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Busker at Trakai

Woke up early again because of the bright early daylight and the noise from the construction site. Today we headed out of town to see some sights around Vilnius. First we drove to the village and castle of Trakai, as shown on the cover of our Rough Guide. Trakai is a bit of an icon for Lithuania, a typical postcard sight. We reached the village after a short drive through countryside, the same gentle and green rural and forested scenery we have seen quite a lot of by now. Trakai was a small village of mostly wooden traditional houses set near a lake. The village is still home to a small number of Karaim, a group of people descended from the Khazars, originally from an area between the Black and Caspian Seas and brought here in the fourteenth century by Vytautas, a Lithuanian king, to form his personal bodyguard. They practice some kind of Judaist religion, whether that means they’re actually Jewish or not I don’t know. Their numbers have now dwindled to around a hundred, which only represents about a dozen families.

The castle was set on a small island within the lake itself, looking very picturesque with the red bricks and green reed beds, and a few white sails in front of it. We crossed the walkway to the island and visited the castle. The main “keep” was small, a pretty red brick affair around a small cobbled courtyard with wooden walkways and stairs around the inside. We peeked inside the various rooms with exhibitions on the history of the castle, weapons and armoury and, in the rooms in the outer castle, a superb collection of ancient coins, glassware and porcelain.

Crossing back to the “mainland” I put some coins in the violinist’s basket, even though she was pretty bad, but the accordion player had wandered off somewhere, leaving his chair and stuff behind. We went for a drink and a “typical” local snack at one of the little lakeside cafés. The typical snack was a pasty/empanada, that was all, but it was supposed to be “Karaim” cooking. Besides the Karaim there are also other pockets of ethnic peoples spread throughout Lithuania and the other Baltic States, such as Tatars, another people from the Eurasian vastnesses. I spotted a display cabinet on them next to the one on Karaims in the castle.

The village itself consisted of colourful low-rise wooden houses in white, yellow, green, blue, pink and with a few apple trees or tiny vegetable plots (I think – it’s beginning to blur a little, a few days after the fact).

On the way out of Trakai and on to Kernavé I got clocked for speeding, on a quiet country road. The police car parked sneakily at the bottom of a hill and I had no chance of spotting the speed gun he had pointed at me. I was just worried about being breathalysed, as I had just had one (or two?) pints, and considered myself lucky to get away with just an on-the-spot fine of 200 litas (no receipt of course, and the fine first started at 500 litas, and was then reduced for “cash payment”).

We carried on, Ness taking over the driving a bit later. I guess I was having another “dippy” day. We drove to Kernavé, a village, where there were supposed to be some hills with fine views over the surrounding countryside but as we couldn’t find anything resembling a hill we just pushed on to the Centre of Europe. It was a pleasure to just cruise through the quiet Lithuanian countryside.

The Centre of Europe was a spot about 20km to the north of Vilnius. A team of French geographers had calculated the location of the spot. The location itself was just off the main road to Utena. (Coordinates: 54°54’ North, 25°19’East) There was a small monument in the shape of a compass, a pillar mounted with a crown, and a series of flagpoles flying the twenty-five EU flags – an oversight/inconsistency I think as this was not the geographic centre of the EU, but of the European continent so they ought to have included the flags of the many non-EU countries, from Iceland to Russia. The visitors centre didn’t count for much, just two log cabins, but there were no multi-lingual leaflets, no info-booths, etc. Determining the exact spot had depended mainly on establishing the exact boundaries of Europe. A panel explained the furthest points, from Spitsbergen, north of Norway, along the spine of the Urals, through the Bosphorus, somehow through the Med, but not including Malta for some reason, whereas the Canary Islands were included, etc. It still has me puzzled how the centre is determined though – a complicated maths puzzle. There was a tiny trickle of a handful of other visitors.

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Heading for the Centre of Europe

We left and headed south, towards Vilnius, taking the small road that led to the Museum of the Centre of Europe, a sculpture garden. Along a very potholed road, dodging the very large holes and splashes of concrete repairs. It took us past some rural houses, very primitive despite their proximity to the capital, very basis wooden homes with private vegetable patches. Then we entered the forest of tall firs and pines, and just as we were about to turn round, as it was beginning to look very unlikely that we would find anything at the end of this little country lane, but then we reached the turn-off and walked up to the boot where a girl was sat reading a book.

By now it was past 4pm and it had started to rain quite steadily so, as the museum would shut at 5pm, we decided to leave it for now and return tomorrow. We continued following the road to Vilnius, which did improve significantly from this point on. After several nights of “old town” we fancied a change and so we headed for the large Akropolis shopping centre, i.e. a “mall”, for a night at the cinema. A large mega-mall with a large well laid-out car park. Inside, a smart shopping and entertainment complex with lots of young Lithuanians. It was quite pleasant to walk into this familiar environment, much as I hate to admit it. In the centre of the complex there was an ice-skating rink, surrounded by eateries looking into the lit-up rink. We found the cinema and picked Silent Hill (unfortunately Pirates of the Caribbean wasn’t out yet and the other films didn’t appeal). A quick beer at one of the food court cafés, a bucket of pop-corn and we were all set. The film was a crap horror flick, shame as we were in the mood for some good cinema, ah well. Afterwards we had a pizza and a beer, an uncomplicated meal, and then returned to our e-guesthouse, getting very frustrated by the confusing road layout and one-way system in the process.