I have woken up to some romantic views, but dawn over the Lithuanian port of Klaipeda is not one of them.
Time has been against us since we disembarked the ferry at the Estonian capital of Tallinn on Monday.
I’m travelling with another freelance, Rich Cookson, and photographer Matt Cardy around the new member states of the European Union writing stories for various newspapers and magazines.
Writing and filing stories for the Daily Mail and The Independent yesterday meant we missed our ferry connection to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. To make sure we get the first ferry out, we sleep in the van by the container ships.
By 7am we’re away and our good start is only slowed by the interminable Russian border checks.
We make it to our hotel in Kaliningrad at noon. After tipping our hotel security guard 200 roubles to keep an eye on our van, we start our research for an article for The Independent.
Unlike the Baltics, where there are wi-fi hotspots on every corner, communications are patchy here. First we hunt down an internet-enabled computer, then it’s a trip to the zoo.
Formerly one of the best in the world, the zoo is now a pitiful sight. It seems like a good story.
We spend the evening with a Russian lawyer, Rustam, who gives us a useful political lesson on the new Kaliningrad, where blackmarket trade is rife. He is a good host and come midnight we’re toasting each other’s eternal health with vodka.
Despite feeling a bit groggy, we get up early, ready for everything Kaliningrad can throw at us. Rich and Matt get a surprisingly frank interview with a senior council official.
I go with an interpreter to meet three suspicious but polite zoo staff.
The interview goes well and I am showered with gifts. I give them my card and my interpreter tells me that if the story is not positive they will know where to find me. She is not laughing.
Rich and Matt are being given a tour of Kaliningrad’s tourist sites by taxi – the only way to negotiate the madness on the roads.
Then the Indy’s foreign desk calls.
They want us to do a vox pop in Lithuania by 7pm. It’s mid-afternoon already and Lithuania is some distance. We set off at once. It is slow driving, though not slow enough for two policemen who catch us with a speed gun. The “fine” is $10.
We give them all our roubles and don’t bother asking for a receipt.
At the border it appears we do not have some small but vital slips of paper. Things get rather tense, but a E10 note solves the problem.
Just before midnight, as the EU welcomes 10 new members, we drive into Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, which is filled with street parties. Everyone smiles and we relax with beer and pizzas. It feels like civilisation.
We’re only in Vilnius for the morning, but the partying continues. We do research for the Daily Mail and The Big Issue and gather material for some travel features. After filing from a car park, we’re off. We decide to break up the trip to Warsaw by stopping near the Polish border.
L-R: Phil Chamberlain, Matt Cardy and Rich Cookson
What a difference a day makes. So far it’s taken at least 30 minutes at border crossings as paperwork is doublechecked.
Now we are waved through into Poland after only a cursory glance at our passports.
A few hours later we decide to give Warsaw a miss and head south. Time is pressing and we’ve got a good story to chase in the Slovakian city of Kosice. It’s 15 hours by road and we have pretty much heard every CD in the van by the time we roll up at our ex-Soviet hotel.
Despite arriving a day early, our contact at the Roma Press Agency is able to meet us in the morning. It is a fascinating interview and we also have the opportunity to visit a Roma village. The Roma community is one of the losers in the great EU expansion – scapegoats for the foreign media and despised in their own country. It is a sobering afternoon.
After finding an internet cafÃ© so we can pitch an article to The Sunday Times, we head off to Romania to write a piece on the birthplace of Michael Howard’s father.
Once across the border, bicycles and horses and carts outnumber cars. By the time we reach Ruscova, it is dark and we are exhausted. We sleep in the van on the outskirts of the darkened village.
We wake early to find it pouring with rain for the first time. We have to find an interpreter and as much information as possible by mid-afternoon.
It seems a bleak task at 7.30am, but we strike lucky. We call on the mayor, who phones for an interpreter from the village school.
The mayor is informative and poses for any number of Matt’s photos. It turns out our interpreter’s grandfather grew up with Howard’s father, so we go to visit the 93-year-old.
It’s been a good morning – and even better, the sun has come out. For the first time we turn the van towards England. We have a tip for a good story in Slovakia, followed by a feature for The Big Issue about signing on for benefits in Prague, and then we can head for home.