** LITHUANIA 2018 - WEEKS 4~6 **
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A Hanseatic Tour of the Baltic Sea 2018 - Western and southern Lithuania, and capital city Vilnius:
Crossing into Lithuania: just before the village of Wižany in NE Poland, we turned off onto an obscure back lane which led around to a little known 'back door' crossing into Lithuania (click on Map 1 right for our route), and here by the border sign we paused for photographs of our entry into this year's 4th country, and first of the three Baltic Republics, Lithuania (see left) (Photo 1 - Crossing border into Lithuania).
Pušele Camping on the shore of Lake Vištytis: what had been an unsurfaced lane when we last passed this way leaving Lithuania in 2011 had now been tarmaced, and led to Pušele Camping on the eastern shore of Lake Vištytis. In summer time the place would be a bedlam of Lithuanian holiday-makers, but at this time of the year it was virtually deserted. We selected a pitch on the turfed lakeside and relaxed with beers at the end of a long day, looking across to the badlands of Kaliningrad Russia on the far shore. The midges were so bad this evening that we needed to resort to our faithful Bagon diffuser at an unprecedentedly early stage of the trip. The sun declined over the lake to reward us with a hazy sunset (see left) (Photo 2 - Sunset over Lake Vištytis).
The sealed Russian border at Vištytis village: on a beautifully peaceful sunny morning, we breakfasted outside at a picnic table (see below left), looking out across the blue waters of the lake where swans swam lazily by. Approaching the wooden cottages of Vištytis village, storks nested on power poles (see below right); the eggs must just about be ready to hatch by now (Photo 3 - Nesting storks). We parked in the tree-shaded square to walk down the lane leading to the sealed border with Kaliningrad; the 'No Through Road' sign here had a significantly emphatic double meaning. As we approached the border fence, we got into conversation with one of the Lithuanian Border Guards from the military border post who pointed out the border markers extending across the lake, and told us of the worsening relations with the Russians since the invasion of Crimea. The new Lithuanian border-fence, topped with coiled razor wire and built since 2014, now extended along the entire length of the border with Kaliningrad (see below left) (Photo 4 - Lithuanian border-fence), ominously symbolising the worsening state of West~East relations and the isolation of Putin's Russia. Across the far side of the border zone beyond the paired border-posts, the Russians had their own security fence, but we were warned not to point cameras towards the Russian side of the border line to avoid provoking 'an incident'. The Border Guard talked matter of factly about the perceived Russian threat and of Lithuania being in the front line; to our observation about the protection afforded to Lithuania by NATO membership, he replied 'We hope'! It was another of those remarkably memorable chance encounters that enliven our travels; we exchanged email addresses, and he expressed the wish for us to stay in touch. We had certainly learned a great deal, and we now send him our greetings via the web site.
The drive over to the Nemunas valley: it was 1-30pm by the time we left Vištytis to begin today's long drive across to the Nemunas valley via Routes 200 and 185 to the small town of Vilkaviškis (click here for detailed map of route). Our first provisions shop in a new country at the Iki and Maxima supermarkets entailed, as always, re-familiarising ourselves with the names of foodstuffs. Continuing north on Route 138, we again approached the Kaliningrad border which at the village of Kudirkos Naumiestis follows a meandering tributary of the Nemunas. The road now turned NE-wards again to reach Šakiai from where the well-surfaced Route 137 crossed the main channel of the River Nemunas at Jurbarkas. 14kms along the river's north bank on Route 141 brought us to Medaus slėnis (Honey Valley) Camping where we had enjoyed a memorable stay on Paul's 65th birthday in 2011.
A day in camp at the ever-welcoming Medaus slėnis (Honey Valley) Camping in the Nemunas valley: we were welcomed back with superb hospitality by the family of the owner Ovidijus Jasinskas, master bee-keeper, honey maker and thatcher who had constructed this magnificent campsite over many years carved out of surrounding birch and pine forest on the side of Nemunas Valley. With the sun fearsomely hot, we settled in under the shade of birch and mock-acacia trees (planted by Ovidijus for their scented blossom for his honey-making bees) in the centre of the flat-turfed camping area, surrounded by the tall woodland trees where on our September 2011 stay Ovidijus had taken us mushrooming (Photo 5 - Medaus slėnis (Honey Valley) Camping). Early evening, we lit the barbecue for supper, and retired into George when the midges began to get bothersome. This was such a magnificent setting, and as dusk fell, the frogs in the campsite ponds sang loudly.
We had looked forward to our day in camp at Honey Valley and breakfasted outside (see left), moving George further into the dappled shade of the trees (see above right). The campsite washing machine gave chance to catch up with laundry and site-wide wi-fi the means of keeping in touch with family. Ovidijus stopped by several times, and in his broken English told us about his bee-keeping and honey making, and about his thatching work roofing a new shelter using bundles of cut reeds (see right). He also told us of hoopoes nesting in the trees around the site, which we had heard calling to one another with their distinctive repetitive whooping call; we were surprised to hear of hoopoes this far north only having seen them in Greece. With such admirably genuine hospitable welcome, beautiful setting, first class facilities, and such good value at €14/night, Medaus slėnis (Honey Valley) Camping was a wonderfully peaceful place for our rest day; it will certainly be one of the trip's top campsites, and on leaving the following morning, we bought several jars of Ovidijus' different flavoured honeys.
Ventis Ragas on the Nemunas Delta: before leaving Honey Valley the following morning, we drove up the lane to Panumunės Pilis (Castle) for the Sunday morning craft market in the castle courtyard. Stall-holders in medieval peasant dress sold bacon, cheese and (of course) Ovidijus' honey (see below left). Down into the Nemunas valley and along to Jurbarkas, we restocked with provisions at the Maxima supermarket, and headed westwards across the flat agricultural landscape following the Nemunas which here formed the border with Kaliningrad (click here for detailed map of route). The road was lined with pine and birch forest which looked really attractive in the morning sunlight. Traffic was light and we made good progress, crossing the main E77/A12 highway which led to the border-crossing to Sovetsk and Kaliningrad City. Reaching Šilutė, we found a tarmaced lane leading across the Nemunas Delta wetlands to Ventaine Camping close to Ventis Ragas. The rather off-hand Russian dolly bird at reception (no other description would match!) grudgingly acknowledged that the €20 price was high, with no discount and extra charge for wi-fi (which we were not prepared to pay). We reserved a pitch in the shade of decorative pines, and drove along the remaining couple of kms to the Ventis Ragas bird observation station at the peninsula's tip. The viewing platform of the stumpy little mid-19th century Ventis Ragas lighthouse gave a distant vista of the Curonian sandspit's white sand cliffs at Nida glistening in the afternoon sun on the far side of the Nemunas Lagoon, but other than a flotilla of swans out in the delta (see below left), there was little other bird-life to be seen. From the reedy shore-side, we could look across the lagoon towards the distant Curonian sandspit (see above right) which has built up over aeons from alluvial sediment brought down by the 1000 km long Nemunas river, meeting the opposing force of the predominant wind from the Baltic, so building up the sand-bar barrage and trapping the outflow of the Nemunas to form the lagoon. Disappointed at the absence of bird-life this year, particularly the storks recalled from 2011 soaring constantly overhead at Ventis Ragas, we returned along to Ventaine Camping.
Ventaine Camping: we positioned George for maximum shade from pine trees ( see below right), and as the sun declined over the lagoon, the barbecue was lit. Flies and midges were already becoming bothersome, and the Bagon diffuser was now in regular usage even in mid-May unusually early in the year. After our grilled supper, there was just time to catch the sunset's ruddy pink afterglow against the silhouetted shore-side trees (see right) (Photo 6 - Nemunas sunset). Before leaving the following morning, we walked down to the lagoon shore for morning sun photos by the reeds against the backdrop of distant Curonian sandspit, with swans gliding around the lagoon (Photo 7 - Curonian Sandspit) (see below left).
Minija polders village on the Curonian Lagoon: before leaving the Nemunas Delta, we wanted to get a feel of what life was like in the delta villages. 5 kms of dusty gravel road brought us across reclaimed polders meadow land just 0.5m above sea level to the lagoon village of Mingė which straddles both banks of the Minija River, one of the channels into which the Nemunas divides as it forges a passage through the delta. No bridge connects the two halves of the hamlet, and locals still get around by boat; the Minija forms the 'main street' earning the place the unlikely sobriquet of 'Lithuanian Venice'. In the height of summer the marshy water-meadows were grazed by cattle with farmers cutting hay, and storks nesting on barn roofs (Photo 8 - Nesting storks) (see below right); what would it be like in winter when spring tides regularly flood the delta cutting off villages? This was a fragile landscape and an even more precarious existence for the few people trying to make a living here. Before WW2 there were some 48 farms along the Minija mostly owned by German settlers, most of whom fled back to Germany after the war leaving the farms abandoned. The bumpy lane ended at the riverside in Mingė where a yacht marina brought some tourist income. We walked along the peaceful river bank where tourists boats were moored to admire the riverside cottages (Photo 9 - Mingė riverside cottages) (see below left), many of which clearly were now converted to holiday homes.
Nemunas river at Rusnė and Kaliningrad border: leaving Ventis Ragas finally, we returned to Šilutė and crossed the bridge onto Rusnė, a large and low-lying island formed of silt brought down by the Nemunas and deposited here in the delta enclosed by the two branches of the Nemunas, the Atmata and Skirvyte Rivers which now divide off Rusnė Island from the nearby mainland. Most of the island is now reclaimed polders farmland, with the main village of Rusnė in the SE corner. We stopped in Rusnė village and walked over to the dyke which protects the river's main channel; here the Nemunas forms Lithuania's border with eastern Kaliningrad-Russia. On the Lithuanian bank, local people strolled in the sunshine or sunbathed on the river-beach, children splashed in the river, and a lone fisherman stood by the shallow water by the river's fork; all very normal. In contrast however on the far bank, Russian territory was eerily deserted with nothing to see but an isolated guard-tower standing out above the trees. We took our photos looking across the river from alongside the Lithuanian border-marker, knowing that powerful binoculars from the Russian guard-tower were probably trained on us (see below left) (Photo 10 - Nemunas border with Kaliningrad).
Dreverna Camping overlooking the Nemunas Lagoon: from Šilutė we resumed our journey northward on Route 141 towards Klaipėda (click here for detailed map of route). A back lane led across the low-lying farmlands crossing the Minija River which here had been canalised in the 19th century to create a navigable channel for river-born trade to the port of Klaipėda; it was now sadly unmaintained and overgrown with vegetation. The lane ended at Priekule village on the NE shore of the Nemunas Lagoon and the newly opened Dreverna Marina-Camping. It was a hot afternoon and the lagoon-side campsite had no shade; only a pleasant breeze blowing from over the lagoon kept temperatures tolerable. Sandy grassy pitches had been laid out alongside a channel of a canalised creek leading from the lagoon. The girl at reception was welcoming and agreed a very reasonable price of €10 to camp since the facilities were only just being built! We settled in and pulled out the awning against the heat of the un-shaded sun shining above the lagoon (see right). Later as the evening grew peaceful and the barbecue was lit for supper (Photo 11 - Nemunas barbecue), birdsong filled the air, frogs croaked noisily in the creek and the sun set with a flare across the Nemunas Lagoon (see below left).
Crossing to the Curonian sandspit: the following morning we re-joined the poorly surfaced Route 141 to approach Klaipėda's industrial southern outskirts, and negotiated our way in busy morning traffic to the Maxima hypermarket at the Acropolis shopping complex with its mammoth car parks. Here we re-stocked with provisions for our time at Nida on the Curonian sandspit, relishing the cornucopian range of prepared salads but resisting the arrays of smoked mackerel believing we could buy this from roadside stalls on the Curonian sandspit. Down to the ferry dock for the crossing to Smiltynė at the Curonian spit's northern tip, we managed to convince the pay booth staff to charge the normal passenger vehicles return fare of €11.05 for our small camper rather than the €30 fare for larger camping-cars. The 5 minute crossing brought us across the Nemunas Lagoon's narrows by its exit to the sea, and before heading south along the sandspit, we found the Curonian National Park's Information Office for maps. The Curonian Sandspit, also called Neringa after the sea-goddess who according to local legend created it, is about 100kms in total length but divided half-way by the Kaliningrad-Russian-border. Formed over millennia by the action of tides and wind, the sandspit deposits now separate the Curonian Lagoon from the Baltic. This sliver of fragile sand-land no more than 4 kms wide forms a line of dunes 50m high in places and is covered with pines and birch planted in the 19th century to stabilise the dunes. The prevailing westerly winds off the Baltic make this an impermanent landscape as the sand is driven up the western slopes causing a gradual eastward drift of the spit's central ridge. The spit is now under the control of the Curonian National Park to protect the dunes and their environment, and they charge an entry fee to visitors. Setting off southwards along the spine road, soft sunlight filtered down through the new leaves of the birches with even the dark pines looking attractive.
Initially along the spine crest of the forested spit, the road dropped down to run along the eastern shore just above the lagoon to reach our first port of call at Juodkrantiė. Little more than a quaintly old-fashioned resort village, it was sleepily deserted. All the road-side stalls where we had hoped to buy smoked fish (žuvis rūkytas) were closed with few tourists about at this time of year. So we were short of one supper! Just beyond where the road curved back up onto the forested crest of the spit, we reached the area of pine woods where colonies of cormorants and grey herons have long nested. We climbed the wooden observation platform to view the enormous colony of cormorants nesting in the tree tops (see above right); they feast on the lagoon's fish and an adult bird can consume some 300 gms of fish each day.
The Nagliai Grey Dunes: a little further and we reached the parking area for the route across the Nagliai Dunes. The access path leads through the pine and birch woods to the edge of the protected area of dunes which can be crossed initially on a wooden board-walk. The slopes of the dunes were covered with Grey Hair-Grass which from a distance gives the dunes the distinctive colour of their name Grey Dunes. Once out on the bare sand slopes beyond the board-walk, we made slower progress over the hills and valleys of loose sand. Climbing higher into the dunes up the steep valley of sand lined with impacted crusts of embryonic sandstone, and up the yielding sand to the skyline, we reached the crest of the Nagliai Dune cliffs some 50m high looking out eastwards over the Curonian Lagoon to the far side the Nemunas Delta (see above left). To north and south, the dunes stretched away like a Saharan wilderness; it was a truly breath-taking panorama of sand. This was the site of the former village of Nagliai which during the 17th century was moved several times to escape the ever-encroaching advance of the sand which swallowed homes. The battle against the sand was finally lost and the village abandoned. The soft afternoon sunlight gave magnificent lighting for our photographs (Photo 12 - Grey Dunes) (see above right), both crossing the dunes and from the highpoint crest overlooking the Lagoon (see above left). Returning along the board-walk, we found clumps of beautiful violet and yellow Viola littoralis growing in the barren sand (see left) (Photo 13 - Viola littoralis). Back through the forest fringe, we continued along Route 167 passing the 2 villages of Pervalka and Prela re-settled by the families displaced by shifting dunes from Magliai to reach the village of Nida. Having managed to buy a brace of smoked mackerel (skumbrės) for our supper, we headed out to Nidos Camping .
Nidos Camping on the Curonian sandspit: with no great expectations other than expensive prices at such a popular holiday-making campsite, we in fact received a friendly and helpful welcome at reception, and low season price of €19/night. Facilities at Nidos Camping were much improved since our last visit in 2011, with wi-fi now included but limited to reception. Shunning all the tourist camping-cars clustered in the open camping area, we pitched over in the shady pine forested area (see above right) and as dusk fell, the midges swarmed into George; we were reliant on the Bagon full early this trip for sanity! The following morning a warm sun eventually rose above the dark pines to give a fine day for today's walk out into the Parnidis Dunes.
A walk out among Parnidis Dunes on Curonian sandspit: in hot sunshine we set off from the campsite up the steep roadway lined with shade-giving pine woods and leading to the decorative and over-sized sundial whose only practical benefit was to serve as a visual landmark atop the Parnidis Dunes high point for walkers out among the featureless dunes. Towards the top of the roadway, views out over the dunes began to open up westwards the Baltic coastline. Consciously ignoring the sundial, we dropped down to a view-point looking directly south across the full extent of the Parnidis Dunes towards the line of the Kaliningrad border and out across the Nemunas Lagoon (see above left). From here we tried to identify visible pathways across the open, featureless sand-scape and partially vegetated areas of dunes as a viable route leading to the pine woodland along the line of the restricted access Strict Nature Reserve bordering onto Kaliningrad. From the highpoint, where low willows created a snow-storm of feathery seeds, we dropped down the open sandy slope southwards onto the broad face of the dunes, with the magnificent vista opening out before us. Using lines of stakes set in the sand to encourage formation of ridges in the drifting sand as markers, and following the footprints of other walkers, we struck out on a due south compass bearing across the open waste of sand (Photo 14 - Parnidis Dunes). This brought us to a transverse pathway to link onto a more prominent route through the vegetated area of dunes to resume our southward course towards the Strict Nature Reserve woodland (see above right). Here we began seeing more clumps of Viola littoralis amid the tough, crunchy lichen. Reaching the woodland, we paused for lunch in the shade of the pines. Whereas on our 2011 visit we had retraced our steps back across the dunes using the sundial as marker, today we continued along the line of the Strict Nature Reserve fence. Large Juniper bushes growing among the pines attracted humming swarms of midges, particularly unpleasant to walk through. Following track-ways through the vegetated sand, we worked our way eastwards along the boundary fence, and in 500m reached the low dunes of the fore-shore looking out across the Nemunas Lagoon (see left). To the south the bare sand dunes extended beyond the Strict Nature Reserve into Russian territory where Grobšto Cape projected into the lagoon.
We turned northwards following pathways through the vegetated dunes above the shore-line to Cape Parnidis which projected as a hook-shaped sandbar out into the lagoon (see above right). From here the now bare dunes rose steeply, their seaward edge dropping sheer to form fragile sand-cliffs. We plodded up the steep, loose sand slope following the line of the cliffs (see right) which at their highest point rose to some 60m above the sea (see left) (Photo 15 - Parnidis sand-cliffs). We had enjoyed total peacefulness today out among the deserted dunes, as but we reached the tops of the sand-cliffs we now began to meet noisy groups of tourists coming across the intervening valley from Nida whose port and lighthouse could be seen in the distance. Reaching the sundial, we emptied our trainers of accumulated sand and began the long road walk back down through the pinewoods to camp. Today's clear weather had given glorious photographic potential out among the Parnidis Dunes, and as the evening grew dusky the midges began to swarm again.
Kaliningrad border and return ferry to Klaipėda: the fine spell of weather came to an end with drizzle and gloomy skies. Before leaving Nida, we drove along to the Kaliningrad border-crossing as several cars passed through (Photo 16 - Lithuanian~Kaliningrad border-crossing). We gladly withdrew from this xenophobic enclave of alien Russian territory, surrounded as it is now on its entire landward side by EU/NATO states, and turned back into Lithuania, stopping at the first beach parking area a Nida, deserted on a gloomy morning in May but in mid-summer spaces would be at a premium. We followed a path through the west coast pine woodland fringe for another view of the Baltic. Attracted by the forest flora, we made the mistake of squatting down for photographs, and immediately were seized upon by swarms of midges which persistently pursued us. Nothing would shake them off until we emerged from the trees at the top of the wooden steps leading down to the fore-dunes to the beach and the grey Baltic Sea. This magnificent wild coastline was totally deserted in both directions; what would it be like in high summer! Southwards towards the Kaliningrad border, a Russian watch-tower was visible in the misty distance. Back along the length of the Curonian Spit, we approached Smiltynė for the ferry-crossing to Klaipėda; close to ferry times was the hazardous period as local drivers (Russians were the worst of course) sped past to be sure of a place on the next ferry. There were more vehicles queuing this time including 2 trucks, but still the ferry was not full (see right).
Camping Pajūrio at Klaipėda: back into Klaipėda, we re-stocked with provisions at the Maxima hypermarket, where despite the apparently luxuriously laden counter of smoked fish, the choice was either mackerel or mackerel; the severe lady grudgingly served us as we dithered over which of the various disguises of smoked mackerel to buy. In intensive and intolerant city traffic, our sat-nav guided us around and through Klaipėda's industrial heartlands, past the university, and out through the northern suburbs to reach the beach road leading out to Pajūrio where we turned up to the campsite. Set among pine woods on the northern side of the city, Pajūrio Camping is a well-appointed campsite, its young English-speaking staff being particularly welcoming and helpful, supplying us with details of the #4 bus service which provides a convenient means of transport into the city with a stop close to the campsite. The sun had now broken through and in the heat of the brief Baltic summer, the dappled shade of the scented pine trees was especially welcome (Photo 17 - Camping Pajūrio) (see left). The camping is sited alongside the main railway line and heavy freight trains trundle past to and from Klaipėda docks, many of these conveying minerals, timber and oil exports from neighbouring land-locked Belarus with their hopper wagons labelled in Cyrillic script. It was here at Camping Pajūrio on our last visit in 2011 that by remarkable serendipity we had by pure chance met Australian friends John & Judy Macfarlane from Queensland, whose account of their camper adventure to the Andes of South America we had so admired (click here to read their account of this adventure). We settled in this afternoon with sunlight filtering down through the pines, looking forward to a day in camp here tomorrow and a re-visit to Klaipėda the day after.
A visit to the former Hanseatic port-city of Klaipėda: after a chill night, we woke to a bright morning for today's visit to Klaipėda, catching the #4 bus from the stop down at the main road. Klaipėda was founded in 1252 by the Livonian Order Germanic Knights as the fortress-port of Memel, as a base from which to subdue the neighbouring Lithuanian tribes. The city filled with German colonists and became a Hanseatic League member, growing rich from the export of Lithuanian timber. It later passed under Prussian control and became a frontier post between Imperial Germany and Tsarist Russia which controlled the rest of Lithuania. After German defeat in WW1, Klaipėda was seized by the newly independent state of Lithuania in 1923. The city retained its German population and in the 1930s, emboldened by Hitler's aggressive foreign policy, local Nazis demanded reunification with the Reich. Unsupported by the West, the Lithuanians were unable to resist and on 23 March 1939 Hitler claimed Klaipėda as his first eastern conquest. With Soviet occupation in 1945, the city became a strategic port during the Cold War. Nowadays post-communist Klaipėda, as Lithuania's 3rd largest city with a population of 200,000, is an economically thriving city attracting foreign investment, and although smaller than they were, the shipyards and docks still serve as a major Baltic port.
Klaipėda Central Post Office carillon: we got off the bus at Manto gatvė in the modern commercial New Town where in Atgimimo aikstė (Revival Square), outdoor aerobics dancing was taking place as part of the Klaipėda 2018 European City of Sport Festival. The D and K office block towered overhead (see above right); completed in 2006, and visible from afar particularly from across the estuary when approaching Klaipėda by sea, the 2 prominent tower blocks were intended to give the city an instantly recognisable visual landmark. Crossing to Liepų gatvė, we reached the red-brick Gothic revival style Central Post Office, built between 1883~93 and very much an expression of German civic pride for Memel, as the city was called under East Prussian rule, topped with its free-standing gable ends (see above left). As well as its distinctive architectural style, our reason for seeking out the building was to hear its 48 bell carillon which sounds at 12-00 noon at weekends. In an otherwise workaday street, we stood across the road and on the stroke of noon 4 rings of a bass bell was a prelude to 10 minutes of delightful pealing of the carillon above the noise of passing traffic, as local people entered the post office to buy their stamps, totally indifferent to the beautiful bells.
Klaipėda's docklands: just along Manto gatvė, we sat under shady trees in a riverside park for our lunch sandwiches as local families strolled past on a sunny Saturday morning. At the Manto gatvė corner, the 2003 Arka Monument commemorative arch celebrates former German controlled Memel/Klaipėda's re-unification with newly independent Lithuania in 1923 (Photo 18 - Arka Monument); the modernistic arch's severed end, inscribed with the words Esame viena tauta, viena žemė, viena Lietuva (We are one nation, one land, one Lithuania), represents the still fragmented state of Lithuania Minor with Kaliningrad still occupied by Russia (see above right). In 1923 at this point in its history Lithuania was even more fragmented with its capital Vilnius still controlled by Poland and Kaunas functioning as provisional capital. Along the attractively restored waterfront parkland along the Danė River (see above right) amid all the Sports Festival celebrations (see above left), we crossed Pilies gatvė and continued out towards the terminal from where passenger ferries cross the estuary to Smiltynė on the Curonian Sandspit. Our hope was to get photographs of the surviving area Klaipėda's docklands and shipyards further up the estuary (see above left) (Photo 19 - Klaipėda's docklands). Although much reduced in scale from its heyday years, cranes of the city's docks stood out along the river among moored ships, Klaipėda's economic life-blood and clearly still a working port of sizeable proportions (see below left). Crossing the Pilies gatvė bridge, we passed the marina which now occupies the moat of what was once Klaipėda Castle with the towering D and K buildings forming a backdrop (Photo 20 - Castle moat marina). The Castle, originally founded by Knights of the Teutonic Order in the 13th century who had first settled Memel, had by the 19th century fallen into dereliction and largely demolished. All that remains today of the original fortress of Memel are 2 arms of turfed earth ramparts. The area of dockland warehouses which had been built on the castle site are now also demolished, but little progress seems to have been made with the planned partial reconstruction of the castle. We followed the crowds around the marina to where more of today's festival was taking place; the open spaces of the demolished former dockland were filled with stalls selling every kind of sweet and sickly smelling confection. This area on the banks of the Danė River by the Curonian Lagoon had, since the 19th century developed as ship-building yards, most of which was now long gone, progressively cleared after WW2. All that remained was the skeletal steel frame of a once mighty ship-building and repair shed from the former German owned Lindeman shipyards that once occupied the site and had brought Klaipėda its wealth as a port-city (see right).
Klaipėda Old Town: leaving the crowds to their frivolities, fun and sticky confections, we ambled across Pilies gatvė over to Klaipėda's Old Town (Senamiestis). Totally destroyed in 1944 as the Red Army re-occupied the city from the retreating Germans, the grid of narrow streets, cobbled streets and wooden town houses around Turgaus gatvė (Market Street) recalled the town's former glory (Photo 21 - Klaipėda's Old Town). The cobbled Old Town, restored after wartime destruction, provided pleasant ambling and gave an impression of Memel's ramshackle atmosphere as it was during its 1930s heyday. Along at Turgaus aikstė (Market Square), we walked through the open air vegetable and flower market (see left) and meat stalls in the market hall. Winding a way through the maze of narrow cobbled streets, past wooden houses and rather more stately but woebegone courtyards, we reached the open space of Theatre Square, backed by the neo-Classical Theatre (see right) (Photo 22 - Theatre Square) from whose balcony Hitler had in March 1939 proclaimed the anschluss, the re-incorporation of Memel into the German Reich. Stalls selling not-so-cheap amber trinkets lined one side of the square which once had been Memel's centre. Weary from our wanderings, we retired to a nearby inn-terrace for a beer; the sun was still bright, but a northerly Baltic breeze brought a chill to the air. Back home in UK, the entire British nation had, it seemed spent the day in distracted obsession with yet another royal wedding; we were thankful to be a million miles from such deluded fantasy. Back along Turgaus gatvė, Memel's once main thoroughfare, its grand town houses now occupied by museums, and across parkland filled with Klaipėda's meaningless modern sculptures, we made our way back to the Senamesčio stotis bus stop in Tildų gatvė for our bus back out to Giruliai and Camping Pajūrio.
The Ninth Fort at Kaunas: the following morning, after re-stocking with provisions at an Iki supermarket in Klaipėda's southern outskirts, we joined the A1 motorway, built with EU infrastructure support to link Klaipėda~Kaunas and Vilnius, for the 150 miles drive to Lithuania's 2nd city, Kaunas (click here for detailed map of route). Traffic was light enabling good progress, and by 3-00pm we were approaching the NW outskirts of the Kaunas conurbation. En route that afternoon we planned to re-visit the museum at Kaunas' Ninth Fort, the last of a ring of fortifications built by the Tsarist régime at the end of the 19th century to protect the Russian Empire's western frontier from aggressive Imperial Germany. In fact it was easily stormed by German troops in their 1915 eastern campaign. During the inter-war years newly independent Lithuania used the fort as a political prison, and with the 1940 Soviet occupation the NKVD had used the fort to hold Lithuanian political prisoners prior to deportation to Siberian labour camps. But the fort's most notorious period was its use by the Germans from 1941~44 as a holding prison and killing ground for the mass murder of 50,000 Jews from Kaunas ghetto and from as far afield as France, Germany and Austria. Regular mass killings of Jews continued at the Ninth Fort until April 1944.
During the second period of Soviet occupation from 1944 onwards, an even more brutal reign of terror was unleashed, with the Ninth Fort being again used to house political prisoners prior to deportation. In 1959 the Soviets opened a museum in the fort's cells with exhibitions about German WW2 mass murders here. During the 1960s, further research and gathering of evidence showed the scale of exterminations carried out by the Germans at the Ninth Fort, and a memorial complex was planned. It took 13 years of communist central planning to construct the grotesque 32m high concrete monstrosity of a monument on the site of the mass murders, and in 1984 the parkland was laid out and new museum opened. Since the re-establishment of Lithuania's independence in 1991, the museum exhibits have been extended to reveal the scale of atrocities also committed here during the years of Soviet occupation.
Our 2011 visit had been memorable for the Soviet-like attitudes and manner of conduct of the harpies recruited as museum attendants; since then these ladies have been 'reformed' by a Charm School course, and even taught a few words of English. On a warm but breezy afternoon, we walked over to the New Museum, itself a grotesque specimen of Soviet era modernistic monumental architecture. The reformed wardresses, still with some of their old attitudes showing through, insisted on pointing out directions in the cavernous, gloomy interior to the exhibits which now included English commentary: the history of the first Soviet occupation of Baltic States in 1940~41 following the Molotov~Ribbentrop pact, the German invasion and occupation in 1941 and campaign of Jewish exterminations and round-up of Lithuanian opposition, the Soviet re-occupation from 1944~1990 and years of oppression and exile of Lithuanian to Siberian labour camps; finally the re-assertion of Lithuania independence in 1991 with photos of Vytautas Landsbergis and Boris Yeltsin signing the treaty of independence and withdrawal of Soviet troops.
The memorial parklands are overshadowed by the monstrous towering concrete sculpture in the form of a jagged concrete outcrop (see left and right) (Photo 23 - Soviet memorial), whose grotesque scale only becomes truly apparent when you walk across and stand beneath it (see above right). In customary Soviet hypocritical manner, the memorial was dedicated to the 'Victims of Fascism'; Soviet ideology failed to acknowledge the specific Jewish suffering. It could of course aptly also apply to the atrocities carried out by the Soviet régime. Close to a reconstruction of the killing trenches where the Germans butchered their Jewish victims (see above left), more restrained memorial plaques from the post-independence period were laid out (see above right). The higher areas of the Tsarist fort's ramparts gave further views of the Soviet commemorative monument against a backdrop of distant views across the memorial parkland to the tower blocks of the modern city of Kaunas (see below right) (Photo 24 - Ninth Fort memorial parkland). A doorway led through the brick wall of the fort (see above left) into the museum housed in the dark, dank and grimly grey underground chambers of the fort. A series of displays told the story of the fort's history with particular emphasis on the WW2 mass murder of Jews. Among the exhibitions displayed inside the cells, prominence was given to those Lithuanians who sheltered Jews from the Kaunas Ghetto; however acknowledgement of the willing connivance by Lithuanians in the mass murders of Jews was conveniently air-brushed out. One display honoured the trainloads of Jews deported from France for murder here, organised and rounded up of course by collaborationist French civil servants and police (not mentioned); a wall was covered with graffiti by those about to be murdered: 'Nous sommes 900 français' inscribed Abraham Wechsler from Limoges. Another cell recalled the curious episode of the Japanese diplomat Chiune Sugihara, posted to Kaunas in 1939 as consul; 1000s of Jewish refugees from German occupied Poland flooded into the city, only to discover the Soviet occupiers of Lithuania refused them transit visas unless they held valid visas for a final destination. All diplomats of other countries bordering on USSR had left Kaunas, and the Japanese government refused Sugihara permission to issue regular Japanese entry visas. He went ahead anyway and issued hand-written visas for Dutch colonies in the far east, enabling 1000s of Jews to escape. After the war he was sacked by the Japanese foreign ministry for his irregular but life-saving initiative. As 6-00pm closing time drew near, the wardresses' presence became ever more intrusive, jangling keys to hassle us towards the exit and slamming the doors behind us. As the evening breeze grew cooler, we strolled back through the parkland to the parking area. The absence of overseas visitors had been noticeable, with most of those enjoying the parklands being local Lithuanians from Kaunas. So with some irony perhaps, this Soviet memorial parkland now at last serves a purpose for Sunday afternoon family outings.
Kaunas Camping Inn: 5 kms around Kaunas' A5 western bypass, we turned off to find Kaunas Camping Inn, a modern campsite opened in 2013 on the beachy banks of the Nemunas River, and on a direct, frequent trolley-bus route into the city. The charge was expensive by Lithuanian standards at €22, and although pleasantly laid out with shady trees (see left), the site was inevitably overwhelmed by constant city traffic noise with main roads on 2 sides. Although limited in number, the first class, well-equipped facilities were kept in a constant state of cleanliness by a hard-working lady. But it made a far more congenial base than the old Kaunas City Camping for visiting Lithuania's second city.
Kaunas, Lithuania's second city: Kaunas, sited at the confluence of 2 major rivers, the Neris and Nemunas, was originally a key border stronghold defending the medieval kingdom against frequent attacks by the Teutonic Knights. After the Battle of Grunwald in 1410, when a combined Lithuanian-Polish force under Vytautas soundly defeated the bothersome Knights and destroyed their military power, Kaunas with access to the 2 river trade routes grew wealthy from commerce and became a member of the Hanseatic League. Several centuries of prosperity followed with the city also developing as an important religious centre. A major point in Kaunas' development came with the Tsarist Empire's decision to make the city the key to their western defence in the late 19th century: in addition to the ring of forts, the Russians totally redeveloped the city centre around a long straight boulevard now Laisvė alėja (Freedom Avenue). After WW1, with the Poles occupying Vilnius, Kaunas served as provisional capital and seat of government for newly independent Lithuania, and during the 1930s it acquired a number of showpiece buildings in the grandiose architectural style of that period. Since 1991 Kaunas has benefitted from post-communist economic changes and is now a major commercial and industrial city. With a population of 420,000 it is the 3rd largest city in the Baltics.
On a fine sunny morning, we crossed the busy main road from the campsite to the nearby trolley-bus stop for the ride into Kaunas through the work-a-day industrial suburb of Vilijampolė where factories alternated with old wooden houses lining the road. Over the bridge spanning the fast-flowing Neris River just before its confluence with the Nemunas, we got off at Kauno Pilis stotis, and in busy morning traffic, walked back over the bridge with its distant views of Kaunas Old Town (see above right). Our objective was to find the memorial to the Kaunas Ghetto.
The WW2 Kaunas Ghetto: in the lead-up to WW2 Kaunas had like Vilnius some 35,000 Jewish citizens, 35% of the population, who had settled here since the days of Grand Duke Vytautas' religious tolerance in the 15th century; they worked as traders and artisans mainly in the crowded district of Vilijampolė. There was little social integration with Lithuanians and only occasional outbursts of anti-Semitism. But the June 1941 German invasion of the Baltic States unleashed a ferocious wave of anti-Jewish violence in Kaunas: Lithuanian gangs ran riot in Vilijampolė, wantonly murdering Jews. In July 1941 all of Kaunas' Jews were herded into a sealed ghetto in Vilijampolė, and from that point Jews were rounded up arbitrarily for shooting by the Germans. The enthusiastic involvement of Lithuanians in the murder of Jews and anti-Jewish excesses astonished even the German commander of the brutal Einsatzgruppe whose function was the extermination of Baltic Jews. Little now remains now of pre-war Vilijampolė after the Germans burnt the ghetto to the ground in July 1944 killing remaining Jewish occupants; surviving Jews were deported to death camps and few survived to witness the Red Army 'liberation' of Kaunas in August 1944. Today Vilijampolė is still a depressed area of wooden houses and small apartment blocks. From the main road, we crossed into the back streets of Vilijampolė, and 500m along we found the insignificant marble Ghetto memorial obelisk at the junction of Linkuvos and Kriščiukaičio in front of a garishly decorated house (see above left). The inscription in Lithuanian and Hebrew reads: On this spot stood the gates of the Kaunas Ghetto 1941~44. As we stood examining the monument, pondering what this scene would have been like in 1941 at the time of the ghetto, an elderly gent approached. He seemed to ask where we were from but spoke only Lithuanian, German and Yiddish, so presumably was one of the few descendents of Jewish Ghetto survivors still living here; such a pity that language limitations meant we were unable to learn from him more about the Ghetto's history.
A day in Kaunas: back across the Neris bridge, we followed a riverside parkland path to the restored remains of Kaunas Castle, now little more than a conical-roofed red-brick tower and 2 sections of wall (see above right). The medieval fortifications at Kaunas had played a major part in preventing the Teutonic Knights' conquest of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The tower balcony gave an overview of the site, and Vytautas' flag now flew proudly over the castle remains. Crossing the castle moat brought us to the crumbling 15th century Gothic red-brick monastery church of St George currently undergoing restoration (see above left), and beyond the modern monastery buildings and gardens, we emerged into Rotušės aikštė (Town Hall Square). The broad square was lined with 15/16th century pastel coloured merchants' houses (see above right), and its centre dominated by the elegant Baroque white tower and façade of the Town Hall (Photo 25- Kaunas Town Hall) (see above left). In the centre of the square, a stage was being set up for what we assumed was a concert later. We took our photos around the square then made our way down Aleksoto past the elaborately gabled medieval red-brick Gothic Perkūnas House, once a merchants' meeting hall, and named after the pagan god of thunder whose temple once stood on the site (Photo 26- Perkūnas House). The cobbled street descended towards the sluggishly flowing River Nemunas, last seen at its outflow into the Curonian Lagoon. The river bridge gave glorious views of the elegant red-brick Gothic Church of Vytautas, set high on the embankment safely above the level of river floods, and built by the Grand Duke around 1399 in thanks for deliverance from Tartar invasions (Photo 27- Vytautas Church).
We crossed Vytautas Bridge and busy main road to reach the lower station of the funicular railway which rises at a steep gradient 142m to the hilltop suburb of Aleksotas high above the river. The funicular, opened in 1935, operates every day using its original pair of carriages which pass on a central loop (see above left), and is used mainly by local people as daily public transport from the city. Woodland near the top station gave splendid views looking down over the river to the Old Town and wider city beyond (see above right) (Photo 28 - Kaunas Old Town). Back down the funicular and across the bridge to the Old Town, we reached Kaunas Cathedral, a bulky red brick structure dating from the 15th century reign of Vytautas the Great (Photo 29 - Kaunas Cathedral) (see left). Its lofty Gothic nave is now gaudy with Baroque Catholic extravaganza, with cherubs squatting on pillar capitals, and the high altar bedecked with murals galore and white marble statues of apostles. We ambled past bar-terraces along Vilniaus gatvė, some of the once elegant art Nouveau buildings now looking rather care-worn (Photo 30 - Art Nouveau in Vilniaus gatvė), and at the far end emerged into the New Town's busy traffic to reach the former Presidential Palace which had served as the President's official residence during Kaunas' 1920~30s period as provisional capitol; its most renowned occupant was Antanas Smetona whose authoritarian régime constituted a benign dictatorship.
Along the partly pedestrianised grand boulevard of Laisvės alėja, we reached the City Gardens and Musical Theatre. Under the trees, a flower-bedecked memorial commemorated the 19 year old student Romas Kalanta who burned himself to death at this spot in May 1972 in protest against the horrors of Soviet rule (see left). His death marked the beginnings of the protest movement which the Soviet régime attempted brutally to suppress, but which culminated in the 1990 restoration of democratic independence for Lithuania. On the Far side of the street the commemorative statue of Vytautas the Great marked 500 years since his rule (see below right). Back along past the stately 1930s Art Deco post office building, and in a back street we found the 14th century red-brick chapel of S Gertrude tucked away behind a car park and overshadowed by surrounding apartment blocks (see below left). This beautiful little church is one of Kaunas' architectural gems and clearly a place of reverence for local Catholics.
We returned along Vilniaus gatvė and paused for a beer at a bar-terrace. We assumed that locals passing by wearing the green colours of Kaunas Žalgiris football club were on their way to an evening match, but learned that this evening there was to be a gathering in Town Hall Square to celebrate the team's victory in a European championship. This was the reason for the stage been erected this morning. Out of curiosity, we joined the crowds at what was a low-key occasion, but noteworthy for the absence of any loutish behaviour that might have marred such an occasion in UK, making this very much a family event with little children in buggies. It was time now at gone 6-00pm for us to find our way back to Kauno Pilis bus stop for the trolley-bus back out to the campsite after a splendid day of city ambling in Kaunas.
Lithuanian Aviation Museum at Kaunas Airport: first stop the following morning was the Lithuanian Aviation Museum around Kaunas' southern bypass at the regional airport, named in honour of the Lithuanian pilots Darius and Girėnas who in 1933 made their historic trans-Atlantic flight but were killed when their small plane Lituanica crashed in Poland just short of their destination at this airfield. The Museum was established after independence in 1990. Despite the Soviet ban on retaining redundant or historic aircraft, the small collection has managed to conserve a few Lithuanian pre-war aircraft together with some more modern Soviet era jet fighters and Antonov utility aircraft, and photographs and memorabilia illustrating Lithuania's aviation history from its first period of independence. The highlight of the exhibition was the replica of the American Belanca CH-300 Pacemaker aircraft as flown by Darius and Girėnas in 1933, produced for a 1980s film about their historic flight (Photo 31 - Darius and Girėnas' aircraft Lituanica). The single-engined monoplane, orange painted fabric covered on a steel tubular airframe, was still airworthy and flown for displays. Darius and Girėnas' aircraft had been modified with additional fuel tanks in the fuselage taking the space of its usual 6 passenger seats. The name Lituanica was proudly emblazoned on the fuselage. Steponas Darius and Stanislovas Girėnas had been born in Lithuania and raised in the USA; they learned to fly while serving in the US army during WW1, and had attempted to fly non-stop from New York to their homeland of Lithuania in 1933 (see left). The flight ended tragically, crashing just 650kms short of Kaunas as crowds gathered to greet their triumphal return. The pilots had been in the air for 37 hours and successfully flown non-stop 6,411 kms, making this one of the most precise flights in aviation history, an achievement surpassing even Lindbergh's 1927 solo transatlantic flight. Lituanica also carried the first trans-Atlantic airmail consignment in history. Now regarded as heroes in Lithuania, their portraits had figured on the pre-Euro 10 lits banknote (see right), and most towns and cities have a street named in their honour.
Alongside the modern airfield's runway, the rather careworn collection of post-war aircraft was displayed, including several Soviet bloc MiG-21 jet fighters, an Antonov An-24passenger turbo-prop, and tucked away behind a hangar a beautifully restored twin-engined Antonov An-2 which, in defiance of a Soviet ban, had filmed the historic Tallin~Riga~Vilnius 1989 singing procession along the Via Baltica which had served as a prelude to the 3 Baltic States' declaration of independence from Soviet occupation (see right).
Antano Gedvilo Sodyba-Camping near Trakai: setting course for Trakai, we joined the A1 motorway around the northern side of Kaunas and in heavy traffic headed east towards Vilnius (click here for detailed map of route). Turning off at Vievis onto the quieter rural Route 107 towards Trakai, we got a fleeting glimpse of Trakai red-brick medieval castle as we passed the lakes. A further minor lane brought us to the hamlet of Jovariškes for tonight's agrotourist campsite Antano Gedvil Sodyba (Farmstead) Camping. The owner, Regina Gedviliene, with her limited English showed us around to camp in the orchard, a power supply was rigged, and we settled in under the shade of the apple trees (see left) (Photo 32- Gedvilo Sodyba Farmstead-Camping); it was a beautifully peaceful spot, all for €15/night and use of facilities in one of the rooms. Heavy clouds gathered with rumbles of thunder, followed by an intensive downpour to wash the travel grime from George's bodywork.
The Medieval Castle at Trakai: in the early 14th century the Lithuanian tribes were unified into something resembling a state by Grand Duke Gediminas, and the fortifications at Trakai was one of the principal seats of power in the Grand Duchy during the late medieval and early Renaissance period, playing a key strategic role in the struggle to defend the kingdom against the invading Teutonic Knights. Construction of the Island Castle at Trakai on the largest of 3 islands in Lake Galvė, was begun by Grand Duke Kęstutis in the 2nd half of the 14th century as his main ducal residence and treasury, to supplement the nearby fortifications at Trakai Peninsula Castle. A further phase of construction and major extension of the Island Castle was undertaken by Kęstutis' son, Vytautas the Great in the late 14th century and continued until 1409; this strengthened the castle's defensive structures and added a 6-storeyed donjon ducal hall with courtyard and wooden galleries around the inner walls. Trakai Island Castle lost its military significance after the 1410 Battle of Grunwald when a combined Lithuanian~Polish army led by Grand Duke Vytautas and Polish King Jagełło decisively defeated the Teutonic Knights, so removing the principal threat to the Polish~Lithuanian Commonwealth. Trakai Castle was hereafter transformed from defensive castle to ducal palace, and Vytautas died at Trakai in 1430. During the 17th century, the castle was severely damaged during the Muscovite Wars, and progressively fell into dereliction. In the early 20th century, newly independent Lithuania rebuilt the ducal palace, and after WW2 a major reconstruction project was begun. Despite Soviet objections, this continued as an important symbol of national Lithuanian pride. By the time of the full reconstruction completion in 1987, the castle was restored to its 15th century glory, as it stands today.
The attractive lakeside village and castle at Trakai are now a popular tourist destination, but parking was readily available at this time of year in spaces offered by the cottage owners at €2/day (compared with street parking at €1/hour!). In showery weather, we crossed the 500m causeway-footbridge to the intervening islet and onwards to the castle island with its impressively restored conical-roofed corner towers and main guard tower (see above right); this gave access into the forecastle's wide courtyard and the donjon of the ducal palace towering above (see above right). The low-key museum in the forecastle's side wing and corner tower provided shelter from a stormy downpour, and amid milling tour group crowds even in late-May we crossed the draw-bridge into the inner courtyard. The central donjon museum displays illustrating the castle's history and restoration included a painting showing the 15th century layout (see above left) , not dissimilar to its restored layout today. Back across the causeway, the Trakai lake-shore trees beyond the stalls of tourist ephemera gave the perfect view of the island castle (Photo 33 - Trakai Castle) (see left). Having viewed the scant ruined remains of the Peninsula Castle further round the lake, we walked up through Trakai village past the attractive wooden cottages (see right). Descendents of the Turkic Karaim people, brought here from the Crimea by Vytautas as bodyguards at the height of the Lithuanian Commonwealth, still live at Trakai making their living from tourism.
Memorial to German WW2 atrocities in the forests of Paneriai: on our way towards southern Lithuania (click here for detailed map of route), we planned to re-visit the Paneriai forests memorial site to the horrendous WW2 atrocities committed by the German occupiers between 1941~44, involving the mass murders of Vilnius' Jewish population together with Polish political prisoners and Russian POWs. Routes 16 and 4 brought us to the outskirts of Vilnius, where in heavy traffic we turned off onto the new Route 19, a segment of the city's partially completed SW bypass. Most of the traffic was heading south from Vilnius towards Minsk the capital of Belarus signed 198kms away; we followed around a convoluted series of junctions onto Route 106 to turn off onto a narrow lane leading through forests and industrial estates to the grubby village of Paneriai by the railway station and marshalling yards. The lane ended at a lonely spot with the Soviet era Paneriai memorial which records simply Here the Germans shot 100,000 Soviet citizens; Soviet anti-Semitic policy made no mention of Jewish victims.
In 1939, the Soviets had invaded Eastern Poland which had then included Vilnius and in 1941 the Red Army began digging oil storage pits in the Paneriai forests. The work was left uncompleted when the Germans invaded USSR in June 1941, occupying the Baltic States. SS Einsatzgruppen squads immediately went to work, supported by Lithuanian collaborators, rounding up Vilnius' sizeable Jewish population into a ghetto. This remote area deep in the forests so close to Vilnius provided the perfect place of execution: Polish intelligentsia including priests, Jews from the Vilnius ghetto, and Soviet POWs were shot at Paneriai and the bodies buried in the pits. The systematic killing continued until 1944, but this was no sophisticated killing process: groups were knelt at the edge of the pits, shot individually in the back of the head and the bodies allowed to fall into the pits on top of earlier victims; sand covered the heaps of corpses, and the systematic process of mass murder started over again with the next group of victims queued up waiting to be killed. As the Red Army approached in 1944, in an attempt to cover up traces of their crimes against humanity, the Germans organised squads of prisoners as corpse-burners to exhume the partially decomposed corpses for burning, burying the ashes in the pits to hide the evidence of mass murder. After months of this gruesome work, some of these burial squads managed to tunnel an escape route to join the partisans; 11 survived the war and their testimony at Nurnberg contributed to revealing details of the Paneriai atrocities.
The last time we had been here at Paneriai in 2011, we had vowed never to return to this dreadful place. Today, even on a sunny morning to relieve the pall of gloom which still hangs over the forests, this evil place had an ominously eerie atmosphere; those who have been to Paneriai will understand our feelings. Before descending to the killing pits, we paid our respects at the Lithuanian memorial and that of the Polish citizens of Vilnius and Home Army resistance who were murdered here. A pathway led down into the forest to the pits where the mass murders had been committed. A Soviet obelisk recalls simply The victims of fascist terror, and a Jewish memorial was draped with the Israeli flag and wreathes. The little museum was closed today, but on our last visit we had been able to see the museum's panels of photographs and documents which detail the dreadful evils committed here between 1941~44. The Germans systematically compiled carefully typed lists recording details of their victims. 100,000 human beings are estimated to have been individually shot here: 70,000 Jews force-marched from Vilnius ghetto for extermination by these pits in the dark forests of Paneriai, together with 20,000 Poles, and 20,000 Soviet POWs. In silent contemplation at what hideously inhuman barbarians could have wantonly committed such acts, we walked the circuit of the now sanitised killing pits (see left) (Photo 34 - Paneriai killing pits). There is no telling how deep the original pits would have been, but set in forest clearings, 6 of the pits have been landscaped with stone surrounds. Even more sinister was the stone-lined pit with one of the original ladders used by the corpse squads to exhume the remains of earlier victims for burning (Photo 35 - Corpse burning pit) (see right). Sunlight filtered down through the pines as we walked around the pits, the silence broken only by the sound of bird song and the distant sound of freight trains trundling past. Ironically the sandy forest floor was covered with wild Forget-me-not flowers, and the air sweetly scented by wild Lily of the Valley (see above right), helping to mask the aura of death which still lingers over this dreadful place. Thankfully we drove away from the now silent forest of Paneriai, vowing yet again that we should never return.
Druskininkai Camping: leaving the Vilnius conurbation on Route 4, we headed south in busy and ruthlessly overtaking traffic (clearly many Lithuanian drivers have a death wish) to reach the turning into the quiet little town of Merkinė for the Dzūkija National Park Information Centre (click here for detailed map of route). We needed maps and details of camping spots and walks in this out-of-the-way forest and marshland national park near to Druskininkai, but there was little information to be gained; we were left wondering what the 6 members of staff did to earn their keep with so little to offer to potential visitors, and continued on to Druskininkai. The spa town of Druskininkai set in the forests of Southern Lithuania has an immediate unattractive air with its 19th century and ultra-modern spa hotels scattered among parkland. We made straight for the campsite to book in (see above left). The neighbouring tourist information centre was overstaffed, but one eventually deigned to serve us with town plan, location of Maxima supermarket, and glossy booklet on spa resorts (later consigned to the bin!). We had stayed here at Druskininkai's campsite on our first visit in 2010; it was still reasonably priced at €17.30/night including camping card discount, and with good facilities.
Grūtas Park communist era statue collection: 7 kms north of Druskininkai, Grūtas Park was founded by Lithuanian millionaire entrepreneur Viliumas Malinauskas who gathered a collection of Soviet era statues discarded from Lithuanian towns and cities after the 1990 downfall of communism. His initiative has attracted criticism for insensitively exploiting Lithuanian suffering under brutal communist tyranny to create what is alleged a 'Stalin World' Disneyland with its gathering of statues and other communist memorabilia. At reception, the po-faced madame insisted the seniors' discount to €4 from the usual expensive entry of €7.50, promoted in the English version of Druskininkai's glossy booklet, only applied to Lithuanian pensioners. No counter argument of discrimination would budge her, and only an appeal to her superior produced a grudgingly resentful exception; the look on her face as she handed us our tickets was truly Stalinesque!
The first statue to greet visitors at the park's entrance approach is a menacing-looking, gun-toting Red Army soldier (see left) which once stood on a high plinth in Šiauliai from 1947 until it was ripped down in 1991 as a symbol of the brutal terror that had gripped Lithuania for 45 years of communist occupation. This is followed by a tableau monument to the so-called Soviet Underground Partisans who had terrorised Lithuania during WW2 (see right); the citizens of Vilnius had had to live daily with this grotesquely forbidding memorial of brutality which stood in a city square. Beyond this, two museum halls contain admirable displays of memorabilia, posters, photos and newspaper reports illustrating the enforced and repressive life under communist rule, personality cult of communist leaders, party propaganda, and farcical pretence of democratic normality under one-party 'elections'.
The main outdoor exhibition of grotesquely mammoth statues is set up in hedged enclosures amid parkland, each with a historical biography in Lithuanian, Russian and English. As we walked around, many were instantly recognisable: Marx, Engels, a forbiddingly monstrous Stalin (see right) (Photo 36 - Purging Stalin at Grūtas Park), and an evil-looking Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Cheka/KGB secret police, forerunner of the KGB. Along with these, there were all sizes and shapes of Lenins (see left), including the monumental statue which once dominated Lukiškių Square in Vilnius until unceremonially hauled down by crowds of Lithuanians enjoying their first taste of freedom after re-independence in 1991; the grotesque statue still showed the cracks where the legs were hacked off by demonstrators unable to detach it from its plinth (Photo 37 - Shaking hands with Lenin). All of these obscenely oversized statues had once 'graced' Lithuanian city squares in Vilnius, Kaunas, Klaipėda, Panevėžys and Druskininkai, as a dubious source of inspiration for citizens, or more likely a constant reminder of their loss of freedom and subjection to communist oppressors. The displays included a host of Lithuanian communist leaders, showing the ironic fact that the 45 years of oppression suffered by Lithuanians was in fact directed by Lithuanians; this parade of Soviet socialist-realist representations of the vile creatures who brutalised their own people under Moscow's direction became almost tediously repetitive.
Like it or loathe it as commercial exploitation of brutality, there is no disputing however that this grotesque display of communist era statues at Grūtas Park represents a curiously authentic profile of Lithuania's albeit tragic history during the second half of the 20th century.
Spa town of Druskininkai: before returning to camp, we wanted to see something of Druskininkai which had developed during the Tsarist era as a fashionable spa and chic health resort on the banks of the Nemunas River. Druska in Lithuanian means salt, from the natural mineral rich spring waters which occurred in this SE corner of Lithuania as sources for the spas. During the communist years, the town expanded with more functional concrete spa buildings among the elegant late 19th century sanatoria, and trade unions funded free spa treatments for those with contacts to secure a doctor's certificate. The town now takes advantage of the greater affluence of modern day independent Lithuanians, and attracts hordes of unpleasantly arrogant and ostentatiously affluent nouveaux riches Russian and Belarusian visitors to spend their roubles taking the waters and health treatments at the spa hotels.
Having shopped for provisions at the Maxima supermarket, we found a large car park on the far side of town, and walked back across the Nemunas bridge and along the river bank found the natural spring of the Fountain of Beauty with its mineral water trickling down a rock. A little further, we reached the Mineralinio Vandens Buvetė, a modest little pump room fed by the Dzūkija Fountain, where for €0.10 visitors can taste the spa waters. In this refined art deco building with sunlight streaming through the stained glass windows, fonts over a central basin poured forth 2 grades of varying strengths natural mineral waters: the Aušra spring water of 2.34 gms/litre mineral strength and the stronger 8.0 gms/litre strength. We paid the modest fee, and with the plastic cups provided sampled the waters. The first was marginally drinkable, the second positively disgusting! It was hard to fathom why people spend vast sums of money to pass a week wallowing in this! But if you come to Druskininkai, you have to take the waters, and we did (Photo 38 - Taking the spa waters) (see above right).
Passing the buildings of the more grandiose Druskininkai Spa, we walked up past the stalls of the town festival taking place that weekend. Ahead the little park filling the centre of Laisvės aikstė was dominated by the 19th century Orthodox Church with the comforting title of Joy of All Who Suffer. The vivid blue-painted wooden church was topped with multiple gilded onion domes (see above left) (Photo 39 - Druskininkai Orthodox Church). That evening back at camp, we were entertained over supper by the distant sounds of Lithuanian refined choral singing from the town festival.
Djūkija National Park: beyond the A4 main road from Druskininkai, we headed into Djūkija National Park, the largest of Lithuania's national parks covering vast swathes of sandy heath land pine forests interspersed with marshland and inland dunes (click here for detailed map of route). Apart from the seemingly endless pine forests, this curious variety of natural terrain with soggy wetlands incongruously set alongside bare areas of wind-blown inland sand dunes gives Djūkija its distinctive character. This SE corner of the country crossed by the Nemunas River has never been a major agricultural region because of the infertile, light sandy soil, and farmers have traditionally supplemented poorer harvests with berry and mushroom picking and bee-keeping for honey. The scattering of tiny villages spread among Djūkija 's forests are sparsely inhabited by an aging population, with many of the wooden cottages falling into dereliction or bought up by city folk as rural retreats (see above right); Vilnius is less than 2 hours' drive away. Many of the wooden cottages preserve traditional features often only seen at ethnographic museums elsewhere in the country (see above left): intricate filigree wooden window frames, gardens with bird-boxes on poles, and carved wooden crosses topped with sun symbols.
Once leaving the A4 highway at Druskininkai, Route 5003 through the Djūkija was surprisingly well-tarmaced passing through the endless pine forests. The light, sandy and infertile soil was immediately evident along the forests' edge. Some 15kms into the forests, we reached the village of Margionys, a scattering of traditional wooden cottages and small-holdings set among forest clearings. A further 10kms brought us to the larger village of Marcinkonys where, after a search along the lengthy main street, we eventually found the unsigned National Park offices. As at Merkinė, it seemed remarkably over-staffed for the little they had to offer. We had prints of Djūkija maps from their web site but needed information on walks. The educational trail to Čepkeliai marshes was inaccessible during the bird breeding season, and the girl tried to explain the alternative Zackagiris Nature Trail, a 14km circuit taking in some of Djūkija's natural features. But despite her enthusiasm, there was total lack of useful information apart from a leaflet-map and outline commentary; it was the best we were going to get. In response to our enquiry about camping opportunity, she volunteered that we could wild camp in the forest behind the centre by some earth-privvies; at least that was something. Having confirmed a suitable spot for later, we set out to walk part of the Zackagiris Takas (Nature Trail), starting by the village church and taking in the Gaidzų Kopa area of dunes and Meškos šikna (bear's Rump) overlooking the Pakamšio Pelkė marshes. This would at least in the time we had available gives us a taste of Djūkija's natural features.
The sandy nature of Djūkija's soil immediately became apparent immediately we set off on the track leading from the graveyard past wooden cottages in the village outskirts; it was like walking though loose sand. At several of the cottages, elderly residents were stacking chopped wood. What was clear however was the number of empty cottages now falling into dereliction. This contrasted with the evidently affluent look of modernised and almost twee cottages along the length of Marcinkonys' main street compared with these in the further outskirts (see above left and right). We realised that a large proportion of the cottages in Marcinkonys were now rural second homes of city folk from Vilnius. We continued along the sandy track and turned off up onto the Gaidzų Kopa (dune), an area of open, bare dune hill some 500m wide (see above left). Most of Djūkija's inland dunes, which can extend for many kms, are now stable where forestation and vegetation has halted the movement of sand. Here at Gaidzų however the open, loose sand was visibly in wind-blown motion, spilling down over the neighbouring grassland (Photo 40 - Gaidzų Kopa inland dunes). We climbed to the top of the dune to look over to the bordering pine forest (see above right), and followed the way-marked track along the forest's edge where the forest floor was covered with crunchy lichen (see left) and the dry sandy soil lacking in any moisture left the pines in a withered state. Beyond more of the abandoned, derelict cottages at the village edge, the bilberry lined path continued for a further km through forest to reach the Meškos šikna swamps, with cotton grass growing across the now semi-dry area of raised bog. Alongside the path, we found this year's first Lingonberry flowers, but in trying to photograph these we aroused the inevitable midges which swarmed determinedly around our heads causing us to beat a hasty retreat. Retracing our route through the forest pursued by midges, we returned along the village main street where the contrast between restored and modernised holiday-home cottages and original poorer-looking wooden cottages occupied by elderly villagers or standing empty and derelict became more evident.
A Djūkija forest wild camp: back to the National Park Centre, we set up camp in the forest clearing under the dappled shade of pines, and inevitably the midges forced us indoors with the slider closed and our 12v diffuser on to purge the camper of midges. It was a magnificent woodland spot for a wild camp, and apart from the distant sounds of village youngsters and occasional car passing along the dirt road, we enjoyed a peaceful and undisturbed evening. The following morning we woke to bright sun and dappled shade in our forest grove (Photo 41 - Djūkija forest wild camp) (see above right), the air filled with birdsong and scent of pines, and at one point we heard the repetitive 1-2 hooting call of a hoopoe.
Marcinkonys church: before leaving Marcinkonys, we drove back through the village to photograph the village's pale yellow-painted wooden church, with its twin towers and onion-domed turret above the chancel (see left). This charming little Lithuanian rural parish church was set on a small hillock overlooking the pine-shaded graveyard. Local people were just arriving for the Sunday morning service, and the choir could be heard through the open church doors intoning what sounded similar to Orthodox plainsong. Perhaps the Catholicism in these far-flung rural regions historically was influenced by Russian Orthodoxy.
Marcinkonys railway station, now the end of the line: at the opposite end of the 2 km long village, Marcinkonys railway station was closed on a Sunday, but the timetable showed that a regular but limited service still operated on weekdays connecting Marcinkonys with Vilnius via Varėna and Rūdiškės. This lovely little rural halt with its pink-painted wooden station building was a beautifully maintained traditional structure with filigree fretwork trim around the eaves (see above right). In its Tsarist era heyday, this line through Marcinkonys would have been part of the Vienna railway passing through what is now Belarus on its way to St Petersburg. Today the rails beyond the station were rusty and overgrown with weeds; it looked as if a service had only recently ended since the signalling was still in place. Clearly however the closure of the rail link onwards from Southern Lithuania into Belarus, described recently by the BBC as 'Europe's last dictatorship, was permanent with steel fencing now barring the line at the road crossing.
Bona Camping near Varėna: we took the single-track lane from Marcinkonys up towards Merkinė (click here for detailed map of route), winding a way through sandy pine forests and a series of hamlets with scattered wooden cottages and farmsteads. Again many of these were abandoned and falling into dereliction. We turned northwards onto the A4, which on a Sunday was busy with furiously driving motorists speeding back to their Vilnius apartments after a weekend at their country cottages. We turned off to shop for provisions in Varėna, an unnoteworthy little town, save for being the birthplace of the late 19t century fin de sičcle Lithuanian painter, composer and writer, M K Čiurlionis, and he got out as soon as he could. The town was sleepily quiet on a hot Sunday afternoon, but we found an Iki supermarket for our supplies, and continued north on A4 heading for tonight's campsite, Bona Camping. Their web site promoted it as a recently established campsite, small, peaceful, family-run campsite; the price was just €16 and it sounded ideal for our much needed rest day tomorrow.
We turned off the busy A4 at Čižiānai village onto a dusty gravel access lane, to reach a gate with campsite sign and locked hut, but no sign of campsite. We ventured hesitantly across a flimsy-looking narrow bridge, and a response to our phone call said someone would show us around. An elderly lady appeared and showed us the camping area, a very rough patch strewn with recently mowed grass attracting many flies, few trees for shelter from the hot sun, and a limited facilities hut. The hospitality was well-intended even if the site was basic in the extreme. We carefully positioned George to maximise the limited shade of low birch trees and settled in (see above left), switching on fans and Bagon to deter the midges, clearing away grass cuttings to rid us of bothersome flies, and pulling out the awning as additional protection from the sweltering heat. At this point the elderly owner's unsmilingly taciturn son came over to collect payment, and when he returned with change, he brought us a gift of home-made schnapps. It all gave the impression that we were their first customers this year, perhaps ever, and they were surprised to have anyone wanting to stay! Even in the shade of the birch trees, our rest day was hotter than ever with George's temperature rising to 33şC. Despite its claims and well-meaning hospitality, Bona Camping with its rough and fly-ridden camping area was scarcely a viable campsite; such a pity.
A sad memorial to yet another vicious war-time German atrocity: a little further along A4, we pulled over by a tall granite statue of a grieving mother figure, the Mother of Pirčiupių. Close to the small farming hamlet of Pirčiupiai on 3 June 1944, Soviet partisans had attacked a German troop convoy killing 6 soldiers. To deter such partisan raids, the Germans had responded with merciless reprisal killing of innocent civilians. Surrounding Pirčiupiai village, the Germans locked all those there into farms and barns, 119 villagers including 69 children, and burned them alive. Only 13 of the villagers who were away at the time survived. 26 farmsteads were then destroyed, and livestock and possessions looted. The bodies of those killed were only allowed to be buried in mass graves a week later. The Pirčiupių Motina (Mother) memorial statue was put up in 1960 in memory of the atrocity (see above right). We drove along to the modern village of Pirčiupiai, where among the cottages and farmsteads, the sites where the atrocity was committed were marked with memorial stones (see right). We were left wondering if any German was ever brought to justice for these brutal murders of innocent civilians; we knew the answer to this rhetorical question was of course no one.
The wonderful Harmonie Camping near Rūdiškės: from Trakai, Route 220 led for 15kms out to the village of Rudišces (click here for detailed map of route), and after a pause at the railway station to check times for tomorrow's visit to Vilnius, we took the dusty unsurfaced lane out through the forests to Harmonie Camping. The campsite is set in an isolated pine forest clearing and kept by the enigmatically bluff but hospitable ex-pat Dutchman Wim Brauns, reputedly an ex-professional footballer and cyclist, and his Lithuanian wife. Their hard work over the last 20 years in carving out rough virgin forest land into a beautifully landscaped perfect green oasis of tranquillity and peace clearly shows. As welcoming as ever, Mr Brauns remarkably recalled our 2 previous stays in 2010 and 2011, and told us of his continuing work coaching the Lithuanian Olympic cycling team. As part of his service, he regularly takes and collects his guests to and from the railway halt at Rūdiškės for the Lietuvos Geležinkeliai (Lithuanian Railways) train into Vilnius. The sun was still scorchingly hot and we settled into a corner under the surrounding shady trees (see above left) (Photo 42 - Harmonie Camping). Such a special place is Harmonie Camping, a little piece of paradise truly meriting its name of Harmonie, the only sound being that of woodpeckers among the pines and oaks. This was a wonderful spot for a day in camp to catch up with everyday jobs, revelling in the verdant peace and birdsong of this idyllic place with its beautiful landscaped gardens surrounded by dark pine forest. This magnificent campsite must rank as the finest place we have ever camped at in almost 50 years of camping, and the hospitality offered by the enigmatic Wim Braun ranks even higher.
By Train from Rūdiškės into Vilnius: an early start this morning to be ready for our lift into Rudišces to catch the 9-15am train into Vilnius for our visit to the Seimas, the Parliament of the Lithuanian Republic, pre-arranged by email. Today was to be a Very Special Day. We waited at the station's outer platform as the early morning train from Marcinkonys and Varėna drew in (Photo 43 - Train into Vilnius) (see above right). The single fare for both of us for the 45 minute journey into Vilnius was €4.80, and the train travelled initially through forests, stopping at another rural halt, before passing Paneriai station and marshalling yards and the outer suburbs of the capital city.
Our visit to the Seimas, the Lithuania Parliament: we had a tight schedule to catch the trolley bus from outside Vilnius station across the city centre to reach the Seimas in time for our 11-00am appointment. The trolley bus trundled and jolted its way through the Old Town's cobbled streets, and at Pamėnkalnio stotis we got off to walk through to Gedimino Prospekt and across to the grandiose National Library for photos of the starkly 1980s building of the Seimas (Photo 44 - Seimas Building) (see right). The Lithuanian Parliament (Seimas meaning a meeting or assembly) originated in the 15/16th century as an advisory council of nobles summoned by the Grand Duke; Lithuania had a written constitution and codified body of laws earlier in its history than most European states. But the 1795 Partition of the Polish/Lithuanian Commonwealth and annexation of Lithuania by Tsarist Russia interrupted the development of parliamentarianism for 130 years. With Russia's withdrawal from WW1 in 1918 , the Lithuanian Council adopted the Act of Independence for the newly constituted Republic and the first Seimas elections followed in 1922. Parliamentary government was interrupted in 1927 by the authoritarian régime of Antanas Smetona and again by the Soviet occupations of 1940~41 and 1945~90, during which time the country was supposedly governed by the Lithuanian Supreme Soviet, a body of communist party hacks who took their orders directly from Moscow. With the drive for independence from USSR, on 11 March 1990 the Council under its president Vytautas Landsbergis adopted the Act on the Establishment of the State of Lithuania, solemnly declaring the end of foreign occupation and revival of independent statehood with the Seimas as its democratically elected parliament. This received lukewarm attention from the West, and was simply too much even for Gorbachev who responded with a crippling economic blockade, sending in the tanks. The Lithuanian public responded with openly defiant civil unrest and 13 demonstrators were killed at the Vilnius TV Tower in January 1991. Citizens manned barricades around the Seimas to protect their newly formed democracy, and the blocks of concrete are now preserved outside the Seimas as a grim memorial to the tense events of January 1991, still bearing the anti-Soviet graffiti Lietuva Laisvė (Freedom for Lithuania). Fearing a bloodbath from military clampdown on the Lithuanian independence movement, Gorbachev, now dominant over the old guard Kremlin hard-liners, miraculously backed down leaving Lithuania suddenly and joyously an independent democracy under the Seimas after 50 years of Soviet occupation and communist repression. The 1996 Seimas announced its Westward oriented foreign policy with the goal of EU/NATO membership which was achieved in 2004. Under the 1992 Constitution of the Lithuanian Republic, the unicameral Seimas is composed of 141 members elected for a 4 year term. Meetings of the Seimas are chaired by the Speaker who is elected by parliament from its members.
At the Seimas security-reception, we presented our passports and joined other members of today's small group of visitors to be greeted by Monika the guide. We began with photos at the Seimas' official interview stand in the Press Briefing area (see above left) (Photo 45 - Seimas official photo), before entering the gallery of the Seimas' bright, modern and well-lit plenary chamber which is equipped with electronic voting system at each of the members' seats, with the gold, green and red Lithuanian tricolour suspended above the Speaker's chair (see above right) (Photo 46 - Seimas Plenary Chamber). With Monika's impressively fluent command of English, we were able to discuss the history and working of the Seimas, Lithuanian electoral process and constitutional matters, and current political issues such as the position of the Polish and Russian minorities in Lithuania. In the nearby conference room, the historic photo showed Vytautas Landsbergis addressing the Seimas on 11 March 1990 when the declaration of independence was adopted (see above left). The chamber of the former Supreme Soviet Supreme Council was a dimly-lit, oppressively bunker-like room, reminiscent of those dark days when the Soviet approved and appointed so-called deputies met just 3~4 times each year to give tacit legality to decisions already taken in Moscow (see right). This had been democracy as sham then under communism as in Putin's Russia today. Our 2018 visit to the Seimas, the year when Lithuania is celebrating the centenary of its 1918 re-independence and now governed by true parliamentary democracy, had been a great success, giving us a valuable understanding of both the workings of Lithuania's democracy from the crucial period of its 1990s rebirth and the contemporary political, social and economic issues facing the country. Through our web site we express our thanks to the staff of the Seimas PR Department for arranging the visit; Labai ačiū.
A Lithuania lunch: we had identified a potential lunch spot in the back streets on the far side of Gedimino Prospekt, a straightforward cafeteria called Pietūs, serving good value Lithuania basics and well-used by locals. We eventually found the place at Jasinkio 16. Unlikely from the outside, the interior was chic and the food was exactly what we wanted: Saltibarščiai (cold, creamy beetroot soup) with a plate of fried potato, so good that we treated ourselves to a main course of crisply baked fish with salads and a glass of fruit juice, all for €11.80 (see left).
Our 2018 visit to Vilnius: it was 2-00pm by the time we returned to just by the park opposite the grandiose Neoclassical Lithuanian Appeal Court. Some buildings attract infamy: during WW2 it had been occupied by the Gestapo, and for the 40 years of communism it had been the HQ of Lithuania's KGB, and the lower courses of the building's stonework are now engraved with the names of KGB victims who had been imprisoned, tortured or executed in the building's basement (see right). Its rooms structurally unchanged since the KGB occupants moved out, this grim building now houses the Museum of Genocide Victims, opened in late 1992. Its displays deal with the painful mid~late 20th century history of Lithuania: Soviet occupation 1939~41, German occupation 1941~44, and even more repressive Soviet occupation 1944~91, with loss of independence and brutal deportations and repression at Soviet hands even more destructive of human life than under the Germans. Further displays showed partisan resistance to Soviet rule, conditions in prisons and labour camps and mass deportations. Particularly chilling was the basement where the KGB cells and torture rooms had been preserved intact; but worst of all, buried deep beneath the exercise yard were the execution chambers where 1000s of KGB victims were disposed of. We had visited this troubling museum in 2010; just like the Runde Ecke Stasi Museum in Leipzig, The Museum of Genocide Victims is not a place for the faint hearted.
Vilnius Cathedral and statue of Grand Duke Gediminas: in scorching heat, we ambled along Gedimino Prospekt, admiring the fin de sičcle grand buildings lining Vilnius' bustling main shopping and commercial boulevard (see left). At the far end we crossed to the starkly white Cathedral of Sv Stanislav and Vladislav with its separate belfry which resembles a Baroque lighthouse (Photo 47 - Vilnius Cathedral). The church was built originally by Grand Duke Jogaila after his conversion to Christianity in 1387 to replace an earlier pagan temple; the Lithuanians were Europe's longest surviving pagan culture. The cool air inside the Cathedral was welcome relief, and in a far corner of the ambulatory, the 17th century Chapel of St Casimir, Lithuania's patron saint, was full of overblown Baroque marble and silver-plated royal statues. The chapel had been built as a propaganda statement by the Lithuanian-Polish Wasa dynasty to associate the new regime with their more illustrious Jagełłonian predecessors. The icon-like image of St Casimir beneath the saint's casket seems to show him with 3 hands where the artist tried to over-paint his first attempt at portraying Casimir. As the symbolic heart of the modern country's Catholicism, the Cathedral was the natural focus of the mass rallies in the 1990 run-up to declaration of independence from USSR, and in January 1991, the coffins of the 13 demonstrators killed by Soviet tanks at the TV Tower were laid out on the flagstones of Cathedral Square draped in the Lithuanian tricolour at a memorial service which united Lithuanians in defiance of the occupying Soviets. Today the hot sun shining on the white marble flagstones of Cathedral Square was glaring (see above right) and we sought the shade of bordering trees to photograph the stately statue of Vilnius' legendary founder, Grand Duke Gediminas leading his horse, against the white façade backdrop of the Lower castle palace of the Lithuanian Grand Dukes (see left) (Photo 48 - Grand Duke Gediminas Statue). On the hill above stood the tower remains of the Upper Castle, built originally as a wooden stockade and later red-brick fortification by Gediminas and his successors.
Vilnius' magnificent churches: in the scorching heat, we walked on amid tourist hordes past the street café-terraces of Pilies gatvė (see right), and turned off into the welcome shade and comparative peace of Bernadinų gatvė, a narrow lane winding between attractive 17~18th century houses. The far end emerged opposite the beautiful red-brick church of St Anne with its tall, narrow façade of pinnacled towers intricately intertwined with red-brick tracery (Photo 49 - St Anne's Church). This most outstanding of Vilnius' Gothic churches was completed in 1582, just as the Baroque style of architecture was coming into fashion in Vilnius. Inside the most noticeable feature were the delicate lines of red-brick vaulting arching across he white-painted ceiling, topping an array of dark, Baroque altars. Behind St Anne's rose the more restrained façade of the larger Bernadine monastic church (see left). Allegedly the church cellar was where the Vilnius dissident student and future founder of the Cheka/KGB, Feliks Dzerzhinsky set up an underground printing press for revolutionary literature confident that the Tsarist secret police would not discover it here. Alongside the two churches, a modern statue commemorated the Polish-Lithuanian poet Adam Mickiewicz (1798~1855) whose nationalistic romantic verse, particularly Pan Tadeusz, inspired the 1830 Polish Uprising again Russian domination. He lived out his life in exile from the Tsarist realm in Paris. The statue was the site of one of the first Glasnost era Lithuanian demonstrations against Soviet occupation in August 1987 when several hundred demonstrators gathered here demanding publication of the 1939 Molotov~Ribbentrop Pact secret protocol which carved up the spheres of influence leaving the Baltics in Soviet hands. Beyond the bulky mass of the Church of the Holy Mother of God, we followed alleyways to ere-emerge in Pilies gatvė by the House of Signatories, the 18th century balconied town-house where the Lithuanian National Council declared the country's first independence on 6 February 1918; the date is still celebrated as one of Lithuania's two Independence Days, the other being 11 March when members of the re-formed Seimas declared Lithuanian independence from Soviet rule in Town 1990.
Vilnius Old Town - University, Presidential Palace, Rotušės aikštė, and Madonna of Gate of Dawn: we crossed to Vilnius University, centred around a network of quads, including the magnificent Observatory Quad (see above right). Founded in 1589 as a Jesuit college, it was upgraded to full university status 10 years later. In the early 19th century, when Vilnius as part of Greater Poland withered under Tsarist rule, it became a hot-bed of radical student nationalism, and was closed in the wake of the failed 1830 insurrections. It remained closed until Polish independence after WW1 when it again became one of Poland's leading academic institutions. It became Lithuanianised after WW2 and managed to survive the communist era to become the modern country's main centre of learning with over 14,000 students. The arcaded quad of the Grand Courtyard is dominated by the icing-cake façade of St John's University Church, an obscenely outrageous Baroque extravaganza which shows its Jesuit origins (see above left).
Emerging into Universiteto gatvė, we reached the Presidential Palace, a soberly plain Neoclassical building with its flag poles bearing the Lithuanian gold, green and red tricolour together with the EU flag, and Lithuania-100 displays celebrating the country's independence centenary (Photo 50 - Presidential Palace) (see above right). Alleyways led through to the grand open space of Rotušės aikštė (Town Hall Square) with its elegant town houses (Photo 51 - Rotušės aikštė) (see left). On a hot afternoon we took a brief pause for a much needed beer at a shady street café terrace (see right). The Town Hall steps provided a photographic overview of the square. Passing St Casimir's Church with its overblown Jesuit decorated frontage topped with gilded crowns, we walked on up the length of Didžioji past the Philharmonic Hall into Aušros Vartų gatvė where the Basilian Gate led to the Church of the Holy Trinity, one of the oldest Russian Orthodox churches in Lithuania, now serving the Uniate Greek-Catholic community. Founded in 1596, the Uniate Church embraced those Orthodox believers prepared to accept papal primacy. Inside the candle lit church interior, Orthodox worshippers were blessed by holy incense smoke from the priest's swinging censer, as we discretely photographed the huge green iconostasis, and the three 14th century embalmed martyrs sleeping peacefully in their glass-topped altar-casket; these are said to be bishops executed by the pagan Grand Duke Algirdas in 1347 who in a spirit of repentance and political expediency, later built the chapel here. On up Aušros Vartų gatvė, we reached the Gate of Dawn, the only surviving gate-house through the city walls where in the 17th century monks from the nearby St Theresa's Basilica had built a chapel to house the most revered of the city's many holy icons, the Madonna of the Gate of Dawn (Photo 52 - Madonna of Gate of Dawn) (see left). This was clearly a place of pilgrimage for both Lithuanians and Poles, where visitors knelt in fervent prayer before the sacred silvered icon, the Madonna's slender fingers splayed in stylised gesture of pious grace; those passing through the gate below glanced up at the Madonna visible in the arched gate windows and crossed themselves.
In the heat of the late afternoon, we walked on through mundane city streets busy with evening traffic and Russian lorries, to the Geležinkelio stotis (railway station) for our return train to Rūdiškės where Mr Braun was waiting to take us back to Camping Harmonie.
Tomorrow we should begin the second stage of our travels through the more rural parts of NE and NW Lithuania to explore remote areas of lakes and national parks seldom visited by those from the West; we are truly looking forward to getting away from the tourist spots into the back lanes of rural Lithuania. But that's the story for the next episode which as time allows will follow shortly.
Next edition from Lithuania to be published quite soon