Tag Archives: military

Spain – Guernica & Gorbeiako Parke Naturala

We slept well after our night run in Bilbao and lazily packed up to head the 35 minutes east to visit the rebuilt town of Guernica, or Gernika in the local language.   The morning was light with clear skies, making bright a town with a tormented history.  Not many historic buildings remain due to extent of bombing raids during the Spanish Civil War.

Guernika - Nicky on bridge

Guernika (Henry Moore Sculpture)

Guernika (Central cathedral)

We reached the Parque de los pueblos de Europa, where we walked on leafy paths by a trickling stream, ending in a grassy meadow where several sculptures sat. Henry Moore and local Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida had both created works to pay homage to the trials of the people of Guernica.  The Moore sculpture was an abstract figure wrapped in shell-like shapes, representing the deep instinct of individuals to seek comfort, refuge, protection, refuge, the primordial urge to feel safe.  It seemed poignantly appropriate.  We passed the cathedral and market square, mostly untouched in the bombings, and walked through the currently empty market square, gently exploring at a slow pace.

Guernika (main square)

We visited the Assembly House of Gernika, the historical seat of Basque power since the Middle Ages.  The highest governing body in the region, the Assembly House is seen as a living symbol of the history of the Basque people.  Its oval Assembly meeting room, plush with red cushioned benches and portraits of previous leaders, is where Plenary meetings of the current General Assembly occur.  Outside, the Tree of Gernika, a symbolic oak tree, is planted within a small formal garden in front of a neo-classical portico.  The ceiling of a large function room tells the history of the oak tree and how it is intrinsically connected to the Basque people, as a place of meeting and discussion.

The old trunk, planted around 1700 CE, is the oldest surviving remains of previous tree incarnations.  It was replaced by a successor in 1860, and that tree lived through two World Wars and a Civil War, surviving until 2015.   The trunk of the old tree, the one planted in 1860 and survivor of the bombing raids, is now stood proud within a circular stone portico in the grounds.  A new tree replacing this historic one was planted in 2015, at 15 years old, as a symbolic continuation of the Basque spirit, renewed by each new generation, but never changing nor faltering.

Guernika (Stained Glass ceiling)

We had thought to overnight in Gurnika and see the celebrated Monday morning market, but it was still early and we didn’t feel the love for the car-park aire, so we headed off south.  We stopped briefly in Artea for a bite of lunch, where we were bravely approached by two 8yo Spanish girls curious about us, and after our first greetings in Spanish we had them practising simple English (Where are you from?  What is your name?) with us.  Less than a mile later we stopped again in Areatza, walking along the river through a pretty square to visit a tourist office that was unhelpfully closed until 4pm. So again, back in Benny and through steep-sided rolling countryside bright with rusty autumn colourings, similar to Limousin where we now live, except with fields here were full of sheep rather than cows.  We reached Gorbeiako Parke Naturala on tiny, single track roads, expecting the visitor centre parking to be empty.  Instead, it was mostly full, with dog and hillwalkers, campers, motorhomers and picnickers all around the ample parking area.  After some deliberation we choose a spot and parked up, then visited the Interpretation Centre for a look at their exhibits.

Gorbeiako Parke Naturala (a brief moment of sunshine)

Gorbeiako Parke Naturala (valley view)

Late at night we could hear jangling bells, and although we could see nothing in the darkness we assumed a large wind chime must be hung in the trees nearby.  We could see no sign of anything in the morning light and it was much later that we decided it may have been a flock of rogue sheep sneaking around, as the flocks on the hills all made similar sounds.  Today we planned to climb to Gorbeia, the natural park’s highest point at 1482m.  We were parked at around 640m, so we only had an ascent of around 850m to contend with.

The route was a rather dull path, a driveable, gravel road for most of the way,  and low cloud prevented us seeing much of a view.  We grasped occasional glimpses of the tree-lined valleys to each side during short breaks in the cloud cover, but only for a few seconds at a time.  We passed a few hardy long-haired horses and a lot of grazing sheep, many wearing the tinkling bells we had heard throughout the night. Combined with the browning bracken, pine trees, prickly gorse bushes with small yellow-flowers and tiny, budding purple crocuses, this could have been any mountain slope in Scotland or Ireland.

Gorbeiako Parke Naturala (summit trig point)

Nearing the top, the cloud got thicker, visibility dropped to tens of metres and an icy wind blasted us from the west.  We added our windproof coats, hats and with hoods up we were still shivering under the wind’s viscous assault.  Exposed and feeling battered, we spent short seconds at the summit, pausing only for a hurried photo with the decorative trig point set below a metal tower structure, then began a hasty descent. Within minutes we escaped the bank of dense cloud and regained solace from the harsh wind, allowing us to begin warming up again.  We jogged short stretches to ease wear on our knees and to aid the warming process.  This descent, by the same route, was memorable only for us finally seeing our first other walkers of the day, near the bottom of the trail – three men with walking poles and wicker baskets, and we thought them likely to be mushroom hunters.

Gorbeiako Parke Naturala (aaron in trees)

Gorbeiako Parke Naturala (the forest)

The centre had told us the walk would be 3.5 hours to the top, and similar to return, but because we didn’t linger, we were up and back in well under four hours.  We enjoyed a well-earned lazy afternoon in Benny, snug away from the wind. A later short pre-dinner walk led us to discover a nearby area of beautifully expressive and wild beech trees, long-fingered, knotted and gnarly, photos of which had initially brought us to this park.  We had nearly missed them, yet they stood in all their wonderful, twisted majesty, set in a thick blanket of crispy copper leaves, only metres behind where we had parked.

A&N x

Belgium – Ypres (Ieper)

We left a very busy Bruges to the milling tourist hordes and continued on our way, this time heading south.  We overnighted in a functional aire in the village of Aartrijke, parked next to a lorry trailer and some recycling bins.  From there we drove along quieter roads to reach Ypres ( Ieper ) near to the border with France. We had pre-booked a night in the central Ypres campsite, €15 with electricity and all services, and situated only five minutes from the historic town.  We checked in and parked up, finding ourselves directly opposite Benny’s virtual twin, a same aged Benimar Mileo 202, driven by a British couple from Preston whom we later chatted to about our subsequent travels.

Ypres (approaching the Menin Gate)

Ypres (menin gate lion)

It was an easy walk from the site to the town’s tall stone walls, and from there to the Menenpoort, the Menin Gate.  Each night at 8pm, rain or shine, a short service is held and the Last Post is played in remembrance of all those lost in both the World Wars.  We spent some time reading the names on the Menin Gate memorial, its walls inscribed with over 54000 names of soldiers fallen in nearby battles.  We checked the register for mention of my late great-uncle, but his name was not listed, so he must be commemorated elsewhere on the Western front.  From there we walked up through the gate to visit the top of the town walls, following the easy paths and enjoying the elevated view of St. Jacob’s Church and the nearby rooftops of Ypres.  Rain was threatening, but it kindly held off for now.

Ypres (searching the names)

Ypres (menin gate side from walls)

Ypres (Groenpark lakes)

We descended a flight of stone steps and followed the cobbled roads around to reach the centre. The Main Square was an immediate ‘wow’ moment, seeing for the first time the enormous clock tower of the gothic Town Hall and the In Flanders Field museum building, with the tall stone towers of Cathédrale Saint-Martin visible behind.  We had known little about the town of Ypres, thinking it mainly a centre for cemeteries and commemoration, so we were very surprised and impressed.  We walked slowly around the square, squeezing around parked cars and through archways, before visiting the cathedral.  We spent a few moments looking inside, watching the coloured light streaming from the stained glass dance across the white stone and the statue-filled alcoves of the tower’s interior.

Ypres (City hall and museum)

Ypres (St Martins cathedral
Ypres (Flanders museum)

We walked through the back streets of the town and joined the paths along the top of the walls circling town and the furthest point.  From there we walked back slowly, on leafy paths scattered with interesting defensive runs, seeing the foundations of circular towers and pill-box artillery points.  On our right we could look out over Groenpark lakes, watching the sun flicker on the calm water overhung with willows.  We had the occasional ten seconds of raindrops that threatened to dampen our day, but they never fully materialised, with the bright sun winning through after each failed attempt.  The wall-top path would have returned us to the Menin Gate, but instead we cut down a flight of hidden stone steps to follow a timber decked path around to a pedestrian bridge that led us back to our campsite.

Ypres (city hall building)

Ypres (cathedral side)

Ypres (cathedral interior)

After an early dinner, we returned to visit the town in virtual darkness, around 7pm.  We planned a gentle town walk before returning to the Menin Gate for the anticipated 8pm recital. We were slightly astonished to see a long row of buses parked up nearby and a milling crowd three or four people deep already standing expectantly at the ropes, an hour early, awaiting the Last Post being played.  Sunday night, it turned out, was the most popular time for visits to the Menin Gate, and with it being half-term as well, there were more than a few British school parties in attendance.  We first walked through the crowds and into the town centre again, enjoying seeing the Gothic buildings and flowing fountain beautifully lit up at night, alongside the large Halloween decorations that lit up each street and many shops.

Ypres (central square at night)

Ypres (town hall fountains)

We arrived back to the Menin Gate around 7.45pm and joined the expectant crowd, now many hundreds in number.  The event began when three members of the local Fire Brigade, the organisation tasked with performing the Last Post each night, stood and played their bugles.  A row of young cadets in grey uniforms nervously lined up behind them.  A small choir, singing a cappella and all with identical red buffs on, provided a beautiful rendition of Abide with Me as several commemorative wreaths were laid on one wall of the Menin Gate.  Laurence Binyon’s famous fourth stanza from “For the Fallen” was solemnly read out to the stilled crowd.  This was followed by a minute of thoughtful silence, broken finally by the elongated notes of the final emotive portion of the ever-moving Last Post.

Ypres (Menin gate at night)

Ypres (cadets at Menin gate)

Ypres (Menin gate reflection)

The recital was complete and the crowds began to disperse, with an earnest, contemplative mood now hanging in the air.  The streets outside the walls were pitch black, the darkness being revoked only by the glow of the Menin Gate, an apt metaphor for the sacrifices of those serving men and women it stands to represent, and remember.  We carefully walked back to the campsite with the aid of head torches, the voices and words ringing in our thoughts.  Lest we Forget.

Denmark – Sjælland’s countryside & castles

Denmark – Arriving on Sjælland via the Öresund bridge and exploring the island’s rural regions, beaches and castles.

We left our deserted beach-front aire in Kalgshamn, near Malmö, first for a Lidl shop on the outskirts of the city and then straight across the 18km long Öresund bridge into Denmark.  On the Danish side, the bridge suddenly ducked down from high above the ocean into a tunnel running underneath, like a rollercoaster ride in a theme park, before popping out just south of Copenhagen.  We were not after a city visit as we’d visited Copenhagen recently, before our Greenland kayaking trip, so we passed by smoothly and easily, although the ring roads were the busiest we’d experienced for months.  We quickly returned to empty roads just a few miles on, surrounded by rolling countryside with stubble fields, corn and trees beginning to turn in the early autumn that could easily have been middle England.

Oresund bridge - to denmark

Herslev Brygus - brewery shop

We headed west, across the middle of Sjælland island, bypassing Roskilde but turning off soon after to reach the tiny hamlet of Herslev, where we had read reports of a popular local brewery.  We had furtively hoped for a somewhat grander experience, the availability of a brewery tour or a tasting session, but they were by appointment only.  Herslev Brygus consisted mainly of a small café and a colourful farm shop selling their many wares.  We chatted to the owner for a while and, after much deliberation as they had over thirty differently-flavoured or imaginatively-brewed organic craft beers to choose from, we selected a small range for us to sample over the coming days.

Ugerlose (farm aire)

Ugerlose (our private aire)

After our wonderful time at Långasjönäs Camping in Sweden, we had a loose plan to spend another similar week relaxing at another ASCI campsite, and had chosen Holbæk Camping.  But on arrival it was surprisingly packed to overflowing with cars, families and noisy kids, not at all the relaxing nature experience we were hoping for.  So we headed off instead to rest in a small farm aire near to Ugerløse, where we were the only visitors.  We parked up in the end bay, where we would have exclusive use of a covered picnic table.  The aire was beautifully serene, the neat parking in individual hedge-lined bays, water and Wi-Fi included, and free use of services after staying two days.

Ugerlose (beer tasting)

Ugerlose (sunset beers)

We stayed here all weekend, mulling the idea of returning to a campsite on Monday when the weekend crowds had returned to work and school. There were a few local walks from the site into the nearby forest, and we walked a lazy 5km loop through the forest under mellow skies, seeing only two others on the walk.  On our return we lazed around in the afternoon sun and slowly enjoyed our hand-crafted beers sitting at our private picnic table, researching the days ahead.  The next morning we serviced and left with a changed plan, now doubling back on ourselves towards Copenhagen and then heading north to see the fairy-tale castles of the area known as the Royal Sjælland coast.

Fredensborg (changing of the guard)

Fredensborg (palace front)

We first visited Fredensborg Slotpark, an impressive Royal residence still in constant use.  It was a lovely autumn day, the yellowing leaves of the trees lightly murmuring against a deep blue sky.  We arrived just in time to catch a small parade, a changing of the guard outside the palace.  The guards wore tall bearskin hats, similar to those of the Grenadiers at Buckingham Palace, but with the dark and sky blue crisp uniforms of the Danish Royal Life Guards.  They marched sharply down the central cobbles to a nearby yard where they lined up and continued to step in time, sweating profusely under their heavy hats.  We left them in peace and approached the front of the palace, enjoying the view into the courtyard, but we could progress no further in this direction, so we doubled back to the gardens.

Fredensborg (palace rear view)

Fredensborg (autumn pathways)

Fredensborg (tree-lined avenue)

There are over 9km of avenues throughout the palace gardens, many lined with neat rows of lime trees or horse chestnuts.  Golden leaves crinkled underfoot as we walked along these formal avenues, through tunnels formed of bending trees.  We passed several statues and decorative fountains as we walked, seeing the rear of the palace from afar.  We walked on until we reached the shores of the nearby Lake Esrum, before following the water around the quiet, wilder edges of the gardens.  The palace has 300 acres of gardens, with most of them open free to the public.  A small portion of the formal gardens are kept private for the royal family to enjoy, but even that area is open to visitors for a few weeks in the summer months.

Fredensborg (rear palace elevation)

Fredensborg (Norsemen statues)

Fredensborg (valley of the Norsemen)

We next visited the Nordmandsdalen, the Valley of the Norsemen, a formal, tiered, circular display.  There were 68 sandstone statues depicting 18th century local merchants, farmers and fishermen.  Commoners such as them had never previously been depicted in formal Royal garden statuary, that having before been the exclusive domain of ancient Gods or celebrated Royal ancestors.  It was a daring social statement by the then King Frederick V, made seemingly in solidarity with the Social Realism movement of Fine Art that chose to dismiss the Romanticism of exaggerated heroism in favour of the honest realities and messy complications of everyday life.  The statues were an interesting insight into the lives, fashions and characteristics of those citizens living in those very different times.

Fredensborg (kings boarthouse)

Fredensborg (boat access to river)

We reached the King’s Barge house, built tall to allow his sailing boats to float directly from the lake into shelter.  There was an adjoining tea house, but this looked closed for the season.  We passed the side of the private area of the gardens, seeing the recently-added Orangery and a small hill with a spiral hedge called the Snail Mound.  After a picnic lunch on the grass overlooking the lake, we returned past the front of the palace and headed off east to see a second even more famous castle, Kronborg Slot, near the centre of Helsingør.  This was a proper fairy-tale castle, and a UNESCO World Heritage site, renowned as the dramatic setting for the family intrigue of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Kronborg Slot - bridge entrance

Kronborg Slot (approach view)

We parked for free on the marina front, a few hundred metres beyond the huge pay-and-display car-park.  The weather was changing now we were on the coast.  The familiar Danish wind really picked up late afternoon, taking away our sunny day and chilling it down, blowing all the heat out of the air like a giant mouth cooling a cup of tea.  We wrapped up warm as we walked towards the castle, first reaching a large bronze model of the entire site that graced the entrance bridge and helped explain the extent of the fortifications.  We crossed and entered the castle’s perimeter walls, passing lots of craft shops snuggled into old stone buildings set securely within the protected grounds.

Kronborg Slot (seaward view)

Kronborg Slot (against the sun)

The fortress was built in a Renaissance style with delicate copper spires, richly decorated. It grew wealthy from the collection of taxes from ships passing by in the sound. After a devastating fire in 1629, the opulent palace was only considered useful as a barracks for the Danish army, until it was fully restored and able to continue its previous calling, the collection of dues, this time from passing tourists rather than merchant ships.  We passed the rows of menacing cannons set on the high ramparts, built in brick rather than stone.  From the grassy banks of the castle’s rear fortifications we watched many ferries, heading for the now-visible coast of Sweden, leave the busy port.  We didn’t enter the castle proper, but enjoyed our blustery circular walk in the shadow of the high walls.  A small stretch of stony beach sat behind and outside the walls, where many locals walked their dogs, leaning into bracing gusts.

Gilleleje - farm aire

We could have stayed overnight at the harbour for free, but decided to move on as it was quite busy and would likely be noisy even in the small hours. Instead we drove a few more miles north and stopped in another farmhouse aire, where it was 50DK to stay in their very pretty garden.  It came complete with raspberry bushes, a tidy pond and both electricity and Wi-Fi included.  It was a very quiet spot to pass a lazy evening, with no other visitors arriving to interrupt our tranquility.  ( We’ll not mention the rooster. )

SE Sweden – Friseboda & Kivik

Continuing our explorations in south-east Sweden, we visited Friseboda & Kivik, with days out to see beaches, arboretums and nearby national parks. 

After our blissful week in Långasjönäs camping, we finally packed up and said goodbye to our amenable host, and to our beautiful swim lake.  We drove south, with our customary Lidl stop on the way to restock our fridge after a week of sitting still.  Our SatNav was very confused for most of the journey as we crossed wide green fields, meaning the smooth, fast road we travelled on must be less than two years old. We passed many sign-posted options for nearby picnic areas, beaches and swim spots.  We finally chose one and cut left down a narrow, bumpy road, following tight bends to reach a large, empty car-park at Friseboda beach, a 5km long sandy strand on the Baltic Sea.

Friseboda (woodland trees)

Friseboda (woodland mosses)

We parked in the green embrace of the nature reserve.  We were surrounded by spacious, mixed woodland, replete with pine trees, with thick moss dominating the groundcover. Wispy lichen hung from branches and helped create a feel of ancient forest, and perhaps it is – the area has been settled, farmed and manipulated by man for over 7000 years.  We walked over pine-needle paths to reach the calm, clear sea.  With the exception of one elderly jogger, we had the long strand as far as we could see in both directions all to ourselves.  We laid a blanket out in the small dunes and settled in for some serious relaxing, interspersed with cooling sea skinny dips, reading and snacking.  The only sounds we could hear were the light buzzing of nearby insects and the soft lapping of tiny waves.

Friseboda (lunch spot)

Friseboda (n on beach)

Friseboda (walking along beach)

Late that afternoon we drove to Kivik, but the first possible aire we had in mind was mostly flooded, so we moved on to the marina parking nearer the town centre.  It was late Saturday afternoon and the aire was fully packed with vans, and we just managed to squeeze into a nice spot between two others.  We had a short walk around the town and the harbour walls, seeing several great swim spots and lots of birdlife.  A square housed the beginnings of a festival, with stalls and stands under construction.  We checked a local noticeboard and read about the upcoming Apple Festival.  It would not be starting for a few days, so the current visiting crowds were simply weekend warriors.

Kivik - birds on rocks

Havang beach (bikes at the beach)

Havang beach (a on the sand)

The next day we cycled from our spot in Kivik to Haväng beach, a rare area of sandy steppe, caused by dry climate and lime soil, where the Verkeån river runs into the sea.  We reached the beach by dirt road shortcuts across private land, avoiding the main roads wherever possible.  The beach car-park was busy with dog-walkers and visitors.  We cycled right along timber walkways and onto the grassy hillocks in front of the beach where we locked up our bikes and lay down, enjoying the sun on our backs and legs.  We could see the military base right next door and later watched Special Forces undertaking training manoeuvres and mock rescues on the sea in heavily armed rib-boats.

Havang beach (special forces)

Havang beach (tree roots)

Havang beach (nicky tangled)

On top of a small hill there were a few interesting trees with wildly twisted roots, all now above ground.  We played here a while, like kids, filled with memories of similar trees from childhood.  Near these trees was Havängsdösen, a Neolithic stone circle and dolmen grave site. We caught the distinctive aroma of wild curry plants as we walked over to see the standing stones. We walked the length of the beach and back to our original spot, then relaxed on the dunes to simply people-watch and read.  The sun remained out and the air warm; bliss.  Later we were passed by a string of Icelandic ponies being ridden across the sands, fording the river at its widest point as it entered the sea.

Havang beach (a on bridge over river)

Havang beach (river meets sea)

On our cycle home, we saw a gathering of red kites circling over the freshly-cut fields.  We stopped to watch them hunt, seeing them easily spotting the voles or mice disturbed by the farmer’s work.  We watched them glide, pause and then violently swoop, dropping almost vertically to pick off their prey in the short stubble at will.  It was a compelling site to see so many red kites circle the same field.  We cycled back on main road, before cutting back into Kivik and through, passing popular in-progress Sunday league football games, to visit Kiviks Esperöd arboretum.

Havang beach (ponies on beach)

Havang beach (red kite)

Leaving our bikes aside we walked the gardens, where we saw an old Swedish phone box set among the trees, its short swing doors open lattice design, Elven-like, a real contrast to Scott’s famous British equivalent.  We crossed an arched blue bridge set over waterlily-rich waters that reminded us  a little of those in Monet’s Garden in Givenchy.  The ducks happily sunning themselves on the banks quacked us a greeting. We walked many tiny paths around the arboretum’s perimeter, finding all manner of exotic trees from all over the world, and simply enjoying the wander.  We returned to our parking spot in Kivik marina to find a new motorhome beside us.  Our new neighbours were Brits, originally from Peterborough but now of Morecombe bay.  It was the first British van we’d seen in a long time so we had to stop for a chat.

Kiviks Esperod (bridge in arboretum)

Kiviks Esperod (old phone box)

Next morning we packed up and left the now almost-empty aire, saying goodbyes to our British neighbours on one side and to a black BMW with a full set of interior curtains and someone sleeping inside on the other.  We drove only a short distance to Stenshuvuds National Park, in Österlen, where we parked up at the central Naturum building, the visitor centre.  It wasn’t yet opened, so while we waited we hiked one of their marked routes to the south, 3.2km long through light forest and pasture land.  The sun was bright but the shaded trails in the forests were still sharp with cold this early in the morning, so we walked fast to keep warm, glad of the occasional hill to work up.

Stenshuvuds NP (lighthouse)

The national park covered quite small area at just over 400 hectares, but it packed in a lot of variation in both landscape and habitat.  Around half of the park was leafy deciduous forest, mainly gnarled hornbeams with a thriving population of hawfinches.  Pasture lands provided grazing for some wildly hairy, wild roaming highland cattle.  There were thickly heathered and flat sandy heaths, wet and dry meadows and peat-rich mosslands all providing a rich variety of ecosystems for the many creatures and endangered plants of the region to live in.  There were a number of well-marked trails through the park, and we followed several of these in turn, taking in the ever-changing landscapes beneath our feet and around us.

Stenshuvuds NP (forest traisl)

We clambered over leafy trails and tree roots, large boulders, deep sandy paths and marshy bogs by still, dark lakes. The hornbeam forest was cast deep in light and shadow by a bright, low sun, with lichen covered boulders lit up like beacons when in full sunlight.  We climbed timber steps to the ancient hill fortress of Stenshuvud, at the grand height of 97m, where we enjoyed views out to sea from a rocky plateau.  We passed Stenshuvud lighthouse and old cottages still used by eel fishermen as they have been since the 18th century. We reached a beautiful white sandy beach and felt drawn to dip in the water, but we abstained for once.  We returned to the Naturum building and ate lunch in Benny, glad to have taken the time to visit this wonderful nature reserve.

Gyllebo lake - swim spot

Only a few miles further on, we stopped at a dedicated swim place on Gyllebo lake and decided to overnight there.  We parked in the corner of the small car-park and walked out to explore their wonderful set-up, with pontoons and ramps reaching out into the pristine lake.  A couple of large fire pits were provided to allow cook-outs, along with many benches, making it a tranquil, but also popular picnic spot.  There were local cars buzzing around most of the afternoon, dog walking and picnicking, and it was good to see the area being put to such good use.  It had chilled down and the wind had picked up a little, so our desires to swim here were dampened somewhat.  Later we walked out to the swim platforms to watch the sun drop behind the black treeline on the banks of the blood-red lake.

SE Sweden – Kalmar & Almö

Sweden’s South East coast – Kalmar & Almö

Crossing the long bridge from Öland, we returned to revisit the town of Kalmar, the inescapable point where the island’s only bridge meets the mainland.  We parked near to the 13th century fairy-tale Kalmar Castle, proclaimed as the best preserved Renaissance castle in Sweden.  A large anchor marked the beginnings of the castle’s defences, set on the banks of its deep protective moat.  We entered the extensive grounds, a purpose-built island complex, via a flag-lined wooden bridge over the moat, taking in the views in all directions.

Kalmar - (approaching the castle)

Kalmar - (on the bridge)

The original tower was constructed in the 12th century, with the ring wall fortress following in the 13th century, making the tower one of Sweden’s most impenetrable fortifications.  Due to its status as a key strategic site over the straits leading to the Baltic Sea, the castle faced many wars over the centuries.  The defences were strengthened again in the 16th century with four cannon towers added.  The 18th century saw the castle utilised as a prison, distillery and supply depot.  It is now managed by the Swedish National Property Board, as a site of important cultural heritage.

Kalmar - (n and the castle)

Kalmar - (defensive cannons)

Kalmar - (castle and moat)

We circled the castle grounds at both low and high level, enjoying the first hints of blue skies we’d experienced in a long week dominated by little but muddy grey rainclouds.  We passed cannons on the ramparts, had views out to sea over strategically important islands where other formidable forts had once sat, and learned of the important, formative history of the site’s defenses.  It truly was an impressive place, balancing the precarious need of strong barricades with a wish for elegant beauty.

Kalmar - (internal courtyard)

Kalmar - (castle and moat view)

Leaving Kalmar and its fairy-tale castle behind, we drove on south to the celebrated, historical naval town of Karlskrona, on the south coast of this region of Sweden.  We first visited services on the edge of town, where we filled and emptied, and took time to wash the worst of the filthy sprayed mud off Benny, the wet roads having turned his pristine white coat a muddy grey-brown.  We then turned our attention to the town, it looking very industrial and initially unappealing from our outsider’s perspective across the grey water.  We arrived in the town centre at 4pm, just when the town’s parking restrictions end, so we had our free choice of places to park.  We found the nearby tourist office and were helpfully gifted a town walking route map and proceeded to follow this route, to gain a feel for this nautical town.

Karlskrona - (Main square)

Karlskrona - (church in square)

Karlskrona - (statue and church)

There was certainly a more interesting architectural and cultural dimension in the heart of the town than the rough, industrial feel our first impressions had offered.  Created from scratch on uninhabited islands, the stone fortress was built in the 17th century as a necessary Naval Port on the Baltic Sea, to act as an efficient centre of excellence for the then dominant Swedish navy.  It built and maintained ships, it trained, fed and housed sailors and organised the navy crews.  Karlskrona was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1998, as the most complete example of a European Naval base planned in accordance with the ideals of 17th century maritime knowledge.  It remains the sole active naval base in Sweden, still producing modern submarines and renowned surface vessels on site, the island neatly divided into a civil north and a military south.

Karlskrona - (street with flags)

Karlskrona - (maritime musuem front)

Karlskrona - (diving boards)

We began in the main square, Stororget, before moving along flag-strewn streets of pretty timber buildings all housing boutique shops or cafés that reminded us both Bergen and Stavanger.  Our route crossed to another small island, Stumholmen, where the new Maritime Museum, completed in 2014, was situated.  It had closed for the day, but we looped around its stainless steel clad walls and passed by the moored ships outside, then through to the adjacent grassy picnic park with its public swimming spot, complete with high diving boards.  We saw Sweden’s last remaining wooden aircraft hangers, in use for storing and maintaining military seaplanes from 1914 until 1949 and now simply preserved for future generations.

Karlskrona - (maritime museum gardens)

Karlskrona - (timber aircraft hangars)

Karlskrona - (clock tower)

We followed the coast-hugging path past small lighthouses, impressive municipal buildings and statues of notable local dignitaries to reach the Admiralty Church and the pyramidal clock tower in the nearby park. We returned to the Great Square, Stortorget, and revisited the facades of the impressive Trefaldighetskyrkn and Rådhuset.  The vast, elegant square was originally conceived as a monumental public space to rival the grandest of those in France or Italy, set out to classical architectural ideals.  Unfortunately, the twin requirements of modern convenience and tourism have turned it mostly into a very grand car-park.  We examined the centrally positioned statue of Karl XI, watching possessively over the busy square, before tailing off our walking tour and returning to Benny.

Karlskrona - (Admiralty church)

Karlskrona - (n with preacher)

Karlskrona - (main square carpark)

There were a lot of other places of interest to see, but time was pressing on and we wanted to arrive at our next aire before nightfall.  After months of midnight sun and long, bright evenings, we were struggling a little with the sudden arrival of dark, gloomy nights.  Sweden in sunshine has been the perfect outdoor playground for us, our favourite country for swimming, hiking and canoeing, but in dreary, persistent rain under dull, grey skies, it holds only the sadness of potential unfulfilled.  We drove out of the town on the main road to Malmö and turned west, before cutting south on a small road to reach the island of Almö.  A large portion of this thin island was designated as a protected nature reserve and we had hopes the weather would lighten up and allow us to explore it, at least a little.

Almo island - (rocky headland)

We found a grassy aire with its own beach and direct access to walking paths to the south, and decided to sit here a few days as we awaited some drier weather.  We undertook a short walk on the first night, to take in our local surroundings.  The moss-covered rocks and tall, twisted trees tangled with pistachio-coloured lichen had the feel of an ancient landscape, something from the age of dinosaurs.  We followed the well-worn footpaths that led to areas fully set up with fire-pits and makeshift benching; clearly a popular summer hang-out on the shores of the lake, but there was no one here but us on this damp, grey September day.

Almo island - (a on walk)

Almo island - (rocky moss)

We had a longer walk the next day, following the rocky, moss-covered coastal path past several fenced off military zones and through more dark trees heavy with hanging lichen.  We saw and picked blackberries, a reminder we were at the beginning of autumn.  Some trees were beginning to turn, a hint of golden yellow on their leaves.  We reached a long causeway at the end of the Nature Reserve that led to the next island, but there was no obvious way to walk further other than on the road, so instead we turned and retraced our steps along the rugged coast.  We considered a swim in the chilled, choppy lake, but on this occasion our lazy sides prevailed and we opened a bottle instead.

Almo island - (lakeside wander)

After a slow morning under more rain clouds, we slowly packed up and left the grassy aire, heading on westwards, in search of a quiet campsite to sit out the weather in relative comfort.  After some deliberation, we headed in the direction of Långasjönös, a nearby ACSI campsite, with our committed intention of relaxing there for a little while.