and it looked fantastic.

I took the boys to the Maritime Museum and my goodness, what an experience that was. Most of the exhibits were models of boats and were behind glass. Josh was looking at one and pointed to some bit of a ship expecting me to know something about it. His finger had barely touched the glass when an imperious “DO NOT TOUCH” was barked at him. I couldn’t believe it, but there was no doubting she meant us, as we were the only ones there! A few minutes later, he pointed to something else, “DO NOT TOUCH” was again helpfully yelled at him.

I thought I would get my own back, and asked the harridan if she could explain something further about a boat that had been lost in the harbour. To my amazement she said “I don’t speak English”. The charm school had obviously only taught her two phrases – “do not touch” and “I don’t speak English”.

Not to be outdone, she then told Josh off for touching the crayons and paper apparently put out for children to draw on, instead, she hauled him off to make a paper boat – he made an aeroplane, just to show he was not completely cowed by her.

We stayed at a marvellous campsite within the grounds of the Ruunawere Hotel about half an hours drive from Tallinn. Paiva and Ismo are the new owners and they have made it into the most relaxing of places to stay, with the bonus of an enormous buffet breakfast. It was so good, we stayed for three nights instead of one. Saunas are commonplace in Finland where they come from, and they had one in the grounds together with a hot tub. The photo shows Ismo, Josh, Gary and Rory setting it up, having a great time. We had a sauna at about nine and then by eleven were sitting in the hot tub under the stars, it was fantastic.

Whilst staying with Paiva and Ismo, we went into the countryside and found a perfect spot for fishing. What could be better.

From Tallinn, we caught the ferry to Helsinki. It was simple enough, but rather rough and ready. The facilities on board were virtually non-existent, but at least they got us there!

We arrived in Helsinki to a bank holiday. This time it was the May Day celebrations and most of the population were gathered in the central square.

I hope that the photo gives some idea of the good humoured mayhem that was going on.

We were meeting Sam in Helsinki and wanted to check out the campsite – well, it was OK. What was more of a problem was where we were going to eat. We hadn’t fancied anything on the boat, not realising that, apart from in the manic centre, everywhere was closed. The man in the paper shop suggested the kebab/pizza place across the road. It looked a bit dodgy, the pizzas were superb.

Week 48

It was great to see Sam in Helsinki. To celebrate, we thought we would get some wine. A pretty simple task I thought, but I was not counting on the Finnish approach to alcohol being quite so difficult. Wine can only be bought in an Alko shop. The guide book assured me that there was one in Helsinki (one? that should have been the clue!) Gary parked in the centre of town, close to where the fabled Alko was supposed to be located. I walked round and round, asking in all the shops. Eventually, I was told that it was in the basement of Stockmann’s, the huge department store. Well, I found the basement easy enough, but still couldn’t find the Alko store. It turned out that it was through a walkway which barely visible from the actual shop. Such an effort for a couple of bottles of wine!

That night we opened a bottle of the award winning Soviet champagne we had bought in Kiev. It was truly terrible and tasted more of pear juice than anything else. I don’t think the French need worry about the competition yet!

The following morning, we did a tour of Helsinki. It was the easy way of seeing all the sights and deciding where to re-visit later. The Sibelius’ monument was amazing. It was meant to be evocative of pine trees from Finland, but many people think that it looks like organ pipes. The boys most enjoyed putting their heads up the pipes, luckily, they came back down again without injury.

It was a very popular spot with the Japanese tourists. There is a superb sculpture of Sibelius’ head and I did take some photographs of it, but unfortunately, I always got Sibelius plus an unknown Japanese person.

Another stop on the tour bus was the Church in the Rock. It was designed in 1969 by Tuomo and Timo Suomalainen and cut out of the rock. From the outside, only the roof can be seen, but inside it opens up into a massive, light church with fine acoustics. It is one of the “must see” places in Helsinki – I know that for certain, because of the number of Japanese tour buses that were there! The odd thing was that there were hardly any Japanese people around the city.

We had lunch in a very nice restaurant in the middle of town, and a Canadian lady at the next table kindly took a photograph of us all.

One of the most impressive churches in Helsinki is the Temppeliaukio in the Senate Square. It is a fabulous white building, a permanent memorial to Finland’s Russian past.

Finland occupies a position between Sweden and Russia which meant that before it gained independence, it was ruled by one or the other. It was the Russians who allowed Finnish to be the official language in, I think, 1863. Swedish remained an official language, as it still does today. That said, most Swedish people speak excellent English.

The following day, we took the ferry boat to Suomenlinna, an 18th century Swedish fortification that covers five interconnected islands. Its function was to guard Helsinki.

It was very interesting, particularly as it was spread over such a large area. There were plenty of clanking things and guns for the boys to swing on and clamber over, whilst Sam, Gary and I strolled at a more leisurely pace.

There are a number of underground caves as well. The boys loved these, but I was a bit worried that they would disappear without trace and then how would we go about finding them again?? Gary said not to worry, they would be fine. Hmmm. Just because they were fine doesn’t necessarily mean he was right…. Anyway I have included a picture of one of the entrances to the labyrinth of tunnels that lace the island.

We also visited the Orthodox Cathedral. The interior was just magnificent. The photograph of the altar and the icons, doesn’t really do justice to the awesome sight that greets you when you first walk into the church. I would love to go to a service, but am not sure of the protocol and would not wish to embarrass anyone. Perhaps we might get a chance one day, if we meet a member of the church.

On the first evening, Sam fancied trying tapas and the guide book had said that a good tapas bar was right opposite the train station. Well, we looked and looked but couldn’t find it; we asked different people and they all had very different ideas on where it might be, but the one thing they were agreed on, was that it was nowhere near the station. We ended up at a brilliant Tex Mex restaurant instead, it was full of locals which is always a good sign, and the food was delicious.

On the second evening, we were walking to the station and there, opposite, was the tapas bar, it was the red, flashing neon light that gave it away. We could not believe it, but had to go and try it out. It made a real change and we had a great time, as you can see from the photo.

On Sam’s last morning, we shopped at an enormous shopping centre that was close to the campsite. Stockmann’s was there and is a great shop to browse around in, the saying goes that if Stockmanns don’t stock it, you don’t need it! I have to say that the range of English books they had in their main branch would have to be seen to be believed. There is even a large range of children’s book, so the boys were given a free hand. Since we don’t have television, they have found that they really enjoy reading.

We felt very sorry saying goodbye to Sam at the airport and were rather quiet as we drove out of Helsinki.

Week 49

From Helsinki, we made our way through the beautiful, calm countryside of the Finnish Lakes. We were making our way up to Kajaani, when we saw a sign for camping and fishing. What a fantastic find. The campsite is run by a couple and the quality of the facilities and the location is just perfect.

Unfortunately, I have to confess that despite turning the motorhome upside down for the last half an hour, I cannot find the postcards they gave the children or anything else that tells me the name of it. I have obviously put everything in a safe place, safe even from me. Talk about frustrating. It is one of our top campsites and all I can say is that the entrance has a large fish sculpture over it.

Hurrah - at last I have found it, a mere 10 years later it is LOHIRANTA The website address in www.lohiranta.com Definately worth a visit! We were able to take a boat out on to the lake and the first picture shows Gary, the boys and the boat, but they are so far away, you can’t see them in the small picture, but it was idyllic.

In addition, there were three ponds stocked with fish that the children could fish at in safety. Josh even managed to get a fish! The children were perfectly happy to sit and fish by themselves for hours. The weather was hot and life was good.

We even had the curious Finnish licensing laws explained to us. Gary went to buy four bottles of beer from the bar, for us to drink with our meal in the motorhome. But, they only had a licence to sell beer for consumption on the premises and this specifically meant they couldn’t sell it for drinking in the motorhome 20 yards away. Also, in Finland, you are not permitted to sell more that one drink at a time, to a person who must be present at the time the order is placed – so double whiskies are out; unless that is you are part of a large group, when a bottle of spirit can be put on the table. You also can’t order a drink for a friend you are meeting in the bar, until they have arrived. Gary offered to buy the owner a drink, but no, a barman is not allowed to drink any alcohol while working. Plain–clothed inspectors tour the bars to make certain that the rules are complied with and wrongdoers can be severely punished.

This caused something of a dilemma, as our supper was ready, we couldn’t easily go to the bar to drink the beer and then hotfoot back to the motorhome, and we couldn’t buy it and take it to the motorhome. I am pleased to say that a solution was found, but you will have to guess what it was!!

It was to be Mother’s Day on the following Sunday and the lady gave me a pair of hand knitted woollen socks made by her mother, as a Mother’s Day present. This is a first class place to stay and as soon as I find the details, I will update this page.

From there, we continued north, and stopped for the night beside a river, that also had a safe place for the boys (big and small) to fish.

As we headed further north, we started to see reindeer. They would typically be found in clearings beside the road. As you can see from the photo, they can be found very close to the road. They only have antlers in the winter, so at this time of year, look rather strange to our eyes, which are used to seeing them only with their antlers. The lady at Santa Claus’ village explained that they only fly on Christmas Eve, so we were a bit early to see that.

We stayed in Rovanamei, which is a couple of miles south of the Arctic Circle and the capital of Lapland. The bridge across the river is magnificent, though the town itself is rather uninspiring. There is a café with a pinball machine though that we spent a happy half hour feeding our habit.

We also went to the Arktikum Museum, but unfortunately, most of it was closed for refurbishment, though there was a section on Panamanian Indians that was good.

Of course we had to go to Santa Claus’ village and have our pictures taken on the Artic Circle. The one of Rory came out best, so that is the one I have included. It is a fun place to visit and we were lucky that it was almost deserted, so not only did the boys have a long visit with Santa Claus, he also signed their pictures personally!

The weather was so good in Rovanamei that we decided to head further north to Inari, which truly is Lapland. It was about 150 miles, from memory, but the road was good and there was hardly any other traffic, in fact, over the whole journey, I doubt that we saw fifty cars. We did see plenty of trees and reindeer though and it was a spectacular journey.

The temperature did drop as we drove up there, but only by a few degrees, which surprised me, as I thought it would be snowy all year round.

Inari is only a small place, no more than a village really, but it is home to the famous Siida Museum which is devoted to the life of the Sami people. There were no campsites open and indeed no people around when we arrived, so we camped in a local car park overnight.

Gary was first up in the morning and the first thing I heard him say was “Oh No, we are snowed in!” “Very funny” I thought. But I was not inwardly amused for long. There was about four inches of snow on the ground and we do not have winter tyres. We had breakfast and then decided to try and make it to the museum. Although it was a bit slippery, we made it out of the car park and along the road the short distance to the museum.

It is a great museum and there is also an open air section that sounded very good, but it was very cold and snowing, so we assumed (without making any real enquiries!) that that part was closed.

The rest of it was very good and the restaurant excellent. The boys were thrilled to be able to go and play in the snow. Rory made a large snow ball and they generally had great fun. Gary and I got talking to the cook, saying how we couldn’t believe the change in the weather overnight, from fairly warm to freezing snow. She looked perplexed; she didn’t think it was cold at all and she wouldn’t really call it snow. Up to this point, I had assumed that she was sane, but now I had my doubts…..not cold?.....not snow?.... Then she explained that it could really only be called “snow” when it was several feet deep and “cold” was minus 50; anything above minus 10 was “warm” and anything above plus 10 was “hot”. This was spring, no real snow and warm. So that explained it!! She wasn’t mad, just pragmatic.

We made our way back to Rovanamei as one day of Spring was enough for us, especially as more non-snow was forecast. We camped in the car park at Santa Claus’ Village. The rain and sun provided an unmissable photo-opportunity for the motorhome – it was briefly the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow!

Week 50

We had had a fantastic time in Finland, but it was time to move on and make our way down the Swedish coast. I had no idea that it was so long, I heard tell of 2000kms and it must be all of that.

Getting gas for heating and cooking was our first priority, as we had been unable to get any in Finland and were running low. Although the weather showed signs of improving, it still wasn’t warm enough to go without any heating. We had a very rudimentary map from the internet, but unfortunately it didn’t have many place names on it, so we had to take a guess that the first place that sold gas was in Pitea. It is only a small town, so we asked at a garage if there was a place that sold autogas in the area – completely blank looks – it was clear that they weren’t even sure what autogas was. My spirits sank as we really thought that we would be able to buy it there. Then, by a happy coincidence, there was a taxi driver in the queue and he said if I would wait until he’d paid, he would take us there. We would never have found it on our own. What a star that man is!

The first town that we looked around was Sundsvall. It has lots of shops but was short on museums; the boys didn’t really hide their delight! The Tourist Information there is first rate. They speak English and are very happy to do all they can to help. We were not sure if it would be OK to stay in the car park overnight, so they phoned the Council Offices to find out, but they were shut, so we decided it would be all right. There is even a free internet point there. It is so nice to come across people who seem to enjoy sorting out the tourists who pass through their doors, even if it is bang on closing time!

The following night we went to the local campsite as they had washing machines!! The site was right on the beach and the boys could do rock climbing which they loved. The first picture shows just how lovely it was.

From there we moved on to Hudiksvall and found another perfect Tourist Information. The lady could not have been more helpful. There is a play workshop for children where they can use proper tools and equipment, she thought that the boys might like it …she was right. Once again, we were there at closing time, so she gave us all the information and we decided to go there in the morning. Although the entrance was in the adjacent street, there was a back door into it from the Tourist Information and she let us have a quick look round, it looked even better than she had described. It is so good to find someone so helpful, making a real effort to suggest something a particular visitor might find interesting, instead of just handing out the standard leaflets.

We all had a lovely morning. The boys went to the workshop, initially with Gary, (but he then sloped back to the Tourist Information via the side door to use the internet) and had a great time hammering and sawing.

I think that I had the best time of all. I went to the Museum. It is the most welcoming museum I have ever been to. In what would normally be the entrance lobby, there was a small enticing café – there was not the slightest feeling of a municipal canteen about it. I would gladly meet friends for coffee there every day of the week. The man at the desk was friendly and helpful, giving a brief overview of what could be seen in the museum and a useful starting point.

There was a very interesting photograph exhibition upstairs ranging from still landscapes to modern pictures taken inside a make-do photo booth. It was arranged in such a way that you were led through the artwork in such a way that I found myself feeling quite excited about what might be around the next corner – a contrast to my usual feelings of “where am I now” and “how am I going to get out!”

The main part of the museum was equally well displayed and the handicrafts exhibition was fantastic. I don’t know how they managed to create such a good ambience. Even though all the explanations were in Swedish, the exhibits were so well displayed they were really interesting.

As if that wasn’t enough, the curator was kind enough to give me a few pointers on Swedish history, the Falun copper mine (which funded the Swedish expansionist plans) and why Norway gets to award the Nobel peace Prize while Sweden does the rest. (There was a union of the countries, with Sweden being the dominant partner).

Although it is only a small town, I cannot recommend it highly enough. The third picture shows some of the architecture of the town.

We had another treat to come in Sweden. A family had read about us in a motorhome magazine and on the spur of the moment, invited us to come and have a beer and barbecue with them, little knowing that at the time they e mailed us, we were in Finland, virtually on their doorstep!

We felt a little nervous driving up to their house, wondering what they might be like, but as soon as I met them, I liked them. Lars-Erik and Mari were so welcoming; it felt like home to us straightaway. The boys could not believe their luck, not only did they have free access to the internet but they had two dogs to play with (one each!).

As the weather was cold and rainy, Mari substituted what she called “fast food” for the barbecue (thank goodness - I am not a hardy soul) it was a fantastic meal of baked salmon, homemade wedge potatoes and salad.

Later that evening, we took the dogs for a walk or rather I should say that they took us. Rory was in charge of the puppy. Luca, it was fantastic to see them careering off together without a care in the world. Josh, being the oldest, took Grim, Luca’s father who was four years old, and they really got on well together.

The following day we went to the Falun Copper Mine. Copper has been mined there at least since 1288. At one time, it produced two thirds of the world’s copper and the wealth it produced made Sweden a world power.

We did a tour of the mine in English with Hetta, who was from the perfect guide school; she gave us enough information to be interesting in bite sized pieces.

In June 1687 disaster struck and two large pits collapsed leaving a massive crater which remains today. Miraculously, no miners were killed as it was a holiday.

Enormous amounts of wood was needed in the mine, for fires that would the surface of the ore to break away and extracted. The wood was brought down the mine shaft in enormous buckets. When the miners went up to another level, they might be lucky enough to get on a passing bucket. They then had to stand on the outside of the bucket and if no-one was there to grab the bucket they had to try and swing it in and jump – rather them than me- if they missed it was an awful long way down.

The local legend is known as Fat Mats – his preserved body was found in the mine by stunned miners, in 1719. It was discovered that he was Mats Israelsson who had disappeared in 1677. His body was identified by his then fiancée, who had spent many along year awaiting his return!

We had such a good time at the copper mine we didn’t get back to Lars-Erik and Mari until five o’clock.

For supper we had the famous Falun sausage and elk meatballs – they were delicious. It was so good to be able to sit around the table and chat with them. We found out a lot about Swedish life and how it compared to English life. It felt as if we had known them all our lives.

The next day, Mari and I went to the Carl Larsson Museum. He is one of the most famous Swedish artists, and his wife Karin was reknowned for her textiles and furniture design. It was a really interesting afternoon. The menfolk got the bikes sorted out and back into working order, almost, after the ravages of the winter.

We were also taken to see the terrifying ski jump they have in Falun, how anyone has the courage to launch themselves off it, I do not know!!

We were very sorry to say good bye to them, but hope that they will come and see us in England in the autumn. Mari is a really good cook, I think I had better get practising!

Week 51

On 22nd April, we arrived in Stockholm and found a really good campsite at Bredang. It had a great Thai restaurant on site, it made a real change. The boys also ate well there, probably because the owner rewarded enthusiastic eating with brightly coloured sweets that turned out to have a chewing gum centre – the words high as a kite, come to mind!

It was a simple train ride into the centre, which also made life a lot easier. Stockholm is made up of seven islands, so it is a city of bridges and water which makes it feel very pleasant. There are also plenty of wide open spaces, which give it a light airy feel.

We started off in Gamla Stan, the old town, which is home to the Royal Place, (winter residence of the Swedish royal family), the Nobel Museum and any number of shops selling Swedish souvenirs. We were walking down the Vasterlanggatan, the main tourist street, when Josh spotted a man doing henna tattoos, just what he has always wanted, he assured us. There was no way that Rory was going to be left out of the proceedings, so we had two boys wanting tattoos, so Gary felt a discount coming on. After doing patch tests (you know how uncool mothers can be!!) and establishing that the money was definitely coming out of their pocket money, they were on! The picture shows Josh being brave, he wasn’t sure if the syringe had a needle in it or not – not.

Lars-Erik had recommended the Vasa Museum, home to the ship of the same name, which sank inside the harbour in 1628, but before going there, we decided to take to the waters ourselves in a pedal boat. Gary and Josh volunteered for pedalling duties, which proved far more arduous than they ever guessed, whilst I was in charge of warning about impending doom and stating the bloomin’ obvious – “there is a large ship heading straight for us, do something quickly” etc etc- as you can see from the photos, Rory just relaxed in the sunshine and let us get on with it.

We eventually arrived at the Museum and were able to look at the magnificent Vasa. It was the most expensive and lavish Swedish naval vessel of its time and it sank on its maiden voyage, mostly due to a design fault that did not allow for sufficient ballast to be carried and the impatience of King Gustavus II. It was so well preserved, it was able to float unaided after she was brought up to the surface.

The Museum is full of interesting facts and figures the part I found the most fascinating was the re-creation of faces from the skeletons. “Adam” was scarily brought to life and frightened the life out of me when I first saw his head in a glass cabinet. I took some photos, but they didn’t come out well, unfortunately, but he was eerily realistic.

The next day, was set aside for art culture. First we went to the National Museum of Art, where they have a magnificent collection, including frescoes by Carl Larsson, on the walls of the staircases. We had a comprehensive audio guide in English, the thing is we didn’t necessarily want to know every last detail about the paintings, a few highlights would have been fine. Perhaps museums should do different grades of guide, from duffers to highbrow. I also think that a children’s guide would be a real boon.

After about half an hour, I could see that the boys’ interest levels were dropping, so we went over the bridge to the Modern Art Museum in Skeppsholmen. As you can see from the photo, the entry gardens are splendid. Inside they have one of Andy Warhol’s Marilyns. I tried to explain to the boys about how people can be almost de-humanised and turned into a product and they listened politely, who knows if they will remember, or whether it matters whether they do or not. They liked the spark of electric current in a very long tube that went from one end to the other and back again, that meant nothing to me at all.

As if the poor children had not been subjected to enough already, we then took them to the Nobel Museum. They were pleased to see their old friend Einstein prominently displayed, in fact the museum was almost entirely devoted to him. There was clever picture show based on a children’s playground that sought to explain Einstein’s various theories, but frankly they were way beyond me, maybe the children understood, they certainly stood mesmerised in front of it for long enough

From Stockholm, we drove all the way across Sweden to Oslo, which would be our only stop in Norway. Again, we arrived in time for a Bank Holiday, so everywhere was shut, except the museums. To avoid mutiny in the ranks, we didn’t tell the boys that we were going to another museum, but said we were going to an Intech 2000 (the excellent science museum by any other name in Winchester). It was great brilliant and we were handed a booklet in English giving explanations of the exhibits and experiments, but if it had been on the walls it would have been easier. One amazing experiment was moving a ball towards you, by mind power, and there is a picture of the boys doing it. Their brain activity is shown on a monitor and the levels of concentration were amazing, previous users had been mid-range, Rory’s chart shot off the chart straight away and the ball rolled towards him, when Josh realised what was happening, his too went off the chart, talk about competitive!

Oslo is a nice town, but not startlingly great. The TV Tower was quite spectacular though, so I’ve included a picture.

From there, we headed down the coast, back into Sweden to the picturesque fishing village of Grebbestad. Having got the bikes sorted out while we with Lars Erik, taking advantage of his fantastically equipped garage/workshop, we were able to cycle into the village and have a look round.

The campsite had a laundry so you can guess what I was doing most of the evening! Sad to say, but I get quite excited at the prospect of a well-equipped laundry room. This one even had an iron, though I only used it to dry off part of Gary’s t shirt that had got tangled up in the dryer and had wet patches.

We were undecided how to get to Denmark, whether to go over the bridge from Malmo to Copenhagen or to get the ferry from Gothenburg to Fredrikshaven, but the appearance of windy weather made us plump for the ferry. It was a Stena Line ship, so was of a very high standard that included a play area with computer games, so the boys were happy. Gary and I sat and played Gin Rummy, like a pair of old fogeys!!

Week 52

Our first stop was Skagen, on the northern tip of Jutland, where the North Sea meets the Baltic Sea. We stayed just a few yards from the beach, where there were the skeletal remains of large German defence bunkers that must have once been home to long range guns. The boys thought that they had landed right in the middle of their own Famous Five adventure, as they clambered over the rocks into the entrance. The first one was quite boring, just a large room, now covered in graffiti.

Then, they spotted another one with a very small entrance, which had been made by erosion, either by the sea, or by people wanting to pick their way in. I told them not to go in, but then Gary said something, and both I and the children thought that he had said it would be OK. Gary went back to the motorhome and the boys went into the bunker. If you look carefully at the first picture, you might be able to make out the entrance hole with Josh about to go in. The bottom of the hole was hip height to Josh and it was about as wide as his shoulders.

They hadn’t been inside more than two minutes when the blood curdling screams began! Rory screaming because he was hurt and Josh screaming because he was so frightened as to how badly Rory was hurt. In normal circumstances, the hole would have been too small for me to have gone through, but the sound of the children screaming and crying had an amazing effect. I got stuck half way, but with an enormous final effort, I shot into the bunker, the awful burning sensation was confirmation that I had pulled a muscle, so could only limp towards Rory slowly. Josh then rushed over to help, slipped and gashed his knee on a rock. In less than three minutes, three of us were hurt!

Rory’s injuries were a bruised and battered shin and a cut and bruised back, but he managed to get out of the hole and sat down near the entrance, crying his eyes out.

Josh got out, putting a brave face on his battered knee, so to speak.

I was stuck. I couldn’t lift my leg to get any purchase on the ledge to get out. Josh went to get Gary. I can’t tell you how pleased he was to leave the motorhome unlocked to come and get me out, amidst a wail of children, when, he was adamant he had told the boys not to go anywhere near the bunker!!

A passing American tourist came over to see what was going on and got the job of pulling me out head first whilst Gary supported my legs from within. I got out far more slowly than I had got in and limped back to the motorhome with a husband in a huff to the front and sobbing children bringing up the rear!

In the afternoon, we went to see the meeting of the waters. As it was quite a windy day, it was a spectacular sight, with the two seas crashing together with great gusto.

We made our way down the spectacular coastal road of western Denmark. The road was almost deserted and so we could enjoy the spectacular sand dunes without interruption. You can see from the picture that the boys had great fun sliding down them. They were lucky to find a sheltered bit, as in the wind was keen. I thought that I would walk down to the beach and got my face sand blasted for my troubles. I could only walk with my eyes three quarters shut because of the huge amount of sand that was whipped up into the air. I didn’t go far!

From there, it was only a short drive to Legoland. Josh won’t be back until after his birthday, so we decided to spend a day in Legoland as a birthday treat. We had a fantastic day. Josh had the honour of being the first child in Legoland that day and Rory was the second, so the day got off to a good start.

The children are big enough to go on all the rides by themselves, so although we went on them for the first few times, they could also go on their own. The picture is of the two of them on the Dragon Rider, just before it comes to a stop. They are looking at each other, I think just to check that all visible parts are still intact!

The weather was overcast and inclined to drizzle, but at least it meant that we could go on all the rides as often as we wanted without having to queue. There was also a new 4D cinema – ie 3D with things dropping from the ceiling and the like, it was very effective and great fun. Best of all, the viewing glasses have been improved beyond all belief and don’t pull your eyes in ten different directions at once, any more.

A few weeks ago, we asked the boys which place they would like to go back to, to round off the trip. Ribe, the oldest town in Denmark, was their choice, because of the fishing they could do at the campsite. At Storkesoen, they have four lakes stocked for fishing, in a peaceful, but not isolated, setting. One of the lakes is just for children, where the water is fairly shallow near the edge.

They have had a lovely time and we have only been here one day!

Josh excelled himself and caught four trout, which we had for tea. He was thrilled to bits. Rory couldn’t wait to start having a good look at the poor fish and was amazed at the size of its mouth – huge – as you can see.

Gary had the job of gutting them, but promised that they could do it themselves next time.

Rory also managed to land a couple of fish, a perch and a roach.

To top it all, a journalist from the local paper is coming to talk to them. I had told the owner that we had come back, because its was the boys favourite place of the tour and she asked if they would talk to the reporter. Would they!!

Week 53

We had bought Josh and Rory a permit for twenty hours of fishing, which we thought would be ample, but it turned out to be barely enough. It was all they wanted to do. Gary was on hand to sort out tangled lines and to put a final end to any fish that were caught – what a great time he had!

After the fish had been caught, they had to be gutted, Gary was so pleased he had bought a new gutting knife in Rovaniemi and there was I thinking it was just another useless gadget! Both Josh and Rory were shown how to gut a fish properly and to clean it thoroughly ready for cooking. They were very keen to be shown, but were surprised at how difficult it was, not to say messy, but they managed. They were particularly interested in identifying the innards of the fish and I just wish that either Gary or I had been a bit more knowledgeable, one bit looks much like another to me.

The local reporter and photographer arrived, as promised, and interviewed the children and photographed them at the big lake, which was great for them as they only had permits for the smaller lake. By luck the newspaper came out the following day, so we were able to buy a few copies to take home with us, it was all in Danish, but the picture was lovely.

A kilometre from the campsite is the Viking Centre and Josh and Rory were really keen to go back there, so we did. Outside, is a magnificent wooden sculpture of Past Present and Future which I really liked, so I thought I would put a photograph for you to see it.

I was surprised at how much the boys remembered of the previous visit, even down to the name of the falcon in the flying display! They couldn’t wait to go off and grind the flour and make wooden pegs. It showed us how much they have grown up over the past year. Now, they didn’t need us with them to show them how to do things, they were much happier working it out on their own. Gary and I actually sat and had a cup of tea on our own.

There is a new section at the Viking Centre, where they are trying to extract iron ore from the earth. It has become one man’s project to find out how it was done. The earth is heated up and the iron rich soil becomes red. This red soil can be used as a dye. This was then to be heated in an oven and the iron formed into a piece of metal that could be worked. There is obviously a lot more to it, but that was the general idea. We saw the red earth and it was a very vivid colour, quite extraordinary.

One of the things that really make me shudder are dead birds with their feathers still on. I don’t know what it is about them, but they really make me cringe. So, you can imagine how I felt when we were in the Viking manor house and lady was dusting using a bird’s wing. How horrible is that. She said that it was surprisingly effective and a good shape to work with, much better that a conventional modern duster. Frankly, no matter how good it was, I wouldn’t be able to even pick it up, just seeing it made my skin crawl, but if you are made of stronger stuff, and happened to have a wing or two lying around, you could give it a try.

From Ribe, we were heading to Sprendlingen, to the Euramobil factory, to get a few running repairs done on the motorhome, not least, a new glass top for the cooker, which smashed when a plastic cup fell out of the cupboard on to it. The cup showed no damage whatsoever!

On the way through, we passed through Hanover, which I thought was a historic town that we would enjoy. Well, I must have been thinking of somewhere else! It is a very modern city, with the usual shops and restaurants, but nothing that would really make us go back again. After four hours, we felt that we had seen all we needed to. Quite possibly, we were simply in the wrong part of town, but as we couldn’t even find a tourist information centre, we left none the wiser.

There was one stunning piece of street art, the enormous coloured cube, which you can see in the picture. It was very striking because there was nothing around it except for rather ordinary shops and offices.

The other highlight was a bookshop with a good selection of children’s books in English. The children were given free rein and came out with a pile of books each. They were so pleased to have something new to read.

It was Josh’s eleventh birthday of 10th June, so we spent the weekend at Bad Sobernheim, a very pretty town, near Sprendlingen.

On Friday, we went into the town and just looked around. There is a picture of the main square, but the whole town is also very picturesque.

I had been trying to get some more Famous Five books for Josh’s birthday, but obviously they are not stocked in German bookshops. There was a small bookshop there and on the off chance I asked about the books, they said they could have them in by eleven o’clock the next morning, and did, what a fantastic service!

For his birthday present, Josh chose a rifle cap gun, as if he doesn’t have enough guns and cap guns in particular. There was a time when we had a strict no guns policy in the family, what a long time ago that seems now!!

Rory bought him a Bionicle with a bit that flies.

Josh could hardly sleep with the knowledge that when he woke up he would be eleven! He did eventually drop off and woke up very early, but not as early as Rory who crept into our bed to find out where I had hidden Josh’s presents so he could get them out ready for when he woke up!

The picture, taken at 6.48, shows Josh making up the Bionicle and Rory trying out the rifle.

Josh had been very keen to be back in England for his birthday, so we tried to make it a good day for him, starting off with Coco Pops for breakfast, it doesn’t get much better than that! (Apparently it tastes much better than muesli – what a surprise!

I went and collected the Famous Five books, as a surprise present, but had no luck with a birthday cake - the Coco Pops would have to do!

We went back to the Barefoot Park, the lovely three and a half kilometre walk, through freezing mud, a river, large stones, small stones, bark, a rope bridge and various wooden structures. Great fun.

In the evening, we had a barbecue and watched a film.

There hadn’t been time for a game of mini-golf, so we did that the next morning, before the sun got too hot.

One peculiar thing about being there, was that there was an enormous amount of seeds floating in the breeze. There was so much, that if the weather had been different, you might have thought that it was snowing. The seeds were like flimsy pieces of cotton wool and lay thickly on the ground. Very odd!

Week 54

Ten years later I am finally making the last entry... We came back to England, settled back into our life in a small Hampshire village. The boys went back to school and to my relief, had kept up with their peers. Even now we will be reminded of our momentous trip around Europe., the places we saw and the people we met. Mari and Lars-Erik are still friends and we were delighted to spend midsummer in Torsang with them last summer. The boys are now 21 and 18 and all grown up. I found the details of the fabulous campsite in FInland Lohiranta to be found at www.lohiranta.com. Happy Days Gary and I have just bought another motorhome and will be doing our own Europe tour starting in the autumn. If you see us along the way, do say hello. Bye, Sally x