** LITHUANIA 2018 - WEEKS 6~8 **
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A Hanseatic Tour of the Baltic 2018 - North-east and North-west Lithuania:
Kernavė Archaeological Site: leaving Harmonie Camping on the dusty gravel road through the pine forests (see below left), we returned to Rūdiškės, and from Trakai headed NW across country to the Archaeological Reserve at Kernavė, one of Lithuania's most important historical sites (click on Map 1 right for our route). Set in the valley of the meandering Neris River, with ample fresh water from tributary streams, plentiful food supplies, fertile soil for agriculture and grazing, and 5 flat-topped hillocks above the valley bottom for protection in times of threat, the site at Kernavė had been occupied continuously since the late Palaeolithic 9th millennium BC. The Neris valley had been created among moraine hills by Ice Age glacial melt-water, with side streams forming gullies in the alluvium with intervening promontories forming hillocks which later settlers levelled and fortified with wooden stockade hill-forts for protection in troubled times. Soon after the retreat of the glaciers, migrant hunter-gatherers initially set up temporary encampments in the Neris valley hunting grounds, as evidenced by arrow-heads and other flint artefacts unearthed at Kernavė from this period.
As the climate warmed and the valley became forested, and with the domestication of plants and animals, the Kernavė site was settled by Neolithic pastoralists during the 5th~3rd millennia BC. New waves of migrants of Indo-European origins later settled the area, and during the early metal age from the 2nd~1st millennia BC, bronze and iron implements were forged by settlers at Kernavė. Into the early centuries of the Common Era, the development of metallurgy and widespread use of iron working led to increased productivity of foodstuffs, improvement in living conditions and growth in population in the Neris valley by peoples considered ancestors of the Baltic tribes. The first fortifications were built on the hillocks above the Pajauta valley at Kernavė by the 3rd~4th centuries AD. Archaeological finds, including a silver denarius of Marcus Aurelius dated to 161~2 AD showed that trade developed with the Roman Province of Germania. Further migrations into the region in the 5~6th centuries AD led to the divergence of the Balts into distinctive tribes, with the direct ancestors of the Lithuanian people occupying the tribal centre at Kernavė. The fortification of the Kernavė hill-forts and prosperity of the township during the 11~13th centuries led to the consolidation of the Lithuanian Balts into a distinct nation-state during the reign of Grand Duke Mindaugas (1236~63). Under Grand Duke Traidenis (1269~82), Kernavė became one of the most important economic and political centres of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, with the Duke's residence occupying the central hill-fort of Akuras Hill, protected by a defensive system of forts on the surrounding hills. A township of merchants and craftsmen developed in the Pajauta Valley on the river's upper terrace at the foot of the hills. This was the period of the Lithuanian Baltic tribes' conversion from paganism to Christianity. At the beginning of the 14th century, Grand Duke Gediminas transferred the tribal centre from Kernavė to Trakai and later to Vilnius. Kernavė continued for some time as an important economic centre until attacks by the Teutonic Knights (so-called Crusaders) finally resulted in Kernavė's destruction in 1390. The occupants deserted the settlement in the Pajauta Valley, and the site was never again occupied. Alluvial deposits from the Neris covered the site and medieval township, preserving it to be rediscovered by archaeologists in the 20th century.
Shrouded in myths and legends, Kernavė remains for Lithuanians a symbol of their statehood, the capital of pagan ancestral tribes where Gediminas welded the Lithuanian Balts into a distinct nation-state and converted them to Christianity. The name of Kernavė is first mentioned in the Rhymed Chronicle and Hermanni de Watberge Chronicon Livoniae, describing the Teutonic Order's 1279 raid into the Lithuanian realm as far as Kernavė. Archaeological excavations by Vilnius University began in 1979, producing a treasure trove of artefacts and grave goods spanning the 11 millennia of the Kernavė site's occupation until the medieval township's destruction in 1390. These are now displayed in the Kernavė Archaeological Museum, leading to Kernavė being dubbed the Troy of Lithuania.
Our visit to Kernavė: we initially visited the Kernavė Archaeological Museum to gain a fuller understanding of the site's significance in Lithuanian history, and to view the impressive and well-documented displays of excavated remains covering the entire period of Kernavė's occupation, from Palaeolithic flint implements through to the grave-goods of the medieval period at the time of the Lithuanian Balts' conversion to Christianity and Kernavė's destruction. The displays included beautiful medieval head band jewellery (see above left), brooches bearing the Indo-European swastika emblem (see above right), Roman coins with head of Marcus Aurelius (see above left), and a medieval bronze statuette described as Perkūnas the pagan god of thunder (Photo 1 - Perkūnas statuette). Beyond the 19th century chapel, a path led over to a view point overlooking the 5 hill-forts, the Pajauta settlement site, and the Neris River meandering around the valley beyond. Wooden step-ways led up onto each of the steep-sided hill-fort sites, and we climbed Castle Hill with its extensive flat-top site of the Grand Duke's former residence, and the more narrow Mindaugas Hill. From both these flat-topped hillocks views opened out of the other hill-forts, the narrow winding Pajauta valley between them and the wide river terrace beyond, site of the medieval township (Photo 2 - Kernavė hill-forts) (see above right). It was obvious from here why the Kernavė site should have been such an attractively fertile spot for the original settlement (see right), and an evidently well-defended location for later Iron Age and medieval fortification (see above left). Given the site's historical importance, its magnificent state of preservation, and invaluable range of archaeological finds representing 11th millennia of occupation, it was understandable why Kernavė has such significance for Lithuanians.
North to Anykščiai and Camping Po Žvaigždėm: we now had a long drive north across country to camp at Anykščiai in readiness for our planned ride on the preserved narrow gauge railway tomorrow. Before leaving Kernavė however, we phoned the Tourist Information Centre in Anykščiai to confirm that the town's campsite was open. As in 2011, the lady's response in good English was supremely helpful: yes the campsite was open and she would book space for us with the warden; she also gave us contact details for tomorrow's railway ride. From Kernavė, the A2 motorway took us 50kms NW in busy traffic to Utmergė (click here for detailed map of route), then another 36 kms on A6/Route 120 to the outskirts of the surprisingly large town of Anykščiai. We threaded a way through the centre, across the river and in the far outskirts found Camping Po Žvaigždėm (Under the Stars). We had expected this to be deserted at this early stage of the year, but the riverside campsite was full of families noisily celebrating Lithuanian Children's Day with party fun and games; it was bedlam! The young warden was expecting us, having been alerted by the TIC lady of our arrival, and welcomed us in quaintly formal English. The price was €22/night, rather expensive for a basic municipal site, but the facilities including a good kitchen were kept regularly cleaned; with trepidation at all the commotion, we wearily settled in (see above left). The children's party finished at 9-00pm and peace was restored. Earlier a text message was received confirming our seats on the Anykščiai narrow gauge railway, but it was still uncertain as to whether the train would run.
A ride on the preserved Anykščiai narrow gauge railway: we needed to be up early the following morning to be at Anykščiai station by 10-30 to collect tickets for our ride on the narrow gauge railway. We were relieved to see crowds waiting and the train being shunted into the platform. The Anykščiai 750mm gauge railway is a surviving part of the former Tsarist-Russian network of local lines which once connected the rural hinterland to major towns served by the Russian broad gauge main lines. This line linking Anykščiai to Panevėžys was built in 1891; it ceased regular traffic in 2001 but was re-opened by volunteers as a tourist attraction (see left). At the booking office, our tickets were waiting, and after photographs of the train we took our reserved seats (Photo 3 - Anykščiai narrow gauge railway) (see right). The very growly ex-Soviet TU-2 diesel locomotive connected to the coaches (see above right), and at 11-00, with the sounding of klaxon horn and ringing of bell, the train juddered and lurched out of the station for the 20km ride through the forests to the isolated farming village of Troškūnai (see below left). From the little rural station-halt, a guided walk in exhaustingly hot sun along field roads took us to see the monastery church in Troškūnai, but with the commentary only in Lithuanian we understood little of the church's history.
Anykščiai Holocaust Memorial: back at Anykščiai we shopped for provisions at the Iki supermarket, and called in at the TIC to thank the lady for her help; as so often is the case, less well known and unpretentious places offer the very best of tourist information services, and Anykščiai's TIC had set a standard which others could do well to follow. We knew from our 2011 visit that pre-WW2 30% of Anykščiai's and its neighbouring villages' population had been Jewish, all of whom had been systematically exterminated by the German occupiers. We wanted to find the monument marking the mass graves of the 2,500 Jewish people from this small rural town who had been murdered by the Germans in the surrounding forests. Just outside the town, a sandy track led into the pine woods, and here we found the small and sadly neglected Holocaust memorial with an almost faded inscription and surrounded by a rusty fence (Photo 4 - Anykščiai Holocaust Memorial) (see right). These now forgotten victims of German institutionalised mass-murder now lay buried in mass graves in the sandy soil of the forests outside the town.
Arvydas Gaidelis Homestead-Camping at Palūšė: our original plan had been to camp tonight at Papartis near to Molėtai, but what in 2011 had been a straightforward site had now been tarted up as a lakeside 'resort' with silly prices to match, the sort of place where Lithuanian townsfolk flock to party at weekends. We therefore decided to head directly to Palūšė, and with the campsite there now closed, we had identified a small guesthouse-camping in the village of Palūšė. In welcoming response to our telephone enquiry, the owner's son in good English recalled our earlier exchange of emails confirming we could camp, and agreed to meet us at the homestead at 6-00pm this evening. We set course on the winding semi-tarmaced Route 119 for the 44km drive, through Molėtai, an inconsequential little town with oversized basilica, and joined Route 114 for the delightful 36km drive through pine forested lakeland to Palūšė (click here for detailed map of route). We arrived with time to spare, and in the upper part of the village beyond the wooden church, the former Palūšė Camping which we had so enjoyed in 2011 was now truly closed. We eventually found the driveway leading to the homestead-camping, just as the owner Arvydas Gaidelis arrived with his fluently English-speaking son. With insistent and kindly hospitality, they explained that what had been grandmother's house was now being converted to holiday accommodation, and we were welcome to camp in the grounds. They opened up, found us power, and left the key so that we could use the bathroom and kitchen, all for €13/night. We settled in at a flat area alongside the house in the shade of pine trees, a perfectly peaceful forest setting for our day in camp tomorrow and visit to Aukštaitija National Park (see left) (Photo 5 - Arvydas Gaidelis Guesthouse-Camping). We spent a productive rest day at the guesthouse-camping, and Arvydas the owner broke off from his conversion work to invite us to share morning coffee with him sat on the veranda. He spoke no English but we manage to converse with him in German, a truly hospitable man. The facilities in the guest-house were excellent with full access to both bathroom, kitchen and wi-fi. It was truly a memorable stay.
Aukštaitija National Park: first stop this morning was the Aukštaitija National Park Information Office in Palūšė village for an English version of the free-issue national park guide book. We also asked more about the traditional carved wooden Contemplative Christ shrine-statues, called Rūpintojėlis in Lithuanian, seen in rural parts of the country. Up on the hillside above the village by the mid-18th century wooden Church of St Jozef (see above right and left) overlooking Lake Lušiai, such a Rūpintojėlis stood in the churchyard (Photo 6 - Palūšė Rūpintojėlis). Armed with a detailed map and good advice from the National Park office in the village, we set off from Palūšė for a day's walking among the hillocks and lakes of the Aukštaitija National Park, turning off onto a back lane to Antalksnė village where a stork was foraging for prey by the road-side (Photo 7 - Foraging stork). The Šiliniškės esker-ridge, one of Aukštaitija National Park's prominent geographical features, starts at the look-out point of Ladakalnis Hill. This 175m hillock is believed to have been the site of pre-Christian sacrifices to the pagan goddess Lada, the Great Mother who according to legend gave birth to the world. It took us all of 10 minutes to climb steeply to its 'summit', but the view of 6 surrounding lakes made it worthwhile (see right). The path along the spine of the Šiliniškės esker was delightful with glimpses of surrounding lakes through the pine and oak woods covering the narrow moraine-ridge (Photo 8 - Šiliniškės esker-ridge). The ridge path led to Ginučiai castle-mound, an elongated conical hill which had been the site of a 10th century network of defensive hill-forts built by Lithuanian tribes to withstand incursions by Teutonic Knights (see left) (Photo 9 - Ginučiai hill-fort). The flat hill-top was crowned by a memorial stone commemorating a visit in 1934 by the autocratic president of Lithuania, Antanas Smetona,who had planted an oak at this historic site; the Soviets destroyed the oak during their long occupation, causing Lithuanians to treat the place with even greater reverence; Smetona may have been a dictator, but at least he was a Lithuanian dictator! With the sun filtering down through the pines, this was a magnificent path with views out across the Aukštaitija lakes (see below right).
Villages of Aukštaitija National Park: back along the ridge, we continued with our circular route through the villages of Aukštaitija National Park. At a junction of lanes just before Kirdeikiai, we found a classic example of the traditional carved wooden folk-art wayside shrine incorporating the figure of the Contemplative Christ, the Rūpintojėlis, seen throughout the country; our photograph may well form the subject of our 2018 Christmas card (see below left) (Photo 10 - Aukštaitija Rūpintojėlis). Reaching Ginučiai village we found the conserved water-mill, the only one of 6 original water-mills in Aukštaitija National Park whose early 19th century mechanism is still in working order (see below right). The English-speaking young guide showed us around the mill, and although most of the mechanism was wooden, the design of the water-mill's metal turbine blades reminded us of modern HEP turbines seen at Porjus generating station in Northern Sweden. Continuing our drive along further eskers separating small lakes, we reached Trainiškis village where another ancient carved wooden Rūpintojėlis stood among the cottages. The final village of Vaišniūnai was a more work-a-day place with farmsteads and a hill-top graveyard, and from here Route 102 brought us into the small town of Ignalina for provisions at the Maxima supermarket.
Aukštaitija National Park Botanical Trail: after a final night at Arvydas Gaidelis Homestead-Camping, a shift of wind around to the north brought markedly lower temperatures: 10şC felt positively Arctic after recent days' heat-wave! Before leaving Palūšė, there was time to walk the 3.5km Aukštaitija Botanical Trail. The path climbed steeply up from the shore of Lake Lušiai onto a broad plateau covered with delightful pine, spruce, rowan and oak woods. The forest floor was a mass of fresh green Bilberry just showing signs of its new berries and leathery-leaved Lingonberry. Both in the higher forest and lower moist area by a water-course, the feast of botanical gems truly justified the path's description, with Lily of the Valley, Stone Bramble, Solomon's Seal, Wood Sorrel, Cow Wheat, May Lily, Chickweed Wintergreen, Water Avens, Herb Paris, Marsh Spotted Orchids, Marsh Tormentil and Bog Beans. But the prize came when we crossed the marshland on a board-walk: here among the sphagnum, large clumps of Cranberry flowers flourished (Photo 11 - Cranberry flowers). The path continued through further woodland meadows to round the head of a lake, climb back onto higher areas of pine forest, and return along the shore of Lake Lušiai (see below left). It had truly been a rewarding walk.
A re-visit to Ignalina Nuclear Power Station, and many unanswered questions: beyond Ignalina, we set off on the second part of our day to re-visit the Ignalina Nuclear Power Station and the town of Visaginas built by the Soviets to house the power plant's workers (click here for detailed map of route). Route 102 passed through rolling agricultural countryside, causing us to observe that during our travels around Lithuania, we had so far seen little evidence of large scale cereal crops; no fields of wheat, barley and certainly no maize. The countryside seemed to be confined to meadow-grassland, but with little or none cut for hay. Other than forests, we had also seen large tracts of seemingly unusable, infertile land particularly in the south of the country, and along with this apparent absence of arable farming, we had seen little evidence of cattle or sheep grazing, just the occasional tethered cow on small-holdings. So with all this grassland seemingly little used, where was Lithuania's agricultural production, we wondered?
The Soviets had chosen this remote and uninhabited NE corner of Lithuania, tucked away among the swamps and forests on the shores of Lake Drūkšiai in the angle between Latvia, Lithuania and Belarus, to build Ignalina Nuclear Power Station in 1974. Visaginas had also been built nearby as a new town of apartment blocks, hacked out of this remote and inhospitable wilderness, to house the 5,000 Russian workers and their families brought in as immigrants from other parts of the USSR. Ignalina, the only nuclear power station in the Baltic States, had 2 water-cooled, graphite moderated nuclear reactors of the same design as the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine which suffered the disastrous melt-down in 1986. Ignalina's Reactor #1 came on-line in 1984, but Reactor #2 was delayed until 1987 because of Chernobyl. Ignalina's 2 reactors, originally the world's most powerful, had the capacity to generate an electrical output of 1,500 megawatts. But the plant's design similarities with Chernobyl and the lack of containment building in the event of nuclear accident was cited by the EU as ultra high risk, and the power plant's phased decommissioning was insisted on as a pre-condition to Lithuania's accession to EU membership in 2004. The Lithuanian government was compelled to accept this in spite of the economic consequences of finding alternative energy supplies, given that Ignalina had produced 70% of the country's electrical supply needs. The EU agreed to pay €820 million towards decommissioning costs with compensation payments continuing until 2013. Reactor #1 closed in 2004, followed by the decommissioning of Reactor #2 in 2009, and construction of improved containment storage for radioactive waste and spent nuclear fuel rods. The plant's closure resulted in severe economic, social and political consequences for Lithuania. It had provided the major source of employment for the people of Visaginas, and EU compensation made little impact on bringing alternative employment in so remote and isolated a region. Attempts to negotiate financing with international investment companies of a replacement nuclear plant at Ignalina have met delays, and any start date remains uncertain. Meanwhile Lithuania has had to bear the cost of extending the capacity of its fossil fuel generating stations and buying electricity and gas from Russia, placing it at the mercy of its all-powerful eastern neighbour, a clear cause of concern particularly since Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea. Against this background, we had been able to make a free of charge visit to Ignalina in 2011 to learn more about the workings of the reactors and the social, political and economic impact both at local and national level of the EU-enforced closure programme. Official visits now to Ignalina are charged at more than €50 which was clearly out of the question. We did however want to find out more while in this part of Lithuania about what progress had been made in the intervening 7 years with replacing the power plant's outmoded reactors. We should have to rely on our own observations.
Beyond Dūkštas, we turned off towards Visaginas following the branch-line railway that led to Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant. The approach passed the insulated pipelines which, while Ignalina was operating, supplied waste steam from the power station to heat Visaginas' apartment blocks. The pipeline appeared still in well-maintained condition but presumably was no longer in use since the plant's closure. We turned towards the power station following the pipeline, and what was immediately evident were the continuous streams of cars travelling from the plant towards Visaginas. With the 2 former reactors now decommissioned and the plant no longer generating, we had assumed that the number of workers would now be much reduced. Clearly however this was not the case: a shift was now ending with many employees commuting to/from Visaginas. As we turned into the main Ignalina driveway, huge numbers of cars were emerging from staff car parks and lines of buses waited to transport workers home. We paused to allow traffic to clear as staff went off shift, and took our photos of the prominent triple chimneys of the former #1 reactor (Photo 12 - Ignalina Nuclear Power Station). (see above left and right) What on earth did all these workers do, we puzzled, if the plant was effectively closed and no longer generating, with no agreement yet reached on construction of a replacement western-design replacement reactor?
In search of further answers, we drove along the rear roadway around to the buildings that had formerly housed the #2 reactor with the triple exhaust chimney emerging from its roof (see above right) (Photo 13 - Reactor #2 building). There were a number of newer industrial premises occupying smaller buildings, but we could get no closer in our search for further information. Back around the front of the main building, more employees were coming off shift. One of these, who seemed to be more senior in status, approached us with warnings about our obvious vulnerability with the plant's security in our taking photographs. We seized the opportunity to ask questions about Ignalina's status. His replies, full of pride about the station's capacity, seemed to indicate that the plant was still generating and feeding the grid. But how was this possible if the reactors were now de-commissioned, and in that case what did all these staff do? His answers perhaps reflected a nostalgia for Ignalina's working days, but we were not going to get more information as he rushed away, clearly embarrassed by our probing questions. What was the current status of Ignalina? How far have discussions on investment in replacement reactors reached? Is the plant is generating or not? Are the power lines emerging from the plant carrying current to the grid or not? (see above left) Neither the Official Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant web site nor any other web site gives answers to these questions. Yet we had witnessed 100s of employees coming off shift at Ignalina; what do they all currently work at with no evident progress on the much vaunted new reactor? Our many questions about Ignalina remained unanswered. But we at least had some photos, and we also beat a hasty retreat before our presence triggered a security alert!
Soviet-built town of Visaginas: the last time we visited Visaginas in 2011, many of the blocks of Soviet era panelaky looked run-down, Russian was the predominant language heard spoken, and Cyrillic signs could be seen everywhere. Today the town had a curiously more thriving air, apartment blocks looked less drab, and Lithuanian was heard, no different from any other Lithuanian town. We drove around the ring road, and cut through to the Iki supermarket for our shopping, where the lady at the check-out addressed us in Lithuanian. After photos of the town's Soviet era panelaky at Partizanų gatvė (Photo 14 - Soviet era panelaky at Visaginas) (see above left), we circled around the highway passing the monument displaying today's date which once also incorporated radiation levels from its Geiger counter (see above right), proudly announcing that the nearby presence of Soviet-designed nuclear reactors posed no environmental threat (try telling that to the former citizens of Chernobyl!). We eventually located the Russian Orthodox church built to serve the town's once Russian dominated population of Ignalina workers (see right). Like the power plant, Visaginas in 2018 posed unanswered questions about how, in spite of the unemployment assumed from Ignalina's reported closure, the town now seemed enigmatically lively and prosperous.
NW to Zarasai: returning to Route 102, we headed NW towards Zarasai (click here for detailed map of route) and joined Route 6 into the town which stood so close to the Latvian border. We had stayed at Zarasai Camping in 2011 and pitched this evening in the tree-sheltered enclosure tucked away in the corner overlooking the lake (see left). After the last few weeks' heat-wave conditions, our instinct was for shade from the hot sun in readiness for tomorrow's rest day, but in contrast today we needed shelter from the northerly wind blowing from across the lake. We struggled to pitch against the wind, shivering in the chill air. Such a change in temperature was a total surprise, and by the time we were settled, we needed sweaters, roof vents closed against the cold drafts, and even the fan-heater on; unimaginable after recent weather. What a multi-aspect today had been; orchids to atoms, forests to panelaky, and we cooked supper still perplexed by the unanswered questions raised by Ignalina NPP and Visaginas.
A day in camp at Zarasai Camping: a chill night, and although the wind had dropped, the weather remained cool and overcast for our day in camp. Zarasai Camping was a straightforward little site, and with its friendly welcome, lovely lakeside setting, good facilities and reasonable price of €17/night, it still deserved its +5 rating. We settled up with the wardens, a smilingly friendly elderly couple, she speaking German and he speaking hesitant English. Their young grandson was visiting from Belfast; imagine a little Lithuanian lad speaking English with a broad Ulster accent! Late afternoon the cloud broke to give evening sun, and after supper we walked down to the lake for sunset photos through the silhouetted trees from the landing-stage looking across Lake Zarasai (see above right) (Photo 15 - Sunset across Lake Zarasai).
A visit to Zarasai: we woke to a sunny morning, and before moving on today back into Central Lithuania, we paid a brief re-visit to Zarasai. This modest and unassuming little town grew from a 16th century rural settlement, and was formally laid out with Tsarist era town planning around a grid of streets radiating from the parkland central town square of Sėlių Aikštė. The town developed over a peninsula of Lake Zarasai along the Kaunas~Daugavpils section of the Warsaw~St Petersburg highway, the completion of which in 1830 is celebrated by a prominent commemorative obelisk on Vytauto gatvė. We shopped for provisions at the Maxima supermarket before parking at Sėlių Aikštė, calling in a the council offices for a town plan, and walking across the attractively tree-shaded parkland to photograph Zarasai's grandiose neo-Baroque St Mary's Ascension church, built at the time of the 19th century expansion of the town (Photo 16 - St Mary's Ascension church at Zarasai) (see above left).
Utena and the Museum of the Struggles for Freedom: leaving Zarasai, we headed SW back into Lithuania's heartlands on the Route 6 highway, the modern successor to the 19th century Tsarist road linking cities of the Empire (click here for detailed map of route). Despite the numbers of heavy trucks seen passing through Zarasai, Route 6 was remarkably traffic-free, cutting a straight course across the undulating rural countryside. Again we remarked on the seemingly under-usage made of Lithuania's vast agricultural land resources, with endless tracts of uncut, un-grazed grassland. We covered the 50kms in less than an hour to approach the outskirts of Utena, rated by us as Lithuanian Non-Entity Town of the Year on our 2011 visit. Earlier today, we had tried phoning the Utenos Brewery, part of the Carlsberg Empire, in a attempt to arrange a visit. In line with our 2011 experience, there was no reply. We did however receive a return call to say that, although brewery visits were limited to groups of 10 or more, someone would try to arrange something for us; a further call said that no one was available so no brewery visit would be possible. It cannot be said that we were disappointed; so far we had consistently avoided Utenos beers as being, like all the Carlsberg products, little better than coloured water! With little or no expectations of Utena, we drove along the main street of Basanavičiaus gatvė in search of the TIC, passing the statue of the eponymous 19th century ideologist of the Lithuanian national movement at the central cross-roads. The coordinates led to the far end of town, an unlikely location for the tourist office so remote from the centre. But this turned out to be Utena's former railway station, now converted to TIC with decorative statuesque figures waiting on the platform for a train that would now no longer arrive. The erstwhile station at Utena had been on the same narrow gauge line as Anykščiai linking to the main Soviet broad gauge main line at Panevėžys. Inside the 2 members of staff sat guard over piles of mostly outdated brochures all relating to places other than Utena. It almost seemed a tacit acknowledgement that no one would want to visit such a non-entity place as Utena! With apparent surprise at having customers, the ladies served us with unaccustomed enthusiasm, managing to find a glossy booklet filled with trivial irrelevancies about the Utena region. Our chance observation that 2018 marked the 27th anniversary of Lithuania regaining independence prompted her to mention a small museum next door recalling the evil years of Soviet occupation. The museum's attendant seemed equally surprised to receive interest, but in fact the Utena Museum of the Struggles for Freedom had well-presented displays, documented with English translations, detailing the Stalin-led occupation of Lithuania, deportations and loss of freedom, collectivization of agriculture, forced conscription of Lithuanians into the Red Army, and partisan resistance until as late as 1965. The museum's theme of post-WW2 repression in Lithuania, with emphasis on the Utena region, was contrasted with the same period of freedom and recovery in Western Europe with the foundation of NATO, UNICEF and the Welfare State. This modest little museum with its charmingly unassuming attendant must rank as Utena's one and only worthwhile highlight and we were glad to have discovered it despite the lack of publicity.
Sudeikiai Camping near Utena: with nothing else in Utena to detain us, we drove back through the town and turned off for the 8kms out to Sudeikiai Camping. On our stay here in 2011, this lakeside municipal campsite had been rated as overpriced compared with the equivalent site at Zarasai. Apart from a lone Dutch camping-car, the place was deserted, and we pitched down at the far end in an open area, less concerned now with seeking shade from trees despite the sun being warm. Facilities were identical to those at Zarasai with a well-equipped kitchen/common room. Reception was deserted but the young warden called round later for payment of the charge, now reduced to a more reasonable €16/night. The following morning a bright, warm sun rose above the surrounding trees, and fieldfares pecked around as we sat out for breakfast in the campsite's peaceful parkland (see right). When it came to washing up however, we found the kitchen/common room locked. A phone call to the campsite number to request that someone attend to open up, followed by a 20 minute wait and need for a second phone call added to the frustration, delaying our being able to get away for today's long drive to the Biržai region.
NW to the Biržai region: Route 118 took us north-westwards towards Kupiskis (click here for detailed map of route). After seeing little traces of active agriculture in other parts of the country, we now travelled through a well-farmed region with fields cut for baled hay, sizeable herds of grazing dairy cattle, and large scale arable farming with fields of ripening wheat and rye. The sun this morning was dazzlingly bright, making this a long and wearying drive, but beyond the large farming village of Vabalninkas, we eventually approached Biržai. Lithuania's northernmost town of Biržai developed as a trading post from the 15th century under the ownership of the aristocratic Radvila family. The town's fortified castle was built by Duke Kristupas Radvila the Thunderer in 1586 to guard the northern frontier of the Lithuanian Grand Duchy. It was twice destroyed by the invading Swedish Empire during the Northern Wars and finally abandoned in the early 18th century, with only parts of a ruined gateway surviving of the original castle. The fortress was restored and reconstructed as a Renaissance palace in the 1980s, and now houses the town library and museum. Biržai's other claim to fame is the stately Astravas Manor built as a summer retreat by the Tyszkiewicz family in the 1860s after the Radvilas had sold them the Biržai estates in 1812. The manor stands on the northern shore of Lake Šivėna, created artificially in 1575 by damming the confluence of the Apaščia and Agluona Rivers as part of the town's defences. The lake is spanned by a 525m long wooden footbridge built in 1928 to link Astravas Manor to the town.
Our reason for visiting this far northern area of Lithuania almost at the Latvian border was that Biržai is curiously a region of Karstic limestone with over 9,000 sink holes where underground dissolution of the soft white gypsum by percolating groundwater has caused subsidence. The surface layer of soil and vegetation collapses creating sink holes. This area of Karst topography is an outcropping of Devonian limestone bedrock emerging from the overlaying covering of glacial alluvium spread by the retreating glaciers of the last Ice Age which makes up most of the Baltic landscape.
Hot and weary after a long drive, we made first for the Biržai Regional Park Information Office for maps and details of the sink holes. We were greeted by a youngster from Georgia working here on an EU exchange scheme before completing his university education back at Tbilisi. In commendably fluent English, he explained the geological nature of the Karstic terrain and the subterranean dissolution resulting in sudden surface subsidence forming sink holes, and showed us core samples of gypsum from regional bore holes. In addition to this geological background understanding, we also gained maps and the locations of the principal sink holes and other Karstic features. It was an interesting encounter and we also learned more about Georgia, a country about which we had known little. We stocked up with provisions at the Biržai Iki supermarket, having learned that Iki in Lithuanian means See you soon (as opposed to the more formal Viso gero for Goodbye). At the TIC, we got details of Biržai's micro-breweries, for which the town was renowned. The largest of these was Rinkuškiai Brewery which we found on the far side of town. It was clearly a sizeable and enterprising micro-brewery, profitably geared to restaurant trade and beer-tasting, with large groups of visitors. We bought a range of their beers, and arranged a visit to the brewery tomorrow after our tour of the Karst sink holes.
Biržai Camping: Biržai's municipal camp site, established only 4 years ago, is set in a delightfully grassy area by Lake Šivėna and the town stadium, and shaded by mature oak trees. We were greeted with ebullient enthusiasm by the young warden who insisted on giving us further details of the town's attractions when, weary after a long day, all we wanted to do was to get pitched under the shady oak trees and relax with bottles of Rinkuškiai beers! Our peaceful evening was enlivened by a football match at the neighbouring stadium, and later a magnificent sunset and after-glow over the lake.
A day in Biržai's Karst limestone country: reserving our pitch, we set off the following morning for our day of exploration around Biržai's Karst limestone country, and just 1km on the far side of the town we reached the parking area for the most well known of the Karst features. The entire woodland area was riddled with depressions and sink holes (Photo 17 - Karst sink holes) (see above left and right), where dissolution of the subterranean soft gypsum had over the years caused subsidence. A path led over to the largest of the sink holes, the so-called Cow Hole (Karvės Ola), where steep wooden steps led down into the bottom of the 12m deep, 10m wide pit (Photo 18 - Cow Hole Karst sink hole) (see above left and right). The limestone strata, exposed by the severe subsidence which had created the pit, were visible just below the shallow surface soil and vegetation. Rather hesitantly we scrambled down into the base of the pit, and examined other nearby sink holes and depressions dotted among the surrounding woodland.
The lane led along to the Geologists' Sink Hole, where in 2003 a wide depression had opened up in open agricultural countryside, revealing the white limestone strata just below the surface soil (see left) (Photo 19 - Geologists' sink hole). Nearby adult storks were foraging to feed this year's growing young (see right) (Photo 20 - Foraging stork), and a flock of 12 storks foraging for prey followed a tractor as it cut grass for hay (Photo 21 - Storks foraging behind tractor). We followed the Geological Trail which looped around on a board-walk among wide sink holes clustered in the woodland. Again the depressions showed how close to the ground surface the strata of gypsum and dolomite limestone lay. Back to the parking area, we set a course north on Route 190 towards the Latvian border in search of some the other Karst features we had been told about (click here for detailed map of route). The road led past modern farms with dairy cattle and arable crops, but the agricultural countryside was also dotted with the decaying concrete remains of collective farms from the period of Soviet occupation. The current day more affluent-looking farms showed clearly how much more productive the land use now was compared with the communist era enforced collectivization. Reaching the border at Germaniškis village, the main road went ahead to the border-crossing into Latvia; we turned off onto a very dusty gravel road which followed the meandering course of the border river. We had been given the locations of dolomite limestone outcrops along the river, where the river's embankment revealed these exposed features of the Karstic landscape. We bumped along the gravel road for 3kms just on the Lithuanian side of the river bank, reaching the turning to the first outcrop at the Vilniapilis Cave. But in this afternoon's hot temperatures, there was neither time nor inclination to walk the 2kms of footpath to find the cave. We continued along the gravel road, and by a farmstead paused to photograph a stork's nest with 3 chicks awaiting the return of the parent bird bringing food (see left) (Photo 22 - Stork chicks on nest). For over a month now since Northern Poland, we had regularly been seeing both adult storks incubating eggs and newly hatched chicks already growing. Reaching the Lithuanian border village of Nemunėlio Radviliškis, there was no border-crossing over the river but the gravel lane curved along the border on the Lithuanian side. By a Lithuanian border-marker, wooden steps descended steeply to the river bank where erosion had exposed a 4m high wall of the Muoriškiai outcropping dolomite. Interesting as it was however, it scarcely seemed worth the distance we had driven on dusty gravel roads to find it!
Yet another WW2 German atrocity: turning back into Nemunėlio Radviliškis, a brown sign pointed to the site of WW2 Jewish mass murders by German troops in the nearby forests. After following the path however for over a kilometre into the pine forest, we had found no memorial, and had now run out of time; the dark forests would keep their hidden secrets of the evil events of August 1941, when German einsatzgruppe killing squads, following on behind the Wehrmacht invasion of the Baltic States, had murdered the village's 80 strong Jewish population, men women and children, in the neighbouring forests. Such mass killings of Jews by the German invaders were systematically repeated at a total of 258 towns and villages across Lithuania. Let us not air-brush out who actually committed such atrocities, by politically correct, sanitised reference to Nazis; we all know which nation bears responsibility for the Holocaust.
Visit to Rinkuškiai Brewery: it was by now 4-25pm and we had 35 minutes to drive back to Biržai for our visit to Rinkuškiai Brewery. We drove purposely back into the town, reaching the micro-brewery with minutes to spare, and joined the group for the brewery tour. Rinkuškiai Brewery was founded in 1991, starting from a small, family-run home-brewing concern to develop into the successful enterprise of today, as one of Lithuania's largest micro-breweries, building on Biržai's long-standing brewing heritage. They now produce a wide range of both light and dark beers of outstanding quality as our tasting proved. The guide's commentary was in Lithuanian, but she gave a brief summary in English for our benefit. We viewed the mash tuns, wort boiling coppers, steel fermenting vessels, filtration plant and maturing vats, ending at the bottling plant and brewery museum. At Rinkuškiai we had managed to pull off our first brewery visit of this trip (see left) (Photo 23 - Rinkuškiai Brewery).
A day in camp at Biržai Camping: back at Biržai Camping, the site was busier and noisier tonight with groups of summer weekenders, but we moved away from the worst of these closer to reception, bringing us into range of the campsite wi-fi ready for our day in camp here tomorrow. On the Sunday morning, most of the weekend campers left, leaving us to enjoy a gloriously peaceful and productive afternoon of warm sunshine under the dappled shade of the tall oak trees. And that evening after supper, we walked around to the lake for photos of the sun declining behind Biržai's long wooden footbridge (Photo 24 - Declining sun over Biržai footbridge) (see above right) and setting across the lake against the silhouetted lake shore trees (see left) (Photo 25 - Sunset over Lake Šivėna). The setting sun's golden light somehow emphasised the footbridge's length spanning lake Šivėna (Photo 26 - Biržai footbridge at sunset). Back at the campsite, the sunset after-glow still gave a late golden lighting to the camper among the oak trees (Photo 27- Sunset after-glow at Biržai Camping).
Biržai Castle and War Memorial: the following morning, after our memorable weekend stay at Biržai's delightful little campsite, we drove into town and parked by the Castle. Nearby stood the Biržai Monument to those killed in the 1917~20 Lithuanian War of Independence (Photo 28 - Independence War Memorial). The original red granite statue of a grieving mother was created by sculptor Robertas Antinis in 1931. In 1945 the Soviets destroyed the original monument to make way for the Red Army military cemetery. The buried fragments of the statue were used by Antinis' artist son to re-create a copy of the original monument which now stands by the memorial gardens, with a large section of the original now under a wooden canopy set alongside. The Castle's scant remains are approached across a sturdy draw-bridge over the dry moat and beyond the surrounding rampart walls, the vista opened up across parkland of the reconstructed palace (see above right) (Photo 29 - Biržai Castle).
Kirkilai Viewing Tower over Karst Lakes: before leaving Biržai, we drove to the farming hamlet of Kirkilai where an extensive area of sink holes has flooded to form a series of Karst lakes. At the edge of the village, an upright crescent-shaped 32m high viewing tower has been constructed overlooking the lakeland. Although a well-known local attraction bringing hordes of visitors to the village, we feared that such an incongruous structure, visible for miles around in the flat countryside, would form an alien intrusion into the natural landscape. 1km along a dusty gravel road, we reached the tower, and in fact, despite its huge height, when close up its natural wood facing helped it to blend into the landscape and surrounding trees (see above left) (Photo 30 - Kirkilai Viewing Tower). Overwhelmed with visitors at the weekend, on a Monday morning the car park was deserted. At almost 100 feet up its lattice metal steps, today's wind whistled around the tower, an unnerving climb but giving exhilarating views over the Karst lakes landscape (see right) (Photo 31 - Karstic lakeland).
Westwards to Šiauliai: after a final stop at Rinkuškiai Brewery for more of their excellent beer, we finally left Biržai and in drizzly rain began our 100km drive westwards to Šiauliai (click here for detailed map of route). Biržai had certainly been one of our favourite Lithuanian towns, a very special couple of days stay in Karst country unique in the Baltics. With the now dull, drizzly weather giving the flat farming landscape an even more dreary air, we made good progress on Route 125 over to Pasvalys where we joined a short stretch of the A10 Via Baltica to bypass this insignificant industrial town. A further stretch on Route 150 across the tediously flat farming countryside in dreary weather brought us to Pakruojis, another one-horse, industrial town, and continued on to reach the outskirts of Šiauliai, (pronounced Shy-ow-ley), Lithuania's 4th largest city.
Originally a Lithuanian frontier town bordering on territory controlled by the Livonian Knights, Šiauliai began to develop as an agricultural and trading centre after the Teutonic threat was finally removed with the Knights' defeat at Grunwald in 1410. As a developing market town, Šiauliai profited by its location on the Königsberg~Riga highway, which also however laid it open to later threat from Swedish and Russian invasions. Under the Tsarist Empire, Šiauliai developed further as an industrial town, connected by railway to Klaipėda and St Petersburg, becoming a centre of leather tanning and shoe-making. By the beginning of the 20th century, over half of Šiauliai's 16,000 population were Jewish. During WW1 most of the town's buildings were destroyed, and with reconstruction during Lithuania's early independence, Šiauliai produced most of the country's leather and footwear, establishing new markets with links to Western Europe. The Germans captured the city in June 1941, and immediately began the systematic killing of Šiauliai's large Jewish population in the nearby forests; by the end of 1941, some 8,000 of Šiauliai's Jews had been murdered. As the Red Army began its westward advance in 1944~45, most of the city was again destroyed, and during the post-war Soviet occupation, Šiauliai was rebuilt with its current grid plan. The Soviets constructed a enormous military airfield near to Šiauliai, which, after independence in 1991 and Lithuania joining NATO, became and still is a NATO airbase.
Gražina Sodyba-Camping at Šiauliai: we drove into the city centre amid roadworks and some of the busiest traffic so far, and found our way to a large shopping mall for provisions at a Rimi hypermarket. Passing through grubby industrial suburbs, we headed out to Gražina Sodyba-Camping where we had stayed in 2011, and in the northern city outskirts, we found the little guest-house with its garden camping area (see above left). Clearly known in ADAC/ACSI circles, the campsite now attracts German and Dutch camping-cars. Again we were welcomed by the elderly owner, Mrs Zinaida Jocai and her daughter Gražina (after whom the guest-house is named), who sold us strawberries for breakfast from their vegetable and fruit growing small-holding. The price was now €18/night and facilities included wi-fi and washing/drying machines for us to catch up with laundry. With the weather now cooler, we camped in the open area and settled in ready for our rest day here tomorrow with the forecast showing an overcast day.
The Hill of Crosses: our main reason for coming back to Šiauliai was to re-visit one of Lithuania's unique institutions, the Hill of Crosses (Kryžių kalnas). As the name suggests, this is a low mound in the open countryside, approached along an avenue of lime trees, and covered with literally 1000s of crosses, large and small, planted by both individuals and organised pilgrimages. But this simple description fails to do justice to the religious and nationalistic significance of the Hill of Crosses for Lithuanians.
There are as many myths explaining the origins of the Hill of Crosses as there are crosses covering the Hill. It may have been of pagan origin associated with ancestor worship, evolving naturally over the centuries, with Christian crosses replacing pagan totem symbols. The anti-Tsarist rebellions of 1831 and 1863 and the need to commemorate the fallen was the factor which turned the Hill into a shrine of remembrance. The Lithuanians planted symbolic crosses at this prominent place in the countryside since the Tsarist authorities would not tolerate such open displays of nationalistic and Catholic sentiment in an urban setting. The Hill assumed significance as an expression of Lithuanian national and religious fervour after all the threats faced throughout the country's troubled history. The need to demonstrate allegiance to Lithuanian national identity, heritage and Catholic religion assumed an even greater symbolic importance during the 45 years of Soviet occupation, despite the planting of crosses being an arrestable offence. The Hill became a focus of patriotic pilgrimage with people planting their crosses to commemorate the 1000s executed or deported by the communists. Determined to eradicate such manifestations of Lithuanian patriotic sentiment and religious expression, the Soviet authorities repeatedly bulldozed the Hill, yet overnight more crosses continued to appear as people responded by planting replacement crosses. By independence in 1991, some 40,000 crosses covered the Hill and they still go on multiplying. In 1993 Pope John-Paul II celebrated Mass at the Hill adding further to its prestige as a pilgrimage destination, and of course more crosses. The Pope even added his own marble cross inscribed with the message Thank you Lithuanians for the Hill of Crosses which testifies to the nations of Europe and the whole world the faith of the people of this land.
We set off early for our re-visit to the Hill of Crosses just to the north of Šiauliai, to take advantage of morning sunshine before the expected cloud and tour buses rolled in. We turned off Route 12 along the approach lane, where a family of storks nested on a power pole, and even at 10-30am tour buses filled the parking area, disgorging their gormless hordes. Since our 2011 visit, an entire souvenir shop cum tourist complex had been built, with rows of stalls selling every size of wooden crosses to the tourists. While this mysteriously inexplicable Catholic fixation with planting crosses at this otherwise insignificant mound was part of a traditional ritual, for Japanese tourists to do so simply because it was the done thing encouraged by tour guides simply belittled the custom and emphasised the commercial exploitation of the mass tourism industry at its most cynical.
The morning was bright as we reached the open area fronting the Hill, where a towering wooden figure of Christ with arms outstretched seems to usher pilgrims up onto the pathway which rises amid the numberless crosses planted by individuals or pilgrim groups (Photo 32- Approach to Hill of Crosses) (see above right), now spreading ever increasingly sideways from the pathway over the Hill. There were large ornately carved wooden crosses, metal and plastic crosses, smaller ones simply left leaning against others, and all hung with 1000s of tiny crucifixes (Photo 33 - Path over Hill of Crosses). Some crosses had inscriptions and dedications, or the date of a pilgrimage, others were tagged with the names or photos of deceased (Photo 34 - Myriads of dedications). Every single one of the crosses represented an individual act of devotion or personal expression of remembrance (Photo 35 - Crosses and dedications), impossible to imagine if you have not witnessed the Hill of Crosses. We walked slowly along the pathways and side-alleyways over the Hill among the maze of countless myriads of crosses (Photo 36 - So many crosses), as tourists blithely stumbled past. As always, we were left wondering why they came, since generally they showed little interest or understanding of the significance of this unique Lithuanian institution. We recalled from 2011 that most of the other visitors then were individual Lithuanians; a Sunday afternoon out with a difference. In stark contrast today however, the Hill of Crosses has been taken over merely as an 'attraction' on the tour bus tourist trail, a half-hour stop-off on the way to 'do' Riga, with overwhelmingly large groups of bored looking tourists simply milling around aimlessly over the confined pathways of the mound. We heard every language spoken - French, German, Polish, Japanese, even Latins from South America - but no Lithuanians. This was the first time in the Baltics that we had encountered the intrusive presence of mass tourism, after suffering with it every day last year in Iceland. As late morning approached, the tour buses were rolling in with a relentless vengeance. It was now simply impossible to appreciate the Hill of Crosses' peaceful ambience, as the seemingly endless procession of mindless intruders indifferently pushed and shoved their way over the pathways, showing no respect and treading on crosses as they scrambled to take their 'selfies'. It was a sickeningly depressing experience, as we waded through the masses of tourists swarming from their tour buses, yet another unique institution sacrificed to the inexorable greed of the mass tourism industry.
Before returning to camp at Gražina, we drove down into Šiauliai to shop for supplies at a Maxima supermarket buried away in the gloomy depths of a shopping complex. As forecast. the clear sun of morning was replaced with full cloud cover as we settled back in at the campsite for an afternoon's writing. It had been a successful morning of photography at the Hill of Crosses, despite the mass tourist invasion now bedevilling this curiously unique place. Tomorrow we continue westwards for our final days in Lithuania at Žemaitija National Park.
Žemaitija National Park: from Šiauliai we made good progress westwards on Route A11 highway past the small town of Kuršėai (click here for detailed map of route). Beyond Telšiai, we turned off onto minor roads into Žemaitija National Park, reaching the settlement of Paplatėlė on the NE shore of Lake Žemaitija to investigate potential camp spots. The best of a poor lot was Paežerė Camping, a very basic site used in 2011 despite it then being overcrowded with noisy Lithuanian holiday-makers. Today it was almost deserted; facilities were primitive and limited to one very smelly earth privvie and no shower or wash-up. Unless we could find somewhere else, this was going to have to serve. We continued around the head of the lake into Plateliai village for the National Park Information Office. Here the very helpful lady in fluent English gave us details of various walking routes and of the National Park's other curiosity, the former Soviet missile base at Plokštinė.
Plateliai Ethnographical Museum: the village of Plateliai is noted for its carved wooden folk art, seen outside cottages and on wayside shrines, but the ethnographic museum in the village displays curious items from a particularly unusual local custom. The Plateliai Shrove Tuesday day and night-long celebrations, the Užgavėnės, entail masked revels and dancing with a procession of decorated carts or sledges (photographs showed that snow is often still on the ground). The similarities of such revels to other masked traditional Spring-tide renewal festivals throughout Europe such as Mardi Gras or Carnevale was uncanny. There was clear commonality with Spring renewal and fertility ceremonies all across Europe, with anonymity of participants assured by masks or blacking of faces (cf English Morris Dancing) to assure the ceremonies' magic. Such animalistic Springtime renewal celebrations must go back into the mists of time, but this one at Plateliai is still very much alive and kicking, taking place every Shrove Tuesday. The Plateliai Ethnographical Museum displays the carved wooden masks still used in the Shrove Tuesday revels, many entailing goat-like horned demon devilish figures (Photo 37 - Shrove Tuesday festival masks) (see left and right). We had seen similar carved wooden masks used in village carnivals in Sardinia with the same exaggerated hooked nose. Masks are made anew each year, so that according to tradition wearers cannot be recognised. The procession goes from house to house to be rewarded with gifts of pancakes or money; singing, music, dancing and much revelry culminate at the bonfire on which the effigy of a grotesquely costumed old lady, the Morė representing winter, is burnt. How long ago was it, we wondered, when such pre-Christian traditional Springtime renewal festivals entailed purging the community of ill-fortune (driving out the devil in Christian parlance) by the burning-sacrifice of a live old woman under the pretext of her being a witch. Two of the festival characters, the fat Lašininis (Porky) and lean Kanapinis (Hemp Man), perform a staged battle in what resembles a Mummers' play, personifying the defeat of Winter by the incoming Spring (Photo 38 - Winter & Spring characters). The museum curator showed us the display of masks and told us more about the annual Shrove Tuesday festival at Plateliai.
Back through Plateliai village we found another traditional Lithuanian carved wooden folk-art wayside shrine incorporating the figure of the Sorrowful Christ, the Rūpintojėlis, by the church (Photo 39 - Rūpintojėlis Sorrowful Christ), and another piece of folk-art, a colourful carved figure of St Florian, the patron saint of fire fighters so important in communities where wooden cottages are the norm; this figure portrayed the blessed St Florian dousing the flames of a burning wooden cottage with water from his bucket (see left). Having identified no other camp site, we were obliged to return to Paplatėlė, and part way around the lake we paused by a Žemaitija farmstead (Photo 40 - Žemaitija farmstead) to photograph a stork nesting on the farm's power-pole (see right) (Photo 41 - Nesting stork). In Northern European stork country, people regularly erect platforms on power-poles, roof tops and chimneys to encourage storks build their nests for the luck that they are thought to bring.
Paežere Camping by Lake Platelių: the elderly lady owner greeted us at the campsite gates, gabbling away in a mixture of Lithuanian and German; the more we indicated non-comprehension, the faster she gabbled! Although the site's facilities were basic in the extreme, the setting in a lakeside pine forest clearing was pleasant and at least it was peaceful at present (Photo 42 - Paežere Camping) (see below left and right). We were unsure however about a second night here on a Friday with forecast of a sunny weekend and Paežere likely to fill with rowdy holiday-makers.
Former Soviet Cold War missile silo site at Plokštinė: Žemaitija has another unique and chilling feature: it's the only National Park we know of that includes a former Soviet missile silo base. Here, hidden away in the forests of Plokštinė, the Soviet army built one of the first rocket launching sites in the USSR. At a time of the Cold War arms race in the late 1950s, when the USA was building underground missile bases targeted at USSR, the Soviets countered with a silo construction programme of their own to keep pace. Work on building the missile base at Plokštinė was begun in 1960 in maximum security in these remote forests of NE Lithuania in territory occupied by the then USSR bordering onto Western Europe. At 160m above sea level, the area was higher than most of the Baltic region and sparsely populated; several farms were moved to evacuate the site totally. 10,000 Red Army troops dug four 34m deep 8m wide missile silo pits in the sandy soil by manual labour at the outer corners of the site; each of the 4 steel-lined missile silos was covered by a concrete dome that could be moved aside on rails, each connected by underground communications tunnels to a central command and control centre. The entire underground complex could be hermetically sealed off, with the crews able to survive for 2 weeks in the event of nuclear attack. Like something out of a James Bond film, the only part of the missile-launching site visible from above were the domed lids of the 4 silos. Four Soviet R12 Dvina ballistic missiles (known to NATO as SS4s) were deployed at Plokštinė during the Cold War, lowered by crane into the silos; each was equipped with a megaton thermonuclear warhead. Other missiles were based nearby at Šateikiai along with a bunker for storing the nuclear warheads. The R12 ballistic missile was 23m high including the 4m warhead; the rocket was liquid fuelled by a mixture of kerosene and nitric acid, and weighed 40 tons including the 1,500 Kgm warhead. They had a range of 2,000kms and were targeted at Western European NATO countries such as UK, Norway, West Germany and Turkey. Missiles from Plokštinė were transported by train to Black Sea ports in 1962 and shipped by Khrushchev to Havana, where troops from Plokštinė built the missile bases which sparked the Cuban Missile Crisis bringing the world to the brink of nuclear war. The Plokštinė silo complex was completed in 1962, armed with its R12 missiles and remained operational until 1978, surrounded by sophisticated security enclosure and ready to fire its missiles if the orders were received from Moscow. In fact during this time, no missile was ever launched from Plokštinė even for tests, and the missile base remained unknown to US/NATO intelligence until 1978. As rocket technology developed with increased range, the Plokštinė base was mysteriously closed in 1978; the Soviets withdrew their nuclear ballistic missiles deeper into the USSR, and the base abandoned. It was plundered by metal thieves who looted all but the biggest pieces of equipment, and the site lay derelict for 2 decades.
After independence in 1991, when the heritage value of the site was realised, the Lithuanians opened what remained of the former missile launching site under the name of the Plokštinė Militarism Exhibition, with visitors escorted underground to peer down into the malevolent silos from a maintenance gallery. But age and decay had taken their toll and the subterranean galleries became so dangerous that they had either to be closed or refurbished; EU monies were secured for restoration. We had managed to reach the site in 2011 during the period of closure for refurbishment, but had only been able to view the domed silo lids from the barbed-wire fence. In the intervening time, Plokštinė had re-opened as the Cold War Museum, and our plan for today was to visit the former Soviet underground missile silo complex, hidden away in the depths of the forests just 3kms from where we were camped at Paplatėlė.
The Cold War Museum at Plokštinė: we had been told by the National Park Office of a shorter access route to Plokštinė from the campsite at Paplatėlė on the eastern side of the lake, but maps showed little more than a uncertain forestry road. We had tried to follow this lane in 2011 but failed to get through; today we ventured hesitantly beyond where the tarmac ended by a sign pointed to the Cold War Museum (Šaltojo Karo Muziejus); not even the sat nav map knew of the road, but we managed to follow the sand-surfaced lane through the forest and in 3kms reached the Plokštinė parking area by the former missile site. Equipped with audio-guides, we passed through what was once the electrified security fence gates to approach the museum based in the silos' underground control centre. A viewing tower gave an overview of the site, and above ground the most evident features were the ominous bulging domed concrete lids of the four missile silos with their rusting steel surrounds and rails on which the cover assembly (no longer functioning) could be moved back for missile launching (Photo 43 - Plokštinė Soviet missile silos) (see above left). At ground level, there was little other evidence of the 2 storey underground command and communications centre other than the bulge of its turfed and reinforced concrete protective cover. We climbed up onto this to photograph the bulging domed lids of the missile silos and their now rusting withdrawal mechanism (Photo 44 - Missile silo domed lid) (see above right), before finding the entrance stairway down into the underground command complex at the centre of the surrounding 4 silos.
At the foot of the stairs, we faced a mannequin guard sat by a desk telephone (see above left), before entering the airtight, nuclear attack-proof steel sealing door of the complex. The empty chambers of the command centre are now set out with the museum's well-documented displays relating the post-war history of missile development and Cold War arms race, which culminated with the signing by Gorbachev and Regan of the nuclear arms reduction treaties in the late 1980s (see right). This 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty banned all ground-launched medium range (500~5,500 kms) missiles. BBC News reports that Trump now threatens to withdraw from this Treaty, insisting that Putin has already breached it by deployment of SSC-4 cruise missiles. Displays in the museum also showed the workings of the Plokštinė missile site, and constant state of readiness to launch its missiles at UK and Western Europe given the signal from Moscow (see below left). The displays included archive film of R12 missiles being lowered into the silos and being armed with the nuclear warhead atop the rocket, followed by the launch sequence; a display case showed one of the actual keys required to launch the missiles (see above left and right). The gloomy lower level still contained what remained of the rockets' liquid fuel storage together with the base's diesel generators after metal thieves had stripped everything removable, and along eerily empty corridors holes in partition walls showed where ducting and cables once ran. From one corner of the lower level, a tunnel led off to an access door into the top chamber of one of the missile silos. Part-way along, another mannequin stood eerily dressed in the rubberised protective suit and gas-mask for fuelling the rockets with their highly toxic nitric acid. A further access port had been cut through the silo's concrete upper wall and its thick steel lining to enable visitors now to stand around the top of the 34m deep launch silo and to peer down into its murky depths. The climax of the visit was the eeriest part of the entire spine-chilling experience, gazing down into the now empty and dimly lit silo pit, with its access ports at lower levels where crews would have fuelled and calibrated the missile ready for launch (see left)(Photo 45 - Missile silo pit interior); and up above, the massive steel silo lid and withdrawal mechanism with its domed concrete cover seen from outside. It was a terrifying thought that for more than 15 years during the 1960s and 70s, this silo pit had been occupied by a missile armed with a megaton thermonuclear warhead, ready to fire a moment's notice, and targeted at us in UK. It was a relief to emerge from the ominous semi-darkness of this missile chamber of death into daylight, albeit alongside the rusting steel removal mechanism of the silo's domed concrete cover (Photo 46 - Silo superstructure) (see right). Cloud had now gathered adding to the gloom of this chilling setting amid the surrounding pine forests. The roadway led around to where, hidden away in the forest, we came upon the former nuclear warhead storage bunker now deserted and all locked up. The empty yard in front would make a bizarre wild-camp spot if we needed it for tonight - another first, camping right next to a former Soviet nuclear warhead storage bunker (see below left).
The Šeirė footpath alongside Lake Platelių: we returned around the sandy lane past the still quiet Paežere Camping (perhaps we should not need the nuclear warhead bunker wild-camp tonight!) and drove back to Plateliai village and the parking area to walk the Šeirė lake-side path. We had walked this 3km circuit alongside Lake Platelių in 2011, getting memorable photos then of dappled pink cloudscape reflected in the still waters of the lake. Today however with the lake ruffled, light dull and a gloomy veil of cloud cover, photographic potential was poor (see right). The path crossed the reed-covered Gaudupis marshland on a foot-bridge and alongside the lake, turning uphill into the forest close to Piktežeris lake, and zigzagging back to re-cross Gaudupis where several species of orchids grew in the marshland. Back around to Paplatėlė on the eastern side of the lake, we settled back into Paežere Camping after a long and interesting day. After supper we again walked down to the lake-shore for sunset photos looking across Lake Platelių through the lakeside reeds (Photo 47 - Sunset across Lake Platelių) (see below left). A lone fisherman rowed through the shallows, his boat catching the golden light of the setting sun (see below right).
Westwards back to the Baltic coast at Palanga: our final day in Lithuania after 5 good weeks of travelling around the first of the Baltic States. Today we should head west to Palanga on the Baltic coast before crossing into Latvia later. As we completed our morning jobs and packing this morning, the weekenders began arriving with loud, throbbing car radios; how thankful we were to be leaving. Back around to Plateliai, we continued past the tail end of Lake Platelių to join Route 54 down to Plungė. Here we turned westwards on the main A11 in bright morning sunshine through some of the most intensively farmed agricultural land seen in Lithuania (click here for detailed map of route), again constantly overtaken by recklessly speeding Lithuanian drivers. At Kartena, the road crossed the Minija River which meanders a snaking course parallel with the Baltic coast just a few kms inland to outflow into the Nemunas by the Curonian Lagoon at Rusnė where we had been seemingly so long ago. Through Kretinga, still plagued by major roadworks as in 2011, we eventually reached the outskirts of Palanga in congested traffic, and worked our way through the town for a passing visit to the Amber Museum set in coastal forest parkland in the southern part of the town.
The Palanga Amber Museum: all possible street parking places were taken up by locals thronging to the Baltic beaches on a sunny Saturday afternoon, but by good chance we happened upon one remaining space alongside the coastal pine forests, leaving us a 1.5km walk back to reach the Amber Museum. We soon found a delightful route leading to the museum through the forest and parkland gardens formally laid out in the late 19th century around the mansion built by Count Felix Tiškevičius which now houses the Palanga Amber Museum. The Museum is a branch of the Lithuanian Art Museum, and gives details background on amber formation from fossilized pine resin 50 million years ago on the then Fenno-Scandic landmass, conserved in later sea bed alluvium, and washed up on the shore of the Baltic Sea. Admission was a very reasonable €1.50 senior's concession, and along with this detailed background on amber formation, the museum displayed huge specimens of raw amber, as well as extensive examples of amber inclusions where plant fragments and insects were trapped in the pine resin and preserved in the amber which resulted from its fossilization, giving credence to the Jurassic Park dinosaur DNA yarn (Photo 48 - Amber inclusion) (see left). Displays showed amber ornaments, artefacts and jewellery from Neolithic sites in the Middle East; ancient Baltic tribes had been at the supply end of trade routes in amber, trading amber for goods and metals imported from the Mediterranean, Near and Middle East. Further displays gave ornate examples of amber jewellery manufactured in Palanga's amber workshops from the 19th century, with amber mined on an industrial scale along the Baltic coast and Curonian Spit. The Palanga Amber Museum had been a worthwhile and good value visit; we had learned much about amber formation and its significance in Baltic trade.
Towards the Latvian border: a pleasant stroll through the parkland gardens (see left) back to George, and it was now time to make our way through busy traffic and chaos of roadworks to shop for provisions, before leaving Palanga and re-joining A13 heading northwards through the coastal pine forests towards the Latvian border. We had driven some 1,500 miles around Lithuania over the last 5 weeks, met many interesting people, learned much about the country, and gained a fascinating variety of experiences as this edition shows. It was now time to cross into our second Baltic republic, Latvia, but that's the story for the next edition which will follow shortly.
Next edition from Latvia to be published quite soon