Liberated Lithuania

Researching places to explore or things to see means we sometimes end up in strange locations or we discover weird and unusual facts. But dig deep enough beneath the easy available information and it’s fascinating what is waiting to be uncovered.

Home of the famous (in Lithuania) artist Česlovas Lukenskas, the Lukenskų Namai art school and campsite is set in a beautiful hillside location and from the reviews sounded like an idyllic place to stay. Many of the comments had said things like “lovely hosts”, “stunning views” or “a swim in the lake is a must”.

We arrived whilst Česlovas and his wife Ruta were out for the day foraging for wild mushrooms, with no one else there, we chose what looked like the perfect spot down by the lake. Big mistake. Smugly drinking our arrival cuppa it started to rain. It also started to dawn on us it might be a a tad difficult if the grass is wet getting our 4.2 ton motorhome back up the slope again…!

Two hours later the artist and his wife arrived home to find us three quarters of the way up the slope. After much effort on Lesley’s part, moving mats back and forth under the wheels, we did eventually make it back up but not without a tow from Česlovas slip sliding car.

Life felt so much better once we reached a grassy parking spot on semi level ground and further relaxed when our generous hosts invited us in the house for a tea and a slice of šakotis (tree cake) with homemade honey. As they say, ‘cake fixes everything”.

Kernavė

According to UNESCO, Kernavė is situated in the valley of the River Neris. The archaeological site is a complex ensemble of forts, some unfortified settlements, burial sites and other archaeological, historical and cultural monuments from the late Palaeolithic Period to the Middle Ages. With the information point closed due to Covid we took a wander.

We were pleasantly surprised by how well the reconstructions had been done. Each homestead was enclosed inside a fenced off yard that included auxiliary buildings for stores and animals. The main homestead building had living quarters each with a workshop with a detailed display of a particular craft (carpenter, blacksmith jeweller etc).

The first mounds were formed (dug by hand) around 1000 BC. These defensive mounds are reported to have been created because of the relatively flat Baltic landscape.

Vilnius

First impressions on our approach to Vilnius, were of wide (US style) boulevards lined with recently constructed commercial and residential buildings. It felt bold, modern and a city asserting itself. The ‘pretty bits’ are usually found in the old town so we engaged with the busy city traffic and found a parking spot for Margo right beside the castle.

A mix of old and the new – old tram, new electric bus.

Republic of Užupis

The Užupis district has been popular with artists for some time and has been compared to Montmartre in Paris due to its bohemian and laissez-faire atmosphere. On April 1, 1998, the district declared itself an independent republic (The Republic of Užupis), with its own constitution with 41 clauses. I especially like No 12…

  1. Everyone has the right to live by the River Vilnelė, and the River Vilnelė has the right to flow by everyone.
  2. Everyone has the right to hot water, heating in winter and a tiled roof.
  3. Everyone has the right to die, but this is not an obligation.
  4. Everyone has the right to make mistakes.
  5. Everyone has the right to be unique.
  6. Everyone has the right to love.
  7. Everyone has the right not to be loved, but not necessarily.
  8. Everyone has the right to be undistinguished and unknown.
  9. Everyone has the right to be idle.
  10. Everyone has the right to love and take care of a cat.
  11. Everyone has the right to look after the dog until one of them dies.
  12. A dog has the right to be a dog.
Lesley in front of Užupis constitution wall with plaques in 23 languages
Electric scooters for hire have been everywhere in our travels in Scandinavia and the Baltics

The city of Vilnius has undergone many calamities – Russian occupation in 1655–60, Swedish capture in 1702 and 1706, French occupation in 1812, and recurrent fires and plagues.

In 1795 Vilnius passed to Russia in the Third Partition of Poland. It was occupied by the Germans in World Wars I and II and suffered heavy damage.

From 1920 to 1939 it was included in Poland it was taken by Soviet troops in 1939 and restored to Lithuania.

The Soviets annexed Lithuania, including Vilnius, in June 1940. Soviet rule brought mass deportations (1940–41, 1946–50) of ethnic Lithuanians from Vilnius, and many Russians moved into the city.

Only in 1991 did Vilnius once again became the capital of an independent Lithuania. As a result of this turmoil Vilnius, has in my opinion lost its way architecturally. Rebuilding after war seems to have been a real hotchpotch of conflicting non-homogenous styles.

Walking around some of the upmarket streets we both noticed quite a few wealthy tourists, clearly dressed to be seen and heading for champagne bars and exclusive cafés. This may be the Lithuanian nouveau riche or one or two of the ten wealthiest Russians who (according to Forbes world’s billionaires list) between them are worth $223 billion.

Trakai

All the internet guides say Trakai is a place to go, so guess what…. everyone goes there. We’re fast learning that picking out places to visit that aren’t on everyone else’s no 1 destination list is a tricky balance of appeal versus popularity. Up until now we have probably been largely spoilt because of Covid but as places open up, we have to learn if we want to go, go before the world and his family get there.

Walking and bike rides are a good way to get away from other folk. Today we parked Margo in Trakai and cycled away from the castle in a 15 mile circuit around the lake and included the Hill of Angels and returned via the castle for a quick photo op.

Devils Pit

Whilst in the area the Devils Pit sounded like our kind of thing and although 4 or 5 cars came and went in the hour whilst we were there, it was largely unpopular. Hurrah!

The Trail of Secrets of the Devil’s Pit goes down to where a viscous swamp of 60 metres in diameter lies stagnant. In summer, it is tempting to wade in it, but people are advised to refrain from doing so as the swamp is very viscous and dangerous… It’s one man’s legend versus another’s asteroid crater!

Lithuanian Folk Museum

The open-air museum at Rumšiškės is a massive recreation of pre-industrial Lithuania. With around 150 buildings spread out over 195 hectares, it is among one of the world‘s largest museums. By area, it equals the entire nation of Monaco and is four times the size of Vatican. Our legs certainly felt it after a few hours walking around!

Nearly everything in Rumšiškės had been moved from somewhere else. 19th-century huts, sheds, and farmers’ homes that stood all over Lithuania have been saved from destruction by reassembling them here. They are joined by mills, churches, workshops and inns.

It takes some walking around as much of the museum consists of open spaces, ponds, and forests that put the “secluded villages” into context. The villages may be somewhat sanitised compared to historical reality, but that makes them more picturesque and no less interesting to explore.

Kaunas

Kaunas has been chosen as the European Capital of Culture for 2022. I confess to not understanding how or why a city gets selected. I suspect in Kaunas’s case it’s the “attractive interwar streets, tree–lined avenues and wide–open squares”… whatever it is, it’s a city that has a really good vibe.

Preparation for 2022 is everywhere with diversions on the main bridge into town. Even when the street with many interesting restaurants is completely dug up and littered with JCB and dumper trucks (making it difficult to squeeze our bikes round the harris fencing), the place still has a good feeling about it and we’d love to come back when it’s all finished.

This impressive building is the Kaunas Christ’s Resurrection Basilica is located near the top terminus of the water powered Žaliakalnis Funicular. We were hoping for a ride as it’s similar to the Lynton & Lynmouth funicular railway, (one of my favourite spots), but it was closed due to Covid.

Bike power is a great way of seeing the city and is also a good way of working up an appetite. Kaunas is packed with attractive places to eat, none more so than the chilled car free (bikes allowed) Laisvės Alėja. Today’s lunch was Mexican and it was delicious.

Before heading back to the campsite we found some of the array of street art around the city. Many of the pieces are mapped making it relatively easy to find.

Back to an awaiting Margo, we had one last place we wanted to see. It wasn’t far so we felt we had time to go there on the way to our next stop in Poland.

The Ninth Hill Fort

My apologies, but I cant find a better way of describing this place than this extract from Wikipedia.

At the end of the 19th century the city of Kaunas was fortified and by 1890 was encircled by eight forts and nine gun batteries. Construction of the Ninth Fort was completed on the eve of World War I.

During the years of Soviet occupation, 1940–1941, the Ninth Fort was used by the NKVD to house political prisoners pending transfer to Gulag forced labor camps.[1]

During the years of Nazi occupation, the Ninth Fort was put to use as a place of mass murder.[3] 45,000 to 50,000 Jews,[4] most from Kaunas and largely taken from the Kovno Ghetto, were transported to the Ninth Fort and killed by Nazis and Lithuanian collaborators in what became known as the Kaunas massacre.

Jews from as far as France, Austria and Germany were brought to Kaunas during the course of Nazi occupation and executed in the Ninth Fort. In 1943, the Germans operated special Jewish squads to dig mass graves and burn the remaining corpses.

Perhaps you have to be there, to stand in front of the colossal monument and read about the Ninth Hill Fort, the massacre I found to be deeply shocking. Once again another example of how ‘mans inhumanity to man’, is disturbing and very upsetting.

Where possible I like to end these blogs on a cheerful note. So I have to tell you that In my research to find out how famous Česlovas Lukenskas is, a few Google clicks brought up various other well know Lithuanian artists, such as: “Ars” who were an avant-gardist art group created in 1932 by four graduates of the Kaunas Art School.

Readers of the blog will no doubt have noticed I’m partial to a play on words, (e.g. Biggus Dickus from Monty Pythons Life of Brian, that sort of thing). Can you imagine my delight then, when I found Pranciškus Smuglevičius who really was a classicist painter in Lithuania during the 18th century. How could I not sneak in this cheap prank!

That’s all for now

Toodle Pip, chin chin

Dave & Lesley

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