Lithuania – ambers and cepelinai

A view at a ship in the sea port in Klaipėda

Life sometimes mixes two completely unrelated things into one, pretty interesting adventure. Once, we signed up for a dance class, because we wanted to get the basics of ballroom dance. One day, somewhere between waltz and rumba, our teacher proposed that he can organize a trip to show us his homeland. And that’s how we ended up having a trip across Lithuania during a long week in May.

Klaipėda

We started our visit in Lithuania with Baltic. You can say that it’s just a sea, but there’s a difference between Baltic in Kołobrzeg in Poland and the one in Klaipėda. Beach hidden past the small forest, but broader than most beaches found in Poland. Although it was in May, Saturday evening, biggest seaside city, biggest sea port, third biggest city of Lithuania – during our 1,5h walk we didn’t see absolutely anyone beside us. Water was so clear, that we could see the bottom few meters from the shore, and each wave was leaving small ambers behind. We all were collecting those small jewels when the trainer said, “Let’s make a competition, whoever finds the biggest one – wins!”. The bravest ones took their shoes off and tried picking up ambers from awefully cold water. We had loads of laughter while doing it! When it came to deciding who the winner is, everyone showed their spoils. Almost every amber was no bigger than a toenail. Our trainer found one that was around 4 cm big, so the rest of competitors were admiring it. Then Dawid reached to his pocket and presented the amber he found by an accident, burried in the sand. He found it just after he announced, that sea is too cold and he’s tired of looking for ambers:

A big amber in a palm
Amber found by Dawid

The trainer (sad that our amber is much bigger) congratulated us and told us a story from his childhood. When the sea port in Klaipėda was being rebuilt, every day workers were picking up kilograms of ambers. Various colors, and sizes from tiny ones up to big as ostrich egg. They were packed in bags and transported away. Everyone could then come and take as much as wanted but not much people decided to do so. Even today there’s no problem with finding many smaller ambers while walking on the beach, but you have to be very lucky to find the big ones like in the trainer’s tale.

After the walk we went to see one of the biggest attractions in Klaipėda – Dolphinarium. We’ve seen some very entertaining shows performed by sea lions and dolphins. We spent there over two hours, having a great time. And we left a bit wet, since the dolphins didn’t mind to splash some water on the audience.

After sea-related attractions we went for sightseeing of the old town. Quiet, lovely town with a lot of places to visit. Yet again we were supprised that in such a big city, on Saturday night nothing really happens. So we went to one of the local bars, where they served us craft beer (very fresh, made in the cellar). We spend the whole evening drinking excellent beverages and eating typical, Lithuanian snacks – smoked pig ears, dried fish chips, tosts with garlic butter (made from black Lithuanian bread) and various, traditional kinds of cheese.

Kaunas

Our trip was arranged to keep us interested, so from the third biggest city in Lithuania, we went to the second biggest one – Kaunas, which is the industrial center of Lithuania. Until 1918, two districts of Kaunas (placed on the left bank of river Neman) were part of (then existing) Kingdom of Poland. In the period between WWI and WWII Kaunas was the capital of Lithuania.

Patrycja on a cat statue in the Alley of Freedon in Kaunas
Alley of Freedom in Kaunas

Since we had only one evening for sightseeing, our guide has chosen the most interesting places for us to see. We started the walk from so called Alley of Freedom – Laisvės alėja. It’s the longest promenade in Kaunas and (according to some Lithuanians) “the most elegant street in the whole Lithuania”. We could see the contrast between beautiful buildings along the alley (renewed old buildings, new hotels, restaurants, butiques, malls, lots of fountains and interesting sculptures) and the shape in which buildings on streets further away from Vilniaus gatvė were.

When we got past the monument of Vytautas the Great, we turned our steps towards the church of St. Michael the Archangel, and after that to the Town Hall, house of Adam Mickiewicz and at the end Cathedral Basilica of apostles St. Peter and St. Paul. Later on there was obvious that we needed to see the well-known (at least in Poland) river Neman. In Kaunas it doesn’t look as beautiful and blue as described by the “Slavic bard” (Adam Mickiewicz), but somehow still looks majestic. After taking some pictures it was time to move on and continue our trip. But first we took a quick stop and visited “Mrs. Mother” of our trainer (it’s the title he used himself), so that he could take a package with some tasty, home-made food back to Poland 🙂

 Vilnius

At last it was the time to visit the capital. Although Vilnius is the biggest center of Polish culture in Lithuania, we weren’t welcome. How do we got this feeling? Two hours after arriving to Vilnius, while we were checking in at the hotel, someone broke into our bus and stole few things. Fortunately, there wasn’t many things that got stolen, but still the bus needed a new window. And in the evening, while we were doing some shopping, clerks didn’t want to sell us alcohol (just some beers). We didn’t even get the answer why (as an addition – locals were buying alcohol normally the whole time). Poles are sadly not very liked by Vilnius people – but we didn’t came there for them.

A view at the artists terrace in the the Republic of Užupis in Vilnius
The Republic of Užupis

First place we visited in Vilnius was the Republic of Užupis. It’s a Independent Republic of Artists – a small, having just 600 m2, part of Vilnius on the east shore of Vilnia river. The republic has its own constitution, anthem, flag and emblem, an army of 17 (!) soldiers and a president with the assist of ambassadors. Its independence was claimed 1stApril 1997 and therefore every year, April Fools is the day of Užupis. On that day, on the frontier bridge passports are checked and everyone gets an entry visa. Also there’s a lot of celebrations.

Protector and Patron of Užupis is an angel (a statue that symbolically connects earth with heaven) that is standing on the square, just behind the bridge over the Vilnia river. But before there was an angel, the statue was representing an egg – a sign that angel is yet to be hatched.

The Republic of Užupis is an amazing place, where word “normal” has completely new meaning. Picturesque alleys, mysterious shade of courtyards, artistic elements accenting characteristic of this place and its people. As the constitution states “A dog has the right to be a dog” and “Sometimes everyone has the right to be unaware of their duties”. It’s also very common to see ladies in their nightrobes or gentlemans in their slippers shopping in the store on the corner.

After Užupis we visited the old town. Amazingly renewed buildings, beautiful town hall and cathedral, lots of interesting churches – no wonder why Vilnius is on UNESCO world heritage list. But Vilnius would be missing something if it wasn’t for many memorials and commemoriatives placed across the whole city, describing what did Adam Mickiewicz do in given place. And of course Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn. It’s hard to say if Vilnius is more about Mickiewicz or Holy Mary… Certainly in the old town there’s a plenty of attractions for everyone. If not the monuments and buildings, Mickiewicz or Holy Mary, then there’s a lot of bars/pubs with delicious Lithuanian food and drinks. And that was how we wanted to summarize the first day of sightseeing the Vilnius – with tasty cold borscht and cepelinai, paired with amazing Lithuanian liquors and meads.

On the second day we went to see Rasos Cemetery. With the area of close 11 hectares, it’s considered one of the four biggest, Polish necropoleis. Many Polish people know it because every year there’s a funds collection for the renovation of the gravestones found in Rasos.

The whole necropolis is consisting of Old Rasos, New Rasos, Military Cemetary and mausoleum “Mother and Son’s Heart”. We’ve seen gravestones of artists, musicians, professors and politicians. A lot of them were renovated and presenting nicely, but still we couldn’t decipher names on others. For most of Polish people a “must see” point in Rasos – “Mother and Son’s Heart”, a mausoleum in which Maria Piłsudska, mother of Józef Piłsudski (First Marshal of Poland) is buried. In the same place urn with the heart of Józef Piłsudski was burried after his death.

A picture of gravestones at Rasos Cemetery in Vilnius
Rasos Cemetery

On the way back from the cemetary, we went to see Three Crosses monument. The legend says, that the crosses were set as a memorial to franciscan martyrs, who were crucified on that hill. In 1950 the monumet was destroyed by communists, but after almost 40 years it was rebuilt, to memorize the victims of stalinism in Lithuania. The hill is also a viewpoint with a beautiful panorama over the Vilnius.

Trakai

The last point of our trip to Lithuania was a visit in Trakai, placed only 30km from Vilnius. It’s a village with around 5500 inhabitants that mixes influences of different cultures – like Lithuanian, Polish or Russian, but the most interesting is one certainly culture of Karaims.

Karaims are a small ethnic and religious group, that migrated here from Crimea in medieval times. Across whole Europe there’s only around 1600 Karaims, and the biggest part of them lives in Trakai. Karaims religion – karaism – is monotheistic and it originates mostly from judaism, but has also common parts with islam and christianity. Karaims have their own language, culture, cuisine and very specific way of building their houses. Each house is made of wood, with front of the building facing the road, and with three windows on that wall. It is said that each of the windows is for someone else – one for Prince, one for God and one for Karaim. Houses, as well as Kenesa (Karaims temple) are one of the main attractions in Trakai.

Us with Castle in Trakai in the background
Castle in Trakai.

But the most characteristic place in Trakai is the castle built in the middle of the lake in XIV – XV century, on the behalf of the Grand Duke Kęstutis and his son, prince Vytautas. After moving the capital to Trakai, the castle’s political and defensive meaning has increased significantly. But after the Battle of Grunwald in 1410 the castle started to be less important and finally became only duke’s residence. During the war with Russia it was seriously damaged, and the first renovations started at the beginning of XX century. Nowadays there’s a conference center for historical events, and part of the castle is turned into a museum.

Our last dinner was worth to die for – we tried traditional Karaims cuisine. First served was dish called kybyn – baked dumplings stuffed with lamb or veal. And for the main course we had čanach – meat (lamb) with potatoes and vegetables, stewed in ceramic pots covered with dough, and eaten with a small addition of sour creme. All super tasty, fresh and delicious. After such a finale of our few days in Lithuania, we could get back to Poland with smiles on our faces.

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