|Enjoying beers in a traditional restaurant in Lithuania.|
|Liam & Mark in Riga.|
The overnight bus to Kaunas arrived at 4.45am, which felt an hour earlier to us due to the time change! We trudged to hostel in the sleet, Charlotte falling in a puddle on the way. The hostel let us in and we were able to get a bit of kip on the sofas in the living room until our beds were free. In the afternoon we went for a browse around the old town, taking in the square and the castle. Another place, we felt, that would be good to come back in the summer when it's a little more bustling. We also visited the Presidential Palace of Lithuania, which was interesting despite not much being translated into English. Our second day in Kaunas was a little frustrating as we attempted to visit both the Museum of Deportation and Resistance and Sugihara House (where 'Japanese Schindler' lived) but they were both shut. So we ended up doing a bit of a walk from a slightly higher up vantage point, for some good views over the city. We stumbled across an interesting huge dominating church, which looked very Soviet (the tower looked like they tried to recreate the Empire State Building on a much smaller scale!). It turned out that it used to be a Nazi papermill, and then a Soviet broadcasting station, before it was turned into a church. We walked past just as Mass had ended so it was interesting to watch all the elderly Lithuanian women in their best Sunday furs sliding about on the icy pavements!
A good bar that we found was called 'Crazy House' which was eccentrically decorated with all sorts of random bits and bobs - you could sit on old toilets at the table. A trip to a traditional Lithuanian restaurant (complete with waitresses in traditional costume) convinced us that, bar the potato pancakes, Lithuanian food really isn't up to much!
We then caught the train to Vilnius. First impressions were good - nice old town, impressive churches and cathedrals, lively atmosphere and lots to see. Vilnius also boasts the world's only Frank Zappa monument, which gives an inkling of Vilnius' quirkier side. We stopped for refreshments in 'Prie Katedros Bravoras', a pub which brews it's own beer (including a very tasty honey beer). After taking in some Soviet statues on a bridge that only remain because the locals are so fond of them, we headed up to the hill of 3 crosses. It's a site where three monks were crucified in the 17th century, and three crosses mark the spot. The Soviets bulldozed the crosses but they were replaced soon after by huge concrete statues. The viewpoint from the crosses over the city at dusk was stunning, and the sheer scale of the crosses was quite incredible. As it was going dark we decided to head back down the hill, on the opposite side to where we walked up it. We quickly realised that the steps were sheets of ice that had been gradually made into a slippery slide all the way back down the hill. The only thing for it was shuffling / sliding down on bottoms, feet and hands; quite a ridiculous experience and not something we would repeat in a hurry!
On our second day in Vilnius we caught the bus out to Grutas Park. Nicknamed 'Stalin World', it was set up by a guy who had made his millions in the mushroom market and had purchased lots of old Soviet statues and put them in a park. The park had received criticism for 'Disney-fying' the Soviet era, but the statues and exhibitions were still enlightening about the atrocities that occured in that time. The guy who runs it does seem to have some 'interesting' ideas about the park; he initially wanted all the staff there to dress up as Soviet soldiers, and has some ideas about running a train line from Vilnius where passengers would be made to stand in cramped conditions to give them a 'taste' of what it must have been like to be sent to the camps. The park is a big tourist attraction in the summer but in February it was completely dead, which did little to help the already eerie feeling of being looked down upon by imposing Soviet statues. Well worth visit though, if you're ever in the area!
Further mooching around Vilnius took us to Uzupis, an unoffically offical independent state. It's supposed to house artists and other creative types, but we saw not much evidence of this on our visit! A very different feel to Christiana in Copenhagen, you could easily be forgiven for not realising you'd crossed an unofficial border. They have their own constitution which includes things like 'Everyone has the right to die, but it is not a duty', 'Everyone has the right to love and take care of a cat' and 'Everyone has the right to understand nothing'. Love it. It being winter there wasn't much going on over there, so we headed (surprise surprise) to an awesome little bar called Snekutis. We enjoyed some kick ass beers there (some proper Lithuanian real ale), along with some deep friend black bread, but unfortunately we don't know what our favourite beer actually was as she just poured it from a big green keg!
Another day trip that we made out of Vilnius was to Trakai, to see the beautiful castle there. It's on a little island surrounded by a frozen lake, so we greatly enjoyed watching people walking, ice fishing and even practising ice hockey on the lake. The ice must have been shifting as it was making some very disconcerting groaning and creaking noises, rather them than us! The castle itself is very picturesque and looked even more so with a sprinkling of snow. It houses the Trakai History Museum, a rather standard collection of things from over the ages, but it had a good section on the renovation of the castle.
That evening we found the other location of Snekitus and decided to eat there, just ordered a few different things off the menu for us all to share. It turned out that 'boiled petittoes' was not a quirky translation of boiled potatoes, but rather a quirky translation of boiled pigs trotter.... it looked grotesque. The meat that we got off it was really tender and delicious but probably would have fitted on a teaspoon. The locals would poably have eaten the sloppy skin and fat off the bone too, but we gave that a miss!
On our final day in Vilnius we headed to the cheery sounding Museum of Genocide Victims, housed in the old KGB headquarters. It was a fascinating account of life for Lithuanians under Soviet rule, and the basement was where they used to keep the prisoners and is still in it's original condition complete with padded cells and an execution chamber. Interesting but rather grim.
On our way up to Latvia, we stopped off for a night in Siauliai. Our reason for going to Siauliai was the famed 'Hill of Crosses'. The Hill of Crosses is about 2 km off the main road and as we stepped off the bus conditions were blizzardous. It was our first taste of the really cold weather yet to come! After being blown up the road and feeling our eyelashes freezing up, we arrived at the hill just as the wind dropped and the sun came out. There are many different stories about how the Hill of Crosses originated in the 1800s; some say that the locals planted lots of crosses after a particular tragic battle, others say a father planted a cross there for his dying daughter. However it started, it has become a tradition to go to the Hill of Crosses and put a cross there, whether in memory of someone or giving thanks to God. It still thrives today (despite the Soviets bulldozing the site three times) and there are apparently over 400,000 crosses there. It was an incredible spectacle, and the small wooden crosses hanging from the larger ones were clinking against each other in the wind making it an even more intense experience. It was fascinating to see different crosses from all over the world that people had made pilgrimages to Siauliai to bring to the hill. We saw a few different bridal parties having their pictures taken there; on such a snowey day it would make a very striking backdrop. A memorable end to our visit to Lithuania.
And so.... to Riga!
First stop, quell surprise, was a wander round the Old Town. It felt nice to be back on familiar territory, as we had visited Riga some years before. It does have a pleasant feel to the city, there just isn't that much to do there! We visited the market which is housed under the roofs of five old zeppelin hangers. It's a really huge market, with each hanger selling something different, e.g. meat, cheese, fruit and veg, bread, fish. We bought some delicious soft, white cheese with cumin seeds in it. On our return to the hostel we realised that the key to our room didn't really work in the lock (I'm sure not helped by the freezing temperatures). The Manager fiddled with it while we stayed in the hostel bar keeping warm.
During our Riga stay we went on a walking tour. It was a free tour (donations at the end) and we were the only people who turned up so it felt like a very personalised tour! The tour guide was super friendly and knowledgeable, and took us to see the alternative sights of Riga, i.e not the Old Town. We saw lots of interesting (and not to my taste) Art Nouveau buildings, the Academy of Science a.k.a 'Stalin's birthday cake' and went up the Riga Gallery for a rooftop view of the city. We learned about how Latvian soldiers burnt most of the city down fearing Napolean was imminently about to invade the city. It turned out that Napolean had actually taken a different route and went through Vilnius instead - boy was their face red. We also saw Riga's biggest synagogue that survived Nazi bombing as it is so close to the Old Town. However, two terror attacks on the building in the 1990's means it now has a permanent police presence stationed outside.
Other highlights of Riga included visiting a lovely (cheap!) English bookshop, where we stocked up on books for our rail journeys through Russia, eating at a recommended restaurant that as soon as we walked through the door we realised we'd been to last time (cue buffet of assorted meat and lots of beer to wash it down with), and drinking very cheap beer, wine and vodka at Depo (the rock bar opposite the hostel). Charlotte discovered that she can drink vodka if she puts enough lemon juice in it, so at least she's keeping her vitamin C intake up. A downer of the trip was our lock not working again after we tried to go to bed in the small hours, which meant we eventually had to be rehoused without our belongings in a hostel further down the road. Luckily we were reunited with our bags the next day - and got a free night at the hostel out of it!
Saying goodbye to Riga also meant saying goodbye to Mark, who had travelled with us since Zakopane. It had been a treat to have someone else with us for a while and it was strange saying goodbye not knowing when we'd next see each other!
So the next chapter of the trip begins alone... with a nightmare bus journey. Stay tuned to find out more... DUM DUM DUMMMMMMMM! ;)