A Baltic adventure

Sat, Oct 13, 2012, 01:00

There are many beautiful and fascinating elements to Lithuania – stunning landscapes, buzzing galleries and its preservation of Soviet art, writes SÉAN Mac CONNELL

LITHUANIA IS well worth a visit if for no other reason than to see how a country handles its colonial past and struggles to find its way into the uncertain future we all face. It is also a very pretty place.

It was the first of the former USSR-dominated states to break away and declare independence on March 11th, 1990 and the pride the people have in this is evident everywhere.

It was quite amazing to find an entire park set aside for the preservation of statues and art from the Soviet era. Even in the centre of the capital city, Vilnius, four Soviet style statues dominate one of the main bridges, the Green Bridge. (It also has a genocide museum, but more of that later.) These statues were preserved not so much for their artistic merit but as an educational tool for generations to come.

The religious statues that were removed during the long period of domination have now been returned to the churches, and the relics and other precious icons hidden from the Russians and the Nazis have been placed back where they belong.

There are 3.2 million Lithuanians living in the southernmost Baltic state, which has borders with Latvia, Belarus, Poland and Russia – from where it gets its vital natural gas supply, which is needed to heat homes for eight months a year. Temperatures average from 18 degrees in July to -5 degrees in January.

Vilnius, with a population of roughly 550,000, is a three-hour journey by air from Dublin and is a clean, well laid-out city with a mixture of all the influences that shaped its turbulent past. Its streets are safe to walk and it gives off the relaxed air of a university town, which it is.

Now in the EU but not in the euro, Lithuania provides great value for money for the traveller with an exchange rate in the region of 3.4 Lt (litas), the local currency.

Unusually, the price of hotel bedrooms falls at weekends. For instance, the Holiday Inn where our party stayed charged up to €150 for bed and breakfast mid-week but reduced prices to €125 at weekends. This happens because most of the visitors to Lithuania are business travellers and come mid-week, so the hotels have much lower occupancy at weekends – something that will change, no doubt, as the country builds its tourism profile.

It is also the land of 100 different beers and these can be sampled for less than €3 a litre, even in the most expensive venues. Wine is more expensive and is more or less at Irish prices.

Our party was taken to the old town, via the 600-year-old cathedral, which lies at the centre of the city. There is a strong Italian influence dating back to the 16th century when the Grand Duchess of Lithuania, Bona Sforca of the Medici family, invited Italian architects and craftsmen to the city.

We climbed to the highest point in the area, the Green Hills which provide a wonderful view of the city. There, too, is the Hill of Crosses, a place of pilgrimage for many of the country’s large Roman Catholic population. Nearly 80 per cent list Roman Catholic as their religion and you will meet pilgrim groups on the streets led by priests.

The city abounds with museums, art galleries and theatres and over the summer more than one hundred concerts are played in the city and adjoining towns organised by the world famous Lithuanian National Philharmonic Society.

One of the places I found most interesting was the Amber Museum Gallery at C3 Sv Mykolo 8, which has a wonderful display of amber dating back millions of years. Amber is very expensive here and is known as “Baltic Gold”.

One hundred miles southwest of the capital we found Grutas Park, which is dedicated to Soviet art. Established by a former manager of a collective farm, the park contains many statues. It has a museum and picture gallery displaying the artifacts of the Soviet period and there is even a restaurant where you can eat the food that was available in those times.

We spent a night in Druskininkai, a spa town full of health and beauty treatment centres. The Lithuanians are big into alternative health treatments and the Lietuva Grand Spa hotel features a wide selection, from thermal massage to salt room treatments.

On our way there we had visited the beautifully restored Trakai castle museum where, according to our guide, Mary Queen of Scots had been executed. That came as a bit of shock but it eventually it emerged a film of her life and death had been made there as the castle is used for many films. A trip on the lake, one of 2,830 in the country, was very pleasant.

One of the things sure to catch an Irish eye is the amount of forestry in the country. Nearly 30 per cent of the country is under forest and one can travel for miles through tall pine trees and not see an open field. While most of the country is flat, it is far from being featureless and when we visited, hundreds of people were out in the woods hunting for mushrooms, a national sport.

Another highlight of the visit was the Europas Park, a 20-minute drive from the capital, which features art works from around the globe and was set up by sculptor Gintaras Karosas in 1991. There, close to the geographic centre of Europe, on one piece, you see you are 2,047km from Baile Átha Cliath and you can view Irish artist, Laurent Mellet’s Requiem for a dead Pony.

Leave a visit to the Museum of Genocide Victims, the former KGB headquarters in Vilnius, to the end of your trip. It is a former prison, interrogation and execution centre where thousands of Lithuanians were tortured or executed in the terrible years between 1945 and 1955 when partisans fought the system.

There are bullet marks on the walls and some artifacts, including a broken set of false teeth on the floor of the execution cell. It is a true monument to man’s inhumanity to man and, if you have the stomach for it, go there.

Lituthania has seen enough strangers down the years and there is a natural suspicion of them. It does not mean the people are unfriendly, just cautious and a bit more distant than other Europeans and who can blame them?

How to...

Get there: Aer Lingus operates direct flights from Dublin to Vilnius, aerlingus.com. Ryanair flies directly from Dublin, and seasonally from Cork to Vilnius and Kaunas, ryanair.com

Stay: The accommodation rates depend on the town and season. There are regular bus and train services between the major cities and taxi fares are negotiable. You can find more useful information at vilnius-tourism.lt/en/

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