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.
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, 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:
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.
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 havefour 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 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 fromthe 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’ve been city touring – though without the bus. I walked all around the old centre this morning and afternoon. Riga is truly a fairytale city. A bit like Ljubljana with the same atmosphere of a small romantic get-away.
Usually one of my all time favorite places is the centrally located Copenhagen Airport. The atmosphere of people going away on holiday, bustling around in long lines while chatting about things to do at their destination point mixed with that of people arriving, being welcomed with (perhaps too many) Danish flags and kisses and hugs is always fantastic.
But today I didn’t like it. As CPH becomes larger and as more and more companies do their entrance with cheap and low budget flights the turmoil comes, and gone is the fascinating atmosphere of traveling. I had ordered my ticket with AirBaltic, going to Riga at 8.40.
Two desks were open which I believe is quite enough, but when CpH decides to let AirBaltic share those desks with none other than Czech Airline it becomes frustrating. Prague is one of the top ten favorite destinations for Danish holiday tourists, maybe even making the top three. The plane with Czech for Prague was scheduled 50 min. after that of Riga and Vilnius.
I was there in good enough time, but in front of me were 40 minutes of line, of tourists on their way to Prague. Even though I and many of my fellow passengers were almost on the verge of loosing our plane, it was not until half an hour before take-off and when boarding of the Riga plane had already begun that we were hurried in front of the line, getting angry words from the people heading to Prague.
I had to run through the security control and scanners with all my luggage because it would otherwise not reach the plane before take-off. Reaching gate A04 I was gasping for breath.
I find it rather stupid to let any company share desk with a plane to Prague unless that company’s departure is later. Right now I have a feeling that I didn’t get time to absorb the fact that I was heading off for a one month summer holiday. It was only as I arrived in Riga, Latvia one hour and 20 minutes later that I realised that I was on my way – on my way to the far off and exotic destination of the Caucasus.
Spending time in the airport before departure is my way of getting ready. I have rituals in the beautiful airport and not getting to relax just stressed me terribly.
Well well, enough complaining – already did a lot of that with my fellow passengers. Now I am in Riga spending three days discovering the city a bit.
After sleeping off the weariness from this morning I went to get something to eat and to do a bit of walking in the centre.
Riga seems so small and yet so very fairytale beautiful. I was really starting to feel that now I was abroad – at least until I sad down at a cafe for a quick bite and suddenly finding myself accompanied by the local radio station playing Satisfaction by Alphabeat. Hmm, being abroad. I still run around humming the bloody song – such a very catchy tune.
I’ve started reading up on Riga and getting an idea of what to do and see, taking the grand tour tomorrow, maybe even jumping on a tour bus. Never did it before and always thought that I should try to drive around a city with headphones on and someone chatting happily in English about what is left and right. I also hope to catch a museum or two, which is also really unusual for me, but there is an exhibition on Soviet mythology, which might be interesting.
I start getting really interested in the fact that on this trip I am actually seeing four different countries that have all been a part of the Soviet Union. Not to mention Hungary and Slovenia, which are both former Communist countries.
Latvia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia all belonged more or less voluntary to the Soviet Union, and while I have spent a lot of time reading up on the Caucasus influences from Selju Turks and Persians, I think I might just spend the next couple of days studying the Soviet impact on Latvia. Perhaps I’ll find a few strange looking Soviet artefacts.
But before engaging in such an adventure, I went to get something to eat. I happened upon a very commercial looking Italian restaurant, where the waiter constantly had to ask me if I liked the food and if I needed anything. It got bloody irritating in the end. I should probably have been reading up on customs and tipping as well.
In the end, he seemed to get a bit offended by my attempt to ignore him by simply nodding once in a while. When he gave me the bill it was with a grunt and after I’d had to wait for an ice age. He might have expected tips, but considering his attitude, I didn’t even consider the idea of leaving any behind. I am seriously the worst tourist ever.
I’ve noticed that many restaurant have menus which read like a teenage magazine. It seems quite common to advertise on the menu for anything from Naomi Campbell perfumes to travel agencies. In a café, it seemed so grotesque that I must have made a sour face, because the waitress nearly laughed at my expression when she handed over this big newspaper sized magazine.
I’ve been city touring – though without the bus. I walked all around the old centre this morning and afternoon. Riga is truly a fairytale city. A bit like Ljubljana with the same atmosphere of a small romantic get-away. This might be why there are so many tourists – especially Swedes.
I gather the Swedes find it quite accessible and are drawn to many of the sights which Riga can offer – such as the Swedish Gate. Wink wink.
The gate is nothing more than a hole in the city wall which was added during the Swedish occupation in 1698. Apparently, at the time the notorious executioner of Riga lived in the apartment above the gate and every evening before an execution he would place a red rose in the window. Riga sure is a romantic city.
But there might be another reason that Swedes love this city. Riga currently holds the record for the world’s most drunk person! 7.22 parts per million of alcohol was in this man’s blood when the police found him. Swedes are used to heavy restrictions on alcohol, something which is not the norm in Riga.
On my tour around the centre I went to Latvijas Okupacijas Muzejs – in English; The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia. As a real tourist I decided to pay one lat for an audio guide and went through the museum point by point. It was really good and I think much better than it would have been without the guide.
For one hour I got a crash course on newer Latvian history and learned about both the Nazi and the Soviet occupations of Latvia. I discovered that Latvia had been taken over by the Red Army in 1940. When the Nazis arrived in 1941 they were seen as liberators, and greeted with flowers and celebrations in the streets of Riga. In the one year the Soviet occupation lasted, the Soviets had managed to deport 15,000 intellectuals and wealthy – many of whom were never heard from again. Thus, when the Germans came the Latvians believed they would be free. How terribly and sadly wrong they were. The nightmare had only begun.
The Nazis immediately started an ethnic cleansing of Jews, Roma and similar groups. Moreover, through large parts of the war the Eastern front ran through Latvia, destroying the country.
Seeing Riga today, it is difficult to imagine that this cosy little capital has ever experienced such horrors. But looking closely evidence of the past is everywhere. In the Sv. Peterbaznicas (Saint Peters Church) large photographs depict the same church after it burned down because of artillery fire in 1941. It wasn’t rebuild until 1973.
It seems to me that even though Riga today is a modern European capital, Latvians are very conscious of their past and of the horrors that once were. And even though they are keen on rebuilding their country they still wish to keep the memories of the past through exhibitions, museums and television.
I am exhausted! I went early this morning to the Arsenals Museum of Art, seeing the “Soviet Mythology. Socialist Realism.” exhibition. I took my sweet time reading the info off all the paintings. It took an eternity! But it was worth it. It was a very interesting collection showing happy workers in collective farming with the sun shining. Propaganda one could argue.
Afterwards, I decided to walk the length of Elizabetas Iela, which is outside the old centre. It is quite a fascinating street with some fantastic Art Nouveau houses. It should be added that I have no prior idea of what Art Nouveau is, but in the small Riga In Your Pocket guidebook I carry around, the buildings were explained as such. And they were freakily impressive – ornamented with faces and figures. I never knew that Riga had such impressive architecture.
The old part of town is also full of fascinating architecture. I always imagined Soviet bunkers with no ornaments, but Riga is nothing like that. Moreover, it is visible to anyone that a great work of renovation has happened these past 15 years. In difference to Ljubljana where the beauty lies in the romantic, but crackling facades, Riga’s centre is flawless for the most part.
This renovation projects have also resulted in the 2001 rebuilding of the very beautiful Melngalvju nams – House of Blackheads which originally dated from 1344, but was destroyed in 1941 and completely torn down by the Soviets in 1948, since it was built in a German architectural tradition.
Through Facebook I discovered that an old friend of mine was stopping overnight in Riga on his way home from Estonia to Slovenia. After a confusing time of trying to get his mobile number, I finally met up with him and his Latvian friend through AEGEE.
We went for a beer or two and had a few laughs. It was really great hang out with someone after so many days on my own and even better to see Matic again.
His Latvian friend was very well versed in local folk lore and Riga myths. I’ve attempted to re-write some of her stories about Riga here.
It is said that if you should ever happen upon a fish from the Daugava asking you if Riga is ready, you have to answer “no, it is still being build”. Otherwise the fish will drag all of Riga down to the bottom of the ocean.
Riga is famous for Kaķu nams – The Cat House. It is a house which features two cats on the roof. According to Matic’ friend there is also supposed to be a Dog House. According to urban legend, the cats and dogs of these houses keep guard over Riga at night. Therefore, if you stumble upon a cat or a dog at night in Riga, you will know that they are there to protect. Matic argued that the story is probably just made up to justify a large amount of wild dogs and cats, but who knows.
Matic and I continued our catch-up over a beer at Livslaukums a central Square in Riga. What surprised me even after a few days in Riga was that in the middle of the square a pole was set up with two girls taking turns pole dancing for the guests. It seemed rather vulgar, but apparently the drunk British guys a few tables over absolutely loved it.
Out to the side stood a big and terrifyingly looking bodyguard, and while enjoying our beer we couldn’t help wonder what deep philosophical thoughts he would be thinking at such a time. Most of the time he was skimming the crowd with his stony eyes and tough attitude never moving from his spot. But at some point, when a drunk British guy went a little too close to the stage, he made a powerful move towards the pole looking even more intimidating than before. Our talks also revolved around the dancers, discussing their talent and finding that they were not the top of the line.
Today is the last day of my stay in Riga. This night I’ll catch the plane for Baku together with an Estonian girl. We will arrive early morning Azeri-time and I will probably be gut wrenching tired when we arrive.