mardi 16 juin 2009

Lovely Lithuania

I recently spent a school year in Iceland about which I could surely right many articles. However, whilst I was there I befriended a lovely Lithuanian and she spent hours explaining how beautiful her country was and telling me that I should visit it. During Easter Break, I took up on her offer to see Lithuania. We flew from Iceland to Warsaw since it was the nearest place possible and then took the train up to near the border. Though Poland and Lithuania are linked geographically, the rail and bus connections between both countries need further development. A friend picked us up near the border from Augustow in Northern Poland and drove us to my friend’s hometown, the lovely spa town of Druskininkai. The day’s agenda had us going immediately to the capital, Vilnius then to Riga, Latvia for the night. One of the advantages of being in Europe is that crossing borders is easy as the Schengen Agreement means there are virtually no controls. Lithuania seems made for hitchhiking as the people are friendly and there are many bus stops along the main roads where one can comfortably wait to be picked up. Unfortunately, only people from the younger generation speak English. The Lithuanian language has changed very little over the past thousand years and they are proud of their language which is full of declensions and lines and dots where we would never imagine (dotting the “e” as well as the “i” for example). By hitchhiking, the 128 km trek to Vilnius can be done quite quickly and then met a friend for the three or four hour drive to Riga.

After a day in Riga which is full out of its own history and a love for hockey rarely found out of Canada, we discovered the spectacular western coast of Lithuania. The country is characterized by an immense pine forest, fresh air and a radical transformation since the fall of the Soviet Union: the heavy polluting industry of the past has been filled with tourism and a market economy. The modern port city of Klaipéde is a prime example. From there, a ferry for 36 Litas (18$) will take you to the Curonian spit. It is one of the crown jewels of Baltic Sea coastline and its national park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The spit is full of pines growing on sand, a remarkable and beautiful phenomenon. Only a few kilometres in, one can see where fire destroyed part of the immense forest. Further, a clearing where thousands of grey herons nest and destroy the tall trees in which they live shows how the ecosystem works to find its own balance. Europe’s largest sand dunes are next and the beach nearby dwarfs anything Eastern Canada has to offer in terms of peacefulness and serenity. In the summertime, locals assure me that the beach is relatively quiet though the water is nice and the temperature outside reaches in the 30 Cs. The town of Nida lies at the southern tip of Lithuania’s part of the spit, Russia owns the rest. This town is famous for its fish which is highly recommended. Since I am less fond of fish, I tried a Lithuanian beer snack which is about as healthy as our poutine: deep-fried garlic bread with cheese melted on it - it is delicious.

Weekend nights mean party time in the capital Vilnius and unlike in Ottawa, Lithuanians know how to have a good time. Although it is no longer legal to drink on the streets, bars are open until six AM with a party going inside. I checked out Woo where a 90’s party blared through the night. The next morning, we set back off to Druskininkai and the spring weather was lovely; it is similar to Ottawa without the humidity. Druskininkai is perfect for those who appreciate a slower pace of life and need to relax. That is why many Poles, Byelorussians and Russians find their way there to enjoy the amazing Aquapark: almost twenty hot tubs, twenty saunas of all types imaginable, two huge pools and four slides and costs 18 dollars for a satisfying three hour excursion. Afterwards, you can rent a bike for only 3 dollars an hour and take the various paths along the two big ponds in town, see a beautiful, blue Russian Orthodox church and explore the woodlands near the Byelorussian border. Outdoorsy people can find something to do in Lithuania all year long as a vast network of snowmobile and 4-wheeler trails criss-cross the country. Clean lakes and rivers also provide for an abundance of places to swim when the summer gets hot or when one is in a fishing mood.

Fifteen kilometres out of town is the amazing Gruto Park or Stalin World. There, a huge collection of Soviet-era statues of Stalin, Lenin and Lithuanian Communists set in a Gulag prison-camp setting offers visitors the chance to discover how life was during Soviet occupation. A restaurant serves Soviet-style food such as milk sausages and fish with a quarter litre vodka accompaniment for about 4$. Of course, this fantastic museum did not come without controversy; many were quick to condemn it as a glorification of a terrible time, but it has survived and grown over the years and is a must-see for those who wonder about those old Soviet days.

Back in Vilnius, the 2009 European capital of culture, a nation celebrates the one thousandth anniversary of its name. The largest country in Europe during a part of the middle Ages, Lithuania has since been part of the Russian, German and Polish empires at various times and was a centre of Jewish learning for many years, all of which has influenced the country through architecture, culture and otherwise. Beautiful cathedrals and churches line the streets, including St. Anne’s which Napoleon wanted to transport back to France while he was heading towards Russia. The Gate of Dawn was blessed by Pope John Paul II as the Virgin Mary has been seen there. Great and inexpensive restaurants can be found and their fare is both traditional and healthy – fast food never really reached Lithuanians and though there are a few McDonald’s, they aren’t cheaper than anything else. The trendy and artistic neighbourhood Uzupis has its own constitution requiring cats to be there for their owner though loving is not necessary. Two bridges adorned with locks giving good luck to lovers join the area to the rest of Vilnius over the river Vilnele. The downtown core is very easy to walk and signs in Lithuanian and English make a visitor comfortable.

According to Lithuanians, the best time to visit is during the late spring and the summer and with the economy as it is, Lithuania and the Baltic states remain a relatively cheap destination that few from this side of the Atlantic have yet to discover. Taking my friend’s advice to visit was one of the best things I ever did!

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