Last Stop*: Lithuania

*in the Baltics It’s a sweltering day here in Kaunas and I’ve been staying in hostel dorms for the last two weeks or so which means that I am tired, slightly sunburned, and in no way enthusiastic about turning the past nine days of Lithuania into a coherent blog. But I’m going to make an attempt because it’s still an hour before I need to leave for my bus to Poland and if I don’t write it now, I’ll be fighting against the call of the beach in Gdansk. So let’s roll back to the bus that carried me and half a kilo of cherries from Riga all the way down to Vilnius. It was a fairly laid back five-ish hour ride with a small diversion in the middle while a grumpy looking border guard boarded the bus to check our passports. A Canadian passport is such a lovely thing. Even in the eurozone it’s flash and go while others (I suspect Russians) had to endure long hard quizzical looks and general angry treatment from the Lithuanian with the badge. P1070193 VILNIUS Arriving in Vilnius in the mid afternoon I found my hostel in a suspiciously not-hostel-looking building. It had a grand pillared facade and high ceilings and even a skate park built in the middle. God only knows what it was originally but at the minute it’s a very spacious, if somewhat lacking in amenities, hostel. After scarfing down a rather miscellaneous dinner foraged from the nearby grocery store, I headed out to a local terrace (in a courtyard!) to catch some live jazz and lindy. The band was charming, the dancers energetic, and the sangria was VERY cheap which makes it a miracle that I was good and stuck to having just one glass while I sat on the wooden steps and watched the frenzied dancers before me. Après lindy I was back to the hostel for a very rough night of noisy dorm mates, wobbling double bunk with a railing on the left but not the right. It’s amazing how still one can sleep when terrified that one might tumble out the side and nearly six feet to the floor! The next morning was a groggy breakfast of muesli and yogurt before I set off to continue the search for respectable shoes and trousers. Fortunately Vilnius delivered and I got shoes for a tenner and trousers for a quid. I could not complain one tiny little bit! Having triumphed in the deal department, I set out to find adventures in the less touristy parts of town. I wandered through the city and across a bridge to find a Karaite Kenesa. Apparently there are less than half a dozen left in the world. It was a small pretty building with an onion dome and no access to the inside. I was kind of sad to miss out on seeing the accoutrements of the religion inside but such is life. It was also my first day of a delightful new game I’ve been playing on my travels. It’s called use local guides to pick exciting adventures and then mark them on your map by address not name. Then just follow the stars on the GPS map and be delighted and surprised by every star find! It turns out that my star way the heck and gone in the north western part of the city was the Russian Embassy and its cheery little pair of duck ponds. The embassy is basically a fortress which implies rather questionable intentions on behalf of Russia with regards to Lithuania, but of course that might shed some light on the rather brusque manner of the Lithuanian border guard when handed a Russian passport. After circumnavigating the compound I returned to the duck ponds but, lacking bread, resigned myself to sitting reading on the bench rather than actually feeding the ducks. Though rain was threatening, I could probably have spent all afternoon there had it not been for the delightful presence of two local lads down the way who were only to eager to blather on an cast moderately lecherous glances in my general direction. I was doing well on the ignoring business until they started tossing a curiously Lithuanian “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?” down the pond at me. I decided that perhaps there was alcohol involved and soon vacated my bench to head back towards the city. As I crossed back over the bridge I stumbled across another star which at first glance appeared to be a large, ornate, old church. As I got closer, however, the church acquired high concrete walls and razor wire. Not the most churchly accoutrements, but I was still deceived by the religious art on the facade and the domes above. And then I suddenly recalled a line from one of my ‘like a local’ guides and it hit me. This was a prison and evidently a still functioning one. Vilnius has a lot of churches, so I guess they thought, why not put this one to use in reforming the people of society that probably need god the most. Who knows? Either way, the outside was awfully pretty though I can’t vouch for what delights or terrors the interior might contain. Nearly next door, I found another intriguing building with a tall square tower with what looked like a pavilion on top. Apparently it’s the headquarters of one of Lithuania’s political parties. Once again, startling grand architecture for what in Canada would probably find itself in quite humble surrounds. After that I toddled past the modernist white bridge and the oh so unlucky green bridge (it’s been destroyed and rebuilt more times than worth counting) and passed by a rather grand and freshly painted red and white church before finally finding my way to coffee. Coffee came in the form of a delicious Tanzanian brew and a delicate little yeasted dessert from one of Vilnius’ two original hipster coffee shops: No Sugar. The coffee was initially very bright and fruity but then increased in weight and richness until it was a pleasantly dark, almost chocolatey joy. The dessert was chewy and sweet and divinely caramelized on every exposed surface. It was the perfect place to rest my tired feet and prepare for the rest of the day. Once caffeinated, I trotted off to the Vilnius Cathedral, an impressive shite edifice with minimal adornment but a great deal of grandeur. Being however a lover of all things elevated, I was soon out of the cathedral and bounding my way on up the hill to the Gediminas Tower. Like an idiot puppy I bounded up the winding cobbled ramp ways and in no time at all found myself at the top of the city. The tower wasn’t hugely impressive but there were views and it was sunny so I was delighted! I then made my way back down through the growing clusters of tourists to the park and garden next door. They were very pretty but I wasn’t quite in the mood so I skimmed through quickly before emerging at the ridiculously ornate St Anne’s Church and friary complex at the other end. Red brick has never looked so frou-frou! It was a fondant fairytale of buttresses and towers and arches and the inside wasn’t bad to look at either! I think if I were to every be a devotee, I’d have to have the privilege of attending such a church to keep me honest and dedicated. In the mood for reverence, I next attempted to visit the Vilnius University and most importantly its library. By the delightful twists of capitalism, the beautiful campus is completely closed off lest you choose to pay a pretty penny and in fact book in advance for any access to the library. Rather peeved, I left the barricaded gate and wandered around to a little courtyard that I’d heard of somewhere in the depths of the internet. It began with a pretty little closed courtyard with an Italian restaurant on the right and an Italian Library on the left. As a delightful bonus, there was a beautiful old bicycle propping open one of the side doors to the library. And then slipping through the next doorway I was on a little raised terrace over looking the backside and garden of the presidential palace. I felt rather privileged to catch the view and should I ever be back in Vilnius, I’ll bring a partner and a set of chess pieces to play on the little chess table there overlooking the palace. Wandering through the old town, I stumbled across endlessly pretty, diverting little churches and unlike in so many cities, most were not freestanding edifices, but instead tucked into courtyards, perched above gates, or otherwise built directly into the city itself with all it’s restaurants, shops, and cafes. Following a detour past the town hall with its grand forward square, I stopped in at a quirky little bar called Šnekutis for my dinner. The bar was manned by an interesting old fellow with a long grey beard and a look that I would probably describe as dishevelled. The patrons were similarly curious creatures with an array of styles from hippy to hipster and more than a few novels as drinking partners. I ordered a beer with Vilnius in the name and something described as potato pancakes stuffed with meat. What they meant by that was mashed potatoes wrapped around a ball of delicious fatty savoury meat and then flattened into what might have been called a diamond shaped pancake and fried, fried until it was crispy and golden and oh so artery clogging with a side of sour cream. As for the beer, well it was a light weißbier with a ridiculous amount of head. It balanced all the grease quite admirably really. Having toured the west side of the city, I woke up the next morning ready to head east, to a park featuring one of Pushkin’s houses via the Gate of Dawn and a few tempting churches along the way. The Gate of Dawn is a stunning little chapel above one of the old gates to the city. It’s incredibly tiny but what it lacks in interior space it makes up for with a massive window to the world allowing the entire street below to see the beautiful painting of Mary and hear the singing of the mass. While there, I ran into a collection of nuns who appeared to be on pilgrimage and ended up following them along through another few churches. They were quite wonderful with their neat little habits secured with deep violet cords. Leaving the nuns behind I drifted through a Russian Orthodox church which was in the midst of mass! The entire congregation stands and follows the clergy about the church singing in call and answer what I can only presume must be scripture or gospel or something else equally liturgical. It was beautiful. It was also making me feel a tiny bit too much the non-believer who didn’t belong so I soon slipped back out to find Vilnius’s only remaining bastion and get on out to the park. The bastion was basically just a few brick walls (some circular, some not) and much to my chagrin they weren’t even artistically ruined. So I plodded through the park via a trail that wasn’t exactly a trail and was rather richly adorned with the accoutrements of squatters and other marginal people. I slipped through and away into a local residential area filled with aging wooden houses, dilapidated factories, and locals crowded around outdoor water pumps which seemed to be the local source of running water. When I finally reached the Pushkin park, I found a small house with a scattering of French people who appeared to be devotees of some Pushkin society, and no one to pay for a ticket. Suddenly shy, I skipped the inside and just circumnavigated the building (very cute) before tooling on down to the lake. From the lake there were alluring forest paths and that ended sometime later with me on the side of another footpath-less road trying to coax my GPS into an estimate of just how long it would take to get back to more pedestrian places. Pedestrian places ended up being the Bernardine Graveyard which took quite an adventure in GPS mixed with traveller wiles to find the entrance. It was a lightly treed and hilly little affair with very few benches to allow me to rest and observe. I did however eventually find a charming little pair of graves secluded at the bottom of the hill just beside the fence. I sat on the accompanying bench reading until the peals of thunder began to shift their tone from “atmospheric and distant” to “right here right now, possibly with pouring rain”. It didn’t begin to rain until I was well out of the cemetery and attempting to begin an exploration of Uzupio, but when it did begin, it was a proper rainstorm which sent me scurrying as fast as I could for coffee. I found my way back to a very hipster looking place which I’d clocked on an adventure my first evening in Vilnius. Its name was Šviežia Kava and it was heaven! I had an Ethiopian with more complexity than I’d’ve known to ask for and a delicious chicken sandwich, all for only about three euros. I was very much in my happy place of coffee and sustenance which is probably why I didn’t even register the presence of a very agitated hipster shouting at me in Lithuanian until he barged his face into my happy little sphere, I think to accuse me of being deaf. Turns out he wanted to access the outlet behind my couch (to charge his Macbook, of course!). He was not thrilled by my presence, my inability to speak Lithuanian, or my saccharine and helpful demeanour once he explained himself in a language I did understand. We do love hipsters, right? Once the rain abated, I wandered back over to Uzupio to better explore the Rez Publica. Uzupio is a neighbourhood wrapped by a bend in the river Vilna which declared its independence on April 1st and whose constitution includes delightful lines like: “Everyone has the right to live by the River Vilnelė, and the River Vilnelė has the right to flow by everyone.” “Everyone has the right to be undistinguished and unknown.” “A cat is not obliged to love its owner, but must help in time of nee.” No one is quite sure whether it’s a joke or not but it’s a charming little place. More artist village than Christiania’s drug haven, and yet still very alternative and self defined. The constitution is posted on the street in a myriad of languages, the graffiti and statues were creative (and prolific), and the place was absolutely full of flowers. As a side note, Vilnius in general was a very flower-full city, but Uzupio especially. Heading back from my adventures in the Republic, I drifted past Vilnius’s synagogue and very soon found myself in another brutal rain squall and fled back to the hostel. The skies would later clear long enough to see me to an organ concert with an Italian organist at a local church where I heard a degree of texture and tonality that I had not imagined an organ capable of. The night itself, was however, full of the constant patter and thumping gusts of wind and rain. The next morning began grey but rather less rainy so I set off on my grand adventure to the Palace of Verkiai—only about 13km out of town. I crossed through the old town to the river which I then followed through parks and over cycling paths all the way to the palace park. There was a brief diversion to a beach where I was delighted to see local office workers taking their lunches as swimming breaks, stripping off pretty little office dresses to reveal bathing suits and goggles. Once in the Verkiai park, I found that my footpath was nowhere to be seen so I crept along the side of the road as quickly as I could in search of some sort of trail. I shortly found one in the form of several hundred steps up a very steep hillside. At the top of the hill I found what looked like the remains of a well, a bird house bedecked tree, and a path. Obviously I followed the path which lead me to the palace which was simple and pretty but completely closed up. I wandered about the park and out buildings only to find that the cafe was also defunct and there was very little that one could actually access. My map however suggested that there was a lot more regional park to be explored to the north so I headed to the highway to hunt down more adventures. Fortunately, the roadside also featured a bicycle/foot path through the trees which soon lead me on into the bogland! The bogs were filled with water lilies, tall straight red barked trees, and carpets of wild blueberries which I gluttonously devoured. Rambling through the mossy woodlands I passed out of the bogs and on to the lovely, beautiful, clear lake. Having wandered for hours with no food other than a few blueberries, I was leaning rather heavily towards fainting so I was delighted to spot the accoutrements of a little lakeside pub. The proprietor bore a strange resemblance to the barman at Snekutis and he was equally helpful and friendly serving me up a big glass of pear cider and some local delicacy which the English menu called “Scone filled with cheese”. It was substantially more like massive savoury pastry (the size of a large dinner plate) filled with ooey gooey melted farmers cheese with lots and lots of pepper. Between the rather too hastily quaffed cider and the richness of the meal, I left my picnic table rather a little bit sleepy and tipsy. And then in my sleepy tipsy state I walked another two to three hours back to my hostel via foot paths through the woods, highways, and all manner of wonderful infrastructure. And then I was back in the hostel exhausted, munching on a snack from the grocery store and bracing myself for another noisy night in the hostel dorm. My last day in Vilnius was dedicated to coffee, chilling, and catching up on adult responsibility. I planted myself in hipster heaven (aka Šviežia Kava) sitting across from a guy with an adorable little dog that might have been a miniature pit bull of some variety. I had a latte and an orange meringue and chocolate mousse parfait and a lovely latte which made writing job applications ALMOST bearable. Between more bouts of rain and wind, I eventually drifted back to the hostel and then back out again to scarf down a dinner of cheap vegetarian Indian food. The paneer curry with rice and salad was tasty, but the lassi was divine! In the past I’ve had lassi that was basically just a mango and yogurt smoothie but this was spiced, subtly sweet, drinking yogurt from heaven. And then it was back out into the rain to run back to the hostel. There I found a young traveler from Bergen playing a broken guitar as a ukulele in the common room. We fell to chatting and in no time at all he was showing me his impressive collection of visas and passport stamps and telling me all about his frenetic travels to as many countries as possible. I will freely admit that I felt inadequate in my modest travel accomplishments. He ended up borrowing my laptop to check on all of his online presences which turned into photo sharing and Facebooking until I finally called an end to it at 3am. I had an early bus to catch the next day and I had no intention of falling asleep on the couch. Unfortunately, thanks to the general noisiness of the room and the sleep schedules of my roommates, I didn’t end up getting any sleep anyway. KAUNAS After my very sleepless last night in Vilnius, I took a short bus ride to Kaunas where I found my hostel and met the very friendly lad at the desk who marked up a map so thoroughly with recommendations of things to see, coffee to drink, foods to eat, and live events to catch that my exhaustion addled brain nearly couldn’t cope. So I set out to find coffee and by dint of a language gap ended up waiting half an hour only to find that I had managed to order a wrap but not a coffee. Still needing a boost, I stumbled onwards to the next potential cafe where I was greeted by a wonderfully rude barista who didn’t seem to understand that I wanted to know which beans were on offer rather than just what apparatuses they had available for making the coffee. I eventually gave up and got a chemex of something and a really lovely piece of cheesecake which had both a top and a bottom crust and a filling of such perfect texturally complex, fluffy delicious cheesecake. Feeling somewhat revitalized I wandered off down the main pedestrian street into the old town. I stopped past the beautiful little old St. Gertrude’s church where I found grottos filled with candles and a christening in process. I would go on to find plenty more churches and even the town hall but each and everyone was in the midst of some celebration or other—most of them weddings. Having cruised placidly through the fray of marriages and photographers I found my way past the cathedral and the castle to the park at the meeting of Kaunas’s two rivers. And then as if by clockwork it began to rain. Slightly damp I made it back to the hostel and crashed unceremoniously into my bunk to attempt a revival. I must presume I was somewhat successful because within a few short hours I was back up and at ‘em eating buckwheat pancakes topped with mushroom sauce and paired with a beetroot salad at a traditional Lithuanian restaurant. It was toothsome and delicious and, paired with a cup of some cranberry and potato starch drink concoction, provided exactly the lift I needed to make it to the live music I’d been promised in a nearby courtyard bar. By the time the music started (almost two hours late) the rain was pouring down in buckets and my coffee was cold. But the music was good so I stayed to watch three polish producers crank out ambient, jazzy hip hop through the rain. By the time the music was done, the rain had slowed and I was able to slip away again to the hostel where I chatted with a girl from Hong Kong via Ireland and was soon asleep. My second day in Kaunas was dedicated to parks and a Monastery. It was a journey which the hostel workers had advised be done on bicycle but I’m a lunatic so obviously I did it on foot. I began with a trip past a very modernist church and onwards past a library to the parks. After adventuring through an old soviet amusement park and past a memorial to two early trans-atlantic pilots, I found my way into what I shall go ahead and describe as the community forest. It was a large expanse of open woodlands which were full of berries! I stuffed my face with blueberries and raspberries and got completely and utterly turned around in no time at all. Thank god for GPS. With a belly full of berries, I eventually made it to the still functioning monastery which just so happened to be observing it’s monthly pilgrims and prayers day which meant I was able to slip into the mass for free. No pictures were allowed indoors but it was a beautiful church of red marble with stunning paintings on all sides and a very singular altar piece. All around the framed image of the Virgin Mary, were hung crosses and strings of amber prayer beads. I had never seen anything quite like it. As soon as the mass made its way to communion I was ready to slip away so I headed off to find the nearby cemetery. The graves I found were very large, very grand and very well kept. The cemetery was full of families tending graves: weeding, watering, washing the marble and cement. There was also a large number of fresh graves covered in neatly arrange flowers and candles. Sadly there were few to no benches so my plan to sit and read was rather effectively spoiled. Heading back into the city, I stumbled across the Sixth Fort of the Kaunas Fortress and the nearby hill of crosses. The crosses were a beautiful plea for peace while the fort was a sprawling collection of dilapidated red brick buildings begging to be explored. Since however, I had neither light nor a second, I resisted the urge to go traipsing about in the darker recess of the fort and stuck to an exploration of the graffiti’d exterior. By the time I left the Sixth Fort I was starved, which is how I ended up eating a whole supermarket container of crispy fried bread. Now this isn’t fried bread in the sense of bannock or Yorkshire puddings, no this is fried bread in the sense of white bread, sliced into strips, soaked in butter, dusted in herbs and garlic, and then fried to within an inch of it’s life—aka fatty, crispy manna from heaven. I ate my ambrosia sitting in a park which at one end housed a Russian Orthodox church, at the other a mosque, and in the middle a war memorial and reading. It was perfect. After my fried bread, I spent a little while chilling at the hostel before wanderlust returned to my feet and I headed out to stroll in the sun, stuff my face with a gourmet pistachio donut, and read The Beautiful and the Damned on a bench in the old town. I headed back just as it was getting cold and spent the rest of the evening hanging around the hostel chatting with a Swede, an Austrian, and two 38 year old Aussies. One was a technical sort of fellow working in the mining industry and the other was a vivacious chef from Victoria who was delighted to share China stories with me and chat about food. It was an excellent night. Come Sunday I set out into a Kaunas of closed shops and locals out enjoying the sun. I stopped by a small vintage fair where I exerted a great deal of self control to avoid buying EVERYTHING. They had promised music but it was unforthcoming so I headed off in search of ice cream and found “Bounty Ice-cream”. Imagine a bounty bar but the coconut cream is actually coconut ice-cream. Perfection. The rest of the day was spent indulgently reading and napping in the endless sunshine before a dinner of meat filled zepplins and a peach milkshake. I defend myself by pointing out that these were both authentic Lithuanian traditional foods. It is the only possible excuse for scarfing down two giant dumplings made of potato based dough, stuffed with fatty savoury meat, and then drenched in sour cream and so much butter. Despite the fact that after my dinner I wanted only to sleep off all the carbs and fat, I hauled myself out to a local salsa social and boy was I delighted that I did. I had fantastic dances with Los Tios del Salsa and all the Kaunas salseros and to top it off, whenever we got to hot and sweaty, there was great conversation outside with all the other dancers. And then as quickly as it began it was over and I was back to the hostel to try to sleep off at least a little of my growing exhaustion. My last day in Kaunas began with a long hot walk out the the Ninth Fort to explore the Ninth Fort and occupation museums. It was a very heavy afternoon. Kaunas has been the site of many battles and the fort itself has hosted an unspeakable amount of suffering and death. The fort was built by the Czarists, used by the first Lithuanian government as a political prison, mostly for communists, then as a soviet prison for anti-communists. Then came the Germans who filled the place with communists and Jews as a concentration camp where thousands were massacred. Near the end of the war it was home to a handful of miscellaneous political prisoners tasked with digging up and burning the bodies to hide the massacre. They then escaped and when the communists returned, the prison once again became the home of anti-communists or dissenters who would eventually be shipped to Siberian work camps to suffer and/or die. The museum also told the tragic story of a young Lithuanian who burned himself alive in the 70s to protest the communist rule of the country. It is a place of great pain and great sorrow broken only by the stories of those brave souls who stood against the nazis to protect their Jewish neighbours and countrymen. After a while out in the sun on the grass to decompress and warm up—the fort, being built into a hill was cold and damp even in 30˚ weather—I wandered down to a restaurant to eat cold beet soup and potatoes. The soup was a wonderful creamy thing with egg and dill and beet shavings while the potatoes were mostly just boiled. I washed it all down with a cup of apple and caraway juice and headed back out into the sun towards the city centre. Once back in the old town I stopped for a cup of fancy schmancy coffee (it was delicious) and then got diverted by exciting pastries and sunny patios and then eventually made my way back to the hostel where I intended to write up this blog while waiting for the night bus. The fact that I’m finishing this two days later in Gdansk perhaps tells you how well I got on. We shall blame an enthusiastic Swede with beer and tales of mad cycling adventures all over the city. And then it was time, I hoisted my backpack, found the bus station, was detoured to a parking lot and then spent the better part of half an hour waiting in the dark with a herd of drunks for the much anticipated night bus to Poland. Sleepy, lazy, and late, The Canadian

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