Lithuania: part two
Words and pictures: Anthony Lydekker
Lithuania: other capitals and pagan places
If you’ve got a day or two to spare there are three easy excursions, near Vilnius: take a bow Trakai, Kernave and Kaunas – all of which were former Capitals of a nation which once stretched from the Baltic to the Black sea and, for a time, had the largest land area in Europe West of Russia. All three places are distinctive in their own ways: beaches with music, ancient hillsides with attitude and unique art shows, near an airport.
Trakai: towering over the lake
Vilnius is nearly 200 miles from the seaside, but Trakai is less than 20 miles down the road on the vast lake Galvé and offers freshwater swimming, spotless beaches, windsurfing, sailing and leisurely cruising against the backdrop of the towers of the classical Gothic Castle. Pictures of the towers are an almost obligatory photo opportunity for all visitors, best taken from the middle of the Lake. We had lunch on the good ship Kybynlar owned by the restaurant of the same name. This consisted of bread and pies made to traditional Karaim recipes including the unique Kybyn aromatic pastry (see www.kybynlar.lt/)
There are only a few hundred Karaims left in Lithuania and they live in distinctive wooden houses in Trakai. Originally from the Crimea, they follow a version of the Eastern Christian Church, and remain a tight community who somehow survived both the German and Soviet occupations – maybe having their own language helped.
Trakai Castle has great views of the surrounding countryside and many popular and classical concerts from spring to Autumn.Within the walls are some reasonable bars and bistros and they have a great range of concerts from (the mature) Robert Plant and Moby to many younger local bands. Classical music includes a range of popular orchestral pieces and Chamber Music, including the Čiurlinios Quartet (see Kaunas below).
The whole atmosphere around Trakai is thoroughly modern Lithuania: youthful, unstuffy: enjoying a good time in, on or near the water.
Kernave: the pagan place….?
The original site of Kernave, the first capital of Lithuania in 1279, is now five very large grassy mounds, which were named as an UNESCO World Heritage site back in 1994. There are signs of habitations going back 11,000 years. As that was 9,000 years before Christianity by religious definitions the time would have been seen as “Pagan”. A lot easier to define than “Baroque”. But “Pagan” in some contexts has an edgy, dangerous excitement to it and the background notes of Kernave have many details of mythology, earlier Gods and deep earthy traditions. In fact, the most enthusiastic celebrants of all this were young Lithuanians in the late 1980s who did not, under the Soviets, enjoy the clubbing facilities of today. So they made merry at some of the Ancient Sites to celebrate including, of course, Midsummer known as the celebration of Joninės.
Having said that, the history and mythology bound up with Kernave is significant and many visit for these reasons. For example, Kernave has the world’s earliest medgrinda: a secret underwater road or ford essential in defense from marauders. On our visit we walked extensively around mound and enjoyed a quirky tourist excursion where, for a modest sum, one can be “captured” by medieval brigands and then “released” at a local café for a slap up dinner with music and dancing. The dinner included sorpa, a substantial soup of beef and potatoes and a platter of solid fried pork fat pieces – just the fat – which could keep the farm workers and partisans going in the winter forests. The band and the dancing helped us work it off.
At Kernave, there are there are some former Soviet collective farm offices and barns with 1950s designs of Russian health and safety notices, including anti-drink posters and a hand cranked telephone which works! All told, Kernave is a good day out. Packages can be arranged locally or through www.balticholidays.com
Kaunas – artful devils
Awareness of Kaunas has shot up in recent years, as a destination for low cost airlines. The journey to Vilnius is around 75 minutes by train or coach. Working backwards in priorities for some, it has a very active night life – maybe it’s the flights or just the locals’ exuberance. See your favourite nightlife-info website for places.
Kaunas has become a major art centre in Lithuania, with a good range of galleries in all sorts of media.
Kaunas was the capital from 1920-1940 and there was investment in municipal buildings and some fine squares. Lithuania’s role at the cross roads between East and West, involved successive occupations by Germany, Russia and Poland and is reflected in buildings and churches. And, although not occupied by France, Napoleon had a garrison there in 1812. So there is a great deal to see. A very good overview in 10 pages or so – with suggested walks – can be found in Neil Taylor’s Baltic Cities (www.bradtguides.com).
We were reminded of a significant aspect of recent history in Kaunas when we met a coach load of young Jewish visitors from New York, coming to find their family origins. In the late 1930s, half the population of Kaunas were Jewish. Sadly most of them did not survive the German occupation.
Kaunas has two unique art galleries of which the better known is the Devils’ Museum which has the largest collection of figures and pictures of devils in the world. This is a fascinating but quite oddball collection of ‘impish’, ‘cheeky devil’, ‘saucy’ , ‘drunken’ and so on manifestations of evil, Satan, and diabolism generally. Without getting too involved, as a generalist in art matters, it seems to me that there is much more published art on what one might call the other side, than anything that stops one in one’s tracks on the dark side.
The other unique gallery displays the work of Lithuania’s most acclaimed artist and is a ‘must see’ in Kaunas. Mikalojus Čiurlionis (1875-1911) organised the first exhibition of Lithuanian art in 1907. He started off as a musician and composer of piano pieces and the first Lithuanian symphony composer before becoming a prolific painter. As well as being an early proponent of the currently popular device of incorporating words into paintings, Čiurlionis also includes musical scores in his painting. There is a permanent Čiurlionis collection in Chicago, some work in Vilnius – and lots in Kaunas (www.muziejai.lt/Kaunas/ciurlionio_muziejus.en.htm).
Any or all three place are worth an outing and if you get stuck in transit in Kaunas you know what to do.
Some facts and getting there
Population: Country 3.3 million, Vilnius 554,000 Kaunas 310,000
Currency rate: at the time of going to press (£1=3.94 litai)
Cheap flights: Wizz Air, Ryanair