Whilst I have always tried to pick up on some of the history of a country/city during a holiday I don’t think I have been as immersed in a country’s past as I have been in Lithuania. Maybe it is because today (June 15th) was another anniversary for them.
It was because of this anniversary that the Museum of Genocide Victims (housed in the old KGB building) was free to enter. In Lithuania it appears that museums like this wave the entrance fee since it is a day that people should probably be educated on what happened on this day. I can’t imagine attractions like the Cabinet War Rooms of London doing something similar on the anniversary of the end of World War Two.
The anniversary in question was 76 years since Lithuania lost their independence to the Soviet Union and the process of integrating them as a Socialist State was begun. Walking through the museum and seeing all the faces of Lithuanians that had been executed firstly by the invading Nazi Germans and then the Stalinist forces was sobering.
The museum is incredibly well put together and for the few Euros that is would normally cost you to enter it is well worth it. As interesting as the historical parts are it is the prison in the cellar that delivers the biggest punch. Especially the execution chamber as it is a plain room with bullet holes in the wall, a small drain for washing the blood from the floor and a small chute to deliver bodies up to ground level for disposing in a mass grave in the local forest.
Considering the number of citizens from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia that were deported to the arse end of the Soviet Union for slave labour (something I never knew happened until visiting this country) I really can understand why the Ukrainian entry won Eurovision this year. That song would strike a chord with any community that had to deal with forced deportation at the hand of the Soviet government (and this includes native Russians too).
We needed a bit of a lift after that museum (where it is quite easy to lose a few hours). So instead of heading straight to the next one we stopped off for come cake in one of the many coffee shops on Pilies Street. We had great cake (especially the chocolate royal) and for the first time we’ve been in Lithuania we met a rather surly waitress (reminded me of home).
Once we left the coffee shop what did we see? Only a large procession of Hare Krishnas! Not exactly the first thing I would have expected to see in Vilnius, but this does appear to be a nation that wears their religion (and their hope) on their sleeves. From what we have seen this city is incredibly tolerant of their population whether they be Roman Catholic, Russian Orthodox, Jewish or even Hare Krishna. There was no laughing or pointing at this parade like there would be in London.
Another thing about Lithuania that really struck me was the amount and variation in their crafts. From what we later saw in the museum this is a nation of artisans. The majority of the crafts that appear to be going are the production of wooden crosses (which you will see pretty much everywhere in Lithuania whether you be walking along a road, through a forest or in a city).
However, there are so many other things like pottery, glassware, amber and wooden carvings of religious and non-religious imagery. If I had a way to transport all the things that I liked I would behave bought a lot of things, being practical I just bought a small mug with fish on for hub as a souvenir.
After putting on a freshly bought Lithuania t-shirt in a pitch black bathroom (I couldn’t find the light switch) it was time to venture around their national museum.
The first two rooms on the ground floor is a real mishmash of things which includes two items of Roman pottery and a random Egyptian sarcophagus. The best parts of this museum are the parts that focus on Lithuanian culture. Apparently you couldn’t find a decent portrait painter in 1700s Lithuania, but being a country of craftsmen you could find amazing toys like this wind-powered masterpiece.
The section of the museum on local folk art (focused on religious iconography) was illuminating. We were laughing at some of the really bad items on display, but then watched a short film on the importance of cross making to Lithuanians. So important that people would be making loads of these during Soviet occupation under the cover of darkness. These wouldn’t all be professional craftsmen, most of these people were regular farmers who sought to protect their homestead.
Well, that shut us up. For a little while. Some were still incredibly odd. Following this was another moving exhibition on the mass deportation of Lithuanians. Maybe if they want to win Eurovision next year they should enters a song called ‘1941’. For me the worst piece of information in this exhibit was that there were deportation quotas. That if the deportation officers couldn’t find the family of “political enemies” on the list then they would just seize a random family to make up numbers. Where are the reparations for this?
It was still before five so we went into our third and final museum of the day: Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania. This is clearly one of the newer museums, or at least very recently renovated, since you can still smell how freshly cut the wooden doors are.
Whilst the other two museums taught about the more recent history here it was all about the history of early Lithuania. The curious story of the politically motivated canonisation of St Casimir (Lithuania’s patron saint), how Lithuania used to extend all the way down to present-day Ukraine through Belarus and just how many royal houses in Europe (including the British Stuarts) ended up with blood ties to the Lithuanian line.
It would have been nice to spend more time here, but there was some presidential function going on so there was security on our tail to make sure we were out of the museum by 10 minutes before closing. Still, we got a potted history that I am going to try and follow up on when I get back to the UK.
For dinner it was Bunte Gans, a German restaurant near the Gate of Dawn. We reserved a table here on our first night in Vilnius and 4 nights later she was able to call us by name without checking the book. She was possibly the nicest waitress I have had in any restaurant anywhere and there was no way (other than a very large tip) for us to thank her on places like TripAdvisor.
For starters it was deep fried carp strips with a chilli sauce. I have never had carp before, but I swear you can almost taste the freshness of the water it was swimming in. It’s not too fishy and almost a generic white fish taste mixed in with generic flatfish. It’s very nice though and hope to try some fillet of carp in the future.
For the main it was weißwurst with sauerkraut and potatoes fried with onion and bacon. I could bring myself to eat these the proper way by sucking the meat from the skin. Doing something SO phallic in public made me feel a bit too self aware.
We worked out at the end of the meal that all our food, train and bus tickets, museum entries and opera tickets cost just under 150€ for five nights. That’s without being too careful of money. It’s insane when you think about it.
When we left the restaurant the waitress came up to and asked “same time tomorrow?” to which we mournfully replied that We were travelling back to England in the morning.
“See you next year then, yes?” I hope so. It would be wonderful to be back for the Christmas markets in 2017. I can not overstate how amazing this country has been and how hard it is to leave.
Thank you Lithuania. It’s been great.