Kaurun, Lithuania. 11th June 2014.
The Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are all small countries which lie between Poland and Russia. They have had a turbulent history, most recently as Soviet Socialist Republics. They gained independence in the early nineties and are all now in the EU. It is therefore tempting to lump them all together but this would be wrong. They are very different to each other in many respects.
So, as usual, a run down of what they’re about and how they got there follows, along with my experiences there.
Looking at its borders now you’d struggle to believe Lithuania was once one of the largest countries in Europe. It incorporated present-day Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, and parts of Poland and Russia.
The country was founded in 1253 under its first king and gradually grew in size despite having to fight off the Christianising crusades of the Teutonic Knights and the Livonian Order. By the end of this period it had become a Christian nation although its leaders always practiced religious tolerance. But it was during the early 15th century, when it was known as The Grand Duchy of Lithuania, that it had its heyday and was at its largest. It eventually joined Poland to form a voluntary two state union, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, with a Polish king, which lasted over two centuries During this period Polish influence won out and affected all areas of Lithuanian life. The country was severely affected by the religious wars that raged across Central Europe in the 17th century and was eventually controlled by Sweden.As with much of Central Europe, the Russian, Prussian and Austrian empires gained control of the Commonwealth at the end of the 18th century.
Post WW1 Lithuania declared independence from Russia although it lost its capital, Vilnius to Poland. It wasn’t until the end of WW2 that Lithuania gained its current borders. It was the first former Soviet Republic to declare independence and joined the EU in 2004. About 85% of the population are native Lithuanians with the rest being made of of Poles, Russians and some others.
I crossed the border in the usual EU manner – a quick check of the notice board where the speed limits are shown. Barely any need to slow down. The border area looked no different to the one I’d just left. No surprise there really. Very rural, with the same wooden houses although the roads were a bit rougher and some of the drivers definitely had a relaxed attitude.
I was heading for the town of Kaurun just as an overnight stop, final destination being Vilnius, the capital. I hadn’t had any way of booking a place to stay but the Points Of Interest facility on my GPS found me a nice hotel with room and breakfast at EU39. Far more than I normally pay but I’d camped the previous two nights so felt like a bit of luxury. It was nice to have a good clean up, a nice big bed and, of course, Wi-Fi. It’s incredible how much we rely on it these days and it makes travelling so much easier and probably cheaper because of the ability to book ahead into suitable accommodation. Going to hotels on the off chance isn’t the cheapest way of doing it, as tonight’s room rate demonstrated.
I wasn’t in any rush next morning so a lie in and leisurely breakfast were in order before heading off on the 100km ride to the capital. That was just as well because when I checked the time I found I’d lost an hour. My journey eastwards was becoming measurable in something other than kilometres. In some respects it was also getting riskier, with a couple of drivers seemingly determined to halt my progress by driving me off the road. I’d noticed driving standards dropping and arrogance levels rising the further east I went. The relaxed to alert ratio needed to be reconfigured!
It was raining hard by the time I got to Vilnius but I found the hostel, with the help of a young pedestrian. It was just inside the Old Town, right by one of the City Gates. There was a courtyard round the back, just right for secure parking. Like most hostels, the young backpacker is their main market and they usually reflect that in their decor and style. In this one there were a couple of young guys creating some artwork on the walls of the stairwell. There were also a couple of blackboards in the dining area where people could write pithy comments on whatever took their fancy. One of the guys doing the artwork came up to me and asked if I could think of a short poem – 8 or 9 words – to put on the walls as a motto. So I suggested he try to work something around the phrase ‘Carpe Diem’, ‘Seize the Day’. I explained to him what it meant and he quite liked the idea. Whether or not he used it I’ll never know.
Out and about for a walk around, the first place to visit was the Dawn Gate, right by the hostel. It’s the only gate left from the original nine and dates from the early 16th century. It’s key feature is the shrine in the building above the gate. Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, it is a place of pilgrimage for many. Inside is a very decorative icon of Mary surrounded by decorative silver and gold panelling. What grabbed my attention was that there were people actually kneeling down and praying in front of it. I’ve visited a few such places now and this was the first time I’d seen that. I took a few photos and left them to it. I hope they got whatever they were after.
A sign told me that the city has 28 churches of all different creeds, reflecting the religious liberalism encouraged by Lithuania’s rulers. I popped into a few of them on my walk around the city, including the Catholic cathedral. This has a separate bell tower which can be climbed for a nice view over the Old Town area. Its current neo-classic appearance dates from the late 18th century and it is a very fine looking building.
There are some great buildings in the Old Town including the Town Hall, the University and the various churches, and there are some of the old fortifications still left up on the hill above, now a museum. I walked round to where the President’s Palace was and, although it’s a fine looking building, what was happening outside it proved to be far more interesting than what went on inside. There were some people drawing the letters TIE-SOS on the edge of the square in front of the building. Puzzled by this I asked one of them what it was all about. The letters stand for ‘Save Us From Them’ or something similar and behind it lies a very dark tale. They are protesting about the lack of action in a pedophilia case that involves some important figures in the Lithuanian establishment, one a judge and one a politician. The protesters initially came every day to redraw the letters because they used to be removed by the police but they get left alone now so they only need to come once a week.
Briefly this story is about a young girl who was sold by her divorced Mother for sexual services, as was the daughter of her Mother’s sister. The girl eventually went to live with her Father and told him what had been happening to her. He went to the police but when they realised who was involved they quietly dropped the case. The Father continued to push for action and was eventually found murdered, as were two other people involved in the case. Now, according to the protester I spoke to, there have been a total of 19 murders related to the case and still some of those accused have managed to escape prosecution. He said it was typical of some of the ‘old communist ways’ that still exist in the country and that the face presented by Lithuania to the world, and especially the EU, is something of a sham. That’s just one group’s opinion and I’m sure Lithuania isn’t the only country in Europe where such things take place. But a fascinating and worrying story nonetheless.
Feeling hungry, I found a place to eat and ordered Sauerkraut soup and Pig’s Ears. The soup was excellent, the ears were awful. All gristly fat with no meat to speak of. It’s supposed to be a national dish and I’m convinced it won’t ever become an international one!
I found Vilnius to be a friendly place with people happy to help when asked. I only spent an afternoon and evening there but I could easily have spent another day. But the clock was ticking and I needed to move on. Why the rush? Well, it’s all to do with my visa for Kazakhstan.I applied for it while I was in Berlin and the problem is that you have to state your date of entry from which you then have 30 days to visit and get out. Fine if you have a scheduled flight or a planned holiday but absolutely no use to the road traveller, especially one who doesn’t have a schedule. The effect of this was to keep me worried about how long I could spend in any given place, constantly feeling I had a deadline to meet – which I did!
Next morning I set off to visit the Trakia National Park, en route to Klaipeda on the Baltic coast. This area used to be the capital of Lithuania and was full of historically significant buildings and, in particular, the castle that used to house the Dukes. It is an area of 200 lakes and islands and the castle is approached across two causeways, making me immediately think how good its defenses must have been. Parking areas were plentiful and many of them were in the gardens of local residents enjoying the prosperity that visitors can bring. So I parked in one.
The castle itself is quite small and neat with three storey buildings surrounding a courtyard. Most of it is original, although refurbishment has taken place, and there was plenty of information to read, especially about the history of the country. One surprising fact I gleaned was that Lithuania only ever had one king, all the other rulers were Dukes. It’s now used for cultural events such as operas and concerts and is clearly an important place for Lithuanians.
Attempting to leave, I found the road blocked by a car and a coach which appeared to have had a ‘moment’ I waited until the pavement was clear of people and just rode round them while all the other vehicles had to turn round. Handy way to get around, these bikes.
My next destination was a very strange place known as the Hill of Crosses. My route there took me down some interesting back roads and proved to be my first foray off tarmac. I didn’t plan it that way, it’s just what happens when you follow a GPS. Hard packed mud and stones with a slightly damp surface make for interesting riding but I found my way through OK and with no mishaps.
The Hill of Crosses? More of a mound really. Located on the site of an ancient hill fort it is a place of pilgrimage for Catholics and is currently reckoned to have over 100,000 crosses, crucifixes and statues on it. It is thought it was first used as a place for the families of those who died in rebellions against Russian occupation, 1831 and 1863, to leave memorials to their loved ones as they usually didn’t have a body to bury. As time went by, and various occupations affected the country, it became a place to express nationalism through religion, especially during Soviet times. The occupiers removed the hill more than once but it was reinstated each time by a population determined to express its national identity through this rather bizarre place. The number of crosses there has varied over time but today is estimated to be over 100,000, ranging from 3 metres high to those small enough to fit in the hand. Nobody has responsibility for the site but local laws limit the height of any new cross to 3 metres. As well as crosses and crucifixes there are thousands of rosary beads draped over them. Pope John Paul II visited and since the year 2000 there has been a Franciscan hermitage nearby.
I walked up the path to it from the visitor centre and was surprised at how small the ‘hill’ is and amazed at how many crosses and other religious paraphernalia there is there. Mostly though I just thought the whole place was as bizarre as religion gets although I did like the fact it was ‘of the people, by the people’ with no organisation behind it and that it represented, particularly during Soviet rule, a shout for freedom.
Leaving there I carried on to my hostel in Klaipeda, up on the coast. A friendly girl on reception, a place round the back to park my bike and a supermarket across the road to feed me. Just what I needed after a long day. There was the Spain v Holland game on the TV, one of the other guys in the hostel was Spanish and the rest of us commiserated with him. My room was a little bit cramped but I was sharing it with a couple of young ladies and we all got along well.
Next day I had one more place to visit in Lithuania before crossing the border into Latvia, my second Baltic state. While I was breakfasting a couple of Kiwi women came in. We got chatting and when I told them I would be visiting New Zealand I immediately got an invitation to stay from Maureen. She lives in Dunedin, in the south island so I’ll look forward to calling in on them both later in the year. It’s great to meet people and make contacts like this, one of the great benefits of hostels.
The last place on my visit list for Lithuania had never housed a King or Bishop, wasn’t a shrine to any God or Saint and didn’t display ancient artifacts or icons. It housed the remnants of a far more modern version of the warrior’s craft. It was a former Soviet missile base. Located in a national park near the Latvian border, this collection of bunkers, silos and engineering plant used to be home to four Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles, one of which would have been aimed at my former South East London home. Fortunately the button was never pressed although Woolwich did, at times, look as if a bomb had hit it!
The site was chosen for its remoteness. The small number of farmers there were bought out and moved elsewhere. The bunkers and silos were dug out by hand, by Estonian soldiers, taking 6-8 months.The work was started in September 1960 and was completed in December 1961. The range of the missiles was 2300kms, meaning that cities as far away as Istanbul could be targetted. Each missile was 23 metres high and was fuelled by a mixture of kerosene and nitric acid. This fuelling method had been developed to avoid the need for liquid oxygen which was very difficult and expensive to produce and store. The base was involved in the Cuban missile crisis, with some of its missiles being sent there. The base closed in June 1978. The majority of the Lithuanian population didn’t know of its existence.
The tour was guided and although not in English was still interesting as all the information panels were dual languaged. All the infrastructure is still there although most of the removable equipment has gone, such as generators etc. The tour took us through the control rooms, equipment rooms and into a missile silo. Out of all the sections we went to, that was the spookiest of all. Looking down into the depths of it and thinking what used to be there, and the destruction in could wreak made me shiver a bit. There was a section showing some of the propaganda posters that the Soviets used to use – quite amusing – and also mock ups of the control rooms, using dummies. All that can be seen above ground are the entrance ways and four steel covers, one over each launch silo. I had already decided this was a unique place to visit and was very glad I saw this strange but evocative place.
Back at ground level after the tour with more dirt roads to tackle before hitting the main road, Riga on my mind.