On the surface, Vilnius is a very scenic city. Scratch the surface, however, and move a little out from the main tourist areas and you can see that many of the buildings are run down with facades cracking and repairs needed. I think that is to be expected as it is only 21 years since the Russians left the country and it will take many more decades after occupation by both the Soviets and the Nazis to rebuild this city. Perhaps the people here face the same trouble as the Poles – in the Soviet days everything was nationalised and buildings all became the property of the state. Now no one knows who owns the buildings and who should pay for repairs.
We took a city tour this morning that took us around the city streets for 90 minutes or so. We already knew some of the history of Vilnius but our tour today added some new aspects. I found the botanical gardens but we are a little too early in the season for many flowers to have bloomed. The roses are still in bud and the annuals that have been planted are just starting to come out.
In the afternoon, I went to the castle to see some of the views over the old city. Most of the castle was destroyed in the wars agains the Poles in the 1600’s and only one tower and some ruins remain. Tog et there, you can walk up a long cobbled road around the hill but I chose to use the funicular which runs up the steep side of the hill. It operates just like a lift and comes when you touch the call button.
On one level in the tower, I was fascinated to watch a video showing lots of very sad looking people forming a long line and lighting candles. It appeared to be about 1950’s vintage from the look of the cars and vehicles but this didn’t make sense. t thought that it may have been a celebration of the country gaining independence from the Russians but that wouldn’t have explained the heavy expressions on people’s faces. It turned out to be a video of the ‘Baltic Way’.
This event took place on 23 August 1989. This was the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of a treaty by the foreign ministers of the USSR and Germany in 1939 which divided the spheres of influence of the USSR and Germany and eventually led to World War II, along with the occupation of the three Baltic States – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
On 23 August 1989 these three nations surprised the world when around 2 million people took hold of each other’s hands in a 650 km line stretching from Vilnius to Tallin (in Estonia) and jointly demanded independence for the Baltic States. The sad faces were a result of years of Nazi and Soviet oppression. In Lithuania alone, over 160,000 jews were murdered by the Nazis and another 250,000 people were deported to Siberia or murdered by the Russians between 1954 and 1990. Independence was not gained until 1990 and it wasn’t until 1993 when the Soviets loaded all their equipment on to trains and returned to Russia.
We had lunch today in a little restaurant on the main street. It has become much cooler over the last week and we were glad to find somewhere indoors and out of the wind. The obvious thing to try was Cepelainai, a typical Lithuania dish of boiled dumpling with a meat centre. This was very stodgy and might take some getting used to if we were to stay here longer. I am sure that would be very effective at reducing hunger in a bitterly cold winter.
At the end of the day, we walked across the way from our hotel to a large square that was distinctly soviet in style. On one side, there were a one of pokey shops that were built in the 1960’s. On the other side was a new multi storey shopping centre which was modern and bright.
Late this afternoon, we spent some time wandering around and found a supermarket in the basement that was very interesting to walk around. Many products were the same as you could find anywhere while obviously, some of the foods were very local. Alcohol was quite cheap – about 50% (or less) than our prices. For example a half litre can of beer was less than $1. Packs of food seemed much smaller than we would find. Rice was sold only on 800g packs and the largest container of milk was 1 litre. Clearly, there are not too many asian people living in Lithuania.
Tomorrow, we need to get up early as we have an 8:25 am bus to catch to Riga (the capital city of Latvia) which is about 300 km north of here and on the southern coast of the Baltic Sea.