Sunday, 10 October 2010

Lithuania 2 – Trakai to Druskininkai

Trakai is the site of a much photographed castle associated with Vytautas, the Lithuanian prince who jointly led Lithuanian-Polish forces in the battle of Grunwald in 1410, defeating the Teutonic Order and thus ending the expansion of German power into Lithuanian lands. We had a walk round the castle out on the lake, which was completely rebuilt in the 1960s, and around the old village houses, home to descendents of the Karaimes – a Judaic people who speak a Turkic language – invited here in the 15th century to act as bodyguards for Vytautas. We also tried one of the Karaimes’ national dishes, kybinai, which are rather like Cornish pasties. This old part of Trakai had a feel of being overly preserved for summer and weekend tourists, although they were not doing too bad on that score on the last day in September with several tour parties arriving in coaches during the late afternoon while we were there. We were surprised, on driving up a hill and round a corner, to find that Trakai also has a real town centre, with real buildings (even if they were modern Soviet apartment blocks) and a large, bustling market on the outskirts. Trakai also had a plush 4 star campsite on the lakeside, which we avoided – ending up camping on a carpark by a picnic spot, which was much more our style!


Where Trakai felt preserved, probably in amber in these parts, Vilnius felt the opposite in many ways. Certainly on the drive in, through chaotic lanes of traffic and along one-way streets, it felt like any big city, but the centre itself, despite having many tourists, still managed to come across as a real, lived in place. The Old Town was very compact, and we saw most of the sights in a fairly short time. If you never knew anything about Baroque architecture a visit to Vilnius would leave you feeling an expert. You would even be able to spot Rococo – that style where Baroque goes too far- just think along the lines of frilly and, all too often, pink and gold. You are in danger of getting a bit “churched out” in Vilnius, but the ones that stood out for us were the chapel at the Gate of Dawn, the gothic church of St Anne and the city cathedral.

Vilnius Old Town

The Gate of Dawn is the southernmost entrance in the mediaeval city walls, and incorporates a small chapel situated above the roadway, from where an icon of the Virgin Mary stares benignly down through large, glazed windows upon all those who pass beneath. Around her the walls glitter with hundreds of silver votive hearts tacked to the wall panels, interspersed with more interesting offerings embossed on small, silver plaques – a car, epaulettes with three stars, various body parts. However, what you would probably notice, before you saw any of that, would be the passers-by stopping, looking up and crossing themselves, often standing a few moments in prayer right in the middle of the street. Apparently, the shrine is held dear by both Catholic and Ordodox Christians, and by the few Uniates (Greek Catholics) still around this area.

Vilnius Gates of Dawn

The church of St Anne, so the plaque outside told us, used 33 different sized red bricks to create the slim, gothic facade with fluted spires rising up to the heavens. Its height makes it look large from a distance, but in reality it’s quite tiny and dwarfed by the much larger Bernadine church, which was built directly behind it. At the other end of the architectural scale from St Anne’s church is the city’s cathedral – a massive block of pure classicism, with Doric columns and saints instead of gods, like a cross between the Parthenon and the Bank of England. It shines out in pristine white in the impressive wide expanse of its own marble square, the size of a couple of football pitches and lively with pedestrian life (and skateboarders).

Vilnius St Anne’s church

By accident, although we would have headed there eventually, we stumbled across an area which had been the heart of Jewish Vilnius, though there is precious little there now to show this, except a few plaques and a twisting street pattern. It was one of the two Jewish ghettos established in 1941 by the Nazi occupation. The inhabitants were wiped out by 1944, 11,000 being killed in two weeks alone during September 1941. The area was pretty much obliterated by the end of the war, with what was left being torn down and built over by the Soviets.

Vilnius Cathedral

Vilnius had an awful lot to hold our attention, and we wandered the streets for much of the afternoon, partaking of more potato dumplings and blinis along the way. It was a shame the city campsite had closed for the season as we felt like stopping another night, but did not want the bother of leaving the city. We decided to drive around and look for a place we might feel safe overnighting, like we had done in Helsinki. As if in answer to our needs, we rounded a corner and there was a 24 hour, fenced and supervised carpark.* Okay, there were no facilities, but it was surrounded by parkland, was very peaceful and just a 5 minute walk from the bars and restaurants in the Old Town. The guy in the office was not fazed by our request to sleep there, so for 20 Litas (£5) we had a place to stay and a night on the town was on the cards. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but we felt safe and enjoyed it enough to stay for two nights instead of one, which meant two enjoyable nights in the city and another day when I (Lesley) could relax and write and Rob could go for a cycle round.

*Edit - Fellow travellers informed us in Summer 2011 that this car park now seems to be unsupervised and does not feel like such a good place to overnight.

Vilnius - View from Three Crosses Hill

I (Rob) used my bike ride to visit some places outside the historic core of Vilnius. I crossed the Green Bridge over the river Neris first of all, which is flanked by four pairs of heroic workers, peasants and soldiers in classic socialist realist poses – one of the few pieces of Soviet heritage that has not been erased in this city – and rode on a kilometre or so to the Kalvarija market. This is nowhere near the size of Riga market, but has the same wonderful range of fresh, local and unpackaged produce as well as tons of character, and I bought a selection of good things for the next few days. Next I went to Gedimino Prospektas, a long arrow-straight avenue that starts by the cathedral and runs westwards to the Lithuanian parliament in a parade of grand buildings and a couple of large squares. It looks like a kind of Vilnius Oxford Street, but on Saturday afternoon the shops here, as elsewhere, were firmly closed – only in the vast, remote new shopping complexes does round-the-clock shopping take place.  

Vilnius - Socialist realist statues on Green Bridge, Stalinist building by River Meris and former KGB cells in genocide museum.

Some way down Gedimino, an easy-to-miss door in a 19th century building just off the main avenue marks the entrance to the Lithuanian Genocide Museum. OK, the name is arguable, but the facts are still shocking. The events in question are the rounding up and killing, imprisoning or exiling of around 30% of the Lithuanian population in the years after the Soviet invasion of 1940 (interrupted only by the Nazi occupation in 1941-44), and they closely mirror the experience of Estonia and Latvia at the same time. The museum had moving displays on the process of incorporation into the USSR, the waves of arrests, and the years – decades often – of harsh exile in Siberia that were the fate of tens of thousands of innocent people. Other rooms focused on the anti-communist partisans (the ‘Forest Brothers’ as elsewhere in the Baltics), and the organisation of the KGB in Lithuania. In the cellar were the KGB cells, including those where torture and executions took place. The captions endeavoured to remain factual and balanced but the anger was palpable. One element, however, was missing for me – the accounts of those Lithuanians who actively took the Soviet side, either as KGB officers or in hunting down the partisans: it may be a minority voice, but it hints at a more complicated picture than the clear-cut story of repression and resistance that is usually told.  

Vilnius - Gedimino Prospektas

We left Vilnius on Sunday 3rd October, and drove to the Dzūkija national park, in the far south of Lithuania by the Byelorussian border. It’s an expanse of forest and bog, with traditional villages, whose wooden houses stand around grassy yards and are surrounded by well tended veg and flower gardens. We detoured to the village of Zervynus, where the farmsteads could have come directly from an open-air museum such as we saw in Tallinn, right down to the thatch on the roofs and the wooden implements hanging on the outside walls of the barns. We stopped for the night at Marcinkonys, a larger village but with many of the same features, that stretched for a couple of kilometres along a single road. The national park authorities have set up a number of very basic camping places, and we found an ideal one outside the village, by a lake, and made a roaring fire to cook over. It turned cold with nightfall, but we were treated to a magnificent canopy of stars.

Dzūkija national park - Marcinkonys campsite and Zervynos village

On the Monday I (Rob) went out for what should have been a short bike ride around the Dzūkija park, but after the very picturesque village of Musteika – more a jumble of separate farmsteads really, with no real village centre – I got lost returning on forest tracks and must have done several extra miles before getting back to the right one.  We didn’t move far after that, staying in the national park and camping again by lakes, this time near Merkinė, a larger town which we noticed as full of drunks and signs offering to buy up mushrooms and berries. It was another evening of camp fires, magnificent night skies and plummeting temperatures.

Dzūkija national park - The viallages of Mysteika and Marcinkonys

We left the Dzūkija park on Tuesday 5th October and headed in the direction of Druskininkai. On the way we passed through the village of Liškiava, where a huge baroque basilica and monastery complex perches on a bluff overlooking the wide and meandering river Nemunas. It was undergoing a thorough renovation which went as far as building replicas of the monastic buildings that had been lost over time.


Our last stop in Lithuania was the spa town of Druskininkai. The last two nights of free lake and forest camping had been lovely, but the cold was starting to be a problem and we were looking for electricity so we could make use of our newly acquired oil-filled radiator. The town campsite was closed, but the tourist office kindly opened it just for us, giving us a hook-up to water and electricity at a reduced rate and trusting us with the remote control for the barrier so we could come and go.

Druskininkai - Orthodox church and Pump Rooms

Our first “go” after arriving was a visit to Grūtas Park, home to a collection of Soviet- era statues torn down and discarded after Lithuania gained independence in 1991. As a strange tourist attraction it comes a close second for me (Lesley) to the Hill of Crosses, making Lithuania a top place for such sights. I found the newspaper reports lining the path up to the entrance almost as interesting as the statues themselves, detailing, as they do, the controversy surrounding the setting up of a place which turns relics from a painful past into a kind of theme park. It probably didn’t help that the entrepreneur behind it all is a self-made millionaire – a mushroom and berry magnate – or that his son was mayor at the time contracts for the park were awarded. Still, the park was fascinating, more so since by the time we reached it we had already visited many of the town squares which once contained Lenins, Stalins and a supporting cast of other heroes of the Soviet cause. It made us reflect on how different it would all have looked here if we’d visited in our first years of travel together. We actually found the displays to be quite sensitively presented, with factual (if repetitive) information about each statue and the person portrayed. A discussion ensued about the rights and wrongs of collecting propaganda art from unpleasant regimes, to which we had no clear answers.

Grūtas Park / Grūto Parkas

Druskininkai has been a centre for health cures since the late 18th century, and in its heyday in the 19th century it drew the wealthy middle classes from across Poland and Russia to stay around the lake in the many wooden villas, with their intricately carved facias. “Health spa” for us might have connotations of rest and relaxation and you can still take the cures on offer today in the form of massages, mud baths and saunas. However, it is has for a long time been a normal part of health care here to get sent to these spa towns for treatment and convalescence, and you can see this from the number of sanatoriums still around, which still attract many visitors from Russia. Still, if you want the relaxation bit, and you are feeling really adventurous, you might fancy giving the carbonic acid bath, or the medical turpentine bath, a whirl. We resisted the bio detox, which involves immersing your feet in water in which an electrode is placed. The current causes the body’s toxins to swap place with the water, emerging through the 2,000 or so pores in each foot and turning the footbath yellow, brown, dark green or even black depending on what nasties are in your blood. We opted to drink the waters instead. Well, it only cost 30 cents (about 8p) to have as much as you want from both the Aušra and Drusininkai springs. I’d like to say it was money well spent, but the Aušra tasted like the saline solution I (Lesley) rinse my contacts in and the Druskininkai was like a mix of bad egg and baking powder. It’s meant to activate salivation and gastric juices and our stomachs were certainly making unusual noises directly after imbibing. You are advised to eat within 15 minutes of drinking the stuff, which seemed the perfect excuse to have our last Lithuanian žemaičių blinis – potato pancakes stuffed with meat and served with yet another dollop of sour cream.

 Druskininkai Pump Room - Rob's face says it all!

We headed out of Lithuania into Poland on a very minor road, taking advantage of the open borders. I (Rob) still felt a slight tingle when we came to a wide cleared strip in the forest, and reflected that only two decades ago this was the border of the mighty Soviet Union.

Border - Lithuania to Poland

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