Lithuania

Very windy, cold day on the Dunes, Curonian Spit

Some countries can be read like manageable road maps. Easy to figure out where you are, learn about the history and politics and how to get from one dot to another. However, joining these dots in Lithuania is so beyond complexities with the political twists and turns, the devastations, domination by various countries , having part of their territory sliced off, reversing their ideology , and if you compare it to a map, even the most adept directionally capable person would beg for an aspirin.

Considered the geographic centre of Europe, their neighbours are Belarus to the east, Latvia on the north, Poland in the south west and Russia to the west. And they are neighbours that haven’t always been friendly. However, this small country has been recorded as existing since the 10th millennium B.C. Finally after the USSR dissolved and dispersed, Lithuania in 1990, again became independent. And that’s the tiniest nutshell for this mammoth often incomprehensible history.

Vilnius, the country’s capital and largest city with 560,190 in population,(the country’s population is 3,575,439) is neatly divided by the Neris River with the commercial and industrial area on one side which features the never out of sight Europa Tower. While the Old Town, once the largest in Europe, is on the other side of the city centre river with artists, cafes and small boutiques. Another claim to fame is that Lithuania was named 2009 Centre of Culture. The highly literate population places heavy emphasis on education with a large percentage graduating from university.

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Thomas Mann’s house on Curonium Spit

After years of suppression by the Soviet government, I was surprised how cosmopolitan Vilnius has become in the last 20 years. Internationally known shops have mushroomed, hip young women wearing the latest fashion-tight jeans, cropped jackets, stiletto heels, over the knee boots-while the male counterparts dress like Brad Pitt.

In the Old Town, an UNESCO listed Heritage site, I marveled at Loreta, my guide’s driving ability and courage as she navigated the narrow, curvy cobble stone roads. Yes, charming as they are, if you’re walking, these ancient surfaces are a hazard and no easy chore since these original cobble stone roads are so uneven that sensible shoes are de rigueur. As I walked slowly over the uneven ancient roads, it boggled my mind to see sky- high stiletto heeled, svelte young women rush by without a wobble.

It was Thursday before noon. I had already seen several brides having their photos taken on these picturesque streets in the romantic Old Town. One of the novel innovations is that there is an area just on the outskirts of the city where a lengthy wire fence is filled with locks. Names of the bride and groom are engraved on them. The keys are tossed away. The locks manifest the fact that they will be united forever. I didn’t find out the divorce rate and if the locks were then somehow unlocked.

Unexpected is the infrastructure of Lithuania with wonderfully smoothly paved 4 lane highways and a public transport system that seems to please the 45% of populace who use the system daily. The wide city streets, a rarity in most North American cities, make rush hour easy, but the locals still complain. They really don’t realize what a traffic juggernaut is. Many of the cars (mainly Hondas) are fairly new, a surprise when unemployment is estimated to be about 13%.

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Lunch time at ORT School, Sholom Alachiem

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Gothic Cathedral in Vilnius

As for music from cars and cafes, they are familiar voices.. Celine Dion, Lady Gaga .. favourites, much to my dismay as I longed to hear some lovely Eastern European music. Strange sights became common, Take for instance, a huge bronze bust of American singer, Frank Zappa. With government approval ,fans, and there must be thousands, made their appeal. Zappa has no Lithuanian roots making this aging singing sensation a thought provoking selection.

On the planning table is a Guggenheim Hermitage Museum designed by renowned architect, Saha Hadid, which will have the largest collection of Lithuanian art. Another entry into this ‘new country’ are shopping malls. Akropolis, are humungous malls , so far in four cities, with an enormous food store, a cinema, shops that sell everything from pencils to fashionable clothing. But most impressive is the skating rink where even during the summer months, skates can be rented. These centres have become a great entertainment and meeting place for what is referred to as mall rats.

Still clouding the cityscape is the diverse and awful architecture, left overs from the Soviets. Grey, deteriorating concrete apartment boxes fill the city often next to 17th buildings now going through renovations. Some inhabitants have tried to brighten up the formidable ugliness of the concrete blocks with window flower boxes. Nothing other than imploding these Russian structures could be the remedy. What is not seen unless you are nosy, are the small intimate hidden courtyards where flowers bloom among the benches, giving relief from the large tombstones -like buildings.

A ‘ left over’ from the decades of Soviet occupation is Vilnius’ Green Bridge with bronze statues at either end featuring hardworking Russians. They don’t seem to bother the locals, in fact, they seem to be proud of the bridge. The nearby White Bridge is strictly for pedestrians. Both are landmarks and facilitate to other parts of the city easy.

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Skating rink in mall

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Mammoth shopping mall

However, from another time, the wonderful structures of 17th century churches from Baroque, Neo Classic, Gothic and Renaissance architecture, gives hints of the beauty and culture and manifests the high level of esthetics from the past. Now there are only 65 churches in Vilnius and best known is the Neo Classic Cathedral , without doubt the most famous landmark . Also beloved is the ‘flamboyant Gothic,” St. Anne’s Church.

The other side of Lithuanian’s history is the brutal treatment of the Jewish people who had contributed so much to the culture and commerce.

Once there were 265,000 Jews living in Vilnius with in excess of 100 synagogues, now there is one and .05 percent of the population are mainly immigrant Russian Jews. The Choral Synagogue, still in a renovation state was closed so I couldn’t see the interior. But certainly the exterior is still a monumental edifice with services mainly on the high holidays. Ninety four percent of the city’s Jews were murdered, some in the ghetto from 1941-1943 while others went to concentrations camps or hard labour situations. However, now with only 4000 Jews in the entire country , it’s strange to learn that Vilnius was once known as the ‘Jerusalem of Lithuania’ due to the Talmudic scholars that the country produced. These days , this Orthodox culture is gone.

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Bente Kahan performes

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Some of the memorablila in Museum of Tolerence

One evening, quite serendipitously, Loreta , discovered that Bente Kahan, Swedish born woman of Lithuanian survivors who now lives in Poland, was performing a concert of Yiddish songs in the Museum of Tolerance. This well maintained and informative building is only a stone’s throw from the former ghetto and filled with Jewish art, old posters, important items from pre war households. About 75 people attended to hear Yiddish songs composed and performed in the ghetto, all completely unfamiliar to me. Many of us expect to hear the folklore Yiddish tunes but these were composed by those who lived and died in the ghetto and very haunting. The performance emotional and stunning. Kahan , a beautiful late forty-ish woman, has a very strong but passionate voice and accompanied herself on guitar. At times not only the audience had to wipe the tears that flowed but so did Kahan. Wearing a suitable simple long black dress, she talked about the evil and death that ruled in the ghetto where only a few hundred survived. On Mesiniu Street, now a middle class residential area, there’s a memorial stone dedicated to the Lithuanian Jewish life.

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Trakia Island Castle

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Newlyweds and guests at the Hill of Crosses

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Bride in picturesque Old Town

As we continued our travels, another anomaly is the eerie forest of crosses, called the Hill of Crosses about 15 k from Vilnius . From a distance it looks like an out of whack strange forest. In fact, there are over 200,000 crosses which have been ‘planted’ and represent weddings, births, birthdays, deaths and any celebration including hope for a miracle. Actually, there are even more crosses since from each large structure, there are tinier replicas attached by friends and family. Ribbons flutter from some well wishing wedding guests. It is believed that this site dates back to the Middle Ages but there is no evidence to prove it except that Stalin tried to abolish the site. And after Stalin’s death in 1953, the crosses in memory of the war dead increased.

The unique and unspoilt nature and well maintained very fertile farmland makes the scenery sheer joy as we drove to one of the most visited towns. Trakai is of major importance in their history. Trakai was once the capital of Lithuania. It’s the Island Castle that is the centre piece and a perfect example in Gothic and German style erected for defense purposes. Like castles in story books, it’s surrounded by a moat and a mandatory draw bridge. The many wooden disjointed staircases can be confusing. However, it’s an opportunity to see the lifestyle of the time and a visit to a few cold musky rooms which are considered the museum. It’s not the items that one goes to see but the huge castle.

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Lake surrounding Trakai Castle

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Hill of Crosses

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Courtyard of the Trakai Castle

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Hill of Crosses

Approximately 6 hours by car from Vilnius is Klaipeda, the only port in the country. So important was this city, that it was almost entirely destroyed during t WW II. In this bustling harbour, the workers seem to be ensured of employment. However, the best for last is Curonian Spit, a short ferry ride from the harbour to this national park, and a summer getaway and even a small, self sustaining community with such great charm and diversity. From the high sand dunes, the largest in Europe, one can actually see the long stretch of Russian territory which extends into the Baltic Sea.

Food is always up for discussion. so lunch was at a very busy, popular restaurant. Always on the menus is cepelinai (shredded potatoes stuffed with meat made into balls and then boiled and potato pancakes.

Yes, potatoes are a given with every meal and knowing that, it may be comfort food for some, for me it was probably the most comprehensible, consistent and easily understandable bit of information in this small country with an historic and erratic background.

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