From lati to litu

Monday 8th September 2008, Tytuvenai, Lithuania
Another country, another language, another currency and another people.

Before leaving our lovely Latvian campsite we went for a walk through the forests that cover the sand dunes all the way down the coast. We passed a man returning with a huge bucket overflowing with mushrooms. Encouraged by an email from our Hungarian friend Kati, we gathered a few ourselves and checked with the people on the campsite that they were safe. Passing out of the forest and over the final dunes we found ourselves alone in the world. The silver grey Baltic stretched to the horizon without a ship in sight. Behind us lay the empty dunes with the wind blowing gently through the marram grass while in each direction the empty beach stretched away into the distance. Afraid of not finding where we'd come from we drew huge arrows in the sand before setting off to search for amber. We didn't find any but this is probably because we didn't know what it would look like. With hindsight we probably discarded several tiny fragments as insignificant pebbles. It's quite amazing how much of it there is in the world! Apparently the early forests developed some malady that led to overproduction of resin and the weakening of the trees and it all ended up in the Baltic millions of years ago. Because it oozed from the tree bark as a sticky resin insects and plants were frequently trapped and preserved within the drops. We are led to wonder whether their DNA has been preserved and whether it might be possible to clone extinct species from it.

Farmhouse where we camped near Liepaja, Latvia

Baltic beach near Liepaja, Latvia

An hour's drive down the coast road brought us to the deserted border post with Lithuania. We'd miscalculated and still had some £70 of Latvian money with us. Being Sunday we've been unable to change it yet and it's useless in Lithuania. Both countries though are only too happy to accept euros instead. They will be changing long before Britain. The more we travel the more we wonder why Britain hangs on to sterling. On the currency exchange lists here it comes way below the euro, rouble and dollar, indeed many banks don't bother to list the exchange rate for the pound.

Latvian money

Our first stop was at the country's premier seaside resort of Palanga. For once the sun was shining brightly and the weather uncomfortably close and warm. We found a cash machine and, based on the price we'd seen for diesel at a nearby garage, assumed there were around four litu (singular litas) to the pound. The machine gave us a 200 litu note. Great! It's Sunday, who wants to change a note worth £50 for the loo? The man handing out the toilet paper in the ladies loo didn't understand my words but appreciated I was some kind of destitute in need of relief, patted my arm, said something in Russian and lead me to a clean but shabby hole in the ground toilet. Oh no, they are here too!

Our immediate problems solved we set off in search of food. Our first impression of the country is one of unmitigated admiration for the diet of the inhabitants! The town had a plethora of eating places. The one we chose was packed with people tucking into the local fare. The most popular dish was undoutedly a soggy zeppelin-shaped glutinous concoction of shredded potato dumpling filled with meat and topped with a white viscous sauce. For good measure they were served with boiled potatoes!

Wondering what to choose and intimidated by the harsh expression on the face of the serving lady we backed into a corner to consult our phrase book. The national dish is obviously the potato but the zepplins looked so daunting we hoped to find something less copious. We discovered we could try vedarai – pigs intestines stuffed with potato, bulviu plokstainis – a baked slab of potato, bulviu blynai – potato pancakes, and of course cepelinai – the zeppelin shaped potato dumplings. All were served coated in the unctuous white sauce. Variety was added with such delectables as kibinas – a sort of meat pasty-cum-pancake, koldunai – a kind of ravioli, and desra – a thick salami sausage served with chips.

Nervously we told the fierce looking lady we didn't understand the menu, did she speak English? She scowled and shrugged, then wandered off to serve a double helping of vedarai and white custard to the person behind us. So we cowardly selected several dishes from the self-service section to share, causing gasps of amazement as we turned up at the till with a tray of orange juice, saltibarsciai – bright pink, cold beetroot soup with a dollop of sour cream, a kibinas and a couple of what we assumed were side salads but later discovered had salted Baltic herring lurking beneath the raw grated carrots and onions. Everyone stared at us. How were we going to survive without even a stuffed intestine to keep us going 'til supper time?

Next we walked down to the seafront along a beautifully maintained promenade edged with decorative flower borders, bars and entertainments. Being Sunday, people were flocking their way to the white sandy beach stretching between the sea and the dunes that sheltered the town from the winter gales. Everyone, but everyone, along the seafront was clutching an ice cream or fluffy candyfloss while on the beach the barmen were ladling litres for Lithuania! From the beach a pier led out half a kilometre into the sea from where we could look back at the crowded beach – such a contrast with further up the coast. As we strolled with the crowd we bumped into the family from Coventry again! They told us there is no campsite in the town and they are camped in somebody's back garden. He saw them with their caravan on the street and offered to accommodate them.

Promenade, Palanga, Lithuania

Pier at Palanga

After a paddle, an ice cream and a potter around the souvenir stalls selling amber in all its possible manifestations, we strolled along a shady seafront arcade towards the famed botanical gardens. On the way we discovered an avenue named after John Simpson, a Scotsman who became mayor of Klaipeda – further down the coast – between 1758 and 1774. As my original name was Jill Simpson I was rather chuffed at this!

A road by any other name. Fame at last! Palanga

The botanical gardens are very lovely but more like a beautiful park than a garden of specimens. In the centre is the house of the Tyszkiewicz family who originally developed the town as a tourist resort.

House of the Tyszkiewicz family, Palanga

Gardens from the terrace of the house, Palanga

Interior of the house, Palanga

It is used now as a museum for amber. Fortunately the signs were in Lithuanian, Russian and English. There are amazing specimens with insects imbedded and it can be found in quite large lumps as well as tiny fragments such as those we possibly found and discarded. The museum leads you on through displays of jewellery throughout history and ends with a shop where you can buy modern pieces. The museum was soon to close and we were the last people admitted for the afternoon so we were hustled through with lights being switched off behind us as we went.

Baltic amber with insects, Palanga

Baltic amber with insects, Palanga

By now it was late afternoon and we'd no idea what to do for overnight accommodation. We left Palanga heading east towards the nearest campsite we had listed, some 200 kilometres towards Vilnius, hoping to find somewhere on the way. We didn't and by the time we reached here it was almost dark. Fortunately the roads seem in far better condition here than they were in either Estonia or Latvia, though our impression of the driving is that it is infinitely worse, even than Latvia with its bad reputation. We passed one accident, hundreds of squashed hedgehogs and were constantly carved up by drivers tearing down the highway on the wrong side. Needing to turn left (we drive on the right remember) our signal was completely ignored by three drivers behind us while the fourth skidded and made rude signs at us for wanting to move out across the road! Then someone pulled across in front of us at a cross roads – good job Modestine's brakes work - and traffic lights exist purely for us as it seems everyone else ignores them.

Eventually we left the weekend traffic behind and found ourselves in deepest rural Lithuania. We have found the countryside to be far less wooded here than in Latvia and Estonia with wide open fields stretching across a gently undulating landscape. We passed through villages of wooden houses that really were village communities with schools and lots of people standing chatting in the evening sunshine. Each cottage was surrounded by apple trees and its own productive vegetable garden. Every family seems to have its own cow and right across the countryside we saw people walking out into the fields with a pail and stool where they would sit in the middle of the field with their lonely cow, milking her. Sometimes the whole family were there, chatting together around their cow as she was milked, treating her almost like the family pet. Away from the main roads too, the car is not the most used form of transport. For getting around and between the villages people use bicycles or walk along the roadside for long distances. Out in the fields are huge combine harvesters looking shabby and rusty but still functioning while frequently along the roads we encountered transport from a bygone age as horses pulled home-made wooden hay wagons back from the fields for the night.

Lithuania traffic on a busy byway

And so we eventually found this listed campsite by a lake. The only person we could find was the night watchman. It's also an hotel but nobody is camping or staying. He charged us an arbitrary 35litu (around £8) and linked us up to the hotel's electric supply. We have the use of the toilets and a shower in the wooden sauna down on the lake. The young man on duty was delighted to use his English but apologetic for it being rusty. He explained he'd been to London and spoke with enthusiasm about Clapham Junction and the Docklands Light Railway which he'd ridden on using his zone B metro ticket! I think we made quite a lively difference to his evening!

Monday evening
This morning we lingered so long we decided to stay another night here. After all, it's a day's drive to the next site and there was somewhere in the region we needed to visit.

Children's play area on our campsite where carved wooden figures decorate the grounds, Sedula, Latvia

So it was late morning by the time we drove off to the nearest town, Radviliskis, some 40 kilometres away, in search of fuel, lunch, shopping and a bank. Having changed most of our left-over Latvian lati to Lithuanian litu (they refused to change the coins, each worth more than £1) we had money to buy diesel for Modestine who was beginning to feel quite weak and empty. Next we went in search of our own lunch, determined to try out the zeppelins. Everything on the menu was potato in some shape or form but we stuck to our guns – and here's the photo to prove it! As you see, no vegetables and two glutinous lumps of potato filled with sausage meat, served with sour cream and fried bacon swimming in fat. Ian actually managed to finish his! We both felt more like lead balloons than floating zeppelins by the time we finished eating them and the young waitress returned to ask if we'd like cherry pancakes and cream for dessert. They'd looked wonderful when we first arrived but now they'd rather lost their attraction.

Ian's Lithuanian lunch

The sight we wished to see is known as the "Hill of Crosses". From pagan times – not that long ago in Lithuania where Christianity only really took off in the 14th century – the hill has been venerated. Sometime during the early 19th century crosses started to be placed there, a practice which continued until Soviet times when the site was banned and the crosses destroyed. Not surprisingly they immediately began to reappear as fast as the Soviets cleared them. After Lithuanian independence, Pope John Paul 2nd made a pilgrimage here on 7th September 1993 (fifteen years ago yesterday), and placed his own cross on the hill. Since that time the number of crosses has escalated to hundreds of thousands. It is a very strange sight and although many of those leaving crosses are genuinely fervent, it has obviously become something of a cult with young people walking to the hill carrying wooden crosses and rosaries being sold at the souvenir stall at the entrance. At the hill itself there are crosses of every size and every material. There are even knitted crosses and crosses made from lego and lolly sticks! There are crosses on crosses on crosses. It is both macabre and touching to wander the narrow paths between the crosses, reading messages of hope or gratitude from suppliants from around the world. Nearby stands a Fransiscan monastery, set up following the Pope's visit, and the site is now recognised throughout the Catholic world.

Cross erected by Pope John Paul 2nd at Kryzu Kalnas, plus a few others, Lithuania

Kryzu Kalnas, Lithuania

Pope John Paul's message at Kryzu Kalnas, Lithuania

Finally today we have visited the town of Siauliai, one of the largest in the country. It was badly damaged by the Soviets during the second World War and did not strike us as particularly attractive or interesting. The centre is clean and modern with most of the population still living in characterless Soviet flats on the edge of the town. In general though, we feel Lithuania is cleaner, smarter, richer and more developed economically than appeared to be the case in either Latvia or Estonia. Certainly the roads are in a far better state of repair. It was rush hour as we left the city and total mayhem with vehicles weaving across lanes with complete disregard for anybody else. There are dozens of police cars on the roads – something we never saw once in the other two Baltic states – but it makes little difference. The only time we have witnessed caution in drivers here is at level crossings where throughout the country there are no barriers and the train warning lights seem rather unreliable.

Cathedral at Siauliai, reconstructed in the 1950s

It seemed a very long drive back to this campsite where we are still the only people here. The night security guard has just let Ian use his computer to read our email but as it was a favour we didn't like to use it for longer. Tonight's guard speaks German rather than English but is as friendly and helpful as the one last night.