|November 1, 2010
The travel days here are coming thick and fast but we’ve had plenty of time in each city we’ve been lately and had plenty of days doing nothing with hangovers, too! Today we were leaving Latvia after basically a long weekend and heading into Lithuania and the city of Kaunas. Before we left we headed to the supermarket and bought some supplies for the near 6 hour bus ride and then dragged ourselves and our bags to the bus station. The bus stations here are really well organised and each bus has a specified “platform” number so they are easy to find. So far, all our buses have run on time, too which is more than can be said for some countries! We were travelling with Ecolines and the bus was a pretty big double-decker and was going from Tallinn to Bonn in Germany. As a result there were lots of people getting on and off and the loading of luggage depending upon location was a bit haphazard. It wasn’t helped by the hostess on the bus trying to change our seat numbers. I’d specifically booked seats together but when we tried to board we had one seat at the front and one at the back. I told her we were going to sit together and she just shrugged so when we got onboard we just sat in our original seat numbers.
The journey wasn’t too bad although the standard of driving left a lot to be desired. On a number of occasions our driver passed a vehicle whilst there was a car coming in the other direction. Remember, we were in a bloody large bus and overtaking and accelerating is difficult enough without the driver being a suicidal maniac! The bus stopped a few times, most notably in Vilnius where many people changed, but it didn’t seem to take too long until we were in Kaunas and off the bus.
Finding the hotel proved to be a little troublesome once again but I was partly to blame, too, having turned the wrong way out of the bus station and adding a good 10 minutes onto our trek. 10 minutes usually isn’t a lot but with a suitcase weighing nearly 20kgs and a bag on your back weighing almost half that any deviation is unnecessary and unhelpful! When we found the right address we again struggled to find the actual building entrance but thankfully an old lady was able to show us. When we got to the main door for the hotel there was nobody there and we once again were thankful for a wireless signal and Skype so we could call them and get them to come and check us in. I’m beginning to learn my lesson now and am going to be extra wary in future of where we are staying and what their reception hours are, especially as almost the whole of Eastern Europe considers this the off-season! We were staying at the Kaunas Apartments and as a result we had a nice private room with a decent bathroom and a small kitchen area. This came in really handy as, unbeknown to us, today was All Saints Day and just about everything in the city was closed. We were fortunate we had bought some pasta and sauce this morning in Riga as a backup and it came in handy for dinner!
We settled in for the evening and found one English TV channel, called Fox Life, which showed a whole load of girly type programmes we’d not heard of like “Samantha Who?” and “Sophie” as well as such classics as “Army Wives”, “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Cougar Town”. I’d seen Grey’s before and that is actually watchable and I was actually surprised that Cougar Town seemed to be as well. See what not having regular access to proper TV does to you? You think Courtney Cox is a “comedienne” and her shows are watchable!
November 2, 2010
We got up and out today and did a tour of the city, including a couple of interesting museums. Along our road is one of the largest churches in the city, the St Michael the Archangel Church, and we headed towards that first and into the tourist information office. We’d found out that Kaunas and Lithuania are huge into their basketball and there was actually a game on tomorrow night and according to the woman at the info centre it was a “big European match”. We had no clue either way so we grabbed a couple of the cheapest tickets, a couple of city maps and pounded the streets.
We passed by the Military Museum and with it the Great Military Museum Garden. At one end of the Garden was the Liberty Statue which was destroyed by Stalin and restored in 1989 and at the other end was the eternal flame, commemorating those who died fighting for Lithuania’s independence. To one side there were three statues which remember individuals who used to smuggle books printed in the Latin alphabet into the Soviet occupied country. We were also able to see the massive Christ’s Resurrection Church up on the hill, the biggest church in the Baltic States.
Our first museum stop of the day was the Čiurlionis National Art Museum. The museum is named after a painter and composer called Čiurlionis and it was for his art we had mostly stopped here. There were other exhibits relating to Lithuanian history, ethnography and art but we were a little blasé and nonplussed by that, preferring to walk straight past into the Čiurlionis section. He died quite young and so his paintings only really span a short period of about 5 years or so but the number of different styles he seems to use over that period is quite interesting. It almost seems like he never really had time to develop his own style but merely copied other styles for his own work. Much of his painting was pretty dark, too, and seemed to indicate a fair amount of sadness in his life. Once we had finished walking around the gallery, we were approached by a man asking if we wanted to hear some of his music. We hadn’t heard any before so we listened to about 15-20 minutes of work which had been composed by Čiurlionis and it was interesting to hear how much more upbeat much of it seemed compared to the painting. We both agreed it would’ve been nice to have had the music played in the background as we’d viewed the paintings, too.
We decided we were hungry after this stop and headed to a little pizza place we’d passed earlier. It wasn’t exactly local food but it was good enough, despite the glass-fronted shop resembling a sauna in the midday sun! Thankfully we had some local beer, called Kalnapilis, to cool us down a little!
The next stop was the amusing Museum of Devils. This was certainly something a bit different and revolved around a Lithuanian guy called Žmuidzinavičius who was obsessed (there is no better way to describe his fixation!) with devils and statues of them. As a result, not only did he collect them but he was so well known that people around the world sent him devil statues, too! The collection was really funny and contained two whole floors of statues he’d collected during his life and the third floor were items from around the world which have been donated to the museum since his death. The museum is also now based next to where Žmuidzinavičius used to live and so we got to see inside his house, too! The most amusing statue depicted Stalin and Hitler as demons chasing each other around.
After walking around the museums we headed towards the old town and down picturesque Vilnius Street and passed another basilica called the Arch-Cathedral. Almost opposite here was a small photography display by a Lithuanian called Griškevičius and we popped in to have a look around the free exhibit. The pictures, featuring mostly nude, over-weight, elderly gentlemen, were quite weird and put the person into positions they wouldn’t usually find themselves or incorporating them as part of a larger structure. There were lots of locals in here snapping away at his pictures but apart from the sheer weirdness of them I didn’t see any point having a photo of a photo!
From here we continued down towards the river and saw the town hall and, finally, the Kaunas Castle. The structure wasn’t too large but one of the main towers was still intact and looked quite impressive in the large park area by the river. We had a long walk back to the hotel, stopping briefly for groceries and to look at a memorial to Romas Kalanta, a young Lithuanian who killed himself by covering himself in petrol and lighting it as a protest at the Russian occupation of Lithuania. His act is seen as a symbol of Lithuanian resistance to the Soviets.
Back at the hotel we lazed around for a while before heading out for some dinner. We had planned to go to a restaurant in the old town but it had started raining so we chose one a bit closer to us. This restaurant was called Žalias Ratas. We tried some really good local dishes. We started with kepta duona (deep fried black bread flavoured with garlic) and then we tried cepelinai (zeppelin shaped potato things filled with meat and virtiniai (dumplings stuffed with meat and covered in sour cream, garlic and oil). The food was good but really heavy and stodgy and Elizabeth struggle to eat all of her zeppelins! We washed it all down with a special German-style beer which was very weissbeir-like and very drinkable! We were REALLY stuffed and were quite glad we were close enough to the hotel to waddle back and collapse in bed!
November 3, 2010
After starting off the morning with some yummy bacon sandwiches, we headed out to the Ninth Fort. We had to get the bus there and they weren’t overly regular so we had a bit of a wait and it would’ve been nice if the woman at tourist info had told us this! Whilst on the bus a local guy called Haris started talking to us and he lived near the fort so he showed us the way once we got off. He was so pleased to meet Elizabeth as he loved America and was happy to practice his English as he really wanted to live in the US, too.
At the fort, the exhibits told the story of how the fort was initially a prison for Lithuanians, was bombed by the Germans during WWI, was then used by the Russians during the first occupation and then by the Germans, and finally by the Russians again during the second occupation. The fort had quite a history and it was also one of the places where the Nazis bought people to be killed, including thousands of Lithuanian and Polish Jews.
The fort gets its name as it was the ninth fort built around the city of Kaunas when it was undergoing fortification. The initial 8 forts formed an inner ring but were not deemed strong enough so a second out ring was commenced with stronger, bigger forts of which the ninth was the first. It was completed just before WWI and at that time was unused so when the Germans fired shells at the fort and entered it they found it to be empty! After WWI and Lithuanian independence it was used as Kaunas’ prison. When the Soviets occupied the country in 1940 it was converted into a prison for political prisoners before they were sent to the gulags of Siberia until the Nazis invaded. The prison was then used as an extermination camp and over 5,000 Jews from the local ghetto were executed here. When it became apparent the Germans were going to lose the war they bodies were dug from the mass graves and they started a process of incineration.
The two museums at the Fort told the story of this history and also showed some of the many people who fought against the occupations and tried to help others, including those who have been honoured by Israel for the help they gave to Jews during WWII. For part of the fort, the underground vaults, we had a guide and she was really good at pointing out the various thongs around the fort. The displays in both the two museums were really touching and it was interesting to see a slightly different viewpoint on the occupations of the Baltic States as well as the Holocaust. It was certainly worth the trip out to the fort from the city. Outside the fort is a large memorial statue and with the weather being so cold and grey the statue looked quite chilling.
We jumped on the bus back and headed for the hotel. We were both quite hungry so we grabbed a sandwich and lazed around for a while. We were going to the basketball this evening so we decided to just have the leftover pasta for dinner before heading to the arena.
As we walked up the hill towards the stadium, there were a few people around but not mant so we weren’t sure how popular the basketball was really going to be. We had been told that it was popular here so were hoping for some excitement! The match was Kaunas Zalgiris against a Polish team called Prokom. Our seats were right in the top corner and had a bit of a restricted view but we could see most of the court so we weren’t too bothered. While I took some pictures, Elizabeth grabbed a couple of beers and we watched the two teams warm up. By the time the match started the arena was really full with both the Zalgiris and Prokom fans in full voice and waving their large flags. The match itself was great fun, too. The quality of basketball wasn’t exactly dazzling but the tension and the fans reactions certainly made it worthwhile. Zalgiris were about 18 points ahead at one point during the first half but a run of only 5 points in the entire 3rd quarter led to the game being tied and then Prokom taking the lead. With about 20 seconds left Prokom led by three but Zalgiris made a great three pointer to take the game into OT and the crowd was going crazy. The Zalgiris fans were noisy but a group of about 30 Prokom fans were making the most constant noise and the Zalgiris fans were really appreciating their efforts. OT came and went pretty quickly and Zalgiris managed to win 74-68 so the majority of the crowd left happy. The Prokom fans weren’t too dismayed though as they’d had fun and were enjoying the praise and high-fives from everyone as the crowd dispersed. It might not have been NBA standard basketball but the atmosphere and tension made it a great night and a brilliant experience.