Siauliai – Buses and Crosses

Leaving the Hill of Crosses one does have a distinct feeling that one has seen quite enough crosses to last a life time.

The Hill of Crosses

It is said that this saddle bag hill 12 kilometres outside of Siauliai was once a pagan alter. How this remote location, far from anything, came to be a holy place is unknown, but the legend describes it as such.

Many centuries later – at some time around the 1830’s – it became the home to a cross or two. Over time the crosses have multiplied and today the saddle bag hill hosts hundreds of thousands of mainly wooden crosses placed there by pilgrims and a large part by especially Polish and German tourists.

The crosses are mostly wooden and unfortunately many of them are identical and have their origin in the souvenir shops at the entrance. But others are of a more personal character. It is particularly fascinating to search through the forest of souvenir crosses and discover those crosses which truly light up and show that they were planted there for a reason and by someone who really cared and believed.

And the Lithuanians care and believe. This is a centre for the Lithuanian national feeling and for their spite against Soviet rule. Here they fought a battle against oppression. Here they defeated the atheistic rule of the Soviet Union. Three times did the Soviets bulldoze the crosses of the saddle bag hill. Three times did Lithuanians, in the darkness of night, raise new crosses. The will of the Lithuanian people is shown in this place and in their pride in it.

And for that reason – if for none other – a visit to the saddle bag hill with the thousands of crosses is worth the trouble to get there.

Leaving, however, one does have a distinct feeling that one has seen quite enough crosses to last a life time.

For pathetic Danes

Pathetic Danes, who have been away from home for too long, might find joy in the street scene of Titzes Gatve in Siauliai. As a busy main street and a part of the A12 highway from Riga to Kaliningrad this street also hosts a lot of bus lines.

The buses of Siauliai are, in difference to the buses of most other cities that I have ever visited, not painted in a specific colour or branded with the name of the local bus company. They are second hand buses and a large part of them are brought over from Denmark. For this reason, Danes might find themselves entering a yellow bus similar to those of Copenhagen on which is written in Danish things such as “kort og billetter” (cards and tickets).

As a pathetic Dane with a camera one might find, therefore, that most of ones pictures from Siauliai are of yellow buses. The citizens of Siauliai do tend to shake their heads at these pathetic Danes as they take a stand next to any given bus stop in order to get a picture of their beloved buses. They might not find the same nostalgia in a yellow bus.

This particular and pathetic Dane can only be happy that the buses that she used as a child have seen a new and exciting chapter of their life in this north-western corner of Lithuania.

Pathetic Norwegians going to Lithuania might be interested in knowing that some of the Vilnius city buses are originally from Norway, which is evident when the buses sometimes display “Ej i trafik” (Not in traffic), even though they are on route.

Zofka

From Kaliningrad with Love

The old officer placed a cap on my head, stole my camera, took a picture and said that now I was in the Soviet army. Thank you, sir!

I have been told that the old city of Königsberg was gone and that the present city of Kaliningrad was nothing to write home about. But I have decided to write home anyhow.

Kaliningrad is a fascinating place seeing that almost all the inhabitants are immigrants from Mother Russia. This old Prussian stronghold which fostered people such as Immanuel Kant, is today a Russian exclave in the centre of Europe and enclosed by EU and NATO countries. Here in between Poland, Lithuania and the Baltic Sea, everything is in Cyrillic, people speak nothing but Russian and the reminder of grotesque Soviet architecture is everywhere.

The people of Kaliningrad

But though the people of Kaliningrad are citizens of Russia, and vivid supporters of the Russian ice-hockey team, they also seem very European. In difference to Little Moscow in Riga (which is the closest I ever have come to Russia before) you rarely see the extreme Russian fashion with all its glittery shirts and 10 centimetre miniskirts.

The people here are rather laid back and extremely welcoming to foreigners – even those of us who only know two sentences in Russian. They are helpful and curious and I have on more than one occasion been stopped on the street to answer if I am a tourist, what I do here, where I am from and many other things I am not sure of, as they often only speak Russian and continue even though it is evident that I have no idea of what they say.

Those who do speak English are willing to do a great deal to help out lost tourists.

A business man whom I fell into talk with on a restaurant spent 15 minutes calling friend and foe to help me procure a visa registration, while a young waiter ran to and from the kitchen trying to answer all my questions regarding an ice-hockey match that Russia had just won. After five times to the kitchen where it was evident that the cook was a great ice-hockey fan, he could tell me that it had been the semifinal of the world championship and that Russia now had to play against either Canada or Sweden in the final.

So even though the city is nothing really to write home about, the people are. Here, as everywhere else in the world, springtime means young couples kissing in the park and groups of youngsters enjoying friendship and a beer on a bench in the sun.

Having the military base near Kaliningrad also means that one encounters a lot of navy soldiers and officers in the street, especially on a national holiday such as May 9, known in Russia as Victory Day.

The older officers are out with their families, while the younger often keep in groups of four enjoying a day off, though still in full uniform. Once in a while you encounter an officer who is so decorated with medals that you wonder how he can walk upright.

I was in the Soviet army

Feeling this fascination for the uniformed, I ventured on a trip to the submarine embarked on the river. An old navy officer, who now held the function of tourist officer, greeted me and in German explained that I was standing next to the torpedoes. They looked so massive that I wonder how they could do anything, but sink to the bottom of the ocean. The old officer placed a cap on my head, stole my camera, took a picture and said that now I was in the Soviet army. Thank you, sir!

But I think I might very well get sea-sick on a submarine in the long run. Therefore, as the land rat that I am, I have deserted the Soviet army and am now sitting on a bench at the river side, while a young man is playing on his guitar on a bench next to mine.

I don’t know the song, or what it is about, but the music makes a great companion.

On the other side of the river lies Kant’s Island with the cathedral, as one of the only symbols left of old Königsberg, and next to the island is placed what easily can be described as the most hideous evidence of Soviet architecture ever made. The Palace of Culture in Warsaw is no comparison! In pre-war times this place held a medieval castle and I cannot but cry out in anger at the men who chose to dynamite the ruins of that castle instead of rebuilding it.

But as I said, coming to Kaliningrad might not do much for you when it comes to great sights, beautiful churches and castles. It is, however, a great experience in meeting friendly and interested people, and for that reason I am happy that I went.

Zofka

Favourite Vilnius

A cat is not obliged to love its master, but it must help him in difficult times.

This year Lithuania celebrates the 1000 year anniversary for the first mentioning of its name. The first time Lithuania was mentioned was in 1009 in the Saxonicae Annales Quedlinburgenses, where apparently a Saxon missionary named Bruno of Querfurt was struck in the head after trying to baptise the people living in Lithuania.

The year of 2009 is therefore perfect for Lithuanian capital Vilnius to be the European Cultural Capital, though this has not been a success story until now.

One might actually draw comparisons between the old and bloody recordings of Saint Bruno and the rather scandalous beginning of the cultural capital.

Due to the financial crisis the funding has been cut, and at the same time the committee in head of the cultural capital has been claimed to be incompetent and slow, which resulted in the resignation of several committee members only two months into 2009. Rather a bloody fight, one might say.

But Vilnius doesn’t really need to be the cultural capital in order to be interesting.

Vilnius

Vilnius, with its 550.000 inhabitants, is not a large city. In fact it might in a globalized term be nothing more than a town. But it is the capital of Lithuania, and rightfully so.

Vilnius is in particular notorious for its many baroque buildings and have been named a capital of baroque as well as included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. Most of the baroque buildings were build while Lithuania was still in unification with Poland and the baroque style in Vilnius is therefore named Polish baroque as there are also examples of this architectonic building style many places in Poland. In Vilnius, it is especially the many churches that are evidence of the Polish baroque.

The amount of churches in Vilnius is only beaten by the amount of medium-sized malls which you see everywhere on for example Gedimino Prospektas. These places are mostly used by the more trendy and rich inhabitants, whereas the commoner goes to Acropolis to shop.

Acropolis is a hub of a shopping centre and larger than life. Here you can get everything including getting lost. It is placed in the suburbs and close to some of the more Soviet-looking apartment blocks that you find in any country that has been under Soviet influence.

The baroque churches and the Soviet apartment blocks are sharp contrasts in the Vilnius landscape. While the inner city and old town holds more than 40 churches, as of what I could count, the suburbs seem to be a grey and depressing city wall surrounding the magic of the churches.

But churches, shopping malls and apartment blocks are not the only attractions that Vilnius has to offer.

Here are some of my favourite things about Vilnius:

Frank Zappa

When Lithuania became independent in 1991 all the old statues of Lenin and Stalin were removed from the city and many places that previously housed these statues became vacant. A group of Lithuanian bohemians started a Frank Zappa Fan Club, as they saw him as a symbol of free expression, and proposed that the city of Vilnius should erect a statue of their idol in one of the vacant spots.

According to the old members of the Fan Club, the city wasn’t that into the project as mr. Zappa was known to be a “lefty”, but after convincing the council that Zappa had Jewish features the council gave in considering that Lithuania has a lot of Jewish history. The statue was made for free by Konstantinas Bogdanas, Lithuania’s prime sculptor who under Soviet times had made his living by creating statues of Lenin.

To Bogdanas and many others the erection of the Frank Zappa statue in 1995 became evidence of Lithuania’s liberalization from old times.

Today the statue of Frank Zappa has a twin which was given as a present from The Republic of Lithuania to the city of Baltimore, the birth place of Frank Zappa.

Užupis

Not many cities in the world can boast of the fact that they surround an entire state. Rome can, and Vilnius can.

The Republic of Užupis declared independence in 1997. It is an old city part of Vilnius which lies next to the river Vilna and is often described as the Montmartre of Vilnius, due to the many galleries and art shops present. The artistic site of Užupis existed even before the end of Soviet rule, when the area was one of the most neglected and damaged areas of the city.

Having chosen April Fools Day as their Day of Independence, some might think that the Republic of Užupis is no more than tongue-in-cheek, but don’t be fooled. This small republic can boast of their own passport, president and currency. Furthermore, they have four national flags, one for each season, and their own army which according to rumours should exist of a bit more than 10 soldiers. The republic can also pride themselves of the monument, which stands on the main square. After months of excitement an angel holding a trumpet was unveiled on independence day in 2001. Prior to the angel the square held the statue of an egg, which can now be found on Pylimo Gatve in Lithuania.

However, the most important and famous part about Uzupis is their constitution.

Among the many rather interesting statements of the constitution, my favorites are:

A cat is not obliged to love its master, but it must help him in difficult times.

Everyone has the right to be idle.

Everyone has the right to sometimes be unaware of his duties.

Everyone has the right not to be distinguished and famous.

From the Užupis Constitution

Užupis means “on the other side of the river”

Gedimino Prospektas

Gedimino Prospektas is what I like to call a beautiful main street. It is the boulevard of the new part of town (which is actually not that new) and it stretches all the way from the Cathedral and the Castle hill and down to the river Neris.

Every day after seven o’clock and during the entire weekend, the street becomes car-free. Somewhere in the middle the street tops on a small hill and when standing there on a car-free hour, one can see all the way in both directions. For some reason, I often feel as if in the wild west, gazing into the dusty horizon.

The lighthouse

At the end at Gedimino Prospektas next to the cathedral stands the cathedral tower, which is separated from the cathedral itself by several meters. To many the tower looks more like a lighthouse placed inland for unknown reasons than a clock tower.

I love this place, the Cathedral Square with the lighthouse and cathedral and the statue of Gediminas in the background. Here, everything seems so white and light and as tourists start flocking to Vilnius, you will discover how they start spinning around themselves near the lighthouse, while Lithuanians watch them while hiding a smile. Wonder why that is.

Zofka

BURN!!!

Inside the shop, when I told the clerk that a trash can was on fire outside, the answer I received was “Yes, doesn’t it smell bad”.

Do you know the supposedly American expression of “a good burn”, often used by the character Michael Kelso in That 70’s Show?

Well in Lithuania they really like a good burn.

Having lived in Vilnius for a little more than two months, I have become quite accustomed to the Lithuanian version of a good burn. I live in an apartment block between Neris and the old town, and in the driveway into the yard we previously had several large plastic containers for garbage use.

But one morning coming down the stairs, my colleague and I noticed that the containers were no longer there. Instead, we found some small sculptures made out of melted green plastic and a huge black spot on the wall. Our containers had, you might say, experienced a good burn over night. Today, the melted plastic has been replaced by solid metal containers that hopefully can survive a bit more.

But the containers in my apartment block are not the only ones falling victims to a burn. Also the trash cans in the street have a tendency to be smoking around the clock, and as late as yesterday did I see a blue trash can enjoying a full blaze just outside a travel agency in  Gedimino.

Inside the shop, when I told the clerk that a trash can was on fire outside, the answer I received was “Yes, doesn’t it smell bad”. When I finally got out of the shop, I found the trash completely burned out.

I have wondered, how come so many trash cans fall victim to “a good burn” and how come it seems so common to Lithuanians, and my answer is surprisingly simple.

The trash cans in Lithuania have an ashtray at the top, and when a cigarette is disposed of, it does not fall into a separate container from the ashtray, but directly down to the garbage underneath. Other times I have seen Lithuanians simply throwing their still lit cigarettes directly in the trash can. I guess it helps limit the amount of garbage that has to be handled and burned later.

So well a bit of advise. If you ever go to the Baltics don’t be frightened by the smoky dustbins, they are quite a local custom.

Update

I read an article recently that the number of fires in Vilnius had increased 43 pct. in Q1 of 2009 compared to the same period the previous year.

I finally after a long time got the chance to take a picture of a Lithuanian fire truck. It is rather old fashioned and really cute, in my opinion. It should be said that the Vilnius fire brigade also holds more modern trucks, however, I know by fact that this one is frequently in use as I pass the fire station daily.

Zofka

There is Something about Vilnius

I constantly think that Vilnius holds some secret that I have yet to discover. Perhaps it is best to explain it by saying that there is simply something about Vilnius.

It is freezing, and I constantly feel a bit ill and with a throbbing in my throat. It has been snowy white for long periods through February while ice flakes have made their way down the Neris River, which floats by my house. March is more optimistic and the sun shines through, but it is still a while, I am sure, until I can enjoy the spring in the Lithuanian capital.

I have resided in Vilnius for two months now, and start to get the feel of the city. It is a very vibrant city though winter tends to have a grip on the people, as it supposedly has anywhere in the world.

Vilnius is a small capital city of approximately 550.000 people and I am constantly surprised that such a small city can hold so much. I still feel that I have not in the least seen all there is to see.

But perhaps my feeling of having to know the place inch by inch wouldn’t exist if I saw any similarity to my own home in Copenhagen. So much is different here, on the other side of the Baltic Sea.

Many things are rather new to me. The heating system, the curd and the love of transparent plastic bags, just to mention a few. But also just the entire feel of the city.

I constantly think that Vilnius holds some secret that I have yet to discover. Perhaps it is best to explain it by saying that there is simply something about Vilnius.

Whether I will discover any of Vilnius’ many secrets is still to be seen. I am in Vilnius for a six months period, working as an intern. I will be so lucky as to experience how the city comes to life in the Spring after a cold and long winter.

Maybe that is the secret that has been withheld me, the secret of Spring, of that feeling in the air. Something which will become Vilnius very much. But as I wait for springtime, I might use the time to say a bit about how Vilnius came about.

Gediminas

As many other European cities, Vilnius has a folklore tale about its origin, and as with the tale about the origin of Rome, it includes a wolf. But, personally I think, the story of Vilnius is much cooler as the wolf depicted in the story is an iron wolf.

One day Gediminas, Grand Duke of Lithuania, went on a hunting trip. This would have been somewhere in the 1310’s or perhaps the 1320’s.

After a long day he camps at the crossing of the rivers Neris and Vilna and during the night he has a dream – because all good tales and legends include a dream.

He dreams of a huge iron wolf, howling on the top of the hill by which he has camped. In the woods around the hill, thousands of other wolfs can be heard howling back at the huge iron wolf.

As he wakes up and leaves for his castle in Trakai, he asks a pagan priest, what this dream has meant and he receives the following answer;

What is destined for the ruler and the State of Lithuania, is thus: the Iron Wolf represents a castle and a city which will be established by you on this site. This city will be the capital of the Lithuanian lands and the dwelling of their rulers, and the glory of their deeds shall echo throughout the world.

Gediminas followed the advise, moved his capital to Vilnius and is today, in Lithuanian folklore, recognised as the founder of Vilnius, as letters written by him are the first written sources mentioning Vilnius.

For this reason Gediminas has given name to many places and sights in central Vilnius; Gedimino Prospektas, Gedimino Hill, Gedimino Tower – on top of the hill – and so forth.

My favourite, however, is the statue of Gediminas, revealed in 1996 and placed on the Cathedral Square, just next to the street, the tower and the hill. This statue depicts Gediminas on his horse and makes the impression that he was a Japanese Samurai warrior.

In addition to Samurai-Gediminas and his horse, the statue includes a depiction of the iron wolf, which today is the symbol of Vilnius. But in difference to the description in the tale, this huge iron wolf is about the size of a modern day chi-hua-hua in comparison to Samurai-Gediminas and his horse.

Regards

Zofka