Wednesday, 7 July 2010
A new plan for arriving in foreign cities - stop for dinner in a layby on approach, not realise what the time is as the sun hasn't set yet, so eventually end up driving into town at 1am... It ensures the roads are quiet and you can drive round in circles to find the edge of the pay parking zone and settle in quietly for the night just outside it , within walking distance of the town centre no problem! Excellent.
Part of the reason for our lateness was an evening stop in beautiful, relaxed Trakai, with its fairytale 14th century gothic castle in the middle of the lake
- as beautiful as Bled but without the mountains and air of self-concious 'yes aren't I lovely'. So a happy stroll round the castle, on the shores of the lake watching the happy people sailing and pedalo-ing in the warm evening sun,
And so to the aforementioned layby, dinner and into town for a bright and early foray into Vilnius.
Founded as a city in the 1320's - alledgedly because grand duke Gedimas had a dream about an iron wolf which howled with the voice of 100 wolves which he took as a sign to build a city as strong as their cry - Vilnius was one of eastern europe's largest and most beautiful cities in the 15-16th centuries, head of one of the largest empires in europe and an important east-west trade route.
Today, despite russian, polish, nazi and communist occupation in the last 200 years, it still boasts europe's largest baroque Old Town (UNESCO of course) and was a European Caplital of Culture in 2009.
And in the sunshine of a lovely morning, it is jolly lovely. It also has one of the most helpful tourist offices we have so far found. A good start!
Vilnius: Day one
With the help of the guide brochure we found:
Arsros Vartai (the Gates of Dawn) - the only one of the 10 original city gates un the defense walls which is still standing
And inside it, the Chapel of the Gates of Dawn
with it's silver-plaque covered walls and its alledgedly miraculous renaissance painting of the Madonna
(not quite sure why is is miraculous but there were lots of people praying to it, including one woman who was working her way up the long flight of steps on approach, on her knees and saying a rosary on each step... we are also not sure what the painted face and handsthe rest silver plate style is about - seen it in several places now)
The Orthodox Church of the Holy Spirit - the only orthodox church in lithuania built in baroque style -
with its fabulous green altar and reliquary containing the remains of the orthodox saints St Antony, St Eustatius and St John
- there were three in the bed and the little one said... ;)
The Bastion - the restored remains of the defenses built in the 17th century amid fears of russian and swedish invasion.
The pink fondant fancy that is St Cazimir's Church - lithuania's first baroque church which was converted to a museum of atheism by the soviets -
with its crypt and surprisingly guilty looking Jesus - it a fair cop guv.
The town hall and sunny town hall square.
a pretty church
Some local meat pasty lunch - not in the brochure but very nice!
Vilnius University - one of the oldest in eastern europe.
The Presidential Palace
The immenseCathedral with its separate Bell Tower
And between them the 'Miracle Square'
- the point in Vilnius where the so-called Baltic Way started on 23rd August 1989 - on which you are supposed to stand, turn round clockwise three times and make a wish.
Onwards and upwards, past the statue of Mindaugas - the first and only king of lithuania who united the original tribes - sitting in front of the National Museum in the New Arsenal,
and up to the Gedimas Tower behind it for a view over the city.
And past the gothic St Anne's
And yet more padlocks on bridges!!
After such a comprehensive day of touristness, it was back to the van for a welcome cup of tea and a bit of a sit before heading out to dinner where w made a random new friend! We were quietly sitting there, minding our own business with a cup of tea on a quiet side street - as you do - when a man came over and politely enquired whether we had been in Poland the previous week. "why yes" we replied. "I thought so" he said "I saw your van at hitler's bunker and took a picture of it next to the tank!"
And so we met Herkus, a photo journalist for Lithuania business weekly, or some such thing, who had flown to Hitler's bunker from lithuania in a small bi-plane and who lives round the corner from our little side street parking spot. What are the chances of that!
He was able to enlighten us about the queue of people taking flowers into the President's Palace - lithuania's first president after independence (surprisingly also an ex-communist leader although he didn't transition straight from one to the other) had died and was lying in state before the big funeral the following day - and tell us all sorts of stuff about lithuania's independence, and the transition from communism having actually been there!
He is old enough to have done national service in the soviet army in Afganistan and was half way through his journalism degree when independence was finally achieved. After all the protests and demonstrations, Lithuania was the first soviet state to legalise non-communist parties in 1989 and in 1990, the newly elected Popular front party declared Lithuania's independence. On 13th January 1991, the Soviet Army arrived to crush the movement and took over key buildings, including the TV tower where 19 people were killed, before pushing on to Kaunas. All not good, but not the bloody slaughter which happened in Czechoslovakia in 1968, the last time the Soviet Army went out in force to stamp all over someone's delusions of independence. According to Herkus, the Russian soldiers had spent so long living in lithuania with their wives and families who went to local schools and worked and shopped in local towns, that they had become reasonably assimilated into lithuanian life and society and had sympathy with them so in Kaunas they gave people enough time to take what they needed from the various places and just occupied empty buildings with no bloodshed. Herkus was even sent there by his professor to interview the wives of the russian soldiers to get their views. Not surprisingly, he said he was terrified - as were they! - but it is one thing interviewing partisans, who, if successful will want you to tell the story, and if unsuccessful will not tell anyone they spoke to you. It is quite another interviewing people from the otherside who, if successful, will most definitely not want the outside world to know what happened and what the wives of those who crushed the local people thought about it! Just incredible.
Herkus is fluent in Lithuanian, Russian and English - especially as his work has taken him to several places in europe ove the years - and was saying it is odd now having new young colleagues who don't speak russian, as it is no longer a compulsory language and most kids learn english. It is just amazing to think how much his whole world has changed in such a short time.
And we ended the day with a heart meal of lithuanian specialties - cepelinai (meat filled potato zepplins covered with sour cream and bacon sauce and 'old codgers pie'-
washed down with his'n'hers pints of local beer in a pavement café - yummy.
Vilnius: Day Two
Another a fine sunny day, perfect for washing and genocide. Well you can't be having genocide in dirty clothes... The tourist office had been quite insistent that there were no launderettes in central vilnius and that we should ask our hotel. I was equally insistant that our 'hotel' didn't have facilities and, on hearing that we had a car, she directed us to a high-rise flats/low-rise shopping precinct area way out of town and couldn't do enough with maps and print outs and scribbled directions to ensued we would find it. As I said, one of the most helpful tourist offices we have so far found.
Washing done without incident - well, we are pretty sure that the handful of bulgarian change found in the bottom of the machine which refused to work was a) nothing to do with us (hmmmm) and b) nothing to do with its refusal to work... Honestly... Fortunately the nice lady was very nice about it - well her carefully prepared lithuanian/german/english exercise book of washing related phrases didn't include 'damn you, freeloading hippy foreigners, you broke my machine! Now you must pay...'
And a peddle into town for a spot of genocide - museum that is - in the former KGB HQ.
This innocuous building seems to have played host to the police/security organisations of every occupying force, most recently the KGB.
Today, the first two floors house the Museum of Genocide Victims - the history of Lithuania's second occupation by the Soviets post WWII and the story of the KGB in Lithuania - and the basement remains virtually unchanged with the KGB prison, interrogation room, solitary confinement cells ('ordinary', ice/water and padded and straitjacketed), tiny individual exercise yards and chilling execution cellar in the basement.
Picking up, for us anyway, where the Gruto Park left off, the museum tells the story of what happened in Lithuania (and by extension, the rest of the Baltics) after the end of WWII and the signing of the Atlantic Charter by Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin left Lithuania and the other baltic states to their soviet dominated fate.
As I said before, 'liberation' from the Nazis at the hands of the Soviets was not the cause for celebration one might think. So much so, that some people, knowing what was coming, went so far as to get guerrilla training and guns and support from the retreating nazis - who were onlyy to happy to have armed resistance covering their backs - and many others took to the forests in armed bands of partisans to try resist the incoming Soviets.
And, believing Roosevelt and Churchill's promises that following the war all peoples should be able to choose the government under which they lived, they held out for more than 10 years, waiting for the West to come to their aid - which never happened. Although, if challenged, Stalin would have said, 99% of these people voted for this government in 1941 anyway....
As a brit, it makes you feel ashamed that such promises were made and such lofty ideals bandied about but as soon as we were ok, that was the end of it.
And so thousands of people died or were deported to russia, either to be imprisoned in the forced labour camps (gulags) as a workforce to build roads, railways or industrial plants, or under the forced resettlement programs - where they were left with virtually nothing but a piece of paper they had signed to agree to this being a permanent move with no right of return - to start over and farm desolate, near uninhabitable areas of northern and eastern russia.
Staggering numbers of people - mostly landowners, intellectuals, politicians, clergy, farmers or teachers, anyone deemed a threat to the establishment of soviet ideology - were spirited away in secrecy in one night, with nothing but the clothes on their backs, the rest of their property confiscated in crowed cattle trains in scenes chillingly similar to the pictures at Auschwitz . In fact the only difference seems to be the lack of gas chambers. These were not extermination camps, but the people still died of starvation, the cold and hard labour in these conditions.
Our guide at Auschwitz said that the Germans must have known what they were doing was wrong and been ashamed of it because they tried to destroy the evidence. I don't think so. You don't perpetrate atrocity on that scale if you have any doubts or uncertainty about the absolute rightness of what you are doing. More likely, I think they were fully aware of the fabulous propaganda treasure trove they would be leaving behind if they didn't destroy it. Equally though, it seems that the russians came in and widely publicised what they saw, trumpeting the evilness of the Nazis, whilst secretly taking notes back to Stalin on the properly efficient way of setting up and running forced labour camps...
For those left behind who weren't hiding in the woods in partisan rsistance groups, life changed dramatically. Continuing where they left off in 1941, lithuanian language, books and teaching was outlawed, as was religion. The soviets also set about establishing collective farms, saying that individual land ownership was unworkable and inefficient and then fulfilling this prophecy by taxing small farms far beyond their ability to pay so that they could then confiscate and reorganise the land.
After Stalin's death in 1953, reforms were forthcoming and between 1956-58 many people were released from both the prisons and their forced resettlement locations but many, epecially the political prisoners, were still banned from returning to their original homes or even back to lithuania, and those who did get anywhere near 'home' struggled to get jobs, housing or food under the soviet administration.
And so the struggle continued.
50 years to the day after the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in which Hitler gave the Baltics to Stalin, 2,000,000 people - TWO MILLION! -formed The Baltic Way. A human chain stretching 595kms from Vilnius to Riga to Tallin to protest about Soviet occupation and demand independence. It makes yourealise just how lucky we are, how easy we have things and how generally apathetic we are in the UK, because we have it so easy. I can't imagine any cause which would mobilise that number of people in the UK and then you do the maths and alise this is about a third of the total population of these countries. Just incredible.
We got chased out of the museum by the caretaker at closing time - really fascinating stuff.
So, Vilnius: done.
Oh and I forgot to say, it turns out that 'aciu' (thank you) is pronounced 'atchoo' so when have no other language with which to communicate, you just go around politely sneezing at people! Seems to be working....
With love for now from Becky, Will and Jules on Wednesday, July 07, 2010