Published: September 4th 2007August 24th 2007
Open To The Sun
Photo BY: Kelley Turner
Yet Another Flavor of Baltic…Oh, It’s Yummy
Each of the Baltic states is similar yet, once you’ve scratched the surface, there are subtle differences. As I noted in our last entry, Latvia is a spend happy cousin of the Estonian. Both have an aftertaste of Communism in their crumbling buildings and left over poverty but both have a young, fresh dose of liberation which is leading to growth both economically and personally. Estonia wishes to break away from its Russian roots and is, almost, cussedly independent while it feels like the Latvians hold on to their Communist roots a little tighter.
Kel and I were both excited to see what differences Lithuania had to offer. Rumor has stated that Lithuanians were the cheeky cousins of the other states near by. Often referred to as the Italians or Spanish of the Baltic area, we were hoping to see more smiles and happiness.
Maybe it was the fact that we had spent more than a week in ex-Communist countries or the fact that we were tired of people being so stolid all the time, but we could almost palpably tell the difference in Lithuania as soon as we
arrived. When we took a cab to our hotel the driver gave me a big smile and said thank you when I tipped him. He then took the extra gracious step of teaching Kel and I how to say thank you in Lithuanian, a classy and friendly extra touch. Lithuania was really looking up.
We spent the majority of our next three days in Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital city. Vilnius doesn’t have as much of a pronounced old town as other major destinations in the area. While in most places you can strongly recognize the difference between the tourist and non-tourist parts of town, Vilnius is a little more hodge-podge in its make up. This, after experiencing so many Old Towns, is actually a bit refreshing.
As you walk through the town center you get the feeling that Lithuania is a bit more mature than its northern brethren. It was the first country to break away from the Soviet Union back in 1991. It feels like they’ve had a little more time to piece their city back together and to figure out how this capitalism thing works. While there is still a lot more flash than you would see
in many of the western countries, it is a bit more subdued and…well…more mature.
Vilnius has a couple of things that are worth seeing. If you are a church/cathedral buff then Vilnius is the place for you. Throughout the two center and its surrounding area, Vilnius has a ton of churches. Much like Dunkin’ Donuts in Boston, it feels like you can’t walk more than a few blocks without seeing another old cathedral towering over the surrounding buildings. You could easily spend a whole day hopping from cathedral to cathedral. Most notable is Vilnius Cathedral, right in the center of town with its pristine white façade and separated belfry. Also, the Gates of Dawn and the surrounding cathedrals are truly impressive. My personal fave was St. Catherine’s cathedral which is a pink Baroque beauty. When it comes to cathedrals in this town you pretty much have a Baskin Robins of cathedral flavors. Uupis: The Unofficially Official Cheeky Lithuanian Offshoot
As proof of the Lithuanian’s sense of humor and further proof of their cultural differences with other, more stolid, Baltic states stands Uupis. This rather run down section of Vilnius was declared, unofficially, its own state
in 1998 when its residents finished their constitution. The area, which is predominantly occupied by the general artsy and vagrant part of Vilnius, has its own anthem, president and 41 point constitution.
The constitution is pretty much the only thing you can see that clearly delineates the area as a separate area of the city. After you walk over a small lock-laden bridge you are in Uupis. This bridge, which delineates the “borders” of the break-away state has locks placed all over it. Newlyweds come here to put a lock on the bridge to signify the longevity of their newly formed marriage. Supposedly, on April Fools Day, actual boarder guards stand at attention and stamp passports for people on their way into the “country.”
After a short walk into the area, you come across the constitution which is mounted on one long stretch of wall outside of a grocery store. The silvery mirrored surface of the constitution lists all 41 constitutional points in small black letters. Uupis residents have the right to do all sorts of great things such as the right to love, to not be loved, to be undistinguished, be in doubt, and many, many other
Tito and Maria Forever
Photo By: Kelley Turner
interesting rights. Kel and I both liked the last three rights - Do not defeat, Do not fight back, Do not surrender…a little philosophical but on the right track.
A brief walk through Uupis gives you a better picture for the Vilnius of yore. Most of its buildings are stucco over brick buildings that are in disrepair. This shabbier side of Vilnius is part of what remains of some of the run down nature of all Communist cities in the not too distant past. We didn’t spend too much time in Uupis because the further you go into the area the more slightly crazy people you come across. Nothing is creepier than crazy old women yelling at street art and blank walls. It gave us the willies and gave us the impetus to depart. Exploring the Nearby Countryside
I’m always a little leery of driving in foreign countries but Kel and I both love the freedom. You can easily take a bus or a train to most major destinations but you can’t just stop and explore when you are on a bus. So, Kel talked me into a cheap one day car rental booked through
We planned on setting out to nearby Trakai with its island castle. It’s pretty close to Vilnius which makes the car a bit of overkill, but we figured we’d head from Trakai out of the town for a view of Lithuanian countryside. We picked our car up and realized that the map provided by the rental company did little to no good so Kel had to go back into the hotel to get advice on how to get out of town. After a little “lost in translation” moment, Kel got us on track and off we went in our nearly new little Opel. (Kel - once again, another interesting moment in broken English. “Look mountains, petrol station, road go left, there may be a sign . . .” Not exactly an overwhelming feeling of confidence, but good enough!)
An audio CD had been provided with the car so we figured we’d listen to it to hear what it had to say. The first track was some advice for driving in the Baltic in general. “There is both good news and bad when it comes to driving in the Baltic,” intoned the pleasant female announcer. “The roads
are generally uncrowded and in good condition…,” was pretty much the good news. The bad news consisted of a warning about the immature driving habits of Baltic drivers. “Drive defensively to ensure your safety (read the car’s safety) because Baltic drivers will speed, pass on the right…,” and be generally insane was the unsaid statement. Thankfully, Lithuanians are once again more mature than drivers in Latvia but it was still an adventure getting in and out of Vilnius. Once out of town, things were infinitely easier even down right pleasant.
Trakai, only 20-30kms outside of Vilnius, is a charming little village that has found itself on the tourist map due to its island castle and its remnants of a nearly dead religious sect known as the Karaites. Once we got into town and found the TI we parked the car and got out to walk around. Sadly we had forgotten our guidebook so were pretty much on our own when it came to food.
We found a nice café near the parking lot and sat down to a light lunch. We were a little worried when the menu was completely in Lithuanian, a language unlike any that we
know. The waitress spoke a small bit of English so we asked her to bring us whatever she liked. We ended up with a bowl of SALTY broth and a meat filled pastry which, too, was salty. Thankfully our drinks were decently sized because we were forced to drink tons of liquid to counteract the saltiness. Lithuanian food is hearty fare and even the small bit of soup and pastry did a great job of fortifying us for the next 5 hours.
For you castle lovers out there, the island castle in Trakai is a pretty decent one. It doesn’t really stand up next to some of the fairytale castles of Germany, but is still pretty and worth seeing if you have the time. We explored for an hour before settling back into our trusty Opel to set off into the country.
Lithuanian countryside doesn’t differ much from Eastern European countryside anywhere else in the area. What is worth seeing are some of the smaller, out of the way towns. We randomly came across a town or too. The places which are part Russian peasant village and part scene from Deliverance
give you a peek into
the other side of life in this part of the world. If you are a tourist who merely gets to see the tourist destinations, you don’t really get a good feel for what the average country-type person experiences. The small tin roof shacks in most towns are a far cry from country living anywhere in Western Europe or the US. When it gets cold here, bone cold, these little “houses” are probably very, very cold. I would imagine that the life expectancy of people outside of cities in this part of the world is much lower than it is further west. While these countries have improved greatly, there is still a long way to go to catch up with their nearby friends in the rest of the EU.
Well, I hope everyone at home is doing fabulously. We miss you all and thank you for reading!
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