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It started as I was flipping through my school atlas and scouring google maps. I noticed the northeastern part of the European Union, also known as the Baltic countries.

The three sovereign states Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia are situated on the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea. In this area, large conifer forests cover the landmass. So we decided to make it an adventure! To get there, we had to cross Germany, the Czech Republic, and Poland. We simply saw this as part of the adventure and made sure to arrange enough time for stopovers.

The Czech Republic is landlocked in Central Europe. It’s bordered by Germany to the west, Austria to the south, Slovakia to the east and Poland to the northeast. Since all routes marked as highways are subject to a road tax vignette, we stopped at the border crossing point and had one adhered to the van’s windshield. Czech roads were wide and splendidly constructed — ours led to Prague, the capital city.

Prague’s Old Town was stunningly beautiful and crowded for a reason.

With more than five million foreign tourists a year, it’s one of the ten most visited cities in Europe. We spent an afternoon walking around and getting the vibe. Afterward, we left for the quietness of nature towards the Giant Mountains.

The mountain range is part of the Sudetes mountain system and covers part of the Czech Republic, as well as part of Poland. We found an abandoned piece of land facing a hill with a couple of holiday chalets. Thanks to our van, we had our own cottage parked as a base for a proper hiking tour.

In legend, there is Rübezahl, a mountain spirit, living in the Giant Mountains. On our way up to Sněžka, the highest peak with an elevation of 1603m, we could slightly feel him around us.

When it came to Poland, we skipped Warsaw but visited Wrocław, a smaller city with colorful historical houses throughout its downtown. This turned out to be a good distance to cover during the day since we spent the night at National Parks and went for a walk through the forest. We could have even taken a river bath in the morning! Poland was huge and our van was slow.

We crossed the border to Lithuania full of anticipation.

My close friend resides there, who I got to know during the time we both lived in Iceland. However, I never dared to imagine the old van could bring us in front of her house. It was as though we lived right in her neighborhood! But there were still some hundred kilometers by potholed-filled roads, which were interrupted by a thunderstorm and chili con carne from the can.

It was quite a happy reunion!

Vita, her husband, and her young daughter invited us to their summerhouse, spending some lighthearted time in the garden and the nearby river. Slowly floating in our inflatable kayak and enjoying each other’s presence, we wished these long late summer days would never end.

In Latvia, road conditions turned worse and soon potholes changed into gravel. The van and all its interior vibrated heavily, but we absolutely recognize that the best spots are not found by the main roads. We kept following the coastline and soon stopped for a refreshing bath. The Baltic sea was calm and friendly and tasted less salty than the Atlantic Ocean. Its beaches were surrounded by super big rose hips!

In the urban areas, there are clear traces of the Soviet Union.

Russian Orthodox churches with onion-shaped roofs belong to the cityscape. Besides Baltic specialties, we tried some Russian food from this local housing complex’s supermarket. This was quite fun since most of the products they offered there had labels written in Cyrillic! 

When we finally arrived at a fabulous camp spot following another dirt road, we noticed something was off. The strong vibrations caused the alternator holder to break off and a part was hanging loose. Conifer-lined steep coast was in front of us. A picnic bench turned into our extended living room, catching the sun with a paper lantern. There was just enough time to figure out how to fix the van!

After only one day, we luckily found some helpful locals who kindly took our broken part and welded it at home. In the meantime we felt very stranded — no village around, just the sea and forest. We found out that the steep coast was all perfect clay, so we got our hands dirty!

After a couple of days, when the Latvian man finished the welding of the broken part, we installed it back into the van.

My friends even came into the forest to provide screws, bananas, and sweets. Then, we were ready to head to Riga together! We first spent a day in the capital and largest city of Latvia celebrating Vita’s birthday. Afterward, we drove into the countryside again to gather around a proper birthday campfire.

The next day we continued on our way alone, deep into Gauja National Park. We can’t say how very impressed we were by its beauty.

What we liked about this route was the variety of seaside, riverside, and forest, always peaceful and off the beaten track. The road led us up north by the coast, crossing the border to Estonia.

We visited Pärnu, a popular summer holiday resort of the locals. This is where we detected a hint of Soviet Union flair by its beaches, wooden houses, and tree-lined streets.

Estonia has some large bogs, which are nice to wander through via wooden paths. The forest suddenly clears off and trees don’t grow very high in the wet ground. Even so, the plant’s vibrant colors are still immensely impressive.

Before passing three big cities on our way back home, we spent the last days in Lahemaa National Park in Northern Estonia.

This piece of land felt wilder than any of the other places we had stayed overnight. We drove the van to the tip of the peninsula and continued by foot until we were surrounded by the Baltic Sea. That night we met our neighbors, a group from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. They were traveling in a Bürstner motor home and Toyota Land Cruiser with a roof tent! Kindly enough, they invited us in for brownies baked in a dutch oven by the fire.

Staying in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, was strange after so many days in nature. We had grown accustomed to solitude and rarely crossed anyone’s paths. We found a camp spot for two nights that was very central to the harbor — big city life!

After exploring the old town and the creative district, we took the ferry to Finland. The van was parked in the cargo area of the ship while we enjoyed the view from the deck. Even though the ferry crossing only took two hours, there was a lot of entertainment for the passengers. After spending so much time alone, we found ourselves feeling a bit of sensory overload.

Helsinki was followed by a beautiful sunset. It was far off and also the turning point of our trip. We left the hull feeling a mixture of excitement and satisfaction.

After the sneak peek of Scandinavia, our days in the Finnish capital left us super curious. But summer came to an end and our next ferry back to Germany (29 hours) was ready to put to sea.

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Instagram: @julia_schygulla

Text and Photos by Julia Schygulla