=After I left Latvia, I headed southward to Lithuania, where it is either ‘cloudy with a chance of rain, or raining with a chance of sun’ according to our guide (spoiler, we had both during our 12 hour venture). The ride was mostly countryside, albeit absolutely beautiful hills and fields of crops. It is amazing how much open space exists in Europe – and how beautiful and different those landscapes are.
We started our morning in Latvia with a quick stop in the forest to view the Holocaust memorial, built by the Soviets as a way of saying ‘look, at least we weren’t them!’ (according to our tour guide). The memorial itself is quite stark, designed in a Soviet brutalist style. Most interestingly, the Soviet government commissioned statues reflecting Soviet ideals, such as motherhood and independence, as a testament to their reign. There is a museum inside the monument now (added post-Soviet era), and there is a metronome which sounds like a heartbeat, beating constantly in the clearing around the side of the memorial itself. I love knowing that somewhere in a forest in Latvia, a metronome maintains a heartbeat for all of those who suffered during the Holocaust.
Then, we continued on to a castle in Latvia which was designed by the same architect as the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, the home of Anna Romanov until her death. The palace has been featured in many movies as a cheap property double, as the cost of filming in Latvia at a replica palace is significantly cheaper than the cost of filming at the Winter Palace itself. As with all things, it was ruined during the wars and has been rebuilt, with a small garden based on the Versailles palace gardens. Overall, a pleasant but pretty forgettable place.
Then, we headed to a deer farm in Lithuania for lunch, where I got a traditional beet soup with cucumbers and potatoes for lunch, followed by potato pancakes filled with venison (think croquette) for <10€. Of course, everything was covered in plenty of dill!
Next, it was a short drive to the Hill of Crosses, which is what I most looked forward to in Lithuania. I had read about the hill on many sites describing interesting, obscure wonders of the world, and it lives up to that claim. It’s essentially a raised area which has hundreds of thousands of crosses on it, which are typically placed there to beckon good tidings / send wishes, etc. It’s also not uncommon for couples to go plant a cross just after getting married as a way of blessing the family, and we ended up seeing several couples on their way to do so in wedding gear (also an interesting cultural phenomena – eastern European women are significantly less conservative with their wedding attire, to the enjoyment of many of the male tourists posing for photos with them and their new grooms). At the parking lot, vendors sell crosses, which you can then plant yourself. Once you get on / in the hill (the crosses are about 15 feet high in some places, and more considering the incline). Overall, one of the most interesting places I’ve been in a very long time and my primary driver in this whole expedition to Lithuania.
From the Hill of Crosses, we drove about 2 hours to Kaunas, a small city closer to Vilnius the capital, which used to be the primary capital of Lithuania. It was interesting, although a bit small, and the castle essentially just an external structure at this point. The town square is quaint, although we didn’t have too much time to explore and enjoy the locale. There was, however, a gorgeous cathedral.
Then, we went to the Tapenki Castle, located about ~50 miles from the current capital of Vilnius, which again was essentially just an external structure (they use these for concerts, for example) but which had a glorious sunset.
Then, we continued on to Vilnius, which seems to be a bit of a European hippie paradise amidst the pretty brutal Soviet architecture. The frequent references to backpacker hostels, and the many bars and restaurants, reminded me of the tourist areas of Siem Reap, Cambodia. However, while Cambodia attracts Australians and Americans looking to “find” themselves, Vilnius seems to attract the western Europeans looking to do the same. To get a feel for the local flavor, I went to a local “fancy” restaurant for dinner and was led several stories into the medieval cellar, where my table was literally a nook facing a brick wall (oh well). I got some game sausages, cabbage, and potatoes with a beer for dinner, a grand total of 15 Euros. Overall, a great value for the experience!
Sadly, my day trip through Lithuania was a short stop-over between my week alone in the Baltics and the rest of our travels through Europe. If I had to visit again, I would split my time between Estonia and Lithuania – however, if you’re looking to experience “lived” eastern Europe, I have to say the hospitality and culture of Latvia is quite appealing.