In May 2010 I decided to leave my job in Australia and travel around the world before moving to the USA. This journey ended up involving travelling in 18 countries on 4 continents (North America, Europe, Asia and Australia) and taking me around the world 1.5 times over a 12 month period! I wrote a number of travel emails from that trip and I thought it would be fun to revisit them with some additional info and photos. The following blog is Part 17 of that journey (Lithuania).
August 5th, 2010
The train trip to Vilnius the capital of Lithuania (one of the Baltic States) from Poland was relatively uneventful, apart from the crazy guy talking to himself and laughing at what ever he was saying?! But the strange thing was that after about 5 hours from Bialystok in Poland, upon crossing the Lithuania/Poland border, the train stops, you get on a bus and drive for about 15 minutes to another station, then get on a different train to continue your journey…….turns out the old Russian rail system is a different gauge. The country is in the EU, the Russians let go of the country back in 1991 and they still have not got this figured out yet (they are working on it)! Apparently trains don’t even run to Latvia in the north from Lithuania!
Vilnius itself is a very nice city, lots of historic buildings, but also great dining options etc, very modern in that regard. I enjoyed strolling around and taking in the scenery. Uzupis is a bohemian artistic neighbourhood with galleries and cafe’s that provides some interesting distractions – the locals declared themselves The Independent Republic of Uzupis on April Fools Day in 1997 (not recognized by any government in the world by the way)! One line of their constitution states “A dog has the right to be a dog”…it’s very much a tongue in cheek republic!
Apart from looking at the various historic sites of Vilnius, a couple of interesting places came up….The Museum of Genocide Victims – inside the former communist KGB Headquarters, displays the history of Soviet occupation (1940-1941, 1944-1991) and German occupation (1941-1944 – initially they were seen as liberators, but the reality was they ruled with a ruthless iron fist too), including the armed Lithuanian resistance in the 1940s and 50s. The basement is the former KGB cells (prison, torture and execution). The Communists were truly evil bastards – one room has this cell they filled with freezing water, made the Lithuanian prisoner stand on this disc in the middle – which of course they would eventually fall off into the freezing water, then they would have to get back on it, even wetter and more slippery than before and so it would go on. There are shower rooms where they would turn the water from boiling hot to freezing cold at their whim, isolation chambers…bullet holes in the wall of the execution room. A grim place…no photos allowed down in that basement!
Another bizarre sight was the tribute statue to musician Frank Zappa not far from the KGB building! Now Frank had nothing to do with Lithuania, he never even went there, but the statue was erected by his local fan club in a tribute to him following his death in 1993 (his anti-establishment attitude made him a bit of a cult figure in the Baltic States). The statue was sort of a test of new found freedom as a democratic country (by 1991 Lithuania was free from the control of the Communists).
I also went to the semi finals of the European Under 18s basketball championships. Lithuania played Serbia and there was a great atmosphere as a big crowd turned up to see the local team. So much noise – they had air horns etc, they would play this racket and chant and rant whenever Serbia had the ball to put them off their game. Awesome but ear-splitting! Lithuania won in the final minute and the crowd went crazy! Great fun. The next game was Latvia versus Russia – funny hearing the Lithuanians and Latvians booing the Russians – old wounds don’t heal quickly around here!
A nice day trip from Vilnius, was out to a place called Trakai – small town surrounded by a lake, with an island which had a castle on it. A beautiful place. Was also able to get some Lithuanian communist mementos out there. The castle was completed in 1409 and was a major centre for the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (a European state from the 12th century to 1569). It has survived attacks from the Teutonic Knights in the 1300’s and eventually became a residence rather than a fortress. By the 17th century the castle had been badly damaged in a war with the Muscovy (Russians) and was not repaired again until the 19th century; this time by Imperial Russia; than again by the Germans during WW1. Finally after WW2 it was reconstructed again and by 1961 this work was completed and the castle is now the tourist attraction of today.
Then I left Vilnius for the Baltic Sea coast to a place called Klaipeda, once known by its German name Memel. I have come here to visit the Curonian Spit National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site – a thin strip of coastal island with massive sand dunes and pine trees, part in Lithuania, part in Russia (Kalingrad province). Memel was also where the Germans had once last big stand against the Russians in late WW2, the city was laid to siege and the Germans eventually escaped by ship from the Curonian Spit in 1945. The spit was really interesting, I hiked along sand dunes, through the pine forests, fantastic fresh smell in the air. The nudist beach there was a disappointment – just some old fat bloke in the water!!!! I escaped the spit just before a huge thunder and lightning storm hit…caught the ferry back to Klaipeda just as the downpour hit!
I was a little surprised to see in Klaipeda that a Soviet WW2 Victory Monument remained in one of the parks. Given the bad blood over that period of occupation I would have thought such things would have been removed? From a historical point of view I am glad it is still there though.
From there it was onto Siauliai in Northern Lithuania – famous for its Hill of Crosses – about 10km out-of-town – crosses have been placed here since the 14th century, but in more recent times they were placed there by Lithuanians as a memorial to people including the 30,000 taken away by the Soviets to the gulags in Siberia….most to never be seen again. The Soviets banned this practice….they bulldozed the crosses, put fences up and stationed guards…even flooded the place….yet people still snuck through to put crosses there – at the risk of being sent to Siberia themselves! The ultimate act of defiance to the Soviet overlords…and I am talking about thousands of crosses here…its quite amazing.
Now I have just arrived in Riga, the capital of Latvia….this is a big party town, but with a much seedier and rougher side to other places I have been in recently…particularly the nearby Little Moscow area….should be fun! Let the games begin!