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One of many Lenins at Grutos Parkas

After a couple of very chilled and relaxing days, it was time to head further into Lithuania. Our rough plan is to go “up” the eastern sides of the three Baltic states, i.e. the “interior”, and come back “down” via the coast, roughly. On the way to Vilnius we took in two sights, making for a very worthwhile bus day, rather than just driving. The distances weren’t very great anyway, and the roads were passable, ranging from smooth modern tarmac to potholed lumpy affairs with dabs of asphalt splodged here and there where ad hoc “repairs” had been made. Some sections of road were being worked on, with little deviations onto gravel around them. Most, nearly all, roads were single carriageway, which was not a problem when there was hardly any traffic anyway but now and then we got stuck behind a slow lorry and it was difficult to overtake. Not that this is unique in this part of Lithuania, it was the same in northern Poland (and later also in Latvia and Estonia). Driving in this way took us through some very beautiful rural and forested parts of the country, and driving slowly enough to take in the sights, though it still felt to me as if it was just whizzing past us.

Back to the two sights then. The first one was the Grutos Parkas, a theme-sculpture-statue park of sorts, an initiative of a local mushroom magnate and millionaire businessman, who won the bid for this odd theme park. The park consisted of a large collection of now defunct Soviet-era statues, grouped together here under the pine trees and ranged round the pathways. Off the main road and along a small lane, passing through the small village, and to a car park by a lake fringed with reed beds. An old train carriage had been set up as a souvenirs and refreshments stall. A path led up to the park entrance, following a fence on whose right side had been fixed a multitude of articles, letters, documents, most in Lithuanian and Russian, but also some reproduced articles about the park in western magazines and newspapers. The other articles seemed to be Soviet-period komunikats, decrees, etc.

On the other side of the fence was a very large house, a millionaires mansion. It wasn’t very pretty, but it was big! Past a tall statue and into the forest of pine trees. There was a small collection of buildings, a cafeteria, another thing, etc. On our right a wooden open-air stage, with benches fashioned out of pine logs, and tunes from the Soviet period were playing over the loudspeakers, creating a strangely nostalgic atmosphere, despite all the “bad” things. I’m sure that this atmosphere has … blah, blah, blah … basically, some people will no doubt have fond memories of the period, of the good bits.

We wandered through the park, following the path that led round past statues, busts, heads, of Lenin, first and foremost, Stalin second, and a range of other Soviet “heros”, including significant pro-Soviet Lithuanians. A wooden shed along the route held a reconstructed Soviet library and school/office, with lots of posters and articles pasted on the walls about the rigged “elections” (when Lithuania “elected” to join the Soviet Union in …) The artwork had the angular Soviet style, with lots of red and straight lines. Another shed, further along, held many everyday articles and many illustrated childrens storybooks, and music from the Soviet period, including “polyushka” (the song Palin sang in Full Circle … what’s it called?) and others which sounded familiar.

We rounded off the visit with a drink and snack at the cafeteria. They had a separate special menu with “nostalgic” Soviet classics, from which I chose the sprats with black bread, onion and a tumbler of vodka. The sprats came presented on a plain little metal dish, and looked unappetising – which was the intended effect – and a tumbler half-full of rather plain vodka. In a corner four old boys sat reminiscing about the war, and I could hear snatches of their conversation, about lining up and firing. We left Grutos Parkas. By the car park, a Russian (or Polish?) family were picnicking by the lake, looking very …erm… Russian/Eastern European, with their bottles of beer, the women wearing headcloths, the men drying themselves off after a swim. Somehow the scene just looked “complete” – but impossible to point a camera at them and capture the moment.

We drove on and headed onto smaller roads into a little corner of traditional Lithuania, a small village called Marcynkonis, within the national park. Lots and lots of trees, birch, can’t place the others. We had originally planned to spend a night here but had instead gone for Druskininkai, and now were glad we had done so. There was nothing here. Well, no hotels at any rate. Very pretty and scenic though and definitely a traditional side of the country. Wooden houses, in various states of repair, but mostly looking pretty decent, wooden wayside crosses and shrines on poles, patches of cabbages and onions and other crops in small fields, little apple trees.

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Informal berry vendors pop up along the road

We drove through the scattered village and tried to find the bog which our guide said was adjoining the national park. It would be good to get under the skin of a place like this, but lacking the language, or inclination to spend much time here, we made do with buying a bag of blueberries from an orange-haired local lady.

Glad we came to have a look, but we then carried on to Vilnius, a short drive of a couple of hours further up the main road. Through the city’s outer approaches, and we tried a few hotels on the north shore, across the river from the centre and old town, but no luck, they were all full. The traffic system drove us to distraction but eventually we found our way to tourist information on a side street in the old town, and booked into a guesthouse a short distance out of the town centre, the “e-guesthouse”. We made our way there and checked in. It was a “concept” hotel, consisting of small apartments in an office block, but was decent value for money, and very clean and crisp, although a shame we didn’t have air-con or any other niceties, but we did get free internet.

We had already got a glimpse of Vilnius and it looked like a very pleasant city with a medieval heart and perfect for a “city break”. Lots of turrets and church spires and red bricks. It was also clear that over the past several years the city has been undergoing a total make-over, still ongoing in parts, being transformed from the Soviet days, from a period of neglect and lack of maintenance, into a colourful and attractive tourist destination. We walked down into the old town, a good fifteen minute walk, and strolled around some of the centre’s old streets. The city’s Hanseatic past was very clear, with some lovely old medieval architecture, and a very relaxed ambience. Lots of young people around also indicated it is a university city. Along a wide street there was a central pedestrian bit with some open-air cafés. We found ourselves a table under one of the funnel-shaped sun-shades and a had a couple of drinks and some nosh, and afterwards went for a coffee, vodka, beer at a themed bar, rural Lithuanian, and caught a cab back to our hotel, where we had a final coffee and vodka.