RockAroundTheWorld Retrospective – The 2004-5 Big Trip part 1: Around the Baltic in 80 Days

We first coined the phrase “RockAroundTheWorld” in 2004 when Helen and I took the tumultuous decision to have a “grownup gap-year”, take the kids (aged 8 and 10) out of school, and head around the world on a 12 month road trip. Mobile data was harder to come by in those days, and “smart phones” weren’t so smart, so our “Mk I Blog” consisted of the occasional blurry snapshot e-postcard.
Our trip coincided with the enlargement of the EU, on 1 May 2004, with the simultaneous accessions of the following countries: Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovaki, and Slovenia. It seemed an opportune time to visit and extend our welcome in person, as well as perhaps experiencing these marvellous cultures before they were potentially changed.
We concocted an ambitious itinerary which took in 8 of these (Malta and Cyprus didn’t really fit the route, which reminds me that we need to add Cyprus to our post-lockdown to-do list): by taking advantage of the Tallinn-Helsinki ferry we could circumnavigate The Baltic Sea and also visit Finland, Norway and Sweden thus completing pretty much the whole EU tick-list.It’s hard to do justice to a 10,000 mile continental circuit in a single blog post, but here goes…
After a blast across Germany and a quick look in at the Frankenjura, we headed north east into the Czech Republic to check out the legendary sandstone towers. The local ethic of limited protection from knotted rope jammed into cracks supplemented by the occasional rusty doorknocker “bolt” meant we scurried away fairly quickly, but the outstanding (and incredibly cheap) beer, spacious but “gulag-style” campsite and friendly welcome will live long in the memory. Prague was an extraordinarily cosmopolitan contrast, twice as expensive but we still dined like royalty in a castle for the price of a pub lunch.
Heading south into Slovenia we crossed the Julian Alps… to the picture postcard resort of Bled (now one of Europe’s most sought after wedding venues I believe) … and on to the climbing Mecca of Osp. There’s plenty of climbing in Eastern Europe, and we’ve sampled a fair bit on subsequent trips, but Osp and it’s steeper sister Misja-Pec are the standout venues in terms of genuine world class status. (https://rockaroundtheworld.co.uk/category/eastern-europe/slovenia/) , There’s everything from multi-pitch Big(ish) Walling to super-steep test-pieces, and a smattering of accessible routes for mortals. Be warned that the grades are really tough, as are the local climbers – I’ve never seen so many people climbing grade 8s in one place. The campsite is one of those spots at the crossroads of the global climbing ley-lines and attracts like minded folk from all over the world (including Spuz and Shirley on this occasion!) After an unplanned seaside stopover in Croatia (while Helen recovered from salmonella – you might notice her especially svelte look in the remaining pics!) we were back on the road for a whistlestop detour into Hungary to visit Budapest and Lake Balaton… … before heading north through Slovakia and into Poland. The Tatra mountains were cloaked in mist and drizzle, and our schedule didn’t allow us to wait for a break in the weather, so that’s another area on the “must come back” list. The weather also didn’t encourage dwelling for long in Poland, but we did make an absolutely harrowing visit to Auschwitz which made a deep impression on all of us. A happier memory is the Polish Lake District – fabulous scenery:Heading through the Baltic States we sampled the Gothic splendour of Vilnius and Tallinn, as well as sampling beach-life “Baltic-style”It’s fair to say that the expression “Baltic” used to refer to freezing cold weather doesn’t line up with our experience of the reality!
Tallinn is also the departure point for the ferry to Helsinki – just a couple of hours across the water but an extraordinary leap from Eastern Europe into Scandinavia. Helsinki is a thoroughly modern city with some surprisingly urban climbing not too far out of town. Very much a “local” venue (think Hobson Moor) but it did provide our first encounter with the locals and the first of numerous instances of random acts of kindness we were to experience throughout Scandinavia but especially in Finland.
There’s better climbing further north in Finland (eg Oulu and Olhava) but the trip is worth it just for the stunning lakes and fairytale castles. A bit further north and another weather myth busted – here we are crossing the Arctic CircleWe were a month after the solstice but as we headed further north we started to wonder if we might be able to catch a glimpse of the midnight sun. A bit of “back of an envelope” trigonometry and some map trawling (to find an uninterrupted view due north over the sea) suggested that we might just be in with a chance…
Sure enough, we found the perfect spot. On to the Lofoten Islands and a climbing paradise set amidst stunning sea-to-summit scenery, dotted with cute fishing villages. Single pitch seaside cragging on the well-named Paradiset,
to the 500m jewel in the crown of Vestpillaren, with its outstanding Direct – a dozen pitches of awesome granite, each one a 3-star classic in its own right, and as a combo perhaps the best E1 in the world? We timed our trip to meet up with Jim and a Mynedd meet, who provided great company They even remained friendly as we supped our 30p bottles of smuggled Polish beer as they sipped on their £6 Norwegian pints!
The other uber-classic Lofoten route is the Svolvaer Goat – a two-pronged pinnacle, with a summit accessed by a 5-pitch 5+ (about VS?) followed by the crux which is the jump from one horn to the next. Great fun, though reportedly half of one of horns has since fallen off.
All too soon it was time to leave on our journey south, and looking back from the ferry at the wall of granite spires it’s hard to think of a more impressive seascape. We’ve recently been reminded of the stunning scenery watching the Norwegian thriller TWIN on the BBC  http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000hqn4 via @bbciplayer
The Norwegian E6 coastal road is a fabulous journey in itself and more so because of the ethos of access and free wild-camping enshrined in Allemannsretten (meaning “everyman’s right”). This even extends to providing free firewood (and usually an axe to chop it!) at free campgrounds. Our last climbing before crossing
into Sweden was the appropriately named Hell, just north of Trondheim. Viciously steep! More climbing in idyllic woodlands in northern Sweden was followed by a visit to Stockholm – a beautiful city built across 14 islands; expect bridges, fjords and boats, and surprisingly quite a lot of climbing. Our favourite spot was fjord-side, with a refreshing dip very welcome between routes on a toasty day. Beyond that, things flatten out somewhat across Denmark (the only blessing being that we could finally restock on Camping Gaz having cooked on a trangia for the last couple of weeks) as we sped back to Blighty for a quick pit-stop and changeover ahead of Part 2 of our Big Trip. Watch this space for another RockAroundTheWorld Retrospective!
Postscript: it’s hard to write this, recalling memories of the joy of unity and diversity we witnessed during our “EU Enlargement” tour. At that point it would have been impossible to imagine the wilful act of social, political, cultural and economic self-harm represented by Brexit. Happy memories but sad feelings.

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