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Lithuania

Kaunas, Užupis and Threats Over Dinner


View World Tour 2016 on Glichez's travel map.

Today was a jam-packed final day in Lithuania and the Baltics. Thankfully I was able to sleep in and get some much needed rest after the relentless pacing of the past few days.

I caught the train to the nearby city of Kaunas at 10:30, getting a first class ticket for the hour-long journey. The first class car was quite nice and quiet on the trip, allowing me to spend some time reading my history of the Crimean War and to just enjoy the ride. The weather today was cloudy and slightly rainy; it would drizzle the entire time I was in Kaunas.

After arriving in Kaunas I set off on a solo city tour that I had planned out; it took my by the major sights in the city and allowed me to cover a good section of the city. The train station was a 30-minute walk from the city center; I took a different route into and out of the city center, allowing me to see different areas. I was immediately struck by the blatant lack of money that the city (and Lithuania as a whole) suffers from; it is the the poorest of the three Baltic States. Vilnius had some evidence of the lack of money, but it was on clear display in Kaunas, the old capital of the country. Streets and sidewalks were in disarray, with many being nothing more than dirt paths.

My path into the city center took me along the riverfront, which was rather pleasant; to get there I walked through a run down neighborhood with several abandoned buildings. Even the people walking the streets exhibited a level of poverty I've not seen since South America. Granted, the people here still have more money and a high standard of living than many of those I saw in South America, especially in Puerto Iguazu and Asuncion. I saw one man, clearly quite drunk, stumble over himself and down a small flight of stairs, falling against the glass windows of a local burger joint. He stood up, was stumbling about and barely managed to get himself through the door of the restaurant, where he promptly fell against the counter. He is quite lucky that he didn't fall through the glass widows!

Walking along the river I finally reached the Aleksotas bridge, which spanned the Neman river. It had some old brick structures supporting the bridge, which was quite nice. The university was located right next to the bridge; one of the buildings housed Napoleon during his Russian campaign in 1812, but I was unable to identify which building he stayed in. To reach the university from the bridge I had to walk through a rather sketchy tunnel, filled with graffiti and which reeked of urine - thankfully there was no one else in the tunnel!

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I did find a small monument - quite possibly my favorite monument that I've seen on this trip (or ever). It was about three feet tall, made of nice stone and stated that "In this place, on 11 May 2014, nothing in particular happened." This was right near the university buildings, in the corner of a small square that was lined with trees. I found it amusing that they clearly spent a good deal of money making a nice monument... to nothing. This type of joke has been made before, but the sheer cost of this one, especially here in Lithuania, made it even more special and amusing.

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My route took me into the city center itself, where I visited the town hall square. There were several wedding parties in the square taking photos, along with an interesting party of people that I initially thought was there for a funeral; I later saw that they were all dressed in 1920s-style costumes, but for what reason I could not tell.

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My next stop was the Kaunas castle - or the ruins of the castle. All that remains is one tower and a crumbling wall. It was actually rather interesting to see. Behind the castle was a church and a large building that looked almost palatial.

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My last stop took me along a very nice pedestrian street through the heart of the city. This area had quite a bit of charm to it, with small stores and restaurants all along the street; running down the middle of the street was a double row of trees. I stumbled across a very nice statue along the way commemorating an old ruler who helped to defend the old commonwealth. At the end of the street was a very nice cathedral.

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I made my way back to the train station in a hurry so I could catch the next train back to Vilnius. All told, I spent about 2.5 hours in Kaunas, which was enough time to see the highlights of the city. I am glad that I visited the city, but I do not think that I would go back; there is not much there to do as a tourist. I bought a second class ticket back to Vilnius, which wasn't as nice as the journey to Kaunas (of course). There was a group of 20-somethings sitting near me having an impromptu birthday celebration: they had pizza, followed by a small cake and something to drink.

After arriving back in Vilnius, I decided to head to Užupis once more. I stopped along the bridge into Užupis to admire the artwork that lined the river bank, hanging on the bridge walls. Artwork like that is scattered throughout Užupis and gives it the Bohemian charm. I walked back to the street where the Užupis Constitution hangs on the wall so I could get some better pictures (this time without all of the tourists being reflected in the metal signs).

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I walked through the main (small) square in Užupis, where there is a water tap that the Republic serves beer from on their "Independence Day" (which happens to be 1 April... coincidence??). The rest of the year the tap will provide water to anyone, but on April Fool's Day it will provide free beer to anyone who comes by. The tourist information center of Užupis will stamp your passport and I spent a few minutes trying to find it, but I arrived just after they had closed! I walked along the riverfront, admiring more of the art, including an energy pillar: the artists who created it stated that if you put your palm on it that you'll absorb the energy of others who have touched it. On the way out of Užupis was the small Tibetan square that has Tibetan prayer flags hanging all around it in support of a free Tibet.

By this point I was getting quite hungry and decided to return to the same restaurant from last night for dinner. I ordered the zeppelins again, but this time I ordered the "Master's style" version; there wasn't much difference, but they had a different filling (tonight's still had ground meat, but also some cheese or curd mixed in). The meal was quite delicious, just like it was last night.

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Sadly the end of the meal was marred by a strange encounter with a seemingly drunk or high man who came up to my table begging for money. I was sitting on the outside terrace of the restaurant, right on the street. He came up and was asking for money in broken English and he was leaning quite far over my table and seat, to the point that I had to scoot my chair away in order to sit upright. I initially just ignored him, hoping that he would walk away; this didn't happen and he continued to beg and then even demand that I give him money. I finally said no and that I had no money, but he didn't accept his and kept demanding money. Finally he leaned in closer and said "If I see you again later, I fight you. You understand? I fight you so I go to jail. I want to go to jail." I was so shocked by this that I just ignored him, but he kept repeating himself. He began to stumble away, but came back to repeat his threats to fight me. Thankfully he left after that, but kept looking back at me; he met up with someone as he was walking away, though I couldn't tell if it was a friend or someone he was begging from.

During this entire exchange, which lasted several minutes, the wait staff noticed him leaning over me, as did the patrons sitting right next to me, but no one stepped in to help! Needless to say, I left no tip whatsoever (yes, I know tipping isn't the same in Europe, but I sometimes tip 1 or 2 EUR; I didn't leave one cent as a tip this time). It would have been nice for someone to say something to the man in Lithuanian to get him to leave, but no one said anything. As he was making his threats, he was clearly fondling something in his coat pocket, which I was worried would me a knife or something; I was worried that he'd try to fight me right there, punching me or something as I sat at the table.

This may sound rather silly reading after the fact, but in the moment it was quite scary as I had no idea what the man was going to do, especially since he was clearly inhibited in some way (I initially thought he was drunk, but I couldn't smell alcohol on his breath). He was stumbling along and couldn't walk a straight line, so he was clearly inhibited in some way.

I spent some time nursing my beer before paying and leaving to head back to my hotel. Sadly the man had taken the same route that I now needed to take to reach my hotel. I put on my hoodie to hopefully hide myself should I run into him again (my hoodie was off when he confronted me, so I thought the change might be enough to throw him off). I also had my umbrella in hand to use in some sort of defense. The entire walk back I was looking around and glancing over my shoulder to see if he was around. Thankfully the 20 minutes walk back was uneventful.

I stopped in a local coffee shop two block from my hotel to have a mocha and spend some time reading. I ordered the large mocha, expecting to get a "European large" (which is really quite small by American standards). I was wrong. The mocha was huge, but quite delicious. The barista even spelled out "Coffee Time!" in chocolate syrup on top of the mocha! It was a nice way to spend some time relaxing after the stress that ended my otherwise pleasant dinner.

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I just watched a brief fireworks show from my hotel window that must be part of the Vilnius celebrations this weekend, though the location of the fireworks show wasn't anywhere near where the street fair celebrations were going on. It was a quick show, lasting maybe three minutes, but it was still fun to watch!

One thing I must say about the people living in the Baltics, especially Latvia and Lithuania, is that the people here love to dance. Anytime there is music playing, be it live performances or music over a PA system, the young people will start to dance. Walking through the shopping mall of Riga and through the street fair of Vilnius, random young people would burst into dance when they heard music. They danced with such reckless abandon, displaying sheer joy and reveling in their freedom to express themselves. My thoughts each time I would see this focused on the fact that they would not have been able to do this 25 years ago, under the Soviet regime. Clearly the youth in the Baltic States cherish their relatively new freedoms and enjoy expressing that through dance. It was just a joyous expression of self, something that I have never seen back in the States. We dance there, yes, but never with this overwhelming sense of embracing our freedom. I think that Americans take our freedoms for granted nowadays, but the people in the Baltic States still revel in what they gained 25 years ago.

Estonia and Latvia both celebrated 25 years of independence from the USSR a few weeks ago, while Lithuania celebrated 26 years recently.

Posted by Glichez 09:43 Archived in Lithuania Comments (0)

Rounding out the Baltic States in Vilnius


View World Tour 2016 on Glichez's travel map.

This morning I was up early so I could catch my bus to Vilnius at 07:00; I wasn't able to have breakfast at the hotel before I left either. The bus ride lasted just under four hours and went rather smoothly. I ran into Albert and his girlfriend (both from the bus tour from Tallinn to Riga); they were on the same bus to Vilnius as me! Thankfully the bus had personal TVs for each seat and a small library of movies to watch; I spent the ride watching "Star Trek: Into Darkness" and then "Deadpool" which finished right as we were arriving. I made my way to my hotel, which is another very nice place; my room is on the top floor.

I headed towards the city center to catch the free walking tour at noon. I stopped in at a local supermarket to grab a quick snack before the tour - and ran into Albert again! There was a rather pretty church right nearby that I decided to quickly visit as well. The interior was rather plain, except for the altar at the very front; this was incredibly ornate and was quite beautiful.

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The tour met up at the town hall, which was a Greek-style building. The group was split into two smaller groups of around 20 people each (Albert and his girlfriend were in the other group from mine – as were the two annoying Americans from my day tour in Tallinn!).

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Our guide for the afternoon was a younger guy who was very enthusiastic and knowledgeable about his city; he provided us with a brief history of Lithuania and then the walking tour began. Our first (brief) stop was at a plaque on the wall of the town hall, commemorating when George W Bush spoke in Vilnius.

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We walked through the city and visited one of the two former Jewish ghettos from the 1940s. There isn’t much that would give away the area’s terrible past. We stepped into one of the many courtyards and saw a small statue of a naked woman riding a bear, which is supposed to represent the country’s paganism in the past.

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We then headed off to the Independent Republic of Užupis, which lies along the river running through the city. The Republic was created in 1998 and is rather tongue-in-cheek, though it does have its own parliament, president and army (of 11 people). Užupis has their own signs welcoming visitors, laying out the few rules of the Republic:
1. You must smile
2. No driving faster than 20kph
3. You must like art

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As we crossed the bridge and entered Užupis, we saw a statue of a mermaid along the wall. There is a city-wide program that allows some of the statues to “call” your cell phone and tell you their story by scanning a QC code. Our guide played the mermaid’s “call” and it sounded rather like a phone sex call!

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Užupis is rather bohemian and very artsy, with statues scattered around it and courtyards full or artistic things. Along one wall were metal signs listing out the Constitution of Užupis in various languages.

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The Constitution reads thus:
1. Everyone has the right to live by the River Vilnelė, and the River Vilnelė has the right to flow by everyone.
2. Everyone has the right to hot water, heating in winter and a tiled roof.
3. Everyone has the right to die, but this is not an obligation.
4. Everyone has the right to make mistakes.
5. Everyone has the right to be unique.
6. Everyone has the right to love.
7. Everyone has the right not to be loved, but not necessarily.
8. Everyone has the right to be undistinguished and unknown.
9. Everyone has the right to be idle.
10. Everyone has the right to love and take care of the cat.
11. Everyone has the right to look after the dog until one of them dies.
12. A dog has the right to be a dog.
13. A cat is not obliged to love its owner, but must help in time of nee (sic).
14. Sometimes everyone has the right to be unaware of their duties.
15. Everyone has the right to be in doubt, but this is not an obligation.
16. Everyone has the right to be happy.
17. Everyone has the right to be unhappy.
18. Everyone has the right to be silent.
19. Everyone has the right to have faith.
20. No one has the right to violence.
21. Everyone has the right to appreciate their unimportance.
22. No one has the right to have a design on eternity.
23. Everyone has the right to understand.
24. Everyone has the right to understand nothing.
25. Everyone has the right to be of any nationality.
26. Everyone has the right to celebrate or not celebrate their birthday.
27. Everyone shall remember their name.
28. Everyone may share what they possess.
29. No one can share what they do not possess.
30. Everyone has the right to have brothers, sisters and parents.
31. Everyone may be independent.
32. Everyone is responsible for their freedom.
33. Everyone has the right to cry.
34. Everyone has the right to be misunderstood.
35. No one has the right to make another person guilty.
36. Everyone has the right to be individual.
37. Everyone has the right to have no rights.
38. Everyone has the right to not to be afraid.
39. Do not defeat
40. Do not fight back
41. Do not surrender

We made our way back into the old town area of Vilnius, stopping by an old Gothic-style church. There were several wedding parties taking pictures outside of the church. There are actually two churches right next to one another in the same courtyard.

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Our next stop took us to the presidential palace, situated right next to the university of Lithuania. Our guide told us many amusing stories about their current president: a woman who speaks her mind and isn’t afraid to offend someone.

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Our final stop was at the cathedral, situated in the heart of the city center. The building was used as an art gallery during the Soviet era, but has since been restored and is back to being a church. It sits on one side of a large square, which is lined by a small park on the other side. Behind the cathedral sits the reconstructed palace of the grand dukes. It is a pretty building without a great deal of embellishment.

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Behind the square was a small hill with the Gediminas' Tower, which is the ruins of the former upper castle. I followed the stone patch up to the tower, but I didn’t go inside (the 4 EUR admission would get me to the top of the tower, but the views from the top of the hill were spectacular enough).

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I didn’t spend much time at the top of the hill as a storm began to roll in; I headed back to my hotel so I could grab my umbrella and drop of my camera. On the way it began to rain, but thankfully I missed the worst of the storm. I waited a few minutes for the storm to let up and then I headed back to the city center area for dinner.

I had found a restaurant that focused solely on traditional Lithuanian food; it had very good reviews and their prices were quite cheap. I went with the most traditional dish: zeppelins (cepelinai). These are dumplings made of potato shavings and stuffed with ground meat; they are named after the Zeppelin airships due to their shape. Mine was served with a sour cream sauce and I devoured it all. The food was spectacular – I may return tomorrow to try another type of zeppelin. With dinner I had a rather good local Lithuanian beer.

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For dessert I again went with the most traditional Lithuanian food: some chocolate and almond sweets, served with chocolate drizzle on top. I had an almond coffee with it; the taste was quite different from a regular coffee, but it went well with the dessert. The best part: the entire meal cost only 10 EUR!

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As I was leaving, I decided to walk around the cathedral square for a few minutes. To my delight I discovered that there was a street fair going on to one side of the square. Our guide had mentioned that the city would be have some celebrations throughout the weekend; this must have been part of that. There were numerous stalls selling various knick-knacks and food vendors selling delicious smelling food (what it was I couldn’t tell). At various places along the street were a few stages with bands performing. I even stumbled across a band just playing on the street (and interesting band made up of three trombone players and a saxophone player!). It was really fun to get to wander around and experience this part of Vilnius. Until tonight the charm of the city had eluded me, but I now felt a better connection and understanding of the city.

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One the way back to my hotel I came across a trip of women doing flamenco dancing on the sidewalk!

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Posted by Glichez 10:35 Archived in Lithuania Comments (0)

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