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July 26, 2004 -> The little empire: lithuania

Lithuania is small, but proud.  In Athens, the Lithuanian basketball team beat the USA “Dream Team” in the early rounds of the competition.  Seem improbable?  It isn't.  A look at Lithuania's history reveals a country that has challenged and defeated more than its fair share of mighty rivals.  Lithuania was one of the last places in Europe to convert to Christianity.  Pagan and proud of it, the Lithuanians held off the crusading Knights of the Livonian Order to the north, the Knights of the Teutonic Order to the west and south, and the Orthodox Russians to the east.  More as a political expedient than an epiphany, the Lithuanians finally caved in and took on Catholicism in 1251.  In the 14th century, little Lithuania expanded to control an area that stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea and included most of modern day Belarus, half of Ukraine, and parts of Russia and Poland as well.  During the Soviet occupation of the Baltics, Lithuania had a reputation for mounting the strongest resistance, and it was the first of the Baltics to declare independence in March, 1990. 

Vilnius is the only inland Baltic capital.  It is also the least visited and least commercial of the three.  Apart from a few main streets that thread through the Old Town, many of the buildings are in a state of disrepair – or “benign neglect” as some of the guidebooks assert.  The city has a wealth of beautiful churches, an amazing Jewish heritage (though few Jews survived the Nazi purges), and a number of interesting museums.  In style and sophistication, Vilnius was a step behind Tallinn, and a few steps behind Riga, but the place had a rambling rusticity that we both enjoyed.  Like most European Old Towns, the focus is on cafes and souvenir shopping; in this case, amber shopping.  Lithuania is one of the world's largest ‘producers' of amber.  The petrified tree sap (which comes in many colors besides amber) literally washes up on the coast after big storms.  Every store sells amber jewelry.  There is even an Amber Museum with a surprisingly interesting exhibit on amber formation. 

There many several excellent day-trips from Vilnius.  Most tourists will visit the new-old Lithuanian castle at Trakai, and for good reason: its location on a small lake island is positively dreamy.  The fort is completely reconstructed - its stone walls and cone-topped Gothic towers still gleam – but that does not spoil the fantasy.  My only disappointment was that the ‘medieval' pub had not opened yet.  We resisted the temptation to have our photograph taken with two sword-wielding “knights” that guarded the keep. 

We took a long day-trip from Vilnius to visit the controversial Soviet Sculpture Park in Grutos, a tiny town near the Polish border.  Nicknamed “Stalin World” by its detractors, the Park is the final resting place of dozens of gigantic Soviet-era monuments.  It was funny to think that these statues of Lenin and Stalin once stood above city squares.  Now, they occupied small clearings in a mosquito-infested swampland.  Some would call it karma.  Encircled by a ‘moat' and barbed-wire fence, and surveyed by mock watchtowers, the Park has been criticized as trivializing a painful chapter in Lithuanian history.  For the most part, we thought people were overreacting.  The legends accompanying the monuments left no doubts as to the cruelty of the Soviet period, and the collections of propaganda posters and kitsch were amusing and instructive.  The next morning, we began our two-day trip to the coast.  Our first stop was the small town of Siauliai. 

Near Siauliai rise two hillocks bristling with crosses.  The Hill of Crosses is an important place of pilgrimage for Catholics, who come to place crosses in prayer or remembrance.  There must be more than a million crosses.  Small crosses dangle on the arms of large crosses that hang from even bigger crosses.  No one really knows how and when the tradition started.  The atheistic Soviets razed the site several times, but the crosses soon reappeared.  I bought a small cross and wrote my grandmother's name on it, placed it near the top of the hill, and made notes on its location in my notebook.  Who knows?  Perhaps one day my children will find it.  That afternoon, we caught a bus to the coastal city of Klaipeda. 

Never more than a few kilometers wide, the Curonian Spit (known locally as Neringa) is but a needle of land: a narrow swath of sand dunes and pine trees sheltering the Curonian Lagoon from the Baltic Sea.  Imagine a skinny, sandy Cape Cod that curved all the way to Boston, and you may have a better idea of the geography of the Spit.  When we left the Baltics, our airplane flew over the length of the Spit; it was an incredible vantage on a very unique landform.  Jutting up from Kaliningrad (an enclave of the Russian Federation left stranded by the receding Soviet tide), the Spit extends almost 100 kilometers to the north, its tip nearly touching the Lithuanian port city of Klaipeda. (The ferry ride from Klaipeda to the Spit takes only fifteen minutes.) 

We stayed in the pretty resort town of Nida, which faced the Curonian Lagoon.  German money had transformed the town; most menus were in Lithuanian and German; a doner kebab stand had opened to sate the tourists' needs.  There is some history to the German presence here: Klaipeda had once been the Hansa town of Memel, home to many Baltic Germans.  Just south of Nida, sand dunes rose steeply from the lagoon.  A pleasant walk through the pine forest, and a short (but tiring) climb brought us to the top of one of the highest dunes in the area.  We could see both the Curonian Lagoon and the Baltic Sea, and beyond the dunes to the south was the pine-clad ‘cape' (a small peninsula, really) that marked the beginning of Russian territory. 

A guard wearing a orange vest patrolled along a ribbon “fence” about a kilometer to the south – we walked closer, imprudently hoping to see a Russian border guard up close - but he was just a park official trying to keep tourists away from both a protected area of the dunes and perhaps from the real gun-toting Russian border guards further south.  It was funny to think of those guards, protecting Russia from unwanted Lithuanian visitors.  After so many centuries of trying to kick the Russians out of Lithuania, I had a hard time imagining any Lithuanians trying to sneak in!