Man patinka Lietuva

I like Lithuania – a visitor's point of view


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10 Years since University Summer School in Kaunas and I remember it well

After several visits to Lithuania starting in 2005 I decided it was time to brush up my knowledge of Lithuanian culture and improve my language skills (my weekly language lessons in England were useful but I wanted to immerse myself on a day-to-day basis).

I applied to Vytauto Didžiojo universitetas  in Kaunas (VDU), found myself a flat on K.Donelaičio street and and headed off for a four week course. I was one of three “oldies” in the first couple of weeks with a veteran called Greg from America and a lady called Renata from Canada.

Greg had a flat next door to me, so that was nice, and the 30 or so Erasmus students from Poland, Germany, Czech Republic, Italy, Austria, Turkey, Latvia, and Russia, were kind to us as well.

The Summer School generated some publicity in the media although at that stage none of us could speak enough Lithuanian to make sense of a radio interview.

Apart from the language lessons – after taking a test I scraped into the intermediate class based on my tuition in England, although it was still a challenge – we visited various cultural sites including Vilnius, Trakai, Anykščiai, Rumšiškės and Druskininkai.

Apart from that there was the day-to-day life; trying to understand when you actually cross a zebra crossing, discovering the area heating wasn’t working for hot water, and lifts never seeming to work – it was 60 steps up to my apartment and several floors at the university to the language lab.

The shock of Greg having his lap-top stolen out of his hands as we sat in the street  in a wi-fi-zone. (The police officer we reported it to laughed when he found out where I was from “So all our criminals haven’t gone to the UK then?”).

I’ll never forget seeing a bride dunked under water in a lake by her bridesmaids. I was already in the lake fully clothed so didn’t have my camera to hand.

Each day I attended lessons which were interspersed with lectures, the language laboratory, and films. These were quite dark, mostly about life in occupied Lithuania.

I remember in particular the “The Children at the American Hotel‘ about teenagers who wanted to be rock’n roll stars attending a concert by rock band Ant and others surrounded by armed soldiers. It didn’t end well for them!

There was one humorous called “Nut Bread” and one about musicians in Bremen

Dievu Miskas” (Forest Gods) was about a prisoner’s life but the most horrific was “Vilnius Getas” about life in the jewish ghetto during the Nazi occupation. I was so moved by these last two I bought copies to bring home.

The last one we saw was a moody psycho-drama called “Whisper of Sin”. 

Much as I love Vilnius I also enjoyed my time in Kaunas. Walking up Liberty Avenue (Laisvės alėja), the longest pedestrian street in the city, to the blue church  of St Michael the Archangel (Orthodox in early Russian times – which is why some locals still call it the “garrison church” or Sober from when it served Kaunas Castle garrison – then Catholic, then a storehouse in soviet times, then back to Catholic). And at the other end a statue of the pagan god Pan. Entirely appropriate considering Lithuania was the last European country to convert to christianity! 

Enjoying the coffee shops and the local cafés – the Reval, the Metropolis, the Brothers,  and one called the crazy house and all the restaurants had free wi-fi.

I ate a lot of cold beetroot soup – šaltibarščiai – and Balandėliai, cabbage leaves with a meat filling, (which is just like the Ukrainian Goluptsi I enjoy at church in England when I meet my Ukie friends). It means pigeon as the folded cabbage leaves look like one.

In Lithuania they also use it to refer to couples as love-birds!

We certainly enjoyed our food and the local beers – especially Švyturys made in Klaipeda.

And there was lots to see in Kaunas itself: the beautiful Town Hall called the “White Swan, and the beautiful church of St Peter and Paul and the nearby seminary.

There is also world’s only Devils’ Museum founded by Antanas Žmuidzinavičius . The museum contains a collection of more than 3,000 devils: creations of fine and applied arts, souvenirs and masks not only from Lithuania but from around 70 countries

Vytautus the Great War Museum in Unity Square where veterans held parades around the square and clock tower on Sundays. The square has statues of people involved in the 19c revival of lLithuania

Thunder House was not far way and reminded me that that’s where the old border with Prussia used to be.

Kaunas castle (which was being refurbished at the time) and used to be the home of the Russian garrison in the days of the Empire.

It’s a medieval castle  and evidence suggests that it was originally built during the mid-14th century, in the Gothic style. Its site is strategic – a rise on the banks of the Nemunas River near its confluence with the Neris River.

The Kaunas hotel 55 Bar (named after the strength of home-brwd vodka or Samahon) where I used to go and listen to a singer with his guitar.

Trips to the local Rimi  store (like Tesco) and the big Akropolis hypermarket, all within walking distance.

And everywhere there were statues. Some quite bizarre ones among the more serious sculptures.

We also visited some more memorable places – in a battered old bus with no air-conditioning (which explains why I jumped in a lake fully clothed when I got the chance) which had the habit of breaking down on distant highways – some of which I have already posted about.

Among our trips were:

A visit to the local linen factory, near the burned out barracks. Linen is big in Lithuania and I have several linen scarves I brought back (and I like linen blend shirts too). You can see the proprietor in traditional dress who made us very welcome with some snacks of cheese and Gira, the fermented rye bread drink, as she described the process of producing linen.

The 9th Fort at Kaunas and the  museum that was the office of the Japanese Consul who was Lithuania’s own Schindler. These were two contrasting examples of what happened in occupied Lithuania.

To Vilnius to Uzupis and the Hill of Three Crosses – both places I already knew quite well from my trips to Vilnius.

And trips to the famous spa town of Druskininkai (to drink the foul-tasting water among other things) and Gruto Parkas to see soviet sculpture at its best(or worst depending on your taste).

The horse museum in Anykščiai (Arklio muziejus) with all the wooden carvings, traditional crafts, old dwellings and a chance to actually sit on a horse.

The outdoor ethnographic museum at Rumšiškės with the amazing wood carvings.

And let’s not to forget the International Party!

When our graduation party arrived it was a sad day. Although happy to be going home I knew I would miss my fellow students and the support of the wonderful staff at the VDU.

I have been back since with my colleague and I would recommend a visit any time.

 


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The Devils’ museum in Kaunas

The first time I heard the expression pusė velnio (half a devil) when I asked someone how they were I realised that devils in Lithuania have a whole different relationship with people than we are used to. They are seemingly not all bad and evil.

There is a museum in Kaunas -Žmuidzinavičius Museum – which celebrates them in fact.

It is said to be the only museum in the world dedicated to collecting and exhibiting sculptures and carvings of devils from all over the world. The collection was started by artist Antanas Žmuidzinavičius(1876–1966), and a memorial museum was established in his house after his death.

In 1966, the devil collection consisted of 260 sculptures but visitors began to leave their own devils as gifts to the museum. In 1982, a three-story extension was built to house the expanding collection and, as of 2009, the museum’s holdings had grown to 3,000 items.

Most of the devils are sculptures in wood, ceramic, stone, or paper. Others are masks or paintings on silk or canvas. The devils, collected from all over the world, are diverse in style.

Some of the devils are art objects but other devils have been incorporated into usable objects such as pipes and nutcrackers.

Many of the items represent folk myths and others express modern political ideas. For example, one sculpture depicts Hitler and Stalin as devils in a dance of death over a pile of human bones. (Source: Wikipedia)

I visited and took several photographs when I was there ten years ago (not realising photography wasn’t allowed but the attendant let me off when I apologised).

There are also some framed cartoons which would not be considered politically correct these days but I did learn that in Lithuania Sky Blue is associated with homosexuality!

 


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Rumšiškės – an outdoor ethnographic museum with wood carvings

Rumšiškės is a small town of about 1600 people 20 km east of Kaunas.

Much of it was submerged under a lake – but not before they pulled down and relocated the 18c church of St Michael the Archangel.

The outdoor museum is the biggest ethnographic museum in Europe covering 190 hectares. It’s very similar to the one outside Kiev in Ukraine.

There are the old houses and other things you would have seen in the villages across the different regions many years ago from the 18 c to the mid-20c.

In one of them was a piece of embroidery promoting the temperance movement.

This was big in Lithuania in the mid 19c. The initiative was started by Pope Pius IX and spread from Poland to Lithuania where over a million people in Kaunas and Vilnius joined the societies. Tax revenue from sales of alcohol dropped markedly – by 9 times in Kaunas – and the Russian Empire considered this a hostile act and  after tax reforms banned the societies in 1863.

And then to the collection of wood carvings.

Some amazing pieces ranging from one depicting Eve giving birth to the world to George and the Dragon and my favourite – a full orchestra!

This was another really interesting visit.

 

 


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Former soviet republic – where’s the evidence? At Grutas Park!

On our way to Druskinikai we stopped off at Grutas Park.
The 20 hectare site contains Soviet-era statues other Soviet relics from the times of the Lithuanian SSR. Founded in 2001 by mushroom magnate Viliumas Malinauskas.
After Lithuania regained its independence in 1990, various Soviet statues were taken down and dumped in different places. Malinauskas requested the Lithuanian authorities to grant him the possession of the sculptures, so that he could build a privately financed museum.

The theme park was created in the wetlands of the Dzūkija National Park. Many of its features are re-creations of Soviet Gulag prison camps: wooden paths, guard towers, and barbed-wire fences, plus weapons and vehicles from the soviet era.

The park also contains playgrounds and a café, where we sampled a typical soldiers meal – weak beetroot soup on aluminium plates, and drank some Gira, a local brew made from fermented rye  or black bread that is an acquired taste.

There are 86 statues, by 46 different sculptors, of the main Communist leaders and thinkers, (including Lithuanian socialist activists) such as Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, and Karl Marx.

One sculpture of the “Four Communards” is jokingly referred to as “waiting for a lift“.

There is also an office block containing posters and memorabilia.

It includes what is supposed to be a model of Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space.

We spent an interesting few hours there before heading on to Druskininkai (see previous post)


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The horse museum (Arklio Muziejus) at Anykščiai 

A trip to a horse museum (Arklio Muziejus)? How interesting can that be? Well very as it turned out.

It was a fascinating experience with its collection of horse-drawn vehicles and craft workshops.

So heading North-East on a 110 km trip through Ukmerge (famous for the song about the plumber) and towards Panevėžys.

First we visited  the collection of horse-drawn vehicles of various types including a fire engine

Then we had an opportunity to bake some bread, guided by a very competent looking lady, which we took home to eat.

Then into the craft area where we were given the chance to make a copper ring in the traditional way.

We also polished a piece of amber.

Amber doesn’t come out of the sea all honey coloured but as a dirty grey piece of what looks like stone. Only after rubbing hard with an emery board does it gain its lustrous warm sheen. Quite hard work.

 

 

This was a really interesting visit. Did I mention I actually got to ride a horse?

 

 


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A trip to Druskininkai spa town

Down towards the borders with Poland and Belarus (both of which it has been part of at different times in its history) is the small town of Druskininkai with a population of 23,000. It has been a spa town since 1837 when czar Nicholas I of Russia gave it that status.

The first written mention of Druskininkai however dates back to 1636. The name of the town suggests that the local population collected precious minerals. In the late 18th century it was believed that minerals found in the waters of Druskininkai area produced health benefits and their usage in the medical treatment of asthma and other ailments began.

In the early 19th century Ignacy Fonberger, a professor at the University of Vilnius, analyzed the chemical composition of Druskininkai’s waters and showed that they contain large amounts of Calcium, Sodium, Potassium, Iodine, Bromine, Iron and Magnesium. He also promoted the town as a holiday resort for the population of Vilnius.

Visiting the town as part of my cultural education course at VDU I was forced to drink the water – and whatever medicinal properties it might have it’s not for the faint-hearted!

I was struck by the sculptures I saw everywhere, some quite unusual.

We walked along the Nemeunas river bank to a cafe where we enjoyed afternoon tea accompanied by hundreds of wasps crawling everywhere.

My natural reaction was to shoo them away but the locals said to leave them and nobody got stung. It cured me of any fear of wasps!

Then we headed back on our 140km journey back to Kaunas.


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Veterans paraded in Kaunas outside war museum in Unity Square

When I was living for a few weeks in Kaunas (attending VDU for a Language and Culture Summer School in 2008) I noticed that on certain Sundays a group of army veterans, wearing pre-war uniforms, solemnly paraded outside the Vytautaus Magnus War Museum in Unity Square.

I took several photographs of them marching and afterwards – although one or two of them had to be persuaded to pose for me. I also caught up with a couple of them in the nearby coffee shop opposite my flat where they were more relaxed.

This was ten years ago so I wonder how many of them are still around and whether or not they still parade. It was nice to see little bit of history.

I also realised that the clock tower had a set of bells and through a contact got permission to go up and watch them adjust the clock mechanism.

The clock tower includes the Liberty Bell, a gift from Lithuanians in America, and copied from the Philadelphia liberty bell. It was installed in 1922 and was rung for the first time on Independence Day 1922.

The 35-bell carillon in the tower of the was completed in Belgium in 1935 and installed two years later. Bell music from the tower was first played in 1937.