|November 4, 2010
We got up in no particular rush today as we were getting the bus to Vilnius, just an hour or so away. We didn’t have tickets but given there are 3 or 4 buses every hour we weren’t worried about finding one with spare seats, either! We had breakfast, packed up and checked we had the right directions to the hostel. We’d changed our minds about the hostel in Vilnius as we’d previously reserved a private room at a guesthouse but given the amount of people we’d met recently we thought we’d have more fun (and save money) in a hostel. We eventually got a bus about 11.30 and were in Vilnius just after 1pm. The hostel directions were easy enough to follow and we were soon checked in although the hostel seemed really dead.
We ventured out for lunch to a place recommended by the hostel as serving local food. When we got there and sat down we realised that the restaurant, Cili Kaimas, is actually part of a chain and the same chain where we had pizza in Riga. Still, we were hungry and ordered quickly, with Elizabeth going for the sauerkraut and potatoes and me with the potato fritters filled with meat covered in garlicky sour cream. Our food took forever to arrive and we were starving by the time it turned up. Our waitress seemed to be a few cards short of a full deck and, dare I say it, a bit blonde. All the other waitresses were racing around and keeping busy but ours spent most of the time staring at a spot of floor near the bar! The place was really busy and we had been lucky to find a table so we shouldn’t complain too much but something resembling service would’ve been nice! Anyway, the food was pretty good and I certainly didn’t feel guilty about leaving no tip!
We had a bit of a stroll around and stopped off at the tourist info centre for some maps and brochures before heading to Rimi, the supermarket, for some groceries. Food here is reasonably cheap and has been throughout the entire Baltic region so our shopping generally consists of snacks, soft drinks and breakfast!
In the afternoon we read through some of the stuff from the tourist info and tried to decide what we wanted to do. The hostel still seemed pretty dead so we remained hopeful of a weekend influx of people to drink with!
For dinner we cheated and went to Hesburger, the local equivalent of McDonald’s and had a crappy burger and fries!
November 5, 2010
This morning we headed out around the city and started off at the KGB Museum. The main part of the museum was in the building which used to be owned and run by the KGB and where they kept some of the prisoners during some of the interrogations they carried out. The bulk of the museum spoke about the occupation of Lithuania and much of the displays here were similar to those seen in Latvia and Estonia although being on the border with Poland and Germany, Lithuania was the first to be occupied by the Germans. The exhibits here told the story using a good mixture of text and items from the time and although all these museums are a lot of reading, this one didn’t seem too overwhelming.
The basement of the museum contained cells that the KGB used to keep prisoners before they were sent to work camps and had rooms designed for interrogation and punishment. The cells had a really creepy feeling to them even though they were mostly bland rooms, many of which had been painted and re-painted so many times to cover up the names which of the prisoners which had been carved into the walls. Some of the cells had not been repainted and many of the names and dates were still visible in the plaster. At the very lowest level was a separate area which was used as an execution room. No record was made of how the prisoners were killed here but over the course of around 18 months, nearly 800 people were executed here. The room had some bullet holes in the walls but generally seemed quite light and sterile, almost concealing the horrors which had taken place in this underground dungeon.
The cells area was similar to many prisons and even had the cells for solitary confinement and those padded for complete restraint of an inmate. Here though the padding wasn’t just used for the protection of the prisoner and to stop chances of self-harm but also to conceal their cries and screams. The cells designed for punishment were also unbelievable and made the cold, dark solitary cells seem almost cozy. There were two cells called wet cells and we had seen similar in the vaulted cells at the Ninth Fort in Kaunas. These ones were different and had a metal “stand” in the centre of the floor. The room was flooded with water and the only place the prisoner could avoid the icy cold water, or in winter the ice, was to stand on the small, round, raised platform in the centre of the room. He would have to stand there for hours on end and any slight loss of balance would see them falling into the water. It was crazy to see these rooms and even crazier to think that these were used time and again. The museum and cells were really well laid out and explained but horrifyingly chilling, not for what they showed but for what you know happened there.
We headed out of the museum and wandered around looking for a place for lunch, eventually settling on an Asian place called Bruisly (think “Bruce Lee”) and sat and enjoyed the warmth for a while. Not only had the museum and cells been chilling mentally, they had been bloody cold physically, too. We had some decent Asian fusion type food (mine was an Indian style curry and Elizabeth had a chicken teriyaki kind of thing) and it made a nice change from the heavy, stodgy local food that almost all of the Baltic States seem to enjoy!
We had a bit of a walk around the town square and a bit more of the city after lunch before heading back to the hostel. It was still pretty dead here so we settled down in the common area and watched Inception and some South Park. There are people staying here but they just don’t seem very talkative or friendly like the people we met in Riga or Tallinn – it isn’t the hostels fault!
For dinner we went to a restaurant near the town hall and enjoyed some more local food. Well, I say local but I actually had Chicken Kiev but Elizabeth had a hearty casserole. The music in the bar was really funny as it was mostly modern songs but remade and sung in a kind of lounge room, relaxed kind of style and they were quite pitiful!
The hostel was still dead so we put another film on and were chatting to the guy who worked at the hostel. He said it had been really busy last weekend and everyone was going out but this weekend they had a large group of Russians in and they weren’t keen on socializing with anyone else! We just shoved Pulp Fiction on and drank a couple of beers before hitting the sack – a much quieter Friday night than we’d imagined!
November 6, 2010
I feel like I’m writing this a lot of late but once again we were slow to get out of bed, eat breakfast and drag ourselves out onto the streets! Today we did a long walk around the old town. All of the Baltic capital cities are UNESCO World Heritage sites and, yes, I know they are old and they are cool to walk around but I must be missing something. Each one seems bigger than the last with Vilnius being bigger than Riga which was bigger than Tallinn but if anything the compactness of Tallinn made it feel much cozier and much easier to walk around. Here in Vilnius there is very little of the original city wall remaining and much of the old town consists of old churches and cobblestoned streets, which are great to look at but hell on your feet!
We started off passing the All Saints Church and onto the Gates of Dawn, one of the original entrances to the old town. This gate was more like the inside of a church and was covered in pictures of Jesus, much different to the old town walls we’ve seen elsewhere! We were almost bundled over by a load of old women when we walked through the gate as they were all leaving the church behind the wall, St Teresa’s Orthodox Church. There are so many churches in one area here it was confusing knowing which one was which and which one these old dears were escaping from! Opposite St Teresa’s is the Holy Trinity Church and behind it is the Church of the Holy Spirit. You got all of that? No? Neither have I. We followed the main road through the old town and this took us past the National Philharmonic building which was really cool and on past the Town Hall and town square where we’d already been a couple of times! The main thoroughfare towards the cathedral is marked with shops selling tourist goods including hundreds of matroushka (Russian dolls) and lots of horrible amber articles.
We eventually reached the Cathedral and the impressive Bell Tower. Both buildings looked quite modern in relation to some of the buildings around the square and inside the cathedral the carved, white stone was very intricate but a little excessive. Many churches and cathedrals you go in are really darkly decorated, ornate, gold-leafed monstrosities but even with the excessive décor here at least the white stone made the interior seem light and airy. We’d popped into a smaller church earlier in the day and it was so dark and stuffy that we were quite glad there wasn’t much to look at. That one smelt of old people and death but this one was much more refreshing! We decided it was time for a spot of lunch so we started looking out for a small café for lunch but we eventually found a brewery called Prie Katedros and where able to try some of their own beer.
After lunch we did a bit more walking, following the river out of the main old town area a bit to the large and imposing St Peter and Paul Church. We arrived here just as a couple of tour groups so we didn’t hang around too long. Walking back towards the old town we saw views of the Gediminas Tower up on the hill. We decided not to climb up the hill as the weather was really crap and, well, we couldn’t be bothered! We walked around the lower and upper castles and in between the two hills in the old town and then towards St Anne’s church. We had a quick stroll around the church and the surrounding area before heading across the river into Užupis. Užupis is an area of the city which claims it is its own republic and has its own flag and laws. It reminded me a little of Christiania in Copenhagen but the reality was much different. It was nowhere near as “hippy-ish” as Christiania and really just seemed like any other area of the city, differing only by the fact it had a sign on the river saying you were entering Užupis.
For dinner we ate at Double Coffee, deciding pasta was a better option than more local food and then we headed back and I decided to TRY and get an early night.
November 7, 2010
Last night was a complete pain in the arse and my early night just didn’t materialize. Firstly, the Russian girl in our room decided that she was going out. That was fine but having started to get ready at 10.30pm she eventually went out just before midnight. Seriously, who the hell takes that long to get ready for a night out? I’d finally just dozed off when Elizabeth woke me for the locker key to lock the laptop away. About three hours later, around half three, the Russian girl came back. Normally, when I’ve been out and I get back I just get changed, go to the toilet and go to bed, especially when I’m in a dorm room and have others to consider. But no, she spent ANOTHER hour and a half getting ready for bed, leaving the door open and coming in and out about every 10 minutes. She must’ve spent 3 hours out and almost the same amount of time getting ready and unready! I’m not one for swearing but that is fucking unreal! So, anyway, we’re now at about 5am by the time she finally goes to bed and I eventually fall back to sleep only to be woken up just after 6am by the three Portuguese people in our room returning from their night out. They decided to have a little conversation right by my bed and then the three of them got into the two bunk beds they had. I asked them if they had paid for three people and why they weren’t using the third bed. I was so pissed off at having had no sleep and having to listen to all their shit. They eventually went to bed but the movement of the three of them, rolling around to get comfortable in their bunk bed, made so much noise with the bed creaking that I got back to sleep about 7.30am.
Today we were headed out to a small town called Trakai about 30km from Vilnius and as it was a Sunday the choice of buses on offer wasn’t great so Elizabeth woke me just after 8.30am so we could get up and out at a reasonable hour. After the lack of sleep during the night, the wakeup call was not appreciated but I was still keen to get out of the city for a day. The bus took around 45 minutes and when we got to Trakai bus station we had about a 2km walk into the city and the main attraction, the castle. Thankfully the weather was quite pleasant today and there was even some sunshine peeking through the clouds. We attempted to stop at the tourist office but that was closed on Sundays so we carried on down the single main road to the peninsula and the small island where the castle was. The Trakai region is known as the lakes region of Lithuania and the area we were in was basically on the edge of a lake with some small islands in the middle, one of which housed the castle. It was not easy to miss as we soon saw a clearing, a wooden bridge and a massive bloody castle on it!
We crossed the bridge to the castle, stopping to get some pictures while the sky was still blue and headed inside. It wasn’t quite fairytale but it wasn’t far off and the main towers on each corner and the main gate formed a lovely centrepoint looking across the lake. We were quite lucky too as the bridge was empty as we crossed so I even got some pictures sans people! Inside the castle was equally impressive and had been really well restored and kept. The first courtyard still had authentic wooden walkways around the first level with dodgy wooden stairs leading up to them! There were some exhibits in the first building showing collections of antiques which had been collected by the castle museum. Many of these were porcelain, glass, etc from other countries and had nothing to do with the castle or its history whatsoever. It was really cool to walk around the interior of the castle though and the section at the back was over four or five different levels and the route of the exhibition here took us up and down the various staircases on the outside and through many little tunnels and down spiral stone staircases tucked away inside. The exhibit here was more relevant to the area, the people that lived in the region and the castle itself, including some examples of weapons and armour which had been used by the soldiers in the castle when it was actually active. The people that lived in the area were one of the smaller ethnic groups in Lithuania and had a separate language, different cuisine and different customs from the main people. It wasn’t obvious to me what some of these differences were given we aren’t overly familiar with Lithuanian heritage and customs in the first place. However, for lunch we did try some local cuisine. Elizabeth got a meat pastry, called a kibinai, which are similar to empanadas and I got a meat pie, which was basically the same as Elizabeth’s but bigger! The food was good but for me the pastry was a bit too much and my pie needed a good dousing in gravy and needed a pile of mash and veggies to accompany it!
We walked back to the bus station, the weather having now turned a bit darker and colder with a few spots of rain beginning to fall. We took the first bus back to the city which happened to be one of the local buses rather than the inter-city ones. This basically meant it stopped every two minutes and took twice as long as the bus this morning. We weren’t too bothered as we were just glad to be out of the rain and inside somewhere reasonably warm!
Back at the hostel the room was nice and quiet so we both took the chance to catch up on sleep and I got a fair bit done of my travel journal, which had fallen a bit behind. When we finally woke up, I was hungry and munched on some snacks which of course meant that when Elizabeth was hungry, I wasn’t! We headed out anyway and found a rustic looking restaurant called Medininku. Outside it looked like an old fort but inside it was a lovely, quite up-market looking restaurant. The menu had quite a few local dishes on it and these were about a third of the price of the more “Western” dishes, too. Elizabeth tried the sausages, complete with potato wedges and sauerkraut and I went for the lighter option of mushroom soup in a bread bowl. As it turned out, my bread bowl was huge and even with the accompanying soup it proved too heavy to eat all of. Thankfully, I was able to help Elizabeth with her sausages which were ridiculously big! I’m not a big fan of taking pictures of what we’re eating but there are times when I wished I had as some of the food we have eaten in the last month or so has just looked so amazing, not because of great presentation but just because the ingredients are so appetizing! Many people have commented that it seems like we have eaten and drunk our way around the world and whilst that obviously is a blatant lie (!), we have indulged and often over-indulged in some wonderful local and international delicacies and a whole range of beers, wines and ciders. I really think that this will be one of the things I miss most when we stop travelling but thankfully that is still a while off!
November 8, 2010
We were leaving Lithuania today to head to Poland but our bus wasn’t until 9pm so we were quite late getting up. We went and had breakfast, got showered and dressed and packed and hung around the hostel for a while until we were ready for lunch. What was I just saying about not just eating?! For lunch though we tried a place which was supposed to be a local speciality but in fact was a Belgian style eatery called Rene. We’d wanted to come here but it seemed quite expensive so we were holding off for the midweek lunch specials. When we got there they had a midweek special which was great for me but less so for Elizabeth but we managed to find something else for her to try. She eventually went with the chilli which was really tasty and quite spicy. I had the lunch special which was a really thick vegetable soup with fresh fish in it and was followed by chicken liver fried in cardamom. The food was really tasty and a nice change to some of the things we’ve been having, too. It might not have been authentic Lithuanian but there were plenty of locals here enjoying the food!
We had one final thing we wanted to do in the city and that was the Holocaust Museum. It had been closed on Friday and Saturday so we’d left it until today knowing we had time before we left. The weather was pretty grim today and it was probably the coldest day we’d had since we got to the Baltic States but the rain wasn’t too heavy. The grim outlook outside really matched the theme inside the museum, too, and really fitted with the general mood of the museum. It is really difficult to describe these type of places as the over-riding feeling when you come out of these is a mixture of so many emotions – from a guilt which is fairly irrational, to fear, to pain and grief. I’m not sure why I always feel slight pangs of guilt after visiting these museums as there is no way I could have changed anything that happened and even now there is very little that one can do but sympathise, but I always come away feeling that way, probably as a result of my ignorance towards many of the atrocities that happened. I feel that these kinds of stories are really important for everyone to learn and to act upon and sometimes I feel like we’re reading the same story over and over but with each story in each city or museum comes a new set of stories, with new people and faces and atrocities involved. The history of the Nazi occupation in Lithuania runs very similar to those in Poland, Estonia and Latvia and like these places the Jews were hounded by not just the Nazis but also the non-Jewish locals, who had been fed propaganda by the Nazis and been turned against their neighbours. The large Jewish ghettos in Lithuania were near Kaunas and Vilnius and many of the people who were forced into these areas never survived to see the end of the war. It is estimated (likely, under-estimated) that around 220,000 Jews were forced into the ghettos and less than 10% of these survived the Nazi genocide. Even those that did suffered from the tragic loss of many family members and many men were left unable to have children as the Nazis tried to stop the Jews breeding. The men were needed to work at the camps but the women were a bit more expendable so should any Jewish woman have fallen pregnant she was immediately exterminated.
The one thing that separated the ghettos in Lithuania from many others was the way they were allowed to live a more “normal” version of life. They were allowed to form dramatic groups and artists and writers were allowed to continue their works as long as they were within the confines of the Nazi doctrine. Many Jews in the ghetto didn’t approve of the performances of certain shows, seeing them as akin to performing at a funeral. They soon grew in popularity though as many people saw them as a good outlet and a break from the troubled lives they led and a change from just sitting around and waiting for death to arrive.
The museum was once again really well laid out and not over-whelming in size or text and was a really good place for us to visit given we are heading next to the place where the Wolf’s Lair was (the setting for the attempt on Hitler’s life as portrayed in the film Valkyrie) and on to Warsaw and later Krakow.
By the time we left the museum the rain was falling heavily so we made a quick retreat back to the hostel, stopping briefly for a couple of postcards to send home. We hung around most of the afternoon watching TV, staying dry and chatting with some people at the hostel before it was time to leave. Our bus was not until 9pm but we left at 7 so we could stop along the way for some dinner. We decided to treat ourselves to pizza and even followed it up with some tasty dessert. We didn’t realise at the time quite how much we’d appreciate this meal!