Category Archives: Lithuania

Some Nice Sights

On my final day in Vilnius I was lucky to have really good light, so I went on my second wander round the old town. Here are some highlights of both my daylight potterings. For the full set of my Vilnius photos, see my Flickr here.

IMG_3839 (Large)

I bought a gorgeous handknitted wrap from this market lady – she’d learned enough English to say that I should wash it with shampoo at 35 degrees but nothing else! I loved her smile though, and her fur coat (everyone in Lithuania seems to have these) – so I asked to take her photo.

Love Locks

Love Locks

The Lithuanian tradition of locking your love with engraved padlocks, as seen in the daylight.

Miles from home

Miles from home

This chain of souvenir shops had the compulsory directions to various cities of note displayed. They also had these cheery log Santas outside all their branches:

Happy Santas

Happy Santas

Old Street

Old Street

A couple of the many narrow winding streets, in various states of repair, around the city. As Lina mentioned, there are some apartments, even in the city, that don’t have central heating or running water. I did wonder if some of the more crumbly looking buildings were in this category.

Winding Street

Winding Street

Teapots

Teapots

A teashop on the main tourist street. No idea how they got that corner one to stick!

Balcony

Balcony

One of the remnants of the old Jewish community that once thrived in Vilnius.

Oldest Church in Vilnius

Oldest Church in Vilnius

Dating from the 14th century..

..and the largest church, the breathtaking Vilnius Cathedral:

Vilnius Cathedral

Vilnius Cathedral

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The Joy of Tracks

Trakai Castle

Trakai Castle

On Saturday I took a train trip to Trakai, which is about half an hour west of Vilnius. It is in the middle of the Trakai Historical National Park and was once home to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The town of Trakai is built between large natural lakes and has a fairytale island castle in the middle of one  of them!

Frozen lake Bernardinai

Frozen lake Bernardinai

The lakes were completely frozen when I visited, making for some picturesque vistas, milling tourists, a traditional kibinai van (kibinai are a bit like small Cornish pasties), and assorted small children skating on the ice.

Proper Ice Skating

Proper Ice Skating

It wasn’t so much the lakes and castle that excited me, pretty though they were, but the journey there. You can get both the bus and the train from Vilnius to Trakai, but I was urged to get the bus as it goes more frequently. But it’s been nearly two years since I first took a train in another country and I was desperate for some foreign rail travel. Plus it meant I got a lie-in, so it was off to Vilnius Railway Station, another grand, high-ceiling-ed affair, the towering facade evoking anticipation of adventure.

Vilnius Railway Station

Vilnius Railway Station

Getting on a train is so straightforward, but has so many possibilities. Not so much in the UK, where train travel is cramped & expensive and distances short, but international stations are so atmospheric. From having separate local and international ticket offices to having distant destinations on the departure board, to the detail and grandiosity of the buildings – Vilnius station has a wolf (which legend says inspired Gediminas to build the city) proudly howling from one of its stuccoed buildings.

Vilnius Wolf

Vilnius Wolf

And then you step onto the platform and see the expanse of tracks and carriages, any one of them waiting to take you through obscure little towns to foreign cities. The platforms aren’t even raised, so there’s no barrier to getting to the platform you need – you can just walk across the tracks. Then you see carriages heave into view. Has that huge, unhurried train at the other side of the station come from Russia? Where is it going? Where will it stop on its way? How long have its passengers been on it? Who are they going to see? Who are they travelling with? As you watch them get off one of the longer sleeper trains, it’s clear there are a huge variety of travellers – families with kids on a Christmas visit to the city, perhaps for the Christmas festival or perhaps to see grandparents. Young men waiting  nervously on the platform with roses for their girlfriends, people with huge suitcases coming home after some time away. Smokers who’ve been in the carriage so long between stops they first thing they do is smoke a cigarette of relief, standing with their luggage while they take in the comfort of a journey finished.

Trakai Train

Trakai Train

And then I get to set off on my short trip, through countryside unfamiliar enough to me that I could pretend for half an  hour I was off on a much longer journey. My old Soviet train creaked into the station the insides of the carriage, clean, wide, comfortable, but riveted together in the most sturdy fashion.

Joan Aiken Woods

Joan Aiken Woods

We creaked out of the station,  leaving the industrial and revolution-worn suburbs, then quickly we were creaking through the bleak forests I’d seen from the plane, dotted with ramshackle wooden houses – their bright colours faded with soot, with frozen lakes adjacent holding the remnants of their inhabitants’ summers:

Frozen Countryside Lakes

Frozen Countryside Lakes

Through snow covered tracks, we passed into tiny local stations,

Voke Station

Voke Station

and just as quickly we were back in industrial suburbs, driving past Cyrillic printed freight containers, concrete cooling towers – but all of it so refreshingly different to my eyes that it I had half an hour happily imagining a half day’s worth of escape to somewhere new.

Concrete Industry

Concrete Industry

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Flying the Lithuanian Flag

Flags at the Presidential Palace

Flags at the Presidential Palace

So I’m back home now, but I’ve still got  few posts brewing from my brief Lithuania trip. Something I’m always interested in is the history of the country or city I’m visiting, and I like to get a feel for this by talking to locals, and if there’s a good museum I might go there too – if nothing else it can be a good source of questions and conversation starters. One place Lina insists all her guests visit is the Lithuanian KGB museum for the remembrance of the victims of genocide. Having been to the Terror House in Budapest, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go (assuming a similar catalogue of atrocities against humanity and a traumatic time courtesy of my graphic imagination), but Lina assured me that it was worth seeing the story from the Lithuanian point of view. So after a morning walking round Vilnius old town, I felt the need for a reference point and took myself off to the museum.

The museum is housed in the old KGB headquarters, and sure enough there are records of disappearances, executions, political prisoners and enemies of the state, people discriminated against and erased for no logical reason. But the main part of the museum focuses on two additional parts of the Soviet Lithuanian story (I didn’t visit the basement execution chambers, which I’m sure focuses more on the story of the political dissidents).

Gediminas, the founder of Vilnius

Gediminas, the founder of Vilnius

The first part of the story focuses on the random mass deportations of Lithuanian citizens to remote parts of Russia, not because they were deemed traitors or undesirable (the fate of these were labour camp sentences or worse) but the Soviets apparently simply wanted a certain type of people in certain places and decided to move others to other places, dragged from their beds in nighttime raids and transported crammed into cattle trucks for days or weeks until they reached their destination. Unsurprisingly many never even made it to their new “home” and died during the journey. The new villages were usually poor and ramshackle, the displaced Lithuanians left to fend for themselves and assimilate into the Russian culture and way of life.

Vilnius Street

Vilnius Street

This baffling population reshuffle seems bizarre for so many reasons, not least because it doesn’t seem to be achieving anything. The regime hated its opponents so sent them to labour camps for “rehabilitation”, which makes sense in its twisted, unethical way. But I can’t work out why the deportees were deported into Russia – if they weren’t wanted in the new Soviet territory of Lithuania, why would they be wanted in the heart of the Soviet Russia motherland? Perhaps the remote poverty stricken villages they were sent to were despised as much as the deportees were. But either way, they were still left to live their lives deeper inside the country that hated them, and for the life of me I couldn’t work out what twisted logic may have been behind this policy.

What I found interesting was that these people were left reasonably well alone, although in poor conditions, without permission to travel (especially not back home to Lithuania) and were expected to integrate into Russian society and schools at the expense of their own culture and language. But these pockets of deported Lithuanians fought hard to keep their culture alive (as did those sent to labour camps), and taught their children the Lithuanian language, culture & customs for nearly 50 years, despite being surrounded by thousands of miles of Russian language and culture, and Soviet oppression. Even after the death of Stalin, some had permission to travel, but Soviet Lithuania refused them permission to return home to live, and they were forced to return to their Russian homes.

The Gediminas Tower

The Gediminas Tower

While these deportees were desperately keeping the Lithuanian flag flying (literally it seems), rebels back home in Lithuania formed an army of Partisans, forced to live in the forests and relying on sympathisers to act as messengers and for supplies – fiercely trying to keep Lithuanian heritage alive throughout the Soviet occupation. They swore oaths of allegiance to their cause and kept their resistance up against all odds.

All of this gives a really powerful insight into Lithuanian national pride, and explains why nearly every building, in the old town at least, flies the national flag. As a westerner it’s hard to imagine the intolerable conditions the deportees had to endure, and equally how hard it was to keep the culture alive for so long in a country they had no choice about living in, through 50 years’ worth of generations. But if the Lithuanian culture was all the deportees, and the partisan fighters, and the labour camp prisoners, had to cling onto to get them through the Soviet occupation and maintain their identity, it becomes reassuringly clear why there is such a sense of patriotism here.

Presidential Palace

Presidential Palace

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ZAP!

Continuing the theme of places that Vilnius reminds me of, I have two more entries. The first is this street, IMG_3676 (Large)

which looks suspiciously like this one in Brasov, Romania. Admittedly the angles are a bit different but they felt exactly the same to walk down.

The second thing is Vilnius’ monument to Frank Zappa, which reminds me of the disembodied celebrity heads in Futurama. Quite why bthe Lithuanians have a replica of Frank Zappa’s head on a plinth and a random car park next to a walk-in health centre is not immediately obvious, as he has no Lithuanian connection , not at least prior to the statue’s erection.

One internet source suggests it’s simply because he’s not Lenin (all the Soviet statues were removed post-independence in the early 90s). Other guide books hint at him being chosen for his freedom of expression, something the Lithuanians had to fight hard for under 50 years of Soviet occupation. Whatever the exact reasons are (I shall have to ask Lina if she can shed any light), Vilnius does indeed now have a Frank Zappa monument, its proponents having reassured sceptics about Zappa’s leftiness (something for recently Soviet-suppressed to realistically worry about), and a Frank Zappa fan club sprang up, led by DJs and artists dedicating weekly shows to his work – and apparently it’s not thriving. Here he is, in all his snowy car parked glory (ubiquitous Bob Marley’s face graffiti is alas obscured behind Frank’s pole):

Frank Zappa

Frank Zappa

Frank Zappa's car park

Frank Zappa’s car park

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A Lithuanian Constitution

Uzupio's Emblem (as far as I could work out)

Uzupis’ Emblem (as far as I could work out)

In case you’re interested, here’s the full 41 points of the Uzupian constitution that’s posted in fifteen languages on one of the walls on a Uzupian street. It was a bit too dark to read them all myself yesterday evening so this is partly so I can read them all too!

Uzupian constitution

Uzupian constitution

    1. Everyone has the right to live by River Vilnene, and the River Vilnene has the right to flow by everyone

 

  • Everyone has the right to hot water, heating in winter and a tiled roof
  • Everyone has the right to die, but this is not an obligation
  • Everyone has the right to make mistakes
  • Everyone has the right to be unique
  • Everyone has the right to love
  • Everyone has the right not to be  loved, but this is not necessary
  • Everyone has the right to be indistinguished and unknown
  • Everyone has the right to idle
  • Everyone has the right to love and care for the cat
  • Everyone has the right to look after the dog until one of them dies [not quite sure why this obligation is released at death for dogs, but that the obligation to the cat continues in the afterlife…typical really…]
  • A dog has the right to be a dog
  • A cat is not obliged to love its owner but must help in time of nee [sic] [I’m none the wiser as to how one achieves this either!]
  • Sometimes everyone has the right to be unaware of their duties
  • Everyone has the right to be in doubt, but this is not an obligation
  • Everyone has the right to be happy
  • Everyone has the right to be unhappy
  • Everyone has the right to be silent
  • Everyone has the right to have faith
  • No-one has the right to violence
  • Everyone has the right to appreciate their unimportance
  • No-one has the right to a design on eternity
  • Everyone has the right to understand
  • Everyone has the right to understand nothing
  • Everyone has the right to be of any nationality
  • Everyone has the right to celebrate or not celebrate their birthday
  • Everyone shall remember their name
  • Everyone may share what they possess
  • No-one can share what they do not possess
  • Everyone has the right to have brothers, sisters and parents
  • Everyone may be independent
  • Everyone is responsible for their freedom
  • Everyone has the right to cry
  • Everyone has the right to be misunderstood
  • No-one has the right to make another person guilty
  • Everyone has the right to be an individual
  • Everyone has the right to have no rights
  • Everyone has the right to not be afraid
  • Do not defeat
  • Do not fight back
  • Do not surrender

 

Not a bad set of rules if you ask me…

The difference of the last 3 statements to the first 38 felt to me to give them additional significance. They actually seem to be of a more serious and determined mood than the others – as if the Uzupians are saying, take the first 38 as tongue-in-cheek utopian ideals if you will, but do not mistake these last 3:

Constitution in Lithuanian and English

Multi-lingual constitution

When I visited the KGB museum dedicated to the victims of genocide today, I was reading about the Lithuanian Partisan resistance movement who fought the soviet occupiers until Stalin’s death in 1953. Partisans had to swear an oath of allegiance, which if broken, required a trial by fellow partisans, or court marshall for more serious offences. I read one story of a messenger who worked for the partisans who was captured by the soviets, and eventually committed suicide by swallowing some mercury from a thermometer, rather than break her oath not to surrender. The use of this exact word in the Uzupian constitution made me wonder if the constitution was based on this clearly deep-seated sense of allegiance, and if it was possibly a direct quote from the Partisans’ Oath. The museum didn’t clarify, google was non-specific, and when I asked Lina she wasn’t sure either – but she did say it was funny how many people draw similarities between things they see at the KGB museum, and the parts of the Uzupian constitution. So I like to think I was right, and that the Uzupian constitution is more than the product of a load of bohemians and hipsters trying to be edgy and controversial, and that the Uzupian ideology has a serious intention to encapsulate the antithesis of Soviet repression and embrace true freedom.

I’m unclear as to the significance of the Lithuanian name Uzupis sounding so similar to the English utopia, which is what the Uzupians have tried to create of course! I asked Lina about it and she said the the name Uzupis means “behind the River” and that it has always been called that. To her, the words Utopia and Uzupis sound different so I’m clearly reading too much into it but it would be a nice piece of serendipity if it were linked…

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Night Vision

Snowy Vilnius

Snowy Vilnius

Well I’ve been here 36 hours and I still haven’t seen Vilnius in the daylight. Oops. I’ve spent most of today snoozing – it feels like I’ve not had a proper nights sleep for a week but I feel nice and refreshed now. To make up for my day of laziness I went for a walk to a viewpoint that Lina, our hostel host, recommended especially at night, on top of the old town walls.

Vilnius Old Walls

Vilnius Old Walls

Now I don’t like to whip my map out too much in public as I hate looking like a tourist and thus a potential target. So I had a good look before I left and did the route by memory up until I came across what I thought was my turning, which was quite a narrow road, not as well lit as the main ones. Most of the other pedestrians were turning left instead of right down this side street, so I opted to follow them, and my nose and see if I could manage to take the scenic route to the town walls. They do say that the first thing you should do to explore a new city is get lost in it..

Republic of Uzupio

Republic of Uzupio

So for my next sight, I came across a large floodlit church (St Bartholomew’s), beyond which was a (snow-covered) green, a river and some pretty houses with twinkly Christmas lights. As I was surreptitiously trying to take photos of said twinkly lights without looking like a tourist, I realised I’d found the suburb of Užupis, and it had taken me hardly any time to get to, despite it looking quite a trek on the map. Vilnius, I am discovering, has quite a compact old town, so it’s nice and easy to explore.

Uzupio's Emblem (as far as I could work out)

Uzupio’s Emblem (as far as I could work out)

On my wander round, I passed several cosy-looking  bohemian eateries and a rather impressive statue called (I later found) the angel of Užupis, a depiction of the archangel Gabriel blowing his trumpet heralding the rebirth of artistic freedom in Eastern Europe. Or so the legend goes. It certainly engenders that kind of portentous feeling in the observer, at least with the atmospheric uplighting!

Republic of Uzupio

Republic of Uzupio

Užupis is interesting because it’s not actually part of Vilnius or indeed Lithuania, or so its residents would like everyone to think. This is the Independent Republic of Užupis! It was in fact the old Jewish quarter and since the second world war has been home to a variety of the displaced, which in turn attracted bohemians and artists as a haven from the Soviets, and in 1997 they declared themselves independent, complete with their own constitution (which I’ll put in my next post), currency, flag and president, although no-one is quite sure how serious all of that is. It seems to be more a statement of personal freedom and cultural harmony, and perhaps a reminder we shouldn’t take life so seriously anyway.

Marriage Love Locks

Marriage Love Locks over Vilnele

I crossed back over the river Vilnelė (the river which gives Vilnius its name no less) and noticed that the ironwork on the bridge was crammed with padlocks and the occasional ribbon. Puzzled I thought this must  be some bohemian statement, but Lina explained it was more universal than that and that it is a tradition at Lithuanian weddings for couples to “lock their love” with a padlock (inscribed with their names) to a bridge near their home, often as the groom carries his bride across (the Lithuanian threshold perhaps!). Which I thought was really lovely, even the rusty ones that had weathered the ravages of time.

I then made it up the snowy hill to the town walls, although I’m not sure if I found the right bit as the lovely views were a bit obscured by the walls themselves:

Night Time Lights

Night Time Lights

But to finish off the day, Lina took me to her favourite traditional cafe bar, as she’d been craving some sauerkraut soup all day (an excellent hangover cure apparently). I was keen to try the famous Zeppelin potato dumplings and Lina kindly ordered 2 for me without me realising! Man they were good, but there’s no way I could eat two – I was struggling with one. Not only are they basically massive sausages of minced pork wrapped in massive thick wads of potato dumpling, they come (at least at this place) doused in a creamy bacon sauce and a portion of herbs and seasoning. Absolutely delicious, perfect comfort food, and Lina has promised to give me her mother’s recipe for them to take home!

Zeppelin & Gira!

Zeppelin & Gira!

The bar also did some really good beers, some of which were from the local micro brewery. Now I’m not a big fan of beer, or ale, or anything related, but Lina suggested I try “Gira”, which she described as “bread beer”. It’s non alcoholic and quite sweet, with a hint of burnt caramel or honey. She wasn’t sure what went into making it but we both agreed it hit the spot! And after all that stodge, I think I’m ready for bed again and some more well-earned sleeping!

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Way too toasty

I’m actually a bit disappointed it’s not -14 here anymore, as I’d stocked up on layers and now I can’t try any of them out because I just get way too warm. It’s supposed to snow again later today though so that might make my clothing feel a bit more appropriate. And I might get to make a snowman before it all gets cleared away!

I’ve not decided what to see today yet, but I’ve got lots of recommendations to go on. I might see how many things I can find that remind me of other places. For a start, the old town, which I had a wander through last night, reminds me of a large-ish English market town, complete with cobbled streets. But much better Christmas lights. Walking past the railway station, I was reminded of Krakow’s railway station approach, with its grand entrance and square outside.

image

Strangest of all though was the airport entrance. Airside looks much like any other airport, all glass panels and dull metal girders; endless staircases, corridors and barriers, but if you approach from the street, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were about to embark on a long steam-hauled train journey.

image

There are intricate cornices and plasterwork, balconies, chandeliers, a refreshing absence of advertising and billboards, and a definite golden age of steam atmosphere. Which will make getting on a plasticky Ryanair plane home even more disappointing. Maybe I’ll take the train instead…

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