Published: June 7th 2006May 12th 2006
May 4, 2006 Sean:
And then there were three. After the last three weeks being thronged with family, it’s down to just Shannon, me and her mother. Michele is joining us for about a week while we tour around Lithuania and will be leaving us as we get into Latvia.
We landed yesterday here in Lithuania’s second city. No one really wants to go to Kaunas - Vilnius is the World Heritage city and capital of this Baltic country. But this is where the discount airline drops you, a hundred kilometers from our intended target. I’m not really complaining, mind you, just commenting on how the no-frills, low cost airlines are able to get you to point B so cheaply (or at least get you closer). As with our two day layover in Slovakia on the way to Dublin, we got an inexpensive ticket because Bratislava is the cheap airport only 40 miles from Vienna. And while Bratislava isn’t ugly, it definitely won’t be mistaken for Vienna anytime soon (Julie Delpy would never have agreed to get off the train in Bratislava. Not even for Ethan Hawke). Shannon:
My great-grandmother on my mother’s side came from
Lithuania, so that's one of the reasons that I wanted to come to the Baltic States. I never knew her, but I think it will be interesting to see where some of my family came from. Like many people in the U.S. I don’t have any sort of impression about the country - good or bad. It’s hardly ever in the news and you just never really hear about it. Sadly, before we began planning this trip, I couldn’t have even pinpointed it on a map. I vaguely knew that it was in Eastern Europe somewhere east of Germany and north of Ukraine, but exactly where eluded me. As far as culture or landscape or politics were concerned, I knew next to nothing. Since then I’ve done a bit of research and learned that there’s quite a bit stuffed into this compact little country. And having just celebrated their 15th year of independence from the Soviet Union - again - it should be an interesting time to visit.
As Sean mentions above, though, Kaunas isn’t exactly the most exciting city so far. Walking down the streets (and even on the pedestrian path through the center of town), you wonder
where all the people are. Especially having just come from London, where the streets are packed and crowded, the city feels a tad…deserted. It’s nice enough, mind you, but if it were a fat girl, well, you’d describe her as having a nice personality. Not a visual stunner.
Having arrived yesterday, we spent today walking around their Old Town and seeing what the city has to offer. One of the more interesting things was the Devil Museum, which is a collection of items (mostly statues) that portray El Diablo
in many ways. I think we chose it mostly for the “why not” factor - how many devil museums will we ever have the chance to visit? - but to our delight, it turned out to be very interesting. The museum is comprised mostly of the private collection of an artist, Mr. Antanas Zmuidzinavičius (don’t even ask how you’re supposed to pronounce that), who collected over 2,000 lucifer-related statues, masks, paintings and more throughout his life. These are now displayed, grouped together by theme, on three floors. Excerpts (translated in English!) throughout explain the many different forms he takes in Lithuanian folk tales and society. Much like in our own
Joe vs. Adolf...Live From Hell!
This one is supposed to represent Papa Joe chasing Adolf back across Lithuania (Lietuva). Notice the skulls beneath their feet.
culture, this nefarious being is associated with many vices: gambling, greed, drinking, smoking, etc. But in many of the folk tales, he is shown as more of a prankster rather than as a sinister character - more mischievous than pure evil. In several, he preys on the character weaknesses of his victims to get what he wants; in others, he uses his skills (shape-shifting among them) to frustrate and/or taunt the objects of his tricks. Interesting to me were some of the connections they made about music - making me think it is the universal truth of older folks that they always think popular music is the work of the devil. More obscure, but still interesting, he is linked with windmills in Lithuanian folklore (the owners of which were generally more wealthy and so were seen as getting help from the devil to provide wind to turn the mills). I suppose Don Quixote wasn’t so far off the mark. And no visit would be complete without covering the association between some holidays - namely Halloween and Shrovetide (Mardi Gras to us) - and the immortal (and immoral) being. All in all, it was a worthwhile way to spend a few
Looks Like This Plaque Escaped the Purging
When the Soviets left, all things Communist fell with them. This was the official seal of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic.
May 6, 2006 Shannon
You know you’re not in Kansas anymore when you see public service announcements about sharing the road…with horses and buggies. Hmmmm…Yesterday we traveled from Kaunas to Vilnius via train. Along the way, we saw a bit of the countryside, which is a combination of thickly wooded patches interspersed with farmland. And sure enough, there were even a few of those pesky equestrian-powered vehicles on the roads, clogging it up for the cars. I turned to point it out to Sean and my mother, but they were both sawing logs. It must have been all the excitement back in Kaunas that wore them out. Sean:
Poor Lithuania. Talk about some traumatic recent history. The last half of the 1900’s was definitely not good for this small country. They started out the last century with some independence from the Russian Empire back in 1918. Feeling pretty chuffed up and proud to just be
, they passed the interwar period fairly well until they were traded like a two-bit floozy between Stalin and Hitler (they must not have gotten the memo in time to protest because it wasn’t long before the Red Army
At the KGB Museum
Those doors lead to the cells.
came waltzing in, changing all the curtains like they owned the place). There was the oppressive First (uh oh) Soviet occupation where every Lithuanian dissenter was branded a zealot and nicely asked to leave (when I say “nicely” I really mean “forced” and “leave” is a euphemism for “being shot”). Then with the retreating Red Army came five sweet days of independence until the attacking Nazi’s rolled in and performed their own bit of house cleaning. Fast forward to 1945 when the Allies won the war. We all went home, put up our feet and proceeded to pat each other on the back for a job well done. Meanwhile, back in Lithuania, the Red Army returned for the much longer Second
occupation and then the real dirty work began. People were carted off in droves, some to labor camps, some quietly disappeared, and some were left in the town squares after receiving a lesson from a small piece of lead, delivered at high velocity.
These were very dark times and today we learned all about this era at the Museum of Genocide Victims. Housed in the old KGB headquarters, the amazingly modern and slick museum discusses the history of
One of the Many
On the side of the KGB headquarters there were are engraved names, like this one, honoring those who'd never made it out of the building alive.
the oppressive Soviet regime…in the actual location from where the oppressive regime oppressed them. We got to see the cells in the basement where the water tortures took place (the prisoner stood on a small metal perch in the middle of a room flooded with ice cold water. When they’d inevitably get tired they’d fall in. This would go on for long, sleep deprived periods). Not that the regular cells were any better - all day the prisoners were forced to stand, not touching the walls and not allowed to move or speak. We also got to see the execution chamber where there were posted (and finely translated) bureaucratic letters relating how the KGB officers were running out of secret places around the city to stash the bodies - you just can’t visit the same woods day after day without the locals getting suspicious. I hate it when that happens. Shannon:
Most chilling to me was the padded cell - padded not so that the prisoners wouldn’t hurt themselves, but so that the padding could muffle their cries while they were being tortured. Not pleasant stuff. Upstairs, the ground floor recounts the struggle by Lithuanian independence fighters to keep
fighting against an increasingly repressive and obviously well-funded Soviet regime. That they managed to keep it up until 1953 - almost a decade after the second Soviet occupation - was a testament to their perseverance. The second floor illuminated what life was like for the approximately 200,000 Lithuanians sent to hard labor camps - farmers who refused to join the collectives, priests, intellectuals and other “enemies of the state”. It also explained the role of the KGB in all of this. Sean:
There was the eavesdropping room with all that 1960’s technology (although looking very benign from my AD 2006 vantage) where the comings and goings of anyone they cared to know about were monitored. They operated in the building until the fresh-off-the-Glasnost-boat, newly formed Lithuanian government finally kicked them out in 1991. Thankfully the US never recognized the Soviet claim to Lithuania (that showed those commies!). Although that little bit of diplomacy wasn’t greeted with as much joy as some protection would’ve been when Lithuania - sensing a foreboding future sandwiched between the two large and slowly encroaching behemoths - came knocking on all the worlds’ doors in the 1930’s.
But all that’s in the past. With
Vilnius' Main Cathdral
This is the spot where, in 1989, a human chain ended which began in Tallinn, Estonia (a total of 375 miles) protesting Soviet rule.
its NATO membership certificate tucked under one arm and the full EU diploma tucked under the other, it’s striding fairly confidently into this century. Shannon:
The museum was truly excellent. The displays were well done and the information very complete. The hardest part about reading it all were looking at the real faces of everyday people - much of the information was gleaned from the personal files of the people shown - and reading about their fates. Many of them had before-and-after shots - pictures taken before so much misfortune befell them, and then the pictures from their later life. So much tragedy - many shot, others sent to hard labor camps - it was hard to absorb it all.
Leaving the museum, back in the bright sunshine of a gorgeous spring day, we walked toward the center of Vilnius, which has the distinction of having the largest (in area) Old Town of any Eastern European city. We stumbled upon an outdoor fair celebrating the foods and crafts of different countries (all EU nations, though there was the rogue Turkey represented as well). We looked amongst the booths but with the lack of seating we decided to find
a local restaurant to fortify ourselves. The local food we’ve sampled so far has been good, but hardly innovative. It tends to be more of the meat-and-potatoes variety, and starches seem to play an above-average role in the local diet. Potatoes topped with meat, potatoes filled with meat, more potatoes and a bit of meat…all served with copious amounts of bread, of course. At least it’s really good rye bread and not the bland stuff we found so often in Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria.
Sean has been indulging quite a bit in the local brew - like all Eastern European countries we’ve visited so far, beer is really, really cheap - and my mom (who has always been a bit more of a wine drinker) caught cider fever back in England and has been sampling the local versions here as well. So we are definitely doing our part to live as the locals.
May 7, 2006 Shannon:
With one more day in this capitol city, we decided to do a self-guided walking tour through Vilnius, hitting the highlights along the way. Our route took us through some of the nicest streets in the Old Town, passing
Sheik Yerbouti! At one time a statue of Lenin stood on this spot. Imagine his surprise if he knew who his replacement was.
through the fortifications, up to the top of the largest hill (crowned with the remains of a castle) and finally ending up in the New Town staring at a statue of Frank Zappa (because really, why wouldn’t
there be a bust of the legendary rocker here in Vilnius?). It seems that it was a gift to the city from the Lithuanian Frank Zappa Fan Club and is one of only two statues of Moon Unit and Dweezil’s dad in the whole world. Hmmmm…
If you are to believe some of the wackier residents of Vilnius, we even took the time to leave the country on our little sojourn today. The breakaway Republic of Uzupis, separated from the rest of Vilnius by the Vilnia River, apparently was created as a light-hearted protest over the ever-increasing property prices in the Old Town, which pushed some in the artistic community into the more down-at-the-heels neighborhood of Uzupis. In response, they created their own nation, complete with a Constitution (including such tidbits as “Everyone has the right to die, but this is not an obligation”, "Everyone has the right to love and take care of the cat" and "Sometimes everyone has the right
to be unaware of their duties."). Now a cool and edgy neighborhood, residents celebrate each year on April Fools Day by staging a big Independence Day celebration. It’s supposed to be a lot of fun, with “border guards” stamping passports at the bridge and the “President” making speeches in their main square. Unfortunately, it will probably become a victim of its own success, as the mayor (the real mayor of Vilnius, that is) has recently purchased a house there. So much for the neighborhood...
May 9, 2006 Sean:
We jumped a train two days ago for the Baltic Sea coast. Klaipeda, the third largest city in the country, isn’t nearly as picturesque as Vilnius, but it is on the water. And separating the town from the harsh sea is a kilometer wide, tree filled spit of land that stretches all the way south to the Kaliningrad region of Russia (a tiny Russian outpost). We took the short ferry over to see the beaches yesterday and the spit, at least at this end, has the feel of a large and quiet city park (not that Klaipeda is awash in people and noise), with many pedestrian paths leading
to the beaches on the seaward side. After getting off the ferry, we walked straight to the beach and trotted barefoot on the hot, spring day. It was so warm out that we assumed the sand would be much hotter than it really was, but were pleasantly surprised at the comfortably warm grains flowing between our toes as we plodded along the beach. The real surprise came when we stepped into the water. I understand now why you don’t imagine “Baltic Sea” and “hotties frolicking in the water” in the same thought...’cause it’s DAMN COLD! In the time it took to take a picture of the pained look on my face, my feet started their quick trip to blue before their eventual falling off. Sure the beach is nice, but having lived on the Gulf Coast for so many years, you get spoiled as to what to expect of the water when the weather says “nice and warm”.
We took the ferry over again today and skipped the beach to jump on the bus for a 20 minute ride south to the small town of Juodkrante to see a sculpture park.
As we explained before, the Lithuanian mythical
pantheon includes plenty of mischievous creatures, witches and devils, so it’s no surprise that the Witches Hill sculpture park is full of wooden figures and scenes devoted to these themes. Stories from their fairy tales and legends come to life in the multiple acre sculpture park that’s been growing for the last 25 years.
Artisans started coming out to these woods in the late seventies/early eighties to carve their visions into timber and every summer since then wooden craftsmen have been returning to leave their mark. Shannon:
It’s a neat place to visit. Having accumulated these wooden sculptures over the past 25+ years, the park is great for kids and adults alike. You can slide down a giant wooden tongue, see-saw on a giant troll or totter on a wooden rocking horse. You can also join in on a poker game between the devil and a witch or merely gape at the hundreds of wooden ghouls, demons, witches, trolls and other assorted weird and wacky creatures. We purchased a small guidebook that told us some of the folk tales that inspired these wooden creatures and it ended up being well worth the time and effort to get there.
Before we departed Klaipeda, we also browsed in some of the tourist shops. If there is one thing that Lithuania is known for, it is for their amber deposits. Called “Baltic Gold”, a huge motherlode was discovered in the bay between mainland Lithuania and the Curionian Spit. Thousands of tons of it was mined there between the years 1854-1860, which is a staggering amount to me now that I’ve felt how light it actually is. Amber, as I’ve learned, is fossilized resin, originating from the sap of ancient pine forests. In the Cenozoic era these pine forests secreted “rivers” of sap, entrapping and preserving any insects that were unlucky enough to get stuck. Thousands of years later, early humans used it as a fuel (it burns very well) then progressed to using it as a currency before finally enshrining it in that holiest of manners, on the shelves of the local tourist shops. As it is now perhaps the
most ubiquitous item sold, we’ve seen quite a lot of examples of it, some very interesting. Back in Vilnius we had gone to an Amber Gallery (part shop, part museum) where they had some modern art pieces made from amber
(my favorite was a piece containing a mosquito cut to fit inside a hypodermic needle). Sadly, so far I have been unable to locate enough amber-entrapped mosquitoes with which to rebuild my Jurassic empire, but I’ll keep looking.
Amber also features prominently in one of the regions unsolved mysteries. The Amber Room was once a gift from the King of Prussia to Peter the Great in 1716. Made up of 10,000 panels of curved and polished amber it was installed in the Catherine Palace near St. Petersburg until 1942, when the Germans invaded and plundered the riches of the castle and allegedly carried the treasure south. Local residents of Juodkrante saw SS soldiers burying huge crates in the Curonian Lagoon, which they believed to contain the lost panels. In the 1990’s they began looking for it, digging here and there, but gave up without finding anything. Perhaps, like Sean, they just got too cold standing in the surf.
May 12, 2006 Sean:
We left Klaipeda by bus to the town of Siauliai and it’s most popular attraction: the Hill of Crosses. This is one of those places in the world where I would encourage
everyone to go. Where the Vatican is gorgeous in its splendor and no-expense-spared beauty, the Hill of Crosses amazes because of its simplicity and sheer mind boggling size. No one really knows why it started, but people have been leaving crosses, rosaries and devotions to the dead at this site for hundreds of years - possibly since the Middle Ages. The amount of crosses littering the two small hills is absolutely astounding. It is impossible to even get an idea of the - perhaps - millions of effigies to Christ there are. During the Soviet times (when leaving a cross could get you arrested) the practice took on a whole new, defiant meaning. The Soviets bulldozed the area on numerous occasions and fabricated a myriad of ways to keep people away. But undeterred, there were always more crosses placed by the morning, sprouting up as if planted. It stands - to me anyway - as a tribute to a determined people and their desire not to be completely subjugated. There were many things the Soviets were able to get away with, but the locals chose this as a means of protest and were able to offer a glimpse into the
soul of a people that wanted to be free.
The site gained more notoriety when Pope John Paul II visited in 1993 and he left a large statue of Jesus. Since then, tour buses regularly call here for visitors to gawk and leave their own crosses. If you come without an offering of your own, don’t worry as there are plenty of vendors just outside who can sell you one (in any size, too). Michele left one for her Lithuanian grandmother and Shannon and I left one for my grandmother, Yia Yia, a devoutly Catholic woman who I’m sure would’ve not only appreciated the gesture, but been amazed herself at this unique site.
From Siauliai, it was on to Riga, and Michele’s last stop before heading back to Portland. Our arrival here unfortunately coincided with the preliminary rounds of the World Championships of Hockey - and no better country could host this event as the Latvians just freakin’ love this sport. This zeal was evidenced last night by the deafening, drunken cacophony from the street below our hotel room even though the home team took an 11:0 shellacking from the mighty Canooks (Rock on, North America!).
arriving in Ireland a month ago, we've been surrounded by family, so it was with a little sadness that we said goodbye to Michele - our last holdout. We all rode out to the airport by bus this morning and as Shannon and I caught one back to town, we reflected on everything we’d done with our families. What amazing times we had! A big “THANK YOU!” goes out to everyone who’d joined us in the last month and became a permanent part of these adventures.
But now it’s time to get back to the job at hand and the serious business of traveling. Until next time…
There are more photos below