#5 Lithuania, July 9, 2011

Dear Everybody,

On Tuesday Claire and Roberto drove me to Arezzo where I got the train to go to Rome. They have a new system now, whereby one can buy train tickets from a machine and it will route you through to your final destination. In this case I dialed in “Fumicino Airport” and it routed me through the station of ‘Tibertino’ in Rome, rather than having me go all the way into ‘Roma-Termini.’ I was a little apprehensive about jumping off the train at Tibertino—would I really be able to get a train to go to the airport? Well, yes, I did, so I guess the machine knew what it was doing. It was even considerably cheaper than it usually is going to Termini and then the airport, a bonus!

At the airport I stood in line forever in a kind of basement terminal as I was on the cheapo airline, Wizzair. (Do you love the name?) It was Hungarian, and didn’t give so much as a complimentary glass of water—well gee, Mom, what do you expect? Anyway, I arrived Vilnius, Lithuania in the rain at 8:30 PM. I walked right through all the formalities, not even getting my passport stamped, and, after getting some money changed, walked to the train station which took me into the Vilnius train station. My hostel was a block from the front door of the station and I had no trouble finding it. It was now about 9:30 PM and broad daylight! I’m really quite far north, here.

My hostel was cleverly designed with compartments for each sleeper, which are enclosed cubicles with just your feet end facing into the room. Each cubicle has an electrical plug-in for charging all the electronics, a reading light, and a ventilation spot. They are nice and high, too, so one can sit up comfortably without bumping your head on the upper bunk. There is also wifi, which I used to send my email.

In exploring Vilnius the next day I found a beautiful old city with all of the 19th century buildings in perfect shape.

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are lovely churches on every corner—when the Soviets were in control, they made many of them into museums or used them for other purposes. Now they have been all rehabilitated and are in perfect order.

 

 

 

 

 

There’s a river running through town, too. I visited the Cathedral which site first held a worship place for Perkunas, the Luthuanian thunder god. I also visited the old rehabbed castle where the Dukes used to live. Lithuania had a huge empire in old times.

I couldn’t believe the (lack of) traffic, but then discovered that it was their National Independence Day so only had holiday traffic. Even so, there were very few cars and there was kind of a hush over the city.

I had dinner at 2:00 in Loky’s, at first outside, but as it began to rain a little, I ducked inside.

 

 

 

 

 

So did a group of five Austrian men who were visiting the area on motorbikes, and one of which joined me at my table. Loky’s specializes in game dishes, and I had some game sausages with horseradish, potatoes and pickled cabbage, which was all very good.

 

 

 

 

The next day I visited the Food Halls, which were colorful and appetizing. After a cappuccino, I walked to the train station and got a train to Trakai, a small town 35 km from Vilnius.

In the mid-13th century, Mindaugas unified Lithuania, creating the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, of which he was crowned king in 1253. He accepted Catholicism, but neither the unification nor the Catholicism took! It fell apart but was reunified under Gediminas, whose two sons took over when he died and one of these built the Island Castle in Trakai around 1400. (Given how late Christianity came to Lithuania, they sure made up for lost time with an elaborate church on nearly every corner in Vilnius!)

Trakai is a darling little town with its fairyland castle, many pretty wooden houses, and beautiful lakes surrounding the town. I walked a long ways through the town, across a bridge to the castle, which was fun to explore.

I discovered an interesting wrinkle in this town—the Karaites! They are a Judaic sect and Turkic minority originating in Baghdad. They were brought to Lithuania from the Crimea in about 1400 to serve as bodyguards. Their language is native Karaim (related to Arabic), belonging to the Kipchak branch of Turkish languages.

I ate at the Kybynlar Restaurant that features Karaite specialties. I had a hot pastry and meat-stuffed aubergine. This was after a half-liter beer that came with a lemon wedge in it. I suppose that’s no different than having a lime wedge stuck in a bottle of Mexican Corona beer.

It rains off and on here, several times a day. One minute it’s blue sky, and the next it’s raining. When I was waiting at the train station in Trakai it started to rain. The station wasn’t open yet; there were ten benches here and there, none of which were under cover! I guess they haven’t yet gotten on to the notion of customer service. As far as that goes, though, they’ve made lots of ‘democracy progress;’ one doesn’t see much evidence of the Soviet occupation, which went on for decades. Lithuania is decidedly European in every way that it can possibly be. The only Russian things I’ve seen are a few Socialist statues on a bridge, and Russian nesting dolls.

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