After returning to Canada for a little travel break, I found myself out of my ‘travelling mindset’, and as such, I neglected to write about the last country I visited, Lithuania, over a month ago. Better late than never, so here it is, before I forget everything. I began my visit in the country’s second largest city, Kaunas. Coming from Ukraine, the contrast was enormous. While the majority of former Soviet Republics are quite poor, the Baltic States are the exception, being even slightly richer than Russia (per capita, of course). It was May Day and I just spent the day walking around, stoping at cafes and restaurants. I didn’t even bring my camera, taking these few shots with my phone. Not much was happening, as the holiday doesn’t seem to be a big deal in the country. All I saw was a small quiet demonstration by what looked like union activists.
Laisves aleja (Liberty Avenue), apparently one of Europe’s longest pedestrian streets, at over 2 km. A perfect place for my meandering projects.
I climbed the tower of the Kaunas Castle and accomplished my two objectives; to enjoy the nice view of the river and to avoid learning anything.
St. Michael the Archangel Church
Lithuanians have a unique pictorial way of displaying the opening hours of a business.
I headed further to Klaipeda, a coastal town with nothing in particular to attract me, other than being the gateway to a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Curonian Spit. First thing in the morning, I boarded a ferry with a bicycle rented from the tourism office.
The spit is a narrow band of land in the Baltic Sea, with a width ranging from a few hundred meters to a few kilometres, but a length of almost one hundred kilometres. Around the halfway point, an international border, as you cross into Russia, more precisely the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad Oblast.
The dunes are the largest moving dunes in Europe, reaching heights of 60 meters.
On the Lithuanian side, a bike path runs the length of the Spit, far from the main road. I am not sure how the cycling is on the Russian side, but of course, for most people, you would need a visa to find out for yourself.
I biked through burnt forests, reminding me of my visit to Tasmania during their fires in January 2013.
The tiny village of Juodkrantė, about halfway down the Lithuanian side of the Spit. In early May, I was visiting a good 2 weeks before the beginning of the touristic season. I regretted not bringing gloves to bike as my hands were freezing, so not surprising the beaches were totally empty.
The only open restaurant I could find. A close call since after biking 26 km of bumpy trails on a very bad bicycle, I was starving. In Kaunas, the people renting me the bike had said, before I left: “… and of course, here is the bicycle lock”. Acting a bit on autopilot, I locked the bike before entering the restaurant. A woman said something to me in either Lithuanian or Russian, with a smile. I told her I did not understand, although I knew exactly what she was saying. She repeated in English: “Nobody is going to steal your bike here”. It was quite obvious and I felt a little silly.
My short visit ended in the capital, Vilnius. In the centre, the 15th century Gediminas’ Tower, with the Old Town on the left and the modern city on the right.
St-Anne’s, a gothic church completed in 1500. There are a lot of churches in Vilnius, but that is nothing compared to the number of synagogues that use to be here, before World War II. There used to be 40 churches, but 110 synagogues! In fact, the Lithuanian capital historically had few Lithuanians in it. It was primarily populated by Poles and Jews.
The biggest synagogue was heavily damaged during the war, and then was destroyed by the Soviets and replaced by this arguably more useful, but not quite as pretty, school. There is talk of destroying this ugly building in the heart of the Old Town and replacing it with some sort of museum or memorial to the city’s Jewish heritage.
It would certainly be more fit than this very low-key memorial, commemorating the near total extermination of the city’s Jewish population of about a quarter million. The guide was very good at explaining the ambiguous feelings of Lithuanians towards these events. Like Austrians and many others, Lithuanians were considered victims of Nazi Germany after the war, but this is hard to reconcile with the fact that the main implementors of the Holocaust in the country were Lithuanian volunteers and collaborators.
The wide streets of the Old Town were never planned. The place had only narrow winding streets, but after the war, the Soviets decided not to re-build some of the heavily damaged buildings and instead make a few wider roads. This was supposed to be part of a highway going all the way to Minsk in Belarus, but that never happened and it somehow became this very nice boulevard.
While President Bush the Young was never very popular in Western Europe, he was a big hit in Lithuania. As our guide said: “We’re a small country. If anyone important visits us, we love him!”.
As Lithuania was my last stop before taking a travel break in Canada, I was very busy with “Canada related stuff”, and took little time exploring the country. I was also missing things I can find easily in Ottawa, such as gourmet burger restaurants. Well, the sophistication of Vilnius did not disappoint.
There are a lot of gourmet burger restaurants in Ottawa, but if dDrama Burger was in the city, I would rank it as the best. Of course, prices were much closer to what they would be in Ottawa than to what I had been getting use to paying in Ukraine or Moldova.
Vilnius even impressed me with technology I had never seen. Many parking lots have displays indicating the number of available spots left, but at Vilnius’ Akropolis shopping mall, there is a sensor above each parking spot, so the boards tell you exactly in which aisle to turn for a spot. Shocked I have never seen this in North America, land of the shopping mall.
The neighbourhood of Užupis, meaning “other side of the river”, was the worst part of the Vilnius until the independence of the country in 1990. Artists, bohemians and squatters moved in and in 1997, the district declared itself an independent republic! More of a joke than anything else, you do not go through customs to get in, except on the National Holiday, when a passport is mandatory to cross the bridges. Incidentally, the National Day is April 1st.
The mayor of Vilnius lives there, and apparently ate a meal on this rooftop installation with the artist who designed it. The man is known to be a publicity hound with a flair for the spectacular. Tired of seeing rich people parking in forbidden zones, he somehow borrowed an armoured personnel carrier and drove it over an offending Mercedes parked in a bike lane. Here is the story as told by Russia Today:
This man is the town drunk. They made a small statue honouring him!
The constitution, printed in several different languages. Some examples of the 41 articles:
1. Everyone has the right to live by the River Vilnelė, while the River Vilnelė has the right to flow by everyone.
3. Everyone has the right to die, but it is not a duty.
10. Everyone has the right to love and take care of a cat.
27. Everyone shall remember his name.
And finally, the flag. It is supposed to change colour with every seasons, but recently, officials have become lazy and left the blue one up all year long. There is a lot more I wanted to see and do in the region but no worry, I’ll be back in August.