Wood carving and Stalin World

Trip Start Feb 10, 2008
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11
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Trip End May 13, 2009


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Saturday, April 5, 2008

The bus from Riga takes 5 hours to reach Vilnius. We drove over a very flat landscape, with lots of forest. Soon after crossing into Lithuania the bus stops at Birzai National Park, where the driver has a quick lunch. The area sits on very porous rock and there are underground rivers and caves, and over 90,000 sinkholes. There is a warning sign: "Remember that sinkholes are open and new sinkholes appear every year. So watch your step - especially if you have already visited the breweries". This warning is obviously aimed at those Brits here on a boozy stag party weekend who somehow escape the strip clubs in Riga for some country air (or get lost) :).
My hostel is very busy and friendly and within a couple of hours I meet a NZ couple living and trying to find work in Berlin, 4 English girls, a Greek/American lawyer who travels based on his passion for history, a Japanese guy, a Dutchman and an American dressed in black reading a book about Bob Dylan.
I do the usual and walk around town to orientate myself and I ended up eating at a sort of Lithuanian theme restaurant. The food wasn't very good so I will spare you the details other than to say the menu was dominated by potatoes every which way - the national dish is cepelinai, which is like a sausage, except it's potato that's encased in intestine.
The New Zealsnders have told me about a park that is full of communist-era statues and I have read about an interesting community but they are a long distance away so I hire a car and set off next day.
I head for the town of Trakai where there is a famous island castle that was the seat of power of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania for some time. It is also the main centre for the smallest ethnic group in Lithuania, the Karaim, who number around 260. They are a community of Turks originally from the Crimea who practice Karaite Judaism (from the 8th century). In 1392 the Grand Duke of Lithuania relocated several hundred to Trakai, where the men served as soldiers and guards. I eat at a Karaim restaurant and it's great to eat Turkish-type food after a couple of months of northern European cooking - at the end of the meal I have a Ukrainian liqueur which tastes of honey and hot pepper and is delicious. After lunch I have a look their small but interesting museum.
Then things start going wrong - I have a map, but it has little detail, and I try and take a shorter routs to reach the other main road via some small country roads - there are almost no signposts and many have names that aren't on my map, and those on my map aren't on the sighposts. There are very few people around because it's forest and farms with the odd scattered village, where no-one speaks English and doesn't understand my pronunciation of place names. I do eventually make it but for a long time I feel like I'm going round in circles.
So, here I finally am at Grutas Park, also known as Stalin World. It was founded by a Lithuanian entrepreneur (and former wrestler)and is set in the wetlands of a National Park. After the Soviet era ended all the statues erected in that period were dumped in different places, but 86 of them, plus over a million other items of memorabilia (paintings, prints, uniforms, flags, badges, books, etc, are on display in a giant Soviet theme park.
According to their blurb "Stalin World has a feeling of a zoo where fallen 'idols' are taken off their pedestals ... and placed in a forest for people to come and stare". Communist propaganda and music blares from loudspeakers on watchtowers dotted regularly around the site. Apart from staues of Lenin and Satlin nearly all the other statues are of, according to more blurb "Lithuanian communists who repressed and killed their own people and prevented Lithuania from gaining back it's independence".
This is an extremely strong theme in all 3 Baltic countries and I get the impression there is still a lot of underlying hostility (especially as there are still large Russian minorities in their midst), although it's kept in check at government level because of the need for Russian oil and gas.
I should also mention that Vilnius was a major European Jewish centre and before the World Wars was known as the Jerusalem of the North - according to the 1897 census Jews were 39% of the population and there were over 100 synagogues. Very little trace remains as most were killed in WW2 and the Great Synagogue badly damaged, and it was finally destroyed by the Soviet authorities later.
On the morning of my departure I drive to the official Geographical Centre of Europe as calculated by the French National Institute of Geography in 1989, 26kms north of Vilnius. Not too far away is the Park of Europe, another huge sculpure park, but I don't have time to see it as my train leaves at at 11.41 - I just make it, arriving at 11.40 - traffic was bad.
Now that I have been to the 3 Baltic countries I think I will give a little summary. Most people, including myself, tend to lump them together as if they were virtually the same. However, this is not true - you could almost say that apart from sharing the Baltic coastline, being flat, and having been dominated by the Soviet Union (and wanting to be independent countries), they have no more similarities than other countries that are close to each other. Lithuania is strongly Catholic, the architecture is baroque, and the Grand Dukes ruled over large territories and had strong alliances with Poland. Estonia and Latvia are strongly Lutheran, but have different architecture and completely different languages, and have been under the dominance variously of Germany, Sweden and Russia, etc.
Interestingly there are a number of English-language journals published, covering all 3 countries. One of them is called CityPaper and it's Editor-in-Chief is an Australian woman of Latvian parents. She says that in Latvia she is often asked where she's from - the giveaways, in her words are "the heavy accent (Australian I presume)and western dress sense - no short skirts and high heels for me" she says. According to another writer (English male) there's a phenomenon called "Estonian bebe" (babe), whose uniform comprises (again in his words) "long blond hair, tight jeans or short skirt, high-heeled boots and a bit too much makeup".
What fun it is delving (even if only briefly) into other countries' cultures and way of life.
So, I'm back on trains again, but have to make a stop at the border to switch to a train that will tke me to Warsaw, where I will stay overnight as it arrives late and there is no connection to Krakow until morning.
I had a friend in primary and secondary school called George Pegasus, who came from Estonia or Latvia (I can't remember which), so I've known about these places since I was 5 years old, and finally I've been there.
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