According to the Lonely Planet list there are two main sights to see in Lithuania. This is in comparison to neighbouring countries Latvia and Belarus, which have nothing in the book. Honestly, it is thanks to this book that I chose to go to Lithuania instead of fellow Baltic nation Estonia.
Today I chose to visit the first of these, which is 10km of the Lithuanian city of Šiauliai. Being based in Vilnius this means a literal cross country trip of over 200km. Whilst I know the bus would have been cheaper, there is something to be said for a country where return tickets for a 2½ hour trip are 18€. Putting that in perspective, in order to make a similar length trip from London to Cardiff for work can cost well over £150 depending on the time of day. Have I said how much I am loving the prices in this country?
I am aware that being based in Vilnius Old Town can give you a blinkered idea of what the average Lithuanian lives in. If every city was like Vilnius Old Town we would be living in a Disney movie sans dead parents (unless you’re Princess Aurora or Rapunzel, because why not).
Over the course of the train trip I was amazed at just how green Lithuania is. I mean sure there is the occasional lumber yard or factory as you get closer to the cities, but most of the trip is made up of farmland, forests or meadows. In many ways it makes this train trip very much like travelling through England. I guess I was expecting some example of harsh Soviet architecture as that is what movies from the 1980s thought us.
Now, if you are going to Šiauliai in order to visit the Hill of Crosses and you do NOT go with a guided group you pretty much have to fend for yourself. There are no real indications at the train station about where you need to go and, since the buses are hourly, you probably want to find the bus station sharpish.
We ended up stalking a few tourists as they walked on a dirt track on the side of a major road in order to make our way to the bus station. We probably could have used GPS to find our way… but that kept telling us to cross at weird junction points.
Actually, short note about Lithuanians that I have noticed: they are good and courteous drivers. Most of the crossings I have observed in Vilnius and Šiauliai are without lights and at no point have we had any people drive through it whilst we are standing there. In fact, some of the time they have seen us starting to meander in that direction and they start slowing down just in case. Italian and Egyptian drivers – please can you take note of this.
78 cents later and we were at the bus stop for the Hill of Crosses. It’s a 2km walk from the bus stop and you have to back on yourself to find the turning point. It’s a lovely walk that just goes to show how much in the middle of nowhere this place actually is. The first sign that you are almost there is that rather than just a panorama of green there is a mass of brown and orange that is sparkling and shimmering in the distance.
The Hill of Crosses is one of those places that just feels distinctly Lithuanian. It’s the ultimate symbol of their humanity and their resilience despite constantly being destroyed or taken over. The hill (according to a nearby plaque) currently has over 200,000 crosses planted in it. Many of them are the small wooden ones that you can buy on your way in, but so many of them are completely unique.
Thanks to the Soviet Union’s move to destroy this most of the older crosses are no longer present. In fact, with the exception of one that could possibly have been from 1945 the vast majority are from the last 20 years. The newest I saw was only 10 days old – I may have shed a tear over that as the cross’s design looked like it could have been for a young child.
Now I am not religious, but I could not help but feel moved by this site. To find the adjectives for it is difficult. I keep wanting to use phrases such as “bonkers, but beautiful” which don’t probably illustrate the sheer amount of respect I had for this place. It’s like a symbol for all the good there is in humanity.
Whilst this is a predominantly catholic site there were crosses from Protestants and Russian Orthodox faiths as well one or two Stars of David from Jewish citizens of Lithuania. People have travelled from all over Europe to leave crosses here, as have Christians from Korea, Canada, China and the USA.
With all this traveling and awe inspiration we both completely forgot about lunch. It also helps that we’re both in the throes of trying to lose weight and so were able to last most of the day on breakfast alone. By 4 I was a bit peckish so we went into the Rimi hypermarket attached to the bus terminal.
I swear that I have yet to visit a super/hypermarket in another country and think it is worse than the UK. In the deli section of a UK supermarket you probably get three types of ham and you have examples of this from more than one company. In Rimi they actually give space to a counter filled with cooked Silesian sausages, pork knuckle and a whole manner of deliciousness. The bread looks and smells amazing, also the sheer variety available puts British supermarkets to shame.
I know it is weird, but as a foodie I just have to see the places abroad where people buy their food. It works against me as the sights and smells just depress me further when I have to turn off holiday mode and return to the UK. If a place like Rimi opened up in my home town there would be no question of where I did my grocery shopping, so long Tesco, bye bye Morrison’s, up yours Asda. Alas and alack.
By the time we were back in Vilnius it was just after 8 and dinner was very much required. Since we were tired and feeling a bit lazy we went around the corner to the restaurant we visited on the first night. Instead of yet another Zeppelin I ordered what I thought would be pancakes wrapped around meat, but they turned out to be potato pancakes, which means this is the third night ins row with essentially the same meal.
We also ordered something that we thought would be breaded and deep fried spicey cheese… but it turned out to be this large lump of curd cheese with a thick layer of pepper on it. I felt so bad and embarrassed at neither of us liking it that I may have cut off half a chunk, wrapped it in tissue and stuffed it in my pocket. Now I have moist cheese pockets and my jacket has to dry out. If you saw the waiter you’d know why I did it. He’s basically the sweet shopkeeper from Frozen brought to life!
Speaking of good. We shared an order of honey cake for dessert (lovely Frozen waiter guy had to halved and served on two plates for us) and I was surprised at how nice it was. Honestly I was something a bit more saturated with honey or cloyingly sweet like baklava, but this was the right amount of density. They also chose to pair it with a strawberry coulis and that is a choice I am very happy with.
Off to Trakai tomorrow. Halfway through this trip to Lithuania already. How has this happened!?