There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Friday, 8 July 2011

The Baltic Capitals: Part 1 Vilnius, Lithuania

Next post in this strand: Riga
Previous post in this strand: A Load of Baltics

Vilnius Old Town from the Castle

7000 years ago tribes migrating westwards from the Ural Mountains reached the Baltic Sea. They would, one day, become the Estonians. In 3000 BC another group of wanderers arrived, pushing the earlier migrants north into what became Estonia and colonising the southern section of the coast. They were the ancestors of the Lithuanians and Latvians.

5000 years later Lynne and I arrived and descended the steps outside Vilnius’ modest airport. It was not raining, but it was clearly only a gap between showers. Picking our way through the puddles, we followed signs to the station. It turned out to be as modest as the airport, nestling beside a single-track line at the bottom of a deep cutting. We had, it seemed, just missed the hourly train.

A fine drizzle filled the air as we trundled our case back towards the airport. There was only one bus stop, the shelter crowded with a gaggle of homeward bound airport workers. ‘Does this bus go to the city centre?’ Lynne asked in English. We are not fans of the Anglophone indifference to other people’s languages, but the prospect of encountering three different languages in a week had been a touch daunting. That is a pathetic excuse, but the best we can offer.

Latvian and Lithuanian are the only surviving languages of the Baltic group, a sub-group of the vast Indo-European language family that covers everything from Hindi to Welsh (though not Estonian). We soon learned that speaking a language from a related branch of the Indo-European family cut no ice. We were treated to some of the blankest blank looks I have seen anywhere. After a few seconds embarrassed silence the lone traveller among those waiting – or at least the only person with a suitcase – piped up with a querulous ‘I hope so.’ We hoped so too and joined the queue.
We did not have to hope for long, a bus turned up almost immediately with ‘Stotis’ (station) on the front and that was where we wanted to go.

Our journey through the rainy outer suburbs seemed more like time travel than a bus ride, transporting us instantly back to the 1970s. Vilnius is not large and ten minutes later we reached the station, or rather stations as the train and long distance bus stations sit either side of the local bus terminus.

Sheltering under a tree, we tried to decide which way to walk. I thought one way, Lynne championed the other, but the more we looked at the map the less there was of it - the paper was dissolving in our hands. We retreated to a less permeable shelter. After further study I had to admit Lynne was right, which was galling as she readily admits to having no sense of direction.

It might have been a short walk to our hotel just outside the Old Town, but it was a long way to drag a suitcase through what had become a serious rainstorm.

An hour or two later, dried, rested and refreshed we ventured into the Old Town through the Gate of Dawn (P Floyd’s piper was absent, presumably sheltering from the weather). There were few people on the streets, even though the rain had eased, and it felt strangely deserted.  Restaurants were open though, and we found dinner – the Baltic staple of pork and potatoes – with ease.

Outside The Gate of Dawn, Vilnius
(The opening in the white painted building)

Next morning we returned to a less deserted Old Town. July the 6th is the day Lithuanians commemorate the Crowning of King Mindaugas. We were to see many people in national costume and countless children wearing red cardboard crowns and waving cardboard swords.

King Mindaugas outside the National Museum

The Baltic states are isolated from the rest of Europe by bogs and forests, and the Dark Ages lingered long here. Lithuania remained pagan until the 13th century when a powerful chieftain named Mindaugas united the tribes and adopted Christianity - mainly in the hope of winning wider recognition. His scheme succeeded and in 1253 a papal representative crowned him King of Lithuania. He was murdered by pagan nobles ten years later, but by then Lithuania was well on the way to becoming a major regional power.  In the 14th century, King Gediminas founded Vilnius and extended Lithuanian rule into Russia and Ukraine. In 1382, when the Polish King died without an heir, King Jogaila, Gediminas’ grandson, was offered the Polish throne.

In one of several parallels with the relationship between England and Scotland, the new King of Lithuania and Poland was quick to desert provincial Vilnius for the bright lights of Krakow, the Polish capital. The union of Poland and Lithuania lasted, with ups and downs, until the 18th century and at its largest extent ruled an empire stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

Inside the Gate of Dawn
The Great Northern War (1700-21) put an end to Polish power and Lithuania was eventually absorbed into Tsarist Russia where it stayed until the Russian revolution. During the inter-war period of independence, Vilnius was actually in Poland and the Lithuanians set up a temporary capital in the second city of Kaunas.

It is no surprise then that Vilnius looks and feels Polish and, unlike Lutheran Riga and Tallinn, remains staunchly Catholic.

The Madonna of the Gate of Dawn lives in a chapel on top of the gate. She is happy to receive visitors except during Mass, and this being a holiday, a priest and choir were busy doing their stuff. We popped into the adjacent St Theresa’s instead. Like many major buildings in the Old Town it dates from the mid-1600s – fires having dealt with most earlier constructions.

St Theresa's Chrch, Vilnius

Next door is the site where, in 1347, three Christians named Anthony, Ioan and Eustachius were hanged on the instructions of the pagan Grand Duke Algirdas. When Algirdas converted to Christianity he built a chapel over the execution site, which no doubt made Anthony, Ioan and Eustachiuis feel much better. In the 17th century that chapel was rebuilt as the Church of the Holy Spirit.  Anthony, Ioan and Eustachiuis  now lie under a green cover in a glass case in front of an inappropriately frivolous green iconostasis. Mass was under way, but being Russian Orthodox it was part service, part performance and the congregation wandered in and out, just like the tourists. We paused to listen to the singing. I sometimes wonder what happens to a young man who feels called to the Russian Orthodox priesthood but lacks the obligatory booming bass voice.

Anthony, Ioan and Eustachius and the geen iconostasis
Church of the Holy Spirit, Vilnius

Several more churches line the main road through the Old Town, but it would be tedious to list them all. There is also a square containing the town hall, an imposing neo-classical slab of a building.

Lynne outside Vilnius Town Hall

We saw several film posters announcing the imminent arrival of one Haris Poteris – presumably a relative of the Garry Potter we had previously met in Russia. All Lithuanian masculine nouns end in ‘s’ and Lithuanians are happy to change anybody’s name to fit their system, just ask Mikas Jaggeris.

An unprepossessing side-street by the university - founded in 1569 and the oldest in the Baltics – took us to the presidential palace. The lane opened onto a square with the palace opposite. Being the national day a dais and several chairs had been set out and soldiers and sailors were casually marking out where they would stand when the parade started. A television outside broadcast unit was setting up while on the edge of the square a father and his small son were kicking a football. The absence of officious ‘security guards’ was refreshing.

Sailors marking out their places otside the Presidential Palace

Continuing north we reached the end of the Old Town in Cathedral Square. The cathedral, once described as a cross between ‘a Greek Temple and a Polish civic theatre’ is not one of Vilnius’ most impressive churches. King Mindaugas built the first church here, obliterating an earlier shrine dedicated to Perkunas, the Lithuanian god of thunder. We would encounter evidence that Perkunas is still miffed. The baroque ‘lighthouse’ which stands, slightly out of true, at the western end of the square serves as a belfry, but was once a tower in the city wall. The square contained another outside broadcast unit, several groups of women in national costume and a statue of King Gediminas, the founder of the city.

The Cathedral and its 'leaning lighthouse'

Between Cathedral Square and the River Neris is a low hill on which the castle once sat. We followed a path that wound up to the top of the hill. It was a short walk, though a small funicular railway – as modest as the airport and its station – crawls up the back of the hill.

King Gediminas in Cathedral Square

A rebuilt tower on the summit is the sole remnant of the castle. For a modest fee you can enter the tower, see models of the original castle and a few suits of armour, and climb the spiral staircase for the best view of Vilnius.

All that remains of Vilnius Castle

From above, Vilnius appears a very green city. The roofs of the Old Town spread away to the south, low wooded hills bounded the city to the west while north, across the River Neris, we saw the glass towers of an appropriately modest business district. It was midday and far below we heard the sound of cannon fire. It might have been a revolution but was, we guessed, the national day celebrations. We could not see them, so we had to imagine the women in traditional costume dancing in Cathedral Square.

Vilnius' appropriately modest business district across the River Neris

We had stood on top of the tower in bright sunshine but, as we began descending the hill, rain started to fall. With a dozen others we ducked into the funicular station.

The sunshine and showers were reminiscent of a British April, but the showers were torrential and the sunshine, when it came, was seriously hot. Twenty minutes later we ate lunch with an umbrella shielding us from the sun.

The standard beer snack throughout the Baltics, translated on menus as ‘garlic bread’, is deep fried dark bread splattered with crushed garlic.  We opted for a more elaborate ‘brewer’s platter’ which partnered the garlicky fried bread with salami, cheese, a sprinkling of Pringles and strips of smoked pig’s ear. I ate pig’s ear stew once in Portugal and did not entirely enjoy the strip of gristle in every mouthful. This pig’s ear was a soft and smoky strip of unctuous porkiness.

Lynne and a 'Brewer's Platter'

Our walk round castle hill to the National Museum was interrupted by a tantrum from Perkunas, the god of thunder. We raised our umbrella, huddled under some trees and watched the rain bounce off the road.

The main street of Vilnius old town

The Lithuanian National Museum is a large and well laid out collection tracing local history from the arrival of the wandering tribes to the present day. Most impressive was the collection of wooden statues and crucifixes which once stood at crossroads and at the entrance to every village.

Wooden statues once found at crossroads and the entrance to villages
Lithuanian National Museum, Vilnius

After the museum a long walk in search of the semi-legendary Skonis ir Kvapas tea house (we found it, but it was closed for refurbishment) resulted in us drinking cappuccinos in a café on the central reservation of Vokieciu Gatve, a dual carriageway with more grass in the middle than tarmac at the edge.

It is quiet now, but once ran through the centre of Vilnius’ Jewish quarter, and during the Nazi occupation was the dividing line between the city’s two ghettoes. The northern ghetto was ‘cleared’ – meaning its 10 000 inhabitants were murdered - in September 1941. The 29 000 people selected for the southern ghetto were the more able bodied and they were put to work.  The ghetto was closed in June 1943 and the 10 000 survivors dispersed to labour camps. The ghetto areas have since been flattened, rebuilt and revitalised - it is not so easy with human beings.

Next day we walked around the Old Town on our way to Gedimino Prospektas, the main drag of 19th century Vilnius. Outside the tarted up Old Town Vilnius looks much poorer. Many of the buildings have a faded grandeur while others are just faded; the same might be said of the people.

On the way we passed the city’s last remaining synagogue which serves a Jewish community of some 3 000 people.

Vilnius' only remaining synagogue

There is also this egg on a plinth, of which more later.

An egg on a plinth

A little further on, in a car park beside an anonymous modern apartment block, is a bust of Frank Zappa. It was erected in1995 after funds were raised by a local musician. Despite Zappa having no connection with Lithuania and being largely unknown, the project caught people’s imagination as, according to the Rough Guide, ‘a wryly ironic gesture in a country that had seen enough of political monuments’.

Frank Zappa

Gedimino Prospektas remains the heart of official Vilnius, as opposed to the tourist Vilnius of the Old Town and the shiny modern business area across the River Neris.  It is a long straight road, surprisingly narrow for a main thoroughfare and, like the rest of the city, relatively untroubled by traffic.

Gedimino Prospektas, Vilnius

We were heading for the Lithuanian Genocide Museum which is housed in the former KGB headquarters. The building was easy to find - it is large and has the names of KGB victims inscribed in its stones. The museum is on the far side and the only signs are round the corner, so we blundered in through the front door and into the Lithuanian National Archives. After a bewildering few minutes we found our way out and round to the right place.

The use of the word ‘genocide’ might lead you to expect the museum was concerned with the fate of Lithuania’s Jews. Not so, it is entirely about the sufferings of Lithuanians at the hands of the Soviet Union.

Lynne and the former KGB building, Vilnius

It is possible to detect, in all three states, a feeling that the sufferings of the Baltic peoples has been largely forgotten and the audio-visual display went into this in great detail. In 1939 the Nazis invaded western Poland, while the Soviet Union, under the terms of the then secret Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, was allowed a free hand in eastern Poland and the Baltics. Britain and France declared war on Germany but totally ignored the actions of the Soviet Union. This inconsistency is never questioned in Britain (and declaring war on Germany and the Soviet Union simultaneously would seem, at best, fool-hardy) but its effects on the Baltics was dire.

In 1940, 10 000 Lithuanians, political activists, intellectuals and anybody who got in the way, were transported to the gulags. In 1941, when Hitler turned on the Soviet Union the Germans were, at first, treated as liberators, but it soon became clear they were just another occupying force. In the next two years over 90% of Lithuania’s quarter of a million Jews were murdered. Anti-Semitism had been virtually unknown before the Nazis arrived and many Lithuanians risked their lives to shelter their Jewish neighbours. Others, encouraged by propaganda linking the Jews with the Bolsheviks, joined in, rather too enthusiastically, with the killings. The museum skips this and jumps to the Soviet re-occupation after the defeat of the Nazis.

Armed resistance continued well into the 1950s, meanwhile over 100 000 people, often randomly chosen, were transported to Siberia in an attempt to destroy Lithuanian national identity.
This was undoubtedly one of Stalin’s greater crimes, and shamefully acquiesced to by Churchill and Roosevelt at Yalta, but it pales into insignificance alongside the murder of the Jews. Lithuanians were transported ‘beyond the Urals to the ends of the earth’, as they like to say, but their equating of Irkutsk and Krasnoyarsk with the Mouth of Hell and Lithuania with the Garden of Eden fails on both counts.

I do not wish to make light of Lithuanian suffering, which was real and long lasting, and the KGB cells below the exhibition were chilling in the extreme. There were, isolation cells, punishment cells, a purpose built execution chamber and cells which could be flooded with icy water leaving a small and precarious concrete perch from which the prisoner must, eventually, fall. And, to be fair, we had already walked past the Synagogue, the Tolerance Centre and the State Jewish Museum. We had intended to visit them as well, but there is a limit to our appetite for death and misery.

A few hundred metres further down Gedimino Prospektas is the Lithuanian parliament building. Although stunning in its ugliness, for me it only takes third prize in the All-Baltic Ugly Building Competition.

The Lithanian parliament building - the third
ugliest building in the Baltics 

It was nearing lunchtime so we walked back to the old town for a beer and some blynai. Most Baltic specialities are common to all three countries, but these pancakes are exclusively Lithuanian. Lynne’s were stuffed with bacon and spinach, mine with cheese and mushroom and all covered in a rich cream sauce. They were pleasant and cheap, but a bit bland for my taste – ‘better with a chilli’ as I so often find myself saying.

St Anne’s church is a remarkable late gothic redbrick church and we dropped in on our way to Uzupis, Vilnius’ arty quarter. When Napoleon passed through Vilnius he expressed a desire to move the church to Paris, brick by brick. It is still in Vilnius, though.

St Anne's Church, still in Vilnius

We passed the statue of Adam Mickiewicz, Lithuania’s national poet (who was Polish) and were about to cross the tiny River Vilnia into Uzupis when Perkunas, the thunder god, threw another tantrum, so we visited the nearby Russian Orthodox Church of the Holy Mother of God. It was not particularly interesting, but it was dry.

Uzupis declared independence from Lithuania on the first of April 2000. This independence is little more than a sign on a bridge and a state of mind, but it was meant as an ironic statement on the nature of independence in an interdependent world - and this in the city that put up a statue to Frank Zappa just because of the things he was not. There is much to admire in the Vilnius attitude.

The Uzupis 'border'

Uzupis feels like a village, its centre marked by a statue of an angel blowing a trumpet. According to the Rough Guide the angel hatched one night from the egg that stood there before. I have found no other source for this story, but we had seen the egg earlier in our wandering.

The Uzupi Angel
Ironically, a house in the this square was the childhood home of  Felix Dzerzhinsky, a leading figure in the early days of the Soviet Union and founder of the Cheka, later to become the KGB. There is no monument, and most Lithuanians would be happy to point out that Dzerzhinsky was actually Polish.
On the way back we passed, yet again, under the Gate of Dawn. This time we were able to visit the Madonna who turned out to be quite photogenic, as well as affording us an excellent view from her balcony.

The Madonna of the Gate of Dawn

We only had some 60 litai (£13) left and we set out that evening to see if we could have dinner without resorting to plastic. Inside the touristy Old Town we ate pasta with bolognaise sauce and coronation chicken (though the menu used different words), drank two half litres of beer and still had a pocketful of change. Vilnius is not an expensive city.

The view from the Madonna's balcony -
just this once there is no tour group being lectured by a guide

Trundling our case to the bus station next morning was easy in pleasant sunshine. Our comfortable air-conditioned bus left on time for the 300 km trip north to Riga.

We drove through central Vilnius almost without noticing – it is the least urban of cities – and followed the country’s only motorway as far as Panevezys. We crossed flat farmland mainly given over to cereals and rough pasture, and saw farm buildings in the distance, but nothing that could have been called a village. We passed through no settlements either on the motorway or on the two-lane road up to the Latvian border and just once glimpsed a wooden statue like those we had seen in the museum.

Elaborate customs sheds mark the border, but as both Lithuania and Latvia have signed the Schengen agreement the road by-passed them and there were no formalities – or should not have been. Cars passed freely but we were waved into a lay-bye by a policeman. He walked down the bus glancing briefly at passports or identity cards – doubtless he would have unmasked any international terrorists instantly.

A diversion through the Latvian border town of Bauska showed us many wooden buildings, some of them surprisingly large. There were also stone houses, some whitewashed, others in pastel colours their roofs being often corrugated iron or plastic tiles.

Thereafter Latvia looked much like Lithuania - though the road passed through a more forested area – until we reached Riga.

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