Authie et Mi

First impressions of Lithuania

13th April 2012

Is it a good idea to fly on Friday the 13th ? In my case I almost didn’t because although I had allowed enough time (I thought) at the airport I had misjudged the fact that my Ryanair boarding pass didn’t actually tell me which terminal I was flying from. It took me fifteen minutes to realise my error and by the time I reached Terminal 2 there were so many people trying to get through security that they ended up having to start searching out those of us for Vilnius to get us through in time for the flight.

On the plane I was surrounded by a group of excited teenagers from a French college, who were nowhere near as rowdy as the three Russians a number of rows back who appeared to have drunk a couple of towns dry on the way to the airport.

The flight was smooth and on time and my mate Vytautas was at Arrivals to greet me. We collected his car and set off for the city centre a short distance away. As we had come in to land I noticed that there were still places where the last traces of snow could be seen so the grass everywhere was a rather sad pale green, but there was plenty of it.

Everywhere you look there are forests and isolated farms scattered across the countryside.

Although Lithuania is a Baltic country rather than eastern Europe it was still under Soviet domination for decades and it is difficult not to draw certain comparisons with Russia and Poland.

The road system struck me as being remarkably good; a few pot holes here and there in town but we get that in France after heavy snow and freezing conditions where the weight of traffic (in our case heavy agricultural machinery) rips up the roads as the ice melts.

The speed of the traffic in an urban area is intimidating and most drivers seem to be well practised at the ‘Moscow’ art of weaving from lane to lane to dodge the trolley buses and pot holes. A sign of the speed is the fact that the traffic lights have to have a flashing green before going amber; presumably to warn drivers that they need to speed up if they don’t want to have to stop !

We parked near to the cathedral and went to eat in Pilies gatvė (which I think means Castle Street) one of the typically narrow streets of the city and heart of tourist land.

The streets and pavements are incredibly clean. Little in the way of litter, and all Lithuanian dogs must be constipated because (unlike France) you rarely had to watch where you were walking.

I know little about Lithuania and pretty much nothing about its culinary prowess, however any nation that appears to have a food base of : potatoes and something else to go with them is fine by me. My first meal consisted of one of the national dishes : Cepelinai (Zeppelins), which are grated potato dumplings stuffed with meat. To accompany it Vytautas suggested a plate of fried bread with garlic. It turned out not quite as I was expecting because you take the bread and rub the garlic cloves into it. With that and a glass of Švyturys Baltijos amber beer inside me I was all set for the afternoon.

Knowing that I was going to be on foot most of the time Vytautas proposed that he took me to two places that he knew that I would want to visit that were too far out to be easy to get to. He knows me so well – both were cemeteries.

Lithuania’s history has been a complicated affair of nationhood and occupation. Poles, Russians, Germans, Nazis and Soviets have all had their moments in occupying the country and are commemorated in numerous military cemeteries and monuments (sometimes for fighting one of the others).

However the main reason I wanted to visit the Antakalnis Cemetery (Antakalnio Kapinės) was because of its mass grave of soldiers from Napoleon’s army who perished in Vilnius from hunger and the freezing conditions on the great retreat from Moscow in 1812. They were found in 2002 during excavations and I have to say that I was disappointed to find that the grave was a simple grass plot. Not an Imperial Eagle of French flag in sight.

The various military plots form an odd sort of collection. There are Germans and Turks (?) from the Great War, then there are the Polish soldiers who (having invaded Lithuania themselves) fought the Nazis. Graves of said Nazis fighting the Soviets; graves of Soviet soldiers killed fighting the Lithuanian partisans and following their independence from the Soviet Union the graves of the Partisans murdered by the Soviet authorities.

Aside from all that though, the cemetery has become a resting place for the famous and some of the monumental stones are wonderful: beautifully crafted slabs of marble or carved wooden images.

But we had to get me settled in to the flat and then catch up with Evaldas so that we could go and eat – again. They took me out into the wilds to an old mill that is now a restaurant complex and obvious setting for weddings and family gatherings. The place has dozens of halls across the complex and states that it can cater for up to 1500 diners. It was certainly doing a roaring trade whilst I was there.

The weather was not looking fantastic for the holiday, but even in the grey light of an overcast day my first impressions were that it was going to be a good trip but I was not likely to lose any weight.

More to come…

Posted : 19 April 2012

Travel, Lithuania