Overstaying in Vilnius

Trip Start Aug 11, 2009
Trip End Sep 30, 2010

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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Pretty Vilnius sucked us in, and our planned one day there turned into nearly a week. Vilnius has a beautiful old town complete with castles, a rebuilt palace and more churches than you can count on fingers and toes combined (including Bevan's). During the Soviet occupation, religion was banned and churches turned into storehouses. For the not-particularly-religious Lithuanians (the last European country to convert from Paganism to Christianity) churches became a symbol of Independence and freedom, and most have been restored to their former glory. The Russian churches by comparison have a devoted following - represented on a freezing cold Saturday morning by weddings of alarmingly clad Russian brides (goodbye strapless, hello white ruffle miniskirts).

Vilnius is a quirky city (even without counting the Frank Zappa memorial) well what else would we have expected from the Lithuanians? The large island in the river is a self proclaimed artists republic of Uzupis complete with president, constitution and white house. On April fools day they even have a border guard (yes, we got the passport stamp). Even the 3 hour walking tour that promises to show us the hidden parts of the city spends half that time taking us to the pub for some unique beer.
The chilling cells and execution room in the basement of the former KGB building are reminders that this freedom has not always been allowed.

We also set out on a few adventures from Vilnius...

Stalin World
A 2 hr bus ride followed by a 1km walk - thankfully the bus driver told us when to get off and showed us where to go - and we arrived at Gruto parkas. A crazy mushroom millionaire has collected all the Soviet statues from the scrapheap and arranged them around the grounds of his estate. He wanted to call it Stalin World and herd arriving visitors onto a cattle truck for a 'ride to the gulag' but thankfully good taste (or the threat of lawsuits?) won out and now its just the collection of statues filled with their own self importance, completely out of place in forest clearings in their pointing into the distance poses. And anyway, Lenin world would have been a better title if the representative number of statues is anything to go by. There is only one ever-photographed Stalin (I'm hoping that is because the others were destroyed when they were dismantled) The large collection of Soviet memorabilia and art is interesting, although worryingly lovingly put together.

Trakai Castle
A rather more cheerful day trip is a visit to the beautiful red brick island castles of Trakai. It was a beautiful sunny day with the trees reflecting in the lake which served as the moat for the castle (you can walk across it in winter when it freezes over, which sort of defeats the purpose of a moat I would have thought).

Aukstaitija National Park
No, I still don't know how it is pronounced, thankfully we only had to ask for train tickets to Ignalina town. Ignalina was cold, windy and deserted - not a good place to be looking for a taxi which was the only way to get to the village that we wanted to walk from. Eventually we found a closed but unlocked restaurant with a friendly owner more than happy to ring the taxi for us. Yes, singular taxi not plural in this town! The walk from the small town of Ginuciai back to Ignalina was mostly beautiful, winding through pine forest alongside a network of rivers and lakes. We even saw a deer although not until it had seen us and was bolting away through the trees. The tiny villages we passed through reminded us that rural Lithuania is a world away from the very European cities - people have one village landline phone, if they are lucky.

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