03.09.2016 - 03.09.2016
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.