Lithuania

Trip Start Mar 05, 2008
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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Friday 30th May: Lithuania

The coach drive into Vilnius was only slightly less daunting than its counter part into Riga. The less daunting nature however permitted a chance to appreciate the landscape as we drove. It has to be said; not being in fear of my life contributes to a much more relaxed frame of mind. Lithuania's environment has suffered greatly in the years of Soviet control but a huge operation, backed by European Union money, has seen a revival in recent years. With a flat landscape and with over a third of the country's landmass covered in lush forest and lakes Lithuania's got an attractive vista, one that's worth protecting to ensure enjoyment for generations to come. When we arrived to the outskirts of the city the early evening rush-hour traffic had begun and already the hard-shoulder of the motorways were littered with cars involved in anything from minor shunts to more serious smashes. It seems there are not many places in the world immune to the curse of bad driving. Picking our way through the rubble we arrived in the station without drama or suffering injury. I wish I could say that the first hour of my time in the city was without drama but unfortunately it was quite a traumatic experience. I was staying in a hostel just off Gelezinkelio gatve called the 'old town hostel', Lt32 per night, which was supposed to be 300meters from the bus station. Before I left the station I thought id take some money out of the ATM but no sooner had I entered my card into the machine I was regretting that decision for immediately I was surrounded by lots of people all looking for money. Busy thinking about the directions to the hostel I was completely caught off guard and struggled to keep track of my money, my credit card and my bags. Declining their advances I hastily took my leave of the station, saw a sign for Gelezinkelio gatve, and accelerated down the road putting as much distance between me and the mob as I could. After a walk of 15Min's my relief at avoiding a confrontation was erased by confusion and wonder at how I had not reached the hostel. Without trying to second guess my directions I put my faith completely in the street name I was walking, as it was the only reference I had and surely it couldn't let me down. Having to cross some highly dangerous roads where the pedestrian was most definitely secondary to the articulated trucks and cars my nerves were not only rattled but completely gone. As with the Latvians I experienced in Riga the gruff steely demeanor of the locals didn't lend itself to me inquiring for directions. Walking aimlessly up and down the same streets, crossing the same dangerous intersections I eventually had to ask for directions. Checking the lye of the land I avoided all the 6ft tall, the Michelin man physique, the tear your head off if you annoy me expressions on all the men and asked the friendliest looking girl I could find. At least if she was angered and aggressive I would be able to take her, well should be able to take her. Thankfully, and to my surprise she was very hospitable and had no problem showing me the error of my ways. Instead of taking a left exiting the station I took a right, a right down one of the longest roads in the city. Correcting my mistake I entered the hostel having turned a simple 300meter stroll into a 1hr marathon. By the time I got settled in there was hardly anything left of the day, just enough time to have a small wander and familiarise myself with the surroundings a little. The hostel was really busy and the 8 bed dorm was totally full. There was this guy Dave, a doctor from Australia. Actually he is originally from China but he moved to Australia to study medicine and some how along the way he had managed to pick up a kiwi accent. It's so funny to hear him speak. There was a dude that I stayed with in the hostel in Tallinn, Alex from Argentina. It's cool when you get to met the same faces every now and then. It's not uncommon as everyone going south from the Baltic's is more than likely going to the same places. We were both going to Poland next but Alex was intending to go to Gdansk where as I was planning to head straight for Warsaw. Then there was this odd ball from England, Gordon, who works as a night porter in a hotel back home. Unlike the rest of us he was in Lithuania only for the weekend and was really envious of our stories of traveling for months at a time. In the few years that have passed since I traveled around the world to Australia I've gone from being the same age as the majority to being one of the oldest. No greater a time did I feel old was when meeting Irene and Clara, both 17 and traveling around Europe before they started university. Clara was from America and Irene was her Latvian cousin. If Dave sounded funny with the Chinese/ kiwi accent then even better was Irene, she had broken English but in a full blown American accent. It was really hard to take her seriously sometimes. They were two incredible girls though, such confidence. It's hard for me looking back to when I was 17, it's far too long a time away at this stage, but I can honestly say that I doubt I had the same confidence as these two. There is no way id have traveled around on my own at that time. Sure haven't I had enough difficulty getting around Europe thus far and I'm 29 never mind being 17. I spent the night teaching them all the little traveling tricks I knew but I suspect that they most likely could have taught me a thing or two. I did however pass on some essential knowledge, a card game called 'shithead'. I've played it all over the world with people from countries all over the world. Everyone might know it by a different name or slightly different rules but it's a great ice breaker in hostels. I'm not joking, a deck of cars is one of the first things I think to pack when I'm getting ready for the off. I was taught the game by some lads I lived with in college years ago and id never have guessed then that it would come in so handy. Thankfully its one of the few card games that I'm generally unbeatable with. Ill teach these little whipper snappers a lesson ;0).

Day one in Vilnius had to be designated a sight seeing day. I struggled getting enthusiastic about it, the endless sight seeing is getting a bit tiresome. However the weather was gorgeous and was crying out to be enjoyed. Vilnius is a quaint old world European capital but with a mysterious and quirky air. Where else could a ruined 13th century castle share the tourist spotlight with a monument tribute to Frank Zappa. The city itself lies on the bank of the Viliga River and in much the same tradition as the Baltic cities visited already, the old merges beautifully with the new. The hostel is in a great location to the 'old town', in the southern part of the city and where most of the action in Vilnius happens. Entry to the old town is through the 16th century 'Gates of Dawn' approximately 500meters from the hostel. The gate is the only intact remainder of the town's original nine gates. If I was going to give Vilnius a nickname it would be, the city of 1000 churches. Now I've no idea exactly how many churches there are but believe me when I tell you it's a lot. At the gates alone there are 4 churches, with the pink domed 17th century orthodox church of the Holy Spirit and the baroque St.Casimirs church being the more prominent. St.Casimirs is the oldest church in the city and is dedicated to Lithuania's patron saint. Situated on the eastern edge of the old town is another example of the quirky nature of Vilnius, the district of Uzupis. Uzupis is an area that in 1998 was declared an unofficial/ official breakaway republic. The district is inhabited by the city's resident artists, dreamers, squatters and drunks with their own tongue-in-cheek president, anthem, flags and a 41 point constitution. I wonder if I could get away with setting up my own country back home, the independent and breakaway republic of Leitrim or FIRM Former Irish Republic of Manorhamilton. I think it's got a nice ring to it, don't you?

Later in the night I roped the guys in the hostel into a night on the town. The hostel was organising these local guy's that would come and pick you up and bring you to some bars and a club but you would have to pay for the experience. Granted it wasn't a lot but it was still a waste of money. I figured we would be able to find our own way around, there was plenty of bars to choose from. As I mentioned before the old town of Vilnius is where most of the action happens and the spider web of cobbled streets provides plenty of options for a lively few beers. As the night wore on only myself, Dave, and Gordon were left so we bee lined for the closest nightclub we could find. It felt great to let the hair down as I hadn't been clubbing since I left Ireland. The nightclub was dark and dodgy looking but the music was pretty good. I think there must have been some open mike night for dj's, every half an hour there would be someone new spinning the disks. The music was dance but it was a bit tame compared to the clubs back home. I don't know if it was my dancing or if I just looked foreign but I always felt as if everyone was looking at me. I might have got all self conscious and left the dance floor if the alternative to dancing wasn't talking to Gordon. He was really starting to creep me out at this stage; some of his questions were so personal and would come right out of left field. When you would be talking to him he would just stare at you, it was like he was trying to hypnotise you with some kind of Jedi mind trick or something. He never seemed to blink, not that I saw anyway. I get a shiver just thinking about him now. I was dancing away when this one DJ got up to play and immediately you could tell he was better than the rest. The beats were much more hardcore but still not quite the levels you would want. You kept hoping for it to be lifted higher but you were always left disappointed. I made eye contact with him at one point and made a hand signal for him to raise the tempo a bit more, lift the roof off. With that he duly obliged my request and I responded with the thumbs up. For the whole of his set that was the way it went. It was great, like having my own personal DJ. I'm sure he was thinking how great it was to have this foreigner impressed by his set. After he finished I caught him for a chat. He didn't have much English but he could understand some of the basic complements I was paying him. He was pure chuffed with himself. When the rest of the guys got up after he would sit by the stage and if I pointed to the ceiling he would get up on stage and kick up the volume, I'm sure the other DJ's didn't appreciate him stealing their thunder. Vilnius is a much more enjoyable place to go out; it just feels so much more relaxed and more importantly safer than the likes of Riga. The Lithuanians may look as cold as the Latvians but in truth they are a very outgoing, cheeky bunch. The fact that most are willing to speak English is a big plus. Lying in my bunk at the hostel that night I was alerted by a noise and looked to see Gordon standing in the middle of the room, not even doing anything, just standing there. I was about to ask him if he was OK when he started to lean into the faces of everyone. It was so weird, I don't know if he was checking to see if everyone was asleep. I've never been happier to be on the top bunk before in my life. At home I would normally sleep with my hurley beside the bed, I fell asleep thinking that it might have been a good idea to have brought it with me.

My bus to Warsaw didn't depart till 10pm so I still had the day left to spend around Vilnius. The only area I had left to cover was the 'new town' and Cathedral Square districts of the city. One of the most important buildings is the 13th century Gediminas Castle and it's the symbol of Vilnius. The castle complex is a group of defensive buildings on the left bank of the Neris River. The upper part of the castle is situated atop Gediminas Hill and it's said that this is where the city was first founded. There is an observation platform within the castle tower which provides fantastic views of the old town. There is also a castle museum within the tower with some great photographic displays; entry Lt2. The buildings of the lower castle house the national museum of Lithuania and the museum of applied art. At the base of the hill is Cathedral Square, the biggest square in the city and one of the most popular places for Lithuanians to sit and relax. The square is dominated by Vilnius Cathedral and the cities version of the leaning tower of Pisa, the 'belfry' at one end and by a statue of St.Gediminas riding a horse at the opposite end. To the east of the hill is the youth park, where I spent the rest of the day immersed in a festival of traditional music and dance while sampling some local foods and drink. It was a nice way to spend the afternoon and my last few hours in Lithuania.

Leaving the hostel for the bus I felt sad saying goodbye to everyone. It had been a great few days. Unfortunately the nature of travelling means that you get to meet some people only for short periods before you have to move on again. Does anyone remember that show 'the littlest hobo'? It was about this german shepard dog. Anyways, I'm reminded of the theme song;
                                                  There's a voice, it keeps on calling me
                                                  Down the road that's where ill always be.
                                                  Every stop I take I make a new friend,
                                                  Can't stay for long, just turn around and I'm gone again.

The connections and relationships you have with people are just fleeting. It's rare you make lasting friendships for there is always another place to be and more people to meet.
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