Monday, July 26, 2010


Whilst travelling I usually find accommodation via Couchsurfing or through people I already know. When that doesn't work or when I am out in the countryside then I freecamp. Such as on Thursday night when I arrived at Cape Kolka, which separates the Baltic Sea from the Gulf of Riga, at 9pm. I had enough time to take some sunset pics but not enough to get any further. I didn't see this as a problem as the cape forms part of the longest stretch of beach in Europe (which is also, thankfully, supremely underdeveloped) and so I just walked along it for a few kilometres until I came to a suitably isolated spot, spread out my mat and sleeping bag, and went to sleep (the cape is part of a national park where it is forbidden to camp in a tent, but nobody said anything about just going to sleep). I have, however, come to the conclusion that sleeping on a beach is vastly overrated. Sure, the wide open beach and constant sea breeze are pleasant and keep the mozzies at bay, but I woke up playing host to a business of flies and with enough sand inhabiting my various nooks and crannies to stuff an obese gopher. The next day was spent walking among the fishing villages of the cape, which are home to the Livs, an obscure minority related to the Finns and Estonians desperately clinging onto their identity. Their language is already almost a lost cause with only a dozen or so native speakers.
A boat in a traditional Livonian boat graveyard. Livs neither burn nor break up their old boats, instead they bring them onland and leave them in the forest so that they return to where they came from.

Then I hitched down to the affluent port city of Ventspils. By the time I arrived it was late and I had no host lined up, plus after some 20km of walking with my heavy rucksack and subsequent hitching I was tired and didn't feel like hiking far out of town to pitch a tent with the threat of a thunderstorm brewing. So, for the first time in 4 months, I bit the bullet and decided to pay for a night's accommodation.

It turned out to be a good choice because, whilst investigating cheap sleeping options at the tourist office, I found out that there would be a mass world record attempt in the city the next day and I met my first journeyman (Wandergeselle) of the trip, Michael. The journeyman tradition has died in the UK, but in German-speaking countries it still survives and it is a tradition I absolutely adore. Journeymen are always easy to recognise by their characteristic corduroy suits - usually black, but can vary depending on profession -, hats and walking sticks. After finishing their 3 years of apprenticeship tradespeople (most commonly carpenters, but also smiths, tailors, cobblers and others) go off to travel and practice their skills abroad (in the medieval sense of the word i.e. they are not allowed within 60km of their homes) for 3 years and a day. They generally work mainly for food and lodging plus a little to help them get around. The first year is usually spent in German-speaking countries, the second in Europe, and in the third they can be anywhere (the first journeyman I ever met was in a dormitory in Zacatecas in Mexico). Journeymen are members of semi-secret brotherhoods with strict rules and codes of conduct, eschewing modern gadgets (mobile phones, Gore-Tex and even rucksacks) and emphasising honour, modesty and an honest day's work. I suppose I like the journeyman idea so much because of the emphasis on living simply and honestly and valuing life experiences through travel.

Michael in his trademark corduroy journeyman clothes and hat - many people thought he was a magician!

So the next day was spent chatting with Michael, probing him about the life of a journeyman, whilst also watching the world record attempt. And what sort of world record was being set? Well, to celebrate the 720th anniversary of the founding of the town, the council was attempting to create the world's longest flower carpet (the previous record stood at some 1500m, but I was unable to find anyone who could tell me where or when). Personally I think breaking records these days is less about real ability but more about imagination: being able to think of a world record that nobody has attempted before, or at least not in the presence of an official adjudicator. But I'm not one to complain; it was a pleasant day, a party atmosphere reigned in the city and I had the company of a fellow traveller for the afternoon. Plus you got to take part in the record by simply buying a flower to be placed in the carpet. Then in the evening it was time to hit the road again and head further south to the port city of Liepaja where my timing was rather poor as I had managed to coincide my visit with the Baltic Beach Party festival so the town was full of drunk adolescents (most of them seemed to be Russian) and booming dance music reverberating across the rooftops until the wee hours of the morning. Ah well, for every happy, floral coincidence of timing there is an equal and opposite raving calamity.

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