Day 13 – Travelling to Vilnius, Lithuania

6 Oct

Well, the answer to making use of the extra 15 minutes granted to us today was easy.  With the comfy hotel room, the time just flew by, and I ended up needing a quick breakfast.  If I was part of the Azerbaijani, Austrian, Bosnian or Lithuanian youth football teams I would easily have found a space for breakfast, but as it was, the other three tables were all taken.  Contemplating changing nationality, and starting to learn something about football, my bleary eyes eventually discovered that Tauno was actually at one of the tables.  He’s obviously not as practiced at last minute breakfasts and I ended up lapping him to the porridge and yoghurt.

The reason for the later departure was soon obvious.  Our first destination of the day didn’t open until 10am and was only 20 minutes away.  We therefore stopped off at a sandy beach on a reservoir, complete with outdoor gym equipment.  Andreas was thankful when Tauno reminded us not to bring sand back into the bus.  With the cold wind and more than an inkling of rain, none of us were late back.

Driving on the 50 yards to the car park of the Pažaislis Camaldolese Monastery, we buzzed the nuns to let us in through the gate of the high walls.  After meeting our guide, we were shown the outside of the hexagonal church of the Holy Virgin Mary’s Apparition to Elisabeth.  Hereafter referred to as “the church”.  It was built in 1674.  Then it was straight into the crypt, which spooked a couple members of the group as she described the tombs that we were then standing between.  Stone slab, wooden pillow – bricked up tomb and names added later.

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Outside the church were boxes of apples – obviously excess apple season here as well – and donations were welcome.  Inside, there were fantastic frescoes, and stucco decorating the walls and roof.  The various meanings were pointed out by a laser pen.  Large amounts of marble (real stuff, not the painted version I’d seen in so many of the previous churches visited) were set as columns and everywhere inside.  The tomb of the founder – K. C. Pacas is in front of the main door, so that people have to walk over him to enter.

The complex has had a troubled past, with it being a Catholic church, Russian Orthodox church, mental hospital, primary school and orphanage.  It has also been hit by fire, looted by Napoleon’s soldiers and mortgaged to the Russian Tsar.  It was returned to the Sisters of St. Casmir Order in 1992 and was reconsecrated as a church then.

The sacristy had intricate oak carvings, some of which had been restored, but a lot of original work.  Other rooms had no original oak left and some of the frescoes were damaged.  Generally it was in a great state, and electrical rewiring work was taking whilst we were there.

There were various other buildings, including the servant’s quarters that had been turned into an exhibition.  Three areas covered the story of the building, the story of the nuns and the treasures that have been used there – mostly church vessels and clothing.  A gold chalice had been nicked by Russia and is currently in the Kremlin.  It had 248 diamonds, 193 emeralds, 327 rubies and garnets.  Funnily enough, 15 of the diamonds have gone missing and were replaced by coloured crystals instead.

Moving on, we were enlightened with a few more news stories of the yesterday, including the Estonian news (no shocks there) where the president of Estonia has now been elected – the 5 candiates who spent millions on their campaigns have been cast aside for a compromise candidate of a female diplomat to the EU.  She had to go back to Strasbourg to clear her own desk – I would have thought she could have asked someone to do this for her?

Various topics gave us a bit more background to life in the Baltic States, including Lithuania.  The view was that the recent Russian flexing of its military muscle in Ukraine and elsewhere was indeed very worrying.  Belarus is sympathetic to Russia, and it’s possible that Lithuania is a high target due to the number of Russian citizens within its borders and the direct route it would then provide to Kaliningrad.  All residents of Lithuania were given automatic citizenship (if they wanted it), when the USSR broke up. In Latvia and Estonia the option was only given to those who had parents or grandparents who were born in those countries.  There, Russians could gain Russian citizenship, or be left in limbo.  They have residency cards for Latvia or Estonia, but are not citizens.  This has its benefits as Russia allows them visa free access, and they can also enter the EU easily.  If they pick a nationality, then they are unable to travel freely.

Trains was another topic.  A different gauge of railway operate in the former Soviet states than in the rest of Europe, meaning that trains are unable to travel throughout the EU and Baltic States.  The solution is to build new rail track.  Currently the only track that is complete is from Poland to Kaunas, Lithuania.  Political disagreements have prevented it progressing any further.  Nuclear power plants – especially on the border in Belarus – are also political footballs.  No one wants another Chernobyl, but the option on the table is to reinstate an old Soviet plant which they admit is a bit dodgy.  Moscow residents are also apparently preparing nuclear bomb shelters.  Perhaps it’s because of their previous power plants, rather than the USA.

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Another hour passed easily in our WiFi free bus replacement bus until we reached Trakai Castle.  Obviously the first thing on the list was lunch.  Pasties – called Kibinai – were the order of the day.  Sampled a lamb and a beef one.  Very tasty.

Trakai Castle had been rebuilt – exhibitions inside showed the ruins as they were, and the last of the restoration was completed in the 1990s – notable as it means that the Soviets had actually started to care about history at some point.

The castle was on an island, and previous one of several in the area.  It was heavily fortified, and had never been breached.  A moat and a drawbridge gave it a very secure feeling.  The stairs that had been built inside were for the tourists only.  Our guide took us around, at speed.  Various stained glass, art, weapons, armour, money and silver dishes were all on show.  In the Great Hall, two rather depressing tapestries were the only disappointment of the room.  I want one.

Details of the Karaims (Jewish-ish) the Tartars (Muslim-ish) who inhabited the area were also shown.  With some free time, the other eclectic exhibits – dead animal heads, claypipes, glass ornaments, stamps, furniture and the prison tower – were explored.  Strangely, the gift shop was not an exit, and we all got trapped in there.

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Goodbye to Andreas

Arriving in Vilnius, we waved goodbye to our driver, Andreas and checked in to an out of the centre hotel.  After checking in, Steve went off to the dentist, but Karen, Ruth, Yok Leng and I walked into town.  Past the former KGB building and Genocide Museum with the names of those that had been shot displayed on individual stones of the building.  Various arty sculpture were also found.  We did most of the major sights, but as we’ll likely cover them all again tomorrow on our city tour, I’ll skip this bit just now.

The bits you won’t hear about include … The coffee stop, where hard cheese was on offer, complete with a mouse statue.  A Kaliningrad beggar who was starving in the train station.  Perhaps his puffa jacket was hiding something – like his huge belly.  And the numerous souvenir shops we visited and churches we photographed.  Special mention must go the Jimmy Choo display, complete with red carpet and three models in the Town Hall square. It’s a much more spread out centre, and we eventually settled on a nice Italian restaurant for dinner.

Walked back via the Cat Café and in the hotel tried to figure out how to fit all my purchases into my case.  This isn’t going to be easy.  But hey, I’ve still for another 28 hours yet …

 

 

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