July 17, 2012
I have been waiting for my “authentic Lithuanian” moment.
I’m not sure what I mean by that but I figure I’ll know it when it happens. Nothing is leaping out and screaming “this is Lithuania!” so far. In fact the country feels one of the least foreign we’ve been in.
Maybe it’s the locations – we’re stopping in cities not rural villages – or the accommodation – we are staying in guest houses and hotels not airbnb apartments – or the weather – it’s wet and cold so we’re not venturing too far – but it all feels a lot more like home than I was expecting.
Most people speak English, the food is cosmopolitan and even the scenery reminds us of the countryside around the Hunter (minus the coalmines).
There are paddocks of grain, bales of hay, a few small herds of cattle, an intensive piggery or two, chooks and veggie gardens.
Nothing particularly striking, although I swear I see a few blue cows. Graham doesn’t believe me and I don’t have photographic evidence but they were blue, a denim shade, for sure. It’s actually Latvia that is famous for its breed of blue cows but I’m bagging these. (It’s a bear in the woods moment, Michael and Marita will appreciate.)
Marijampole is our first stop over the border. Its city centre is being paved and planted and polished around a grand public square and a scenic river park. Elsewhere bears all the hallmarks of a community that has known very little independence in its exceptionally long history (the city was first mentioned in a book in the 1100s).
If it wasn’t the Swedes or the Prussians it was the Germans or the Soviets pushing their agenda. Newcastle take note. If a city like this can regenerate itself, fixing Hunter Street is a doddle.
The port city of Klaipeda is also in the midst of a building boom, with renovations in full swing along the central canal of its historic Old Town. Public art (sculptures) is everywhere. Newcastle, take another note.
It’s raining and cold enough for us to dig out our hoodies when we arrive – what has happened to peak summer? – which is a shame. This place would sparkle under a clear blue sky.
We’re told we must visit the UNESCO-listed, world-famous Curonian Spit national park, a thin sliver of sand, dotted with pine and birch trees, that protects the Klapeida port and runs all the way south to Kaliningrad.
In Soviet times it was a holiday retreat for rich and powerful Russians, who built their private getaways right behind the dunes. Now it’s a summer playground for Lithuanians and other Europeans, we’re told.
Graham and I think it’s a lot like Nelson Bay, with the drive through the national park about as interesting as the drive north from Stockton. The surf beaches are windswept and closed the day we visit so we can’t vouch for their quality but they don’t appear a patch on Newcastle or Merewether.
And it’s even too unpleasant to go searching for amber (this is the start of the Amber Coast), although most of the world’s supply of this semi-precious stone is now mined in Kaliningrad.
Saturday, as we leave Klaipeda to head north, it dawns warm and sunny. But we have already decided to shun the coast and turn inland again, for Zemaitija national park and Siauliai. Don’t ask us how to pronounce these place names. We still haven’t a clue.
Deep in the park lies an abandoned Soviet missile base, built in the 1960s with four bunkers to target West Germany, Spain, Norway, England and Turkey. The base was so top secret no local landholders realised what was going on (they were told it was a chemical plant) until the missiles, and the 3000-odd troops to support them, were suddenly pulled out before Lithuanian independence in 1990.
The base is now a Cold War museum, one of the best museums we’ve seen. You get to walk through a missile bunker with a guide, see the launch room, the communications room and look down the silo itself. There is a sobering multimedia presentation on the effect of a nuclear bomb on a city and a timeline showing how close the world almost came to self-destruction.
We stop to ask directions to the museum at the national park headquarters and the woman attendant there (I guess she’s in her mid-30s) says she can remember the area being full of Soviet troops and mysterious late-night convoys and then the absolute joy of independence and the troops moving out.
Around the missile base now are healthy lakes and lush forests peppered with family camping spots, guesthouses, farm stays and holiday homes. Think Barrington Tops, but without the Tops. What a contrast.
Out of Siauliai, an otherwise unremarkable town with ugly apartment blocks and a big brand new shopping centre on its outskirts, there’s another monument to Lithuanian resilience (the national park attendant described her people as “stubborn”).
The Hill of Crosses started as one farmer’s small devotion to his god, then others planted crosses in memory of lost family and friends. Through wars and other tribulations, the little Hill of Crosses gave succour to Christian believers.
But in Soviet times, when such religious displays were banned, planting a cross on the hill became a symbol of protest and resistance. Three times the Soviets bulldozed the site, but the crosses kept appearing. Today, estimates range from 200,000 to 400,000 crosses. They are all sizes and styles, propped against each other, heaped in piles. It’s an impressive site, people power at its most potent.
And then I realised … Lithuania is not about a “moment”. These people have struggled and survived for centuries and are still moving through their brave new world of political independence. But they’re not that different from the rest of us, with a love of good food, good beaches, the outdoors and a sense that their future must also honour their past.