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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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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Ukraine to remove evidence of soviet past

CNV00035In May President Poroshenko of Ukraine signed a law that effectively banned all reminders of his country’s past with the USSR.

This was clearly in response to the annexation of Crimea by Russia and its support for the the separatist war in Eastern Ukraine.

The law was hailed as a giant step forward for Ukraine and officials are rushing to implement it before  Independence Day on the 24th August.

Every statue of Lenin, every soviet street name and every red star in every underground station will be removed. Under the same law about two dozen towns and cities which were named after Soviet heroes are being renamed.

Unlike Lithuania Ukraine left most of its communist symbols untouched after the collapse of the soviet union in 1991. Work had already started after the Maidan revolution when dozens of statues of Lenin were toppled and dismantled. The Ukrainians even invented a new word for it – Leninopod, or Leninfall.

The ban on soviet symbols is part of a package that includes opening KGB archives to the public. As in Germany with the holocaust denying law it is now an offence to publicly deny “the criminal nature of the communist regime“.

There are some critics who say it all smacks of communist-style censorship including historians in Canada and the USA  who urged the President to veto the new law. Others say that Ukraine has too much on its hands with a faltering economy and the war on its Eastern frontier to bother about symbols and historic issues.

P1000342In Lithuania there are very few symbols of its communist past left. (See: Where’s the evidence?“)

The statues on the Green Bridge in Vilnius are probably the most famous. Many of the old statues of Stalin and Lenin ended up in Grutas Park as a tourist attraction.

P1000482Lithuania even chiselled out the cyrillic alphabet version of Vilnius on the large boulder in the cathedral square.

It will be interesting to see what Ukraine does about the famous Motherland statue in the centre of Kyiv.  Part of the Museum of the history of Ukraine in WWII (renamed by law to remove reference to the “Great Patriotic War“).

CNV00014This giant stainless steel statue, designed by Yevgeny Vuchetich,  and revealed in 1981, stands 62 m tall with an overall height of 102m.

There is a sword in the statue’s right hand which is 16m long and weighs 9 tons and which was shortened so that the overall height of the statue was not higher than the cross on the Orthodox Church’s dome at Pechensk Lavra in the city (even the soviets conceded an advantage to the worship of god).

I was told that there was a plan to sell the statue to China after independence but the costs of dismantling it were prohibitive so there it still stands for now.

CNV00034_1I have visited the statue and the museum as it is not far from an open air concert arena which is used on Independence Day. I was taken by some Ukrainian friends there one evening to see the concert.

CNV00021We went in by a circuitous route bribing the soldiers guarding the statue with some beer and photographs of them with the ladies in our party. It was all very  good humoured although later when I fell over (a vodka assisted stumble I confess)  I was almost arrested by some plain clothes police until my Ukrainian friend rescued me explaining I was a foreigner!

Whether the Motherland statue ends up in a tourist park remains to be seen.


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Former soviet republic? Where’s the evidence?

Lithuania underwent a transformation after independence in 1991 and wanted to shake off its former soviet image.

They removed much evidence of the former soviet times but some they kept.

P1000342The statues on the green bridge in Vilnius, fine examples of socialist realism, were kept but other statuary was removed and many pieces ended up in the Grutas Park.

P1000793 P1000801The original three crosses on the hill were pulled down by the soviets and buried but new ones were made and the old ones uncovered and left there with the chains to show the world what had happened.

At the parliament building they have kept part of the barricade they set up to stop tanks entering the parliament building. There are also smaller replicas set out around the building to show the extent of the original barricade.

And not far from the statue of Grand Duke Gediminas in a corner of  the cathedral square is a stone monument celebrating 650 years of Vilnius’s role as capital of Lithuania. If you look closely you can see an oblong recess where they removed the  cyrillic script.

P1000885And while you are in the area look for the the Stebuklas or miracle tile which marks the end of the human wall that stretched from Tallinn to Vilnius in 1989. If you find it stand on it, turn clockwise three times and make a wish!P1000501


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Fond memories of the Lithuanian language Summer school in Kaunas

This is a blast from the past.  I’ve just had an e-mail from Greg, a fellow student at the VDU Summer School with me in 2008 (there were just fourof us who had English as our native language). Greg is an American who later married a lovely Lithuaniuan lady and now lives in Kaunas (their story deserves a blog post in itself).

Anyway he’d dug out a video onYouTube that was made during our Summer School featuring trips to Druskininkai and Grutas Park and our wonderful International Party where we enjoyed food from all the countries represented on the course and some traditional Lithuanian dancing (I’m in there somewhere with my own video camera).