Vilnius and around

Wednesday 10th September 2008, Trakai, Lithuania
Life on the road is always filled with surprises, sometimes wonderful and sometimes rather irritating. We've had both over the past two day.

To get the irritating things out of the way first, we discovered yesterday morning that the campsite in Lithuania's capital, Vilnius was closing next weekend. So we changed our plans around and headed directly there so we'd have a few days to explore as we have done in the other Baltic capitals.

We missed our turn-off in Vilnius – we don't have a GPS remember. Most of the time we don't need one but it would have been a godsend trying to find our way around Vilnius. It's a remarkably scary experience. Lithuanian drivers don't lead charmed lives, they just have crashes! We've seen no Italians here and have concluded that they are afraid to leave the mayhem of Naples because even they are scared of the drivers here!

Having run the gauntlet of the city trying to find our way to the campsite, when the road numbers are not displayed and signs directing us to Warsaw, Minsk and Moscow did little to inspire confidence, more by luck than judgement we found ourselves on the right side of the city and eventually reached the campsite. Unsurprisingly it turned out to be an unprepossessing area of hard-standing with a couple of portaloos beside the trade exhibition hall in an out-of-town industrial area. It was however paradise to us after the trauma of the roads. Like paradise though, it was not to be ours and after all too short a stay we have been thrown out onto the suicidal racetrack that surrounds the city. "Ha, we close today" exclaimed a cheerful young man wielding an electric screwdriver as he dismantled the reception desk. There are only a dozen campsites in Lithuania and they are closing down around us as we head for home. Despite what the camping guidebooks may say, the site managers are a law unto themselves and with so few campers around he'd decided to close early. Magnanimously he allowed us to stay overnight with warnings that if we used the shower or loo this morning we may find ourselves hoisted onto a lorry when it collected them for the winter. With nowhere else to camp we've had no option but to move 35 kilometres outside the city to an all year campsite. Moans over, now for the wonderful things.

Television tower near the campsite. It made news headlines around the world when the Soviets attempted, unsuccessfully, to capture it in 1991 as a last ditch attempt to reassert their authority. A number of Lithuanians defending the tower were killed. Vilnius

Shortly after leaving Tytuvenai, driving along pretty, undulating roads through the tranquil Lithuanian countryside, we saw an interesting village on a small nearby hill. At the edge of a woodland our way was blocked by a couple of coaches with their doors open. Dozens of uniformed soldiers clambered out and rushed down to disappear into the forest. Puzzled we continued, only to pass several other similar convoys of coaches laden with military personnel. The main street into the village of Siluva was closed to traffic with police and soldiers diverting vehicles. The streets were packed with people and stalls selling religious knick-knacks. Around the village outskirts we went, following the coaches in front along a rutted track and eventually into the farmyard of an elderly Lithuanian farmer trying to back his horse into a wooden cart. He was not best pleased, shaking his fist at the coach drivers as they almost demolished his already fragile wooden farmhouse. When we found ourselves directed into a field and asked for 3 litu to park we decided we might as well give up trying to get to Vilnius for a while, go with the flow and finds out what it was all about. As we joined with the crowds from all over Lithuania and the country's massed military machine to walk back into the village, we were invited by roadside stall holders to buy their honey, mushrooms, rosaries, crucifixes, bags of biscuits and CDs of religious music.

Blocking the farmyard, Siluva

In the village centre we discovered that by chance we'd arrived in Siluva on the 400th anniversary of the apparition of the Virgin Mary to some local shepherds on 9th September 1608. It is one of only five authenticated apparitions of the Virgin in Europe and it is very important to the fiercely Catholic Lithuanians who had flocked to the village to take part in a celebratory open air Mass. So important was it that the Lithuanian armed services were there in force leaving the rest of the country practically defenceless. If Russia wanted to stage a coup through nearby Kaliningrad, it would have been the perfect opportunity. Now we understood why the soldiers had been tumbling from the coach into the woods. After such a long drive across the country they needed relieving before joining the military parade through the village!

Arriving for the Mass, Siluva

Pope John Paul 2nd had a very busy couple of days in Lithuania back in September 1993. He celebrated Mass in the church here as well as visiting the Hill of Crosses. There is a huge statue of him on the processional walkway up to the church entrance. The Catholic world shows obvious signs of wanting him canonised. At the far end of the paved area a chapel is built on the site where the Virgin manifested herself. Inside we found it packed while outside several priests had set up temporary confessionals with long queues of penitents. We were taken aback to see an elderly lady dressed in black with a headscarf, clutching her rosary and praying as she moved right the way around the exterior of the chapel on her knees!

Pope John Paul 2nd, Siluva

Chapel of the Virgin Mary, Siluva

Soldiers waiting to enter the chapel, Siluva

Waiting for confession, Siluva

Moving slowly up to the doors of the chapel, Siluva

From down the street came the sound of a military band and the tramp of marching feet. The various squadrons of soldiers, airmen and seamen marched through the village with their regimental banners and took their places for the open air Mass. The crowds filled the benches and a column of priests dressed in celebratory white robes, headed by several cardinals in purple ones, took the seats at the front and the service eventually began. Around the village however, there were still thousands of people buying religious souvenirs, praying in front of various statues or just enjoying a lovely sunny day out. The kerbside was filled with beggars and cripples, some displaying terrible sores and swollen limbs, other displaying that they had no limbs to display. Some perhaps were hoping for a miraculous cure on such a day.

Cardinals and military officers together before the ceremonies, Siluva

About to join the parade, Siluva

Military march past, Siluva

And still they come, Siluva

Priests leaving their monastery, Siluva

Shortly before the Mass, Siluva

As we returned to Modestine we saw the old farmer of earlier setting off down the street with his horse and cart, relieved no doubt that the worst was over and he'd be left in peace for another 400 years.

Saying it with flowers, Siluva

And so we continued to Vilnius with its attendant frustrations. The campsite staff told us where and how to get a bus into the city and, anxious to see as much as we could, we set off immediately, spending several hours exploring the old town and returning to Modestine long after dark.

Gate of Dawn at the entrance to the city. An important icon of the Madonna can be seen at the window of the chapel, Vilnius

Philharmonic building,Vilnius

Possibly we are beginning to suffer capital fatigue - it's our 6th capital in roughly as many weeks – but personally I found it difficult to get as enthusiastic over Vilnius as over either Tallin or Riga. It could be though, that so many of the buildings of the old town are 17th century baroque. Over the past three years we have seen so much baroque that it now fails to charm. I'm convinced there must have been factories back then churning out cherubs, reliquaries, pulpits, confessionals, friezes and curly bits with gold paint to surround religious paintings that were mass produced at another factory. Many baroque buildings are charming, but it became so fashionable it ended up spoiling the character of many old churches. Baroque is to church architecture what Starbucks and Macdonalds are to the character of today's highstreets. Take a nice gothic church and "renovate" it. Change it to something pretty, modern and trendy by ripping off the roof and putting up a curly portico, or removing the rood screen and replacing it with white angels, gold paint and lots of piped icing on the walls. Here in Vilnius we saw the ultimate in Baroque churches when we visited the Russian Orthodox Cathedral and found it had had a make-over! Russian icons with Italianate curlicues!

Super-sized Macdonald-style Baroque "restoration", Bernadine Church, Vilnius

Baroque interior of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral, Vilnius

Basilian Gate, Vilnius

St. Casimir's church – it became a museum of Atheism during Soviet times,Vilnius

Baroque façade of St. Nicholas, Vilnius

Baroque ostentation, St. Casimir, Vilnius

In Vilnius we are aware that we are gradually returning to the mainstream of European cities. For the first time on this round of travels we have been approached by confidence tricksters with tales of how they are collecting money to help set up hospitals back in Russia because of the terrible conditions there where people are dying from lack of medicines. Please will we give them some money to help. We now count ourselves amongst the Brazil nuts when it comes to cracking open foreign tourists and have little difficulty ignoring such liars but they must succeed sometimes or they wouldn't waste their time.

Later in the evening we decided to have supper in town and see the city by night. Everywhere in the centre catered for international tourists and there was absolutely no local atmosphere. The menus were mainly international cuisine. The restaurant we eventually selected served mainly pizzas but we chose chicken with chanterelle mushrooms. When it came it was simply pizza topping served with chips. The waiter then gave us the wrong change, assuming a couple of old biddies looking at their notes and coins wouldn't know the difference in the dim lighting so would not realise we'd been short-changed by 50 litu. (£12.50) Wrong, buster! Ian knew exactly what he'd given and was assertive enough to get the waiter to hand over the rest of the change fairly promptly. It's his own fault that he got no tip from us. That's the difference with tourist places and mixing in with the ordinary people, where we were recently called back for a few cents owing to us.

At the campsite this morning there was just time to shower before the walls came down and one end of the kitchen got folded up while we were washing our breakfast dishes in the other end. The young men told us they would be clearing the site for a few hours so we could leave Modestine plugged into the electricity and go into town so long as we moved off during the afternoon.

So we returned to the city and wandered through the streets of art nouveau buildings, similar to the ones in Riga, around the area of the cathedral. The cathedral is actually a very pleasant change from the baroque being neo-classical in style with a separate belfry.

Neo-Classical Cathedral, Vilnius

Neo-classical Town Hall, 1799,Vilnius

Grand Duke Gediminas of Lithuania and founder of Vilnius, 1271-1341,Vilnius (Beside the Cathedral)

Vilnius once had a large and important Jewish community with a synagogue of renown and many scholars. Indeed at the start of the 20th century about 40 per cent of the population of Vilnius was Jewish. Now though, although we sought out the ghetto area, apart from a couple of plaques and memorials there was little evidence that it had ever existed.

Memorial in the Jewish ghetto, Vilnius

We found the President's residence. We must have seen the palaces of most of the republics of Europe by now. The one in Vilnius is larger and more opulent than many and stands opposite the impressive, mainly 17th century university buildings. The University library holds the first book printed in Lithuania along with numerous other treasures, but we were stopped as we tried to enter and handed a notice in English stating only students were admitted to the library but we could buy tickets to see the rest of the buildings including their baroque church! As nobody spoke English we gave up trying to explain we were not interested in yet more churches and had a professional interest in visiting the library. I wonder if Erasmus ever encountered similar difficulties. As tourists you are expected to want certain things, such as plastic pizzas, Budweiser beer, amber jewellery, tacky souvenirs, guided tours in large groups and lots and lots of churches. You are not expected to want to see libraries, need to use a toilet or share a table in the market with a lady in a headscarf for lunch.

Presidential Palace, Vilnius

University building, Vilnius

Sorry to keep going on about churches. You've probably had quite enough by now. I know I have. However, we discovered the lovely brick gothic church of St. Anne which is worth a mention. We were not the only ones to be enchanted with it. Napoleon thought it such a gem he said he'd like to take it home with him in the palm of his hand.

Church of St. Anne, Vilnius

There are many impressive buildings in Vilnius and some people we have spoken to prefer it to Riga and Tallinn. Perhaps it depends which you visit first. Much of what Vilnius has to offer is similar to buildings we've seen elsewhere.

Returning to catch the trolleybus back to Modestine we discovered the market. It's a poor shadow of a place compared with the vitality of Riga but a refreshing change from the tourist showpiece of the old town. Meat is sold in the centre of the hall and clothes around the edges - skirts and briefs with skirt of beef. In a corner we found a café. We can now actually work out some of the things on menus and ordered a couple of plates of potato pancakes with chopped herbs served with a creamy curd cheese sauce. They were delicious and a fraction of the cost of last night's meal.

By the way, the one word we use with great regularity is "thank you". In Lithuanian this is "aciu", pronounced exactly like a sneeze! Fortunately the hay fever season is well and truly over, otherwise the people here would be overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of Ian's gratitude.

On the way home on the trolley bus – driven by a lovely smiling young lady with nerves of steel – we were held up for ages by a lorry that had a car impaled on its front bumper, on the very roundabout Ian forced me to drive round twice yesterday on our search for the campsite.

Back in the empty wasteland where once had been a campsite, Modestine stood patiently waiting. Ian assured me we would be straight out onto the road going in the right direction to leave Vilnius behind. An hour later we were still struggling to find a way out, wedged between lorries, vans and trolley buses, always in the wrong lane and the only ones to stop at traffic lights. If I'd had the time to think my nerve would have failed. Of course we did eventually escape the city and arrived here in the national park of Trakai. Trakai itself is a pleasant little town on the edge of a lake. It was once administratively important and has a castle which is one of the famed sights of Lithuania.

Incidentally, just to the north of Vilnius lies the spot that cartographers have decided is the very centre of Europe! There is nothing very remarkable there except a Centre of Europe museum! We have not bothered to visit but it is awesome to realise that after three years of pottering around Europe we are still only half-way across! It makes us realise just how vast Russia actually is even after losing its former Soviet controlled areas in the west. Europe stretches from the westernmost tip of Spain right the way across to the Urals and from the North Cape down as far as Crete or Sicily. I think we will give the Urals a miss and bow out gracefully on this one!

The last to leave, Vilnius

Thursday 11th September 2008, Trakai, Lithuania
Today we found time to suffer "burn-out". We didn't wake up until gone 8am and the day was sufficiently cold to make snoozing in bed a little longer extremely pleasant. Yesterday evening we'd done a megaload of laundry and hung it out to dry. Unfortunately yesterday's sunshine had been replaced this morning by a thin grey mizzle. Hoping the sun would put in an appearance we asked the campsite if there was any chance we could use their wifi. So we sat in their lounge all morning catching up on emails and sending a couple of blogs.

After lunch in Modestine we decided to risk the black clouds and visit Trakai, about 3 miles round the lake from here. Unfortunately the gravel road to the site is dug up for at least a kilometre and the road closed. The only solution was to force Hinge and Bracket out of retirement and make them do some work. As usual they protested, complaining their tyres were soft and their tiny wheels wouldn't turn on the sandy gravel and there was no way they could squeeze past that bulldozer and dumper lorry. We persisted and eventually reached the edge of the little town and the bridge linking the castle island to the mainland.

The castle is rather like the red brick one we visited in Turaida and like that it has been largely restored. The concept of restoration here is not of conserving what remains, as we tend to do, but of completely rebuilding and adding central heating for good measure. Tour groups come out from Vilnius to see around so there were various groups with Japanese, French and German guides. It was interesting but nowhere near the fun we had at Rakvere. Inside were various exhibitions of porcelain, glass, furniture and what our guidebook described as "an eminently missable history of pipe smoking."

Island Castle, Trakai

Of far more curiosity though, is the establishment in Trakai of the Karaim, a group of central Asian people of Khazar extraction, back in the 14th century. How they came to be here is convoluted but the interesting thing is that they held a referendum on what their religious philosophy should be and decided on Judaism! They set up their own community with special customs, rites, religion and laws. Their wooden homes are still found beside the lake and the descendants today still have their own place of worship. Although their religious practice is very akin to the Jewish religion they are not Jewish so presumably their place of worship is not a synagogue. One is led to wonder what Hitler must have made of it all when he was busy exterminating anyone with Jewish connections in this part of the world.

Karaim houses, Trakai

Karaim Kenessa or place of worship, Trakai

It came on to rain again as we were shopping so we pedalled back to the campsite, arriving wet and chilly, where we are reduced to sharing Modestine with a mountain of half dried laundry! Which reminds me. An essential item to pack when travelling as we do is a hair dryer. Not so much for its official purpose but for all the useful things you can do with it. Drying off damp undies, warming up Modestine and even drying out the inside of rain-sodden shoes when you've no other dry ones left. (This in desperation but it does work!)

Looking at the map there is no way we can reach a campsite from here tomorrow night, so we will be reduced to sleeping by the roadside somewhere along the Polish, Lithuanian, Russian border. We have to drive right round the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad and as most of the roads are reputed to be in poor condition it will take an age and be very uncomfortable.