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* Vilnius, Lithuania – July 2009

Posted by Lew Weinstein on July 25, 2009

Thursday 7/9/09 – Vilnius

This is our 12th home exchange. It started with an email from Dominykas last spring. We are here for two weeks, out of which we will carve a 5 day trip to Poland. The apartment of Dominykas and Inga is delightful. It is modern and spacious, and comfortably furnished, located in what looks to be a renovated building just across the Green Bridge from the Old Town.

DSCN8138-bridge statuesAfter a nap to refresh from the long trip, we set out on our first walk in Vilnius.Map - Lithuania in EuropeThe view from the Green Bridge is peaceful and beautiful, but the statues at each corner of the bridge are a jolting reminder of Lithuania’s recent history; four huge pairs of workers, marching into a soviet future.  Lithuania’s recent emergence (1991) from Soviet rule, and the even longer travail of a country which has had the great misfortune to be located between Russia and Germany, make its current lively sense of freedom even more remarkable.

We find the generally pedestrian Vilniaus Street just beyond the Novotel on the other side of the river, with only a few cars and motorcycles impinging on the space. Soon we also find an Italian restaurant named Pomodora, a relaxing glass of red wine, and well prepared pasta.

We walk in the dark back across the river to our apartment. There are many people waiting for buses and walking along; it feels safe. The night is cool, perfect for sleeping.

Friday 7/10/09 – Vilnius

Dominykas has provided considerable materials about Vilnius, but I always need many maps, large and small, before I feel comfortable navigating a new city. So our first stop is the Tourist Office, a little further down the same Vilniaus Street where we ate the previous night.

DSCN8169-church in VilniusEnglish is spoken quite well, and we accumulate maps, brochures, and advice. We’re off to walk around the Old Town;no plan, no particular destinations, just absorb the feel of the city. This, as we have mentioned before, is one of the great benefits of having the time to travel leisurely. We explore cafes and shops, and begin to understand just how many churches there are in Vilnius. Pat goes into a linen store and I end up with a linen shirt I didn’t need. But it’s nice, and not expensive.

The money in Lithuania is in litas. The ratio is about 2.5 litas per dollar; for small amounts, we just divide by 3. The linen shirt was on sale for less than $20.00. Every store has items on sale; the economy in Lithuania, as elsewhere, is not good.

We find a small outdoor café, one of many, and have lunch, potato pancakes with sour cream for Pat and minestrone for me. When we reach the Cathedral square, there are groups of soldiers lined up and a military band. A soldier explains that this is a rehearsal for one of the events on Sunday associated with the inauguration of a new Lithuanian president who was elected in mid-May.

For dinner on Friday, we choose another Italian restaurant, the Florentina, on University Street just past the Vilnius University complex of medieval buildings and courtyards (more about the University later). The restaurant has a rear courtyard. As soon as we are seated, we notice a small movie screen; as we eat, several men and a woman bring out folding chairs.

DSCN8183-Florentino-movieThe meal was again superb; just as we finish, the movie begins. It is Robert De Niro in Once Upon a Time in America. It is in English with English subtitles (that’s correct). Very violent, difficult to follow the plot, but the whole effect is magic, a piece of Vilnius life we are pleased to share.

The evening gets even better.

We walk back past the Cathedral and hear music coming from the plaza in front of a nearby hotel. It is a wedding party, spilled out from the hotel, performing what we assume must have been a traditional Lithuanian dance. Hand in hand, in circles, in pairs, hugging together, snaking through and around, the bride lifting her skirts, legs kicking, a pure joy. We feel privileged to have shared such a moment.

DSCN8194-wedding dancers

Saturday 7/11/09 – Vilnius

Pat takes a 3 mile run along the Neris River, after which we set out to the KGB Museum.

At the beginning of WWII, Hitler and Stalin carved up eastern Europe; Lithuania fell under German rule in August 1939. But when Lithuania refused to attack Poland as a German ally, a second secret pact transferred the country to the Soviet sphere. By June 1941, Soviet deportations had sent 35,000 Lithuanians to Siberia; few returned.

Shortly thereafter Hitler betrayed his supposed ally by launching an attack against Russia, and within two days, the Nazis had occupied Vilnius. In the next three years, the Germans murdered 95% of Vilnius’ pre-war Jewish population of 300,000 people, amounting to about 50% of the total population of the city. The German invasion of Russia failed, the Russians expanded westward, and the war ended with a second Soviet occupation of Vilnius, initiating a 50 year reign of terror.

DSCN8215-KGB museumMuch of this Soviet terror was administered from KGB headquarters at #2 Auku Street. A somber grey stone building, it is fronted today by a peaceful stand of trees. The heavy door opens to a narrow hallway, reminiscent for us of the KGB headquarters in Kiev we visited in 1984 (another story, from before we maintained a travel blog, from before there was such a thing as a blog). Narrow hallways, small ill-furnished offices, secret rooms behind closed doors. Then there’s the basement, with detention and torture cells, including a charming closet for new entrants to the jail, so small that it is possible only to stand in complete darkness. There are many gloomy photos, old uniforms, hand guns, clubs and saps. There is also a recording room, with many tape recorders which were used to record private telephone conversations.

We emerged from the Soviet era and walked back along Gedimino Street, now a major shopping venue, stopping for coffee at a Starbucks imitator called Double Coffee. We passed Vilnaius Street and continued to the University of Vilnius, the oldest university in eastern Europe, founded by Jesuits in 1570, now a maze of courtyards, corridors, halls and towers. It feels old!

Our first stop was the university bookstore, where we found a small selection of books in English. Of much greater interest were the frescoes which covered every square inch of the ceilings and walls, which seems old but was actually completed in 1985.

DSCN8225-wedding - univ chapelThe Great Courtyard is dominated by the baroque façade of St. John’s Church. Inside, a wedding was taking place. Outside, under the facing arcade, another wedding group was forming up; we think there was a full schedule all afternoon. We left the university and wandered through charming narrow streets across the Old Town to another church, and more weddings.

All those weddings sent us looking for the Irish bar; there’s an Irish bar in every city on earth. After Guinness and onion rings at the local Dubliners, we decided to have dinner before returning across the river to our apartment. Within 100 feet was one of the Italian restaurants Pat had diligently identified, and we had pizza.

Sunday 7/12/09 – Vilnius

I wanted a real breakfast, but it was not to be. There are in fact many places in Vilnius where such a thing can be had, but we had not yet found one. We even tried McDonalds, but there was no breakfast menu. As often happens, this led to an unexpected encounter.

We settled in for coffee and a croissant at a sidewalk café, and began talking to the couple next to us. She was a native Lithuanian, they now lived in Pompano Beach, FL. She was a doctor at Memorial Sloane Kettering in New York. Of course she knew Memorial’s infectious disease doc who was a board member at the biomedical research institute I ran in Manhattan.

It was time for the inauguration of Dalia Grybauskaite, Lithuania’s first woman president, elected on May 17, 2009. We walked to the Cathedral, which showed little evidence of preparation. There was a small crowd, a crane with a television cameraman, and one man unrolling a red carpet leading to a platform which was still under construction. The ceremony was scheduled within the hour.

Pat entered the cathedral for mass, while I stayed outside to observe. I climbed up on a small platform surrounding a column outside the cathedral, and was soon joined by a man who said he was a native Lithuanian, in the country for a family reunion, but living near St. Petersburg Beach in Florida. So we had met two Lithuanian couples living in Florida within 30 minutes!

Dignitaries began to arrive, coming down Gedimino Street at irregular intervals in a variety of vehicles. As they walked into the Cathedral, I saw Pat, waving to me from her perfect spot right by the entrance door.

The president arrived, exited her vehicle and walked with a man we believe was the outgoing president between the cheering crowds lining the path to the Cathedral. There was no security. She smiled, waved, and walked within a foot of Pat into the Cathedral. Pat later complimented her for wearing flat shoes, a detail I had missed.

DSCN8274-soldier in chain mailWe positioned ourselves in the large square adjacent to the Cathedral, the scene of the military rehearsal two days before. There was a crowd of maybe 500 people. One policeman rode back and forth on a segue. After a while, other officers moved the crowd off the plaza itself onto the perimeter. We were located with the platform slightly to our right.

Soldiers came in and one stood directly in front of us. He was dressed in chain mail, metal armor, a helmet, and he carried a spear. When about 20 of these warriors had positioned themselves around the perimeter, a series of military units marched in and formed up along the far side of the plaza facing the platform. A military band played.

Soon President Grybauskaite came around the corner from the Cathedral. There were a few short speeches, including

President Grybauskaite and American friend

President Grybauskaite (left) and Pat

one by the new president. She then walked around the entire square, reviewing the troops assembled in her honor. It seemed that the ceremony was over; many people left, some, including us, milled about in the plaza. We saw that President Grybauskaite was still there, shaking hands. We joined the group and shook her hand. Pat gave her best wishes from President Obama and she responded, “Thank you very much” in English.

Leaving the Cathedral Square, we found an authentic Lithuanian restaurant. I had stuffed cabbage which was delicious, but Pat soon determined, not surprisingly, that she was not particularly enamored with authentic Lithuanian grated potatoes. She finally met a potato she didn’t like. We walked to the very end of Old Town, saw an astonishing Greek Orthodox church with a green altar, and something called the Gates of Dawn, a 16th century chapel built into the city’s old wall. By this time, we were tired and took a taxi back to the apartment, where we had wine and cheese, and I broke a wine glass.

Monday 7/13/09 – Vilnius

We begin the day trying to sort out our transportation options for future days.

Tomorrow we will fly to Poland to begin our 5 day side trip to Warsaw, Ciechanow and Krakow. But how do we get to the Vilnius airport? There is a city bus which we think goes to the airport and which we think may take 30 minutes or so to get there. But a taxi would be easier and not much more expensive. Where to get the taxi? There’s a Holiday Inn about a block from our apartment; they agree to call a cab for us when we appear the next morning.

More complicated is our need to get to the airport in Kaunas for our return trip home on July 23. We had the great luxury of Dominykas’ parents to bring us from the Kaunas airport to our apartment; now we must do the return trip on our own. Kaunas is about 90 minutes away; a taxi would be quite expensive. There’s a shuttle bus, but finding it, making a reservation and then getting to the point of its departure are all logistics problems we must solve.

I look up the shuttle bus on the web, send an email, and learn that the shuttle bus is no longer running, due to inadequate demand. Is this another shuttle bus, or is it the same one we think we’re going to take? These kinds of questions are always more challenging when the language is not clear; we almost think we understand, but we’re not quite sure the answer we heard is what they actually said, or meant. And the consequences may be a missed flight and travel chaos.

The shuttle bus to the Kaunas airport, we learn, does leave from the Panorama Hotel, which is near the Vilnius bus station. I call the hotel. I think they tell me the shuttle is running (the one that isn’t running must be another one – I hope), and they give me a phone number to call. From that person, I learn that reservations can only be made via internet; I am given an internet address. On the second try, the first being total failure, I make a reservation for July 23 and receive an email confirmation.

Now all we have to do is get to the Panorama Hotel in advance of the 8:30 am shuttle bus departure. The Holiday Inn will call a cab. So it will be cab to the Panorama, shuttle bus to Kaunas airport, and Ryanair to Stansted (London).

Which leaves only one remaining problem. Once in Stansted, we have tickets on a Stansted to Perpignan flight leaving about two hours later. That is normally adequate time, but Ryanair is not a normal airline. If we must go through passport control, collect our luggage, re-check the luggage for the second flight, and go through security, we will never make it.

We put all this aside for the moment and set out to find a tiny Holocaust Museum at the edge of the Old Town, where the ghetto used to be. It’s a green building down a small alley and up a small hill; the exhibit is limited but overwhelming; the photos are graphic and repelling. The Germans started to kill Jews the day they arrived in Lithuania in June 1941. Within a few months, 95% of the once thriving community of 300,000 Jews were dead.

The pictures of children, soon to die, were haunting.

DSCN8323-Jewish children

I signed the guest book … “never forget, never forgive.”

NOTE: Here’s where we went to Poland for 5 nights, then returned to Vilnius

Monday 7/20/09 – Vilnius

DSCN8704-girl musiciansWe have returned to Vilnius from our trip to Poland and are content to spend a very leisurely day. In the morning, we watch Mad Men and Weeds on TV (in English). From our window, we can see the castle tower, and now we walk across and along the river and take the funicular to the top. The view of Vilnius is excellent. Coming down, we wind our way through a very large and peaceful park to the shopping street, where we have a snack at an outdoor café.

There is a group of girls playing instruments, singing poorly and begging for money in the street behind me. Pat goes off for a minute, and I turn to watch the action in the street. When I turn back, an old beggar woman is standing inches away from me, using my spoon to finish my soup. I start to holler at her, then just let her finish.

Tuesday 7/21/09 – Vilnius

Since we live in a small village in France for the summer, we don’t get to see many movies. There are two cinema complexes in Vilnius, both showing “Public Enemy.” It takes a little work on the internet and with our maps, but we locate both cinemas, confirm the movie times, and choose the cinema closer to the Old Town.

Before we leave the apartment, we call Dominykas’ cousin to arrange the return of the key on Thursday morning. She asks how we are leaving, and then offers to drive us across town to the hotel from which the shuttle bus to the Kaunas airport departs. Dominykas’ family could not have been more considerate and helpful.

We walk past the Tourist Office, confirm the location and movie time, and head out to a different part of the city. AlongDSCN8728-church with green domes the way, we pass a green domed marvel of a church, but we don’t have enough time to go in. At the movie, we purchase our assigned seats, but the theatre is pretty empty, so we move back to a more comfortable viewing distance. Popcorn and Pepsi, Johnny Depp playing John Dillinger, the FBI made to look like violent, law-breaking fools.

Another Vilnius experience; we take the tram back to our apartment. We ask a young man if that Tram #6 goes to the Green Bridge. We pay the driver and board for the 20 minute ride. When we exit, so does the young man, and he goes out of his way to wish us a happy stay in his city.

For two weeks, we have passed by a restaurant located in the brick castle which is immediately adjacent to our apartment building. Tonight we eat there, in an utterly charming outdoor garden. It is chilly; they have small blankets for the ladies. We are clearly the only tourists; the restaurant is filled with groups of young girls and families. One small child amuses himself for an entire hour, quietly jumping and running and bothering no one. The meal is again great, and we have a very short walk home.

Wednesday 7/22/09 – Vilnius

DSCN8745-Anita & AmyTomorrow we will leave. Today we clean the apartment, pack and just relax. I work on these blog entries. The only event of the day is dinner with Amy (who we met on the airplane) and her mother. It turns out that Amy is a prosecutor, so we have spirited conversation about A Good Conviction, my novel about prosecutorial abuse. Amy’s mother Anita is an internist. The conversation is bright and lively, and Amy surprises us by running off and paying the bill.

Thursday 7/23/09 – Vilnius to Collioure?

Our trip home is going to be an adventure. When I booked the flights, I thought there was plenty of time between landing at Stansted and leaving for Perpignan, but that was an incorrect assumption. I called Ryanair and was told it was impossible to make the connection. But an email from Dominykas earlier in the week told us he and Inga had made it with 15 minutes to spare, so we decide to give it a try. It will be expensive and aggravating if we fail.

Gabija picks us up on schedule at 7:30 and we arrive at the Panorama Hotel 15 minutes later. The shuttle bus is on time, we are in Kaunas Airport 90 minutes later. We jump up as soon as the gate opens, having decided to sit as far forward as possible, so we can be off the plane quickly at Stansted. But we never expected to sit where we did. When we board the plane, the first aisle is empty. We thought this was held open, as it was on other Ryanair flights, but Pat asked, the stewardess said ok, and there we were.

The flight to Stansted was a delight, mostly spent talking with the two stewardesses, who were amazed to learn that Pat was both an attorney and a marathon runner. We talked about murder cases, long runs, and travel. One of the stewardesses said she could never go to America because she couldn’t take being a passenger on a long flight. As long as she was busy and in charge, she was fine, but to be “out of control” was hard for her.

Off the plane on the run, we bumped against our first obstacle, a very long and slow moving line at passport control. A passport official came by. “Sir, we have a very tight connection …,” I said. He motioned for us to follow him and took us to the front of the line. We were through in a flash. Step one completed.

Next, pick up luggage. We get to the carousels but the luggage from Kaunas has not yet arrived. I wait for the luggage and Pat goes ahead to get into the check-in line. It takes forever to even post our flight to a carousel; once the luggage begins to arrive, ours is practically last. Step two completed but our chances are dwindling.

I start to run dragging the bags and immediately almost fall. A fast walk is the best I can do. Fortunately, we were in this airport two weeks before so I know where to go. I see the departure board as I move past; the flight to Perpignan is still open. Pat is waving; she is in the front of the line, holding her place and letting others go ahead. Our bags are checked quickly. Step three completed.

Without the two larger bags, we can now run to security, where we get a break, the line is short. Off with the belt, out with the computer, shoes off (often not, this time yes). Something goes off when I walk through. Can’t imagine what. I empty my pockets, no metal, but  this time no buzzer. Step four completed.

Now all we have to do is get to the gate. Up an escalator, around long halls, down escalators – who designed this airport? Finally, gate 41 is in sight. We get in line. Step five completed. We’re tired and sweaty, but we’ve made it! And, like Dominykas, we have at least 15 minutes to spare before the last passenger is boarded.

On the same flight from Stansted to Perpignan is our neighbor Mike; he is renting a car in Perpignan and gives us a ride home to Collioure. Great trip, good to be back in our little village.

Posted in ... 2009, ... Vilnius, Lithuania | 1 Comment »