In July, I traveled to the small Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. It was only quite recently, in 1991, that they regained their independence. Each has its own language and culture. They are part of the European Union. Lithuania is the largest and most southern of the three countries. Leaving Warsaw, Poland, I traveled north through the countryside to Vilnius, Lithuania. The weather was warm and pleasant. Driving on new highways, it was difficult to imagine that the three countries were without any network of highways until the 1990s. Everything is new here. I arrived in Vilnius in the evening and enjoyed a traditional dinner of borscht (beet soup), cepelinai (stuffed potato dumplings), and other Lithuanian dishes.
The next day, with a native guide, I went on a walking tour of Vilnius, the picturesque, historic capital of Lithuania. Vilnius has been named a European capital of culture. We began on Castle Hill—from Gedimino Tower, there is a great view of the city.
In 1988, the flag of Lithuania was raised again after decades of Soviet control. In the near distance is the Hill of Three: crosses erected in the 1600s, torn down by the Soviets, and re-erected in 1989. The old university, now part of the University of Vilnius, has baroque architecture, with beautiful courtyards and ornate chapels. It was founded by Jesuits in 1569 and it includes St. John’s Church and the domed Church of St. Casmir, the patron saint of Lithuania. Nearby is the Ausra Gate, the last remaining part of the old city walls.
Vilnius at one time was the seat of the mighty Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and the area is still a lovely place. Our walk continued to the Cathedral Square, through winding narrow lanes from the old city, to newer sections of grand city built in the early 1900s. In one large office building the KGB set up headquarters after WWII. It is now The Victims of Genocide Museum. The Jewish population here was decimated during the war: 70,000 Jews were killed, reducing their population to about 800. Paneriai (also in Lithuania) was the site of another WWII death camp, where more than 100,000 Lithuanians and Poles, mostly Jews, were murdered by the Nazis. It is a very sobering experience to visit these sites of such a tragic part of history.
In Vilnius, we enjoyed a good walk to Vingio Park, a large grassy area where anti-Soviet protest meetings took place. During the Dairu Svente (Festival of Songs), a choir of 20,000 voices performed at the open-air theater in the Park. It is now used for concerts and many world-famous performers have come here. A track meet was happening when I was there.
There are many other museums in Vilnius including the Amber Museum, a chic modern place where amber can be purchased. The Lithuanian Museum has folk art, native costumes, and archaeological exhibits.
After my visit in Vilnius, the scenic drive went north by the Nervis River, through a landscape of dark forests, swamps, and lush pastures. There were many people carrying baskets and picking mushrooms. On the way we stopped at the Hill of Crosses memorial site, a Lithuanian pilgrimage destination known for the thousands of crosses of every size, made out of all sorts of material. There were busloads of tourists stopped here, but it was still an amazing place. Many lanes and paths for walking went up and down the hill that was covered with crosses.
There is so much history in the Baltic countries that is tinged with tragedy. Yet today the people there are ambitious and intelligent, creating a happy society.
(posted December 27, 2016)