Day 10 – Into Lithuania, via Rundale Palace and the Hill of Crosses

3 Oct

Tauno had made it on time, and actually managed an extra breakfast, as he’d had to get up for 8:30am to check everyone had got the note that we were now starting at 9:00am.  That meant that I was officially last to breakfast.

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We started off the day with a new bus and a new driver – Andreas – who seemed overly cheerful for this time in the morning. The fancy new black bus was more used to Chinese VIPs and had black tinted windows, table seating and backwards facing seats.  Apparently it also has WiFi, when in Lithuania.  We’ll see if it can cope with my surfing.

The group had worked out a strategy to combat the morning verbal diarrhoea of our illustrious tour captain – stoney silence! It worked, following a brief in depth description of how to cross a river.

It was still a bit grey and overcast as we headed to our first destination of the day – Rundale Palace, still in Latvia (just).  We passed through the transit town of Bauska, with its 400 year old town hall, and turned off the “Via Baltica” – otherwise known as the E67, connecting the capitals of the Baltic states – to arrive at the palace.

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Rundale Palace was the home of Ernst Johann Biron, Duke of Courland, who was exiled to Siberia for 23 years, whilst in the middle of building it.  This is because Anna, the Empress of Russia, died and he fell out of favour. Built by the same Italian architect, Rastrelli, that designed the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, it has a couple of styles –  with elegant and huge entertaining spaces, and an intricately decorated boudoir for the Duchess, where she could also “have a rest” after getting dressed.  The women were basically sewn into their clothes, making undressing quite the ordeal as well.  They didn’t do washing very often, so “bath” rooms were non existent, commodes commonplace and potpourri overused.

Three separate families owned it before the state took it over in the 1920s. The walls had been painted over several times, and painstaking work has taken place over 30 years to peel off the layers of paint and return it to its former glory.  Our guide led us room by room explaining the functions and the history.  Almost every room had a ceramic tiled floor-to-ceiling “heater” in the corner, fuelled from a fire in the room behind.  I managed to set off the alarm with my camera flash – apparently very sensitive in that room!  Lynsey also managed to summon a guard when she dropped her bottle of water on the wooden floor, with a loud crash.  The guards all look 12 though, so not much to worry about.

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Following the conclusion of the guided part, we all headed for the café, and I managed to sneak in a chicken salad in a sweet and sour sauce.  Very nice, except for all those salad things that got in the way.  Cheapest meal yet though!

We wandered back through the edge of the perfectly manicured formal gardens, with the entire Latvian workforce out collecting leaves – some with rakes, and one with a rather large vacuum.  Would have been great to have a go, but wasn’t brave enough to ask.  The souvenir shop was raided and the last juniper smelling coaster was bought (not by me!)  The car park was filling up – there was now another bus next to ours!

On the rather buuuummpy road to Lithuania, the jokes about Estonians were regurgitated.  Especially regarding their slowness, but also a feeling of being more advanced, or arrogant.  Lithuanians however are the “Italians” of the Baltic. Lithianians call Latvians the “horse heads”, perhaps due to the shape on the map.

Scandinavian countries are Norway, Sweden and Denmark, Nordic countries also include Iceland and Finland.  Latvia and Lithuania think of Estonia as more Nordic than Baltic although the Nordic countries don’t want Estonia to join the club.

Lithuanians are good at basketball, are mostly all Catholics and go shopping in Poland.  Insert other random facts here.  I think the bus driver eventually asked Tauno to shut up for a bit, and he resorted to his default excuse of us looking tired.  I was still hyper from the Riga Black Balsam last night to be honest.

The WiFi did indeed kick in as we crossed the Lithuanian border, and several people settled into a pattern of web browsing (my blog got at least one extra hit), TV watching, gaming or just catching up with the outside world.  This is indeed the VIP way to travel!

Shortly however, our internet addictions had to be silenced, as we arrived at the “Hill of Crosses”.  Skirting the gift shop, that seemed to sell mostly crosses, we headed to the bump – “hill” would be a gross exaggeration.  It was indeed covered with crosses – according to the guides, over 200,000 and with the handy gift shop (selling at very reasonable prices) and a tradition of bringing another one with you when you visit, the hill was growing fast.

It is a place of pilgrimage for the many Catholics of Lithuania, and the names written or carved into the crosses are of the people or organisations who have placed them there – not in memory of anyone, as such.  Saying that, it’s not the most organised place, with mounds of crosses – most of them are more accurately crucifixes – thrown together.  My OCD was twitching.  At times they looked more like piles of firewood.  At various times in the past, the invading forces (Soviet and Nazi) tried to clear the hill, but the crosses kept reappearing.

You could climb steps that meandered through the large and small versions and even more revealed themselves on the other side.  Truly a spectacular sight.  However, I didn’t get a feeling that it was a hugely religious site – probably because the vast majority of people that were there were tourists.  Pope St. John Paul II came here, as did Pope Benedict XVI, so there is certainly an intention of spiritual focus.  It just wasn’t overly apparent in the bitingly cold wind.  It was so cold that I even had to put a sweatshirt on, while others were onto their seventh layer.

Back on the bus, we moved to a roadside restaurant 5 minutes away.  Not really being hungry, and only 2 hours since I last ate, I forced down a cheese and ham crepe/pancake.  Not a great move, in retrospect.  Tauno joined us as I finished to advise that we’d be visiting a Lithuanian restaurant tonight to sample typical food.  That would be in about 2 hours more …

We settled back into the ultra fast Internet and sped our way to Klaipeda.  This is Lithuania’s third largest city and its only major port.  Population of about 120,000 and a boat as its major attraction.  Sounding similar to any city you know?

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We joined the queue to check in, and tried not to panic as the lobby floor was glass, and directly above the hotel swimming pool.  Ladies with large cleavages should perhaps avoid this end of the pool.

Tauno allowed us 20 minutes to freshen up before giving us on a whistle stop tour of the top rated attractions in Klaipeda.  The tiny Golden Mouse statue was #3 on TripAdvisor!  Oh dear.

The restaurant, as promised, served typical Lithuanian food, and I settled on traditional fried zeppelins – basically potato with extra starch and some meat in the middle, fried.  Served with sour cream and crackling sauce.  Totally unhealthy, but really tasty.  Steve managed to sample the 5 local fire waters, but my stomach wasn’t up to it.  First Baltic ice cream for me.  The political situation with Russia, Ukraine (in Crimea), Georgia and the other former Soviet Republics dominated my conversation with Tauno, as did the security of energy supplies.  He didn’t seem too worried, although if you live in Kazakhstan, he thought you should be.  The biggest surprise of the night was the cost of the meal – for 8 of us, the entire meal with drinks came to only €63.70.

I’m going to like this country.

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