Vanderings in Vilnius
Trip Start Apr 04, 2007
115Trip End Oct 22, 2007
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Language barrier aside, Vilnius is a cool city. We spent the better part of two days wandering the cobbled streets, along narrow little roads lined with people selling amber jewellery, brightly painted wooden babushka dolls and religious paintings, and women in patterned head scarves and shawls chatting outside elaborately decorated cathedrals - if not for the camera-wielding American tour groups, we could almost have stepped back in time. We walked past several huge palace-like buildings, most of them under reconstruction for when Vilnius is declared a European Capital of Culture in 2009, and what seemed like dozens of ornate cathedrals in various styles.
Apparently they need all of the churches they can get though, since we came across no less than nine separate wedding parties, complete with brides in huge, cake-like wedding dresses. I don't know if it was a particularly significant day for weddings, or if it was just that the priests only come to town every so often, but they were everywhere! In one cathedral, we walked in just as the bride was about to walk down the aisle. Apparently, it was open to the public, so we stayed for a while and watched before heading on into town.
The city definitely has a strong romantic side to it, with lots of random statues and, in the artistic quarter of town, a footbridge hung all over with padlocks on which couples have inscribed their names. I gather the idea is that you lock your inscribed padlock to the bridge, then throw away the key, thereby ensuring that the two of you will stayed joined together forever - kind of an apt metaphor, really!
Yesterday afternoon we went to the Museum of Genocide Victims, also known locally as the KGB Museum, which had been recommended to us by a helpful and enthusiastic tourist info office lady. The building was the former headquarters of both the Gestapo (in the 1940s) and the KGB (up until 1991). The basement had been preserved bascially exactly as it had been during the height of the KGB's power, complete with detention cells for political prisoners, interrogation rooms, and a particularly chilling execution chamber with bullet holes still pocking the walls. In one room, there were bags of secret documents shredded by the KGB in order to cover up their crimes just before they were ousted from the country; in another room, 1970s surveillance equipment used by KGB agents to tap phones and track the movements of suspected radicals or human rights activists was left where it had been installed during the Soviet reign of terror.
Upstairs, there were several brilliant multimedia displays dedicated to the hardships, including mass murder and forced deportations, suffered by Lithuanians from World War II up until the end of the Soviet rule last decade. Sad to think that such a beautiful place has such a dark history, and so recently that kids of our generation were growing up with the possibilty of having their parents randomly disappear if they associated with the wrong people or expressed the 'wrong' views in public. It also suddenly made sense to us why we had seen so many elderly women on the streets, but so few elderly men.
After the museum, we managed to find a movie theatre that was playing movies in English, and decided to treat ourselves to one - our first movie in almost five months of travel, not counting the one in Estonia where the power cut out halfway through! We thought we should try some of the local food that night, which turned out to be hearty and mostly consisting of stewed vegetables in creamy gravy kinds of sauce, lots of potato (baked, boiled, mashed and pancake variety) and various forms of meat-filled dumplings shaped like Zeppelins. They also seem to be big on various forms of fruit or cream-filled pastries here - just my kind of country!
Tomorrow we head to Klaipeda, a coastal town near the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. Given our train experiences here so far, we're crossing our fingers and hoping for the best!
All our best from Lithuania,
Dan and Gabrielle