Our first destination was Texel, the first of the Frisian islands that run as a coastal barrier from just north and east of Amsterdam all the way along the Dutch and German coasts to the Elbe estuary and the Danish peninsula. They are flat and sandy and protect an inner lagoon of sandbanks and shallows that formed the backdrop for Irskine Childers’s Riddle of the Sands, the pre WWI espionage thriller, that captured the imagination of not just schoolboys in those paranoid days. If you have been to North Norfolk the landscape will be familiar – dunes and reclaimed farmland – but with Dutch style houses rather than the Norfolk variety of faux Georgian and Farrow and Ball. When we arrived into town we were told to help ourselves to a bike from behind the Tower. So far so Dutch.
The Frisians, from what we could see, are holiday destinations of the East Coast of England variety – not that high end, with much beer and more chips, spectacular beaches and dunes and a sea that does not beckon with an enticing blue. From the air they are beautiful, stretching in a long arc eastwards and enclosing a huge shallow lagoon populated by traditional Dutch sailing barges.
The following day we headed to Langeoog – which is as strange as its name suggests. It’s German and from the stream of traffic, it would seem a popular destination. We walked into the town and as we progressed we realised that there was no normal noise of the internal combustion variety. Everything was pedestrian or electric. Sounds good? Actually it’s weird.
We tracked across northern Germany along the Kiel Canal which connects Baltic and the North Sea and which, back in Kaiser Bill’s time, allowed the German Fleet to leave their private lake to the east without having to be hostage to the Swedes and Danes that control the choke point between the two seas.
Karlskrona, Charles’s Crown, is on the sea almost on the south tip of Sweden. It was founded by Charles X in 1680 as the home of the Swedish fleet that had until then been based much further north in Stockholm. The Baltic is brackish – and warm in summer as we found out on our early morning swim: the North Sea is about 12 degrees in summer compared to about 18 degrees where we were and you could drink Baltic water: it’s cheaper than Badoit and tastes the same. If you look at a map of the Baltic you will see that it’s entrance is narrow near Copenhagen which is on the same latitude as Newcastle.
The far north is just short of the Arctic Circle and fed by countless rivers from principally Finland and Sweden. Stockholm is the same latitude as the Shetland Islands and in the seventeenth century, during a period when even the Thames froze, the Swedish fleet was iced in for the winter – which was something of a disadvantage when you are the then local top dog and are having problems with the Danes. Karlskrona is set in an enchanting archipelago of islands and built with the style and beauty of the 17th and 18th centuries in a grid pattern on one of the islands. This was where we were staying.
We flew to Estonia across the width of the Baltic where we saw huge blooms of algae that looked from six thousand feet like sandbanks.
We landed at a military base near Tallin with many tanks parked around the base that are part of the NATO’s post-Ukraine build up in the region. The tension is palpable; not so much in the tourist-drowned Tallin Old Town, but amongst the Estonian military and among ordinary Estonians when we headed out on bicycles to the more Soviet era beaches along the coast. It’s not Donesk yet – but the portents are not good.
Tomorrow we head north to Finland: ultimate destination, Lapland and the Arctic Circle.
Click here to read Baltic Adventures (part 2)