The Motherland….Lithuania…..at least for Jan, whose grandparents were born in Lithuania and immigrated to the United States around 1900. So many things are making more sense about the foods she ate growing up, about talking with her grandparents and learning various Lithuanian words, and about other family traditions. When you are a child, you accept everything as normal until you find out that what is normal for you is not necessarily so for everybody!
So our first stop is Vilnius, the capital city, which was founded near the confluence of the Neris and Vilnia Rivers. The city’s history is long and complicated. At one time, Lithuania was the largest country in Europe. But you know all about attacks, occupations by other countries, and takeovers….they happen. The country has had historical affiliations with Russia, Poland, the German Empire, the Soviet Union, and Nazi Germany, among others. Lithuania celebrates two dates of independence: February 16, 1918 was Restoration of the State Day, and March 11, 1990 is the Restoration of Independence Day. Lithuania was the first former Soviet country to break away in 1990, and all the others followed as the Soviet Union disintegrated.
There are a LOT of photos today, and we won’t get to describe all of them or tell all the stories, or this will be a book! But we are starting with buildings, and the first three are noteworthy. First up is the National Library, which looks so proud and regal, and the Lithuanian flag and EU flag are flying alongside it. Next up is Gothic St. Anne’s Church, with a great story. When Napoleon visited Vilnius in 1812, legend says that he was so taken with the church that he said he wanted to carry it in his palm back to Paris, as it was so beautiful. There is no historical documentation of that, however, but he did actually write to his wife that Vilnius was very beautiful. The third photo is the former Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Consolation, an Augustinian Catholic Church. Of the many churches in Old Town, only four escaped closure during the Soviet occupation. Not only did Masses cease, but the remaining churches were ransacked, desecrated, and put to other uses such as warehouses, sports halls, and museums. So now the city is still figuring out how to either restore these former churches or re-purpose them. So, this church in the third photo has a chapel on the top floor, used for Mass; a meeting hall for AA and other meetings; and the plans are for a coffee shop/music venue in the basement staffed by disabled people. They don’t need as many churches as previously, and the only other option is the wrecking ball, so they are trying to preserve their heritage by keeping the churches in operation somehow.
After the many photos of churches, we come to the Republic (Res Publika) of Uzupis, a bohemian artists’ area smack in the middle of Old Town Vilnius that means the other side of the river, meaning the Vilnia River. It is quite the place, huh? They couldn’t really call themselves a government entity such as republic, so they broke the word in half, and it means “a public thing.” The symbols on the sign mean you must always smile in Uzupis; the speed limit is 20 kph; it is for artists; and, be careful not to drive into the river! After that are photos of some of the artwork and Backpacker Jesus, or, as others claim, Parachuter Jesus. Do you love the swing over the Vilnia River? We wondered if anyone had ever used it, and how they got on it!
The yellow sign means No Parking, and do you see the car being run over with a tank on the bottom? That came from a viral video in 2011, where it looked like the mayor of Vilnius at the time ran over illegally parked cars with a tank. It was reported as serious news until it was found that it was a doctored video made for a TV show. But, 8 years later, the symbol is still being used as a tongue-in-cheek reminder of no parking. The set of teeth you see was mounted on a wall with many other objects, and is meant to remind us not to be “bitten” by criticism from others.
The photo after the metal pig is of Ieva, our fabulous Old Town guide on a Free Walking Tour, which we have joined in several cities. She was probably the most interesting, and best, that we have ever had. The photo is of restaurant tables purposely set out on the street so that cars can’t drive through, making the street a pedestrian walkway. She told us that Lithuanians are mad about their cars and will drive them down any small, winding alley, no matter how impossible. It was nice walking there without worrying about cars coming up behind us.
After that are squares, statues, shops, and street scenes so that we could just give you a sense of the city. Then you see a storefront with a model wearing a shirt with…Los Angeles, California??? They are wild for US items here. We put it in because we have noticed in every single country we have been to…all 101 of them!…we have yet to see a t-shirt or hoodie in any language except English! Especially popular are sports teams…in English, even if the team is in Japan or South Korea! Amazing. Most of the music in restaurants and malls is also in English.
The third photo from the end is Lithuania’s most famous soup, cold red beet soup with hot potatoes on the side, or what many travelers call “that good pink soup.” It is sweet/vinegary, with sour cream in it, and so far we have had it every day…it is that good!…AND Jan’s Mom always made it, but Jan thought it was something her mom invented, not knowing it was practically the national soup of Lithuania. Second to last photo: in Snekutis Pub, where we had the soup and four other ethnic delights, there is a breathalyzer machine at the exit. Yes, for one euro, you can discover how drunk you are! If you were very drunk, however, it probably wouldn’t occur to you to test your breath. Just sayin’. The last photo is also a machine, seen in the Vilnius Bus Station. You can buy soft contact lenses from a vending machine! One pair for 5 euros, or 6 pairs for 20 euros. It seems that here, you don’t need a prescription for contact lenses. We were astonished. At a bus station. Bausch and Lomb. Yikes. We ♥️ Lithuania!