THE KAERU KID: Having a Ball in the Baltics, Part 2

Note: The first part of this article ran in the April 1 issue.

I am taking the bus from Tallinn, Estonia on the way to Vilnius, Lithuania, but make a stop at the city of Siauliai, Lithuania to view the Hill of Crosses.

Teutonic knights occupied the city after its founding in 1236 during the medieval period. Crosses were erected on a hill 12 kilometers (7.46 miles) north of the town as a symbol of peaceful resistance to foreign invasion and to show support for the dominant Catholic religion.

A peasant uprising in the 1800s led to more crosses being erected. During the Soviet era of domination, 1944-1991, the hill was leveled three times, the crosses burned or turned into scrap metal, and sewage was poured over the area. This hill became a symbol of Lithuanian nationalism and each time the hill was rebuilt and crosses erected.

Since Lithuania is now independent, the hill rests peacefully and thousands of crosses have been erected. Pope John Paul II made a pilgrimage here in 1993. Photos of the area can be viewed at www.sacredsites.com/europe/lithuania/lithuania.html.

I took a very cheap local bus to the road leading to the Hill of Crosses. From the road it was at least a mile walk to the site. One would think buses could make a short detour and have a direct stop to such an important national shrine. Most tourists are on a guided tour and others have private cars, so little thought is given to budget travelers.

Taking this route cannot be recommended for older travelers, but younger fit ones would have no trouble and might even consider the trek as an act of penance.

This detour caused me to arrive late at night to the capital city of Vilnius, but I luckily was able to reach my couch-surfing host couple by phone. They were attending a concert in town that had just finished, and they came to the bus station to pick me up and brought me to their apartment housed in a large drab concrete block Soviet-style building. I always wondered what the interior of these buildings looked like.

Couch surfing has been a great experience, mainly because of the opportunity to meet locals and experience their daily living. They provided me with one of their two bedrooms. The apartment included a kitchen and bathroom. All the rooms were extremely small but kept tidy and every available space was put to efficient use. A washer was located in the tiny bathroom. They had Wi-Fi access.

The couple is in their 40s with one daughter in college. They themselves were well educated. She was an accountant, and he was in the IT department. They were a fun, active couple and went out for some activity almost every night.

One night we went to see silent films while a trio played music to the action. What was the most fun was that this couple’s friends were all salsa dance maniacs and danced salsa as a group on the sidewalk in front of the theater while waiting for entry.

One night in the apartment we shared some smoked pork fat on rye bread downed with homemade “moonshine.” Sometimes garlic sauce or a piece of onion is placed on the fat for more flavor. Maybe this is Lithuanian birth control. They have a small place in the country they visit and as part of their tradition they make these foods and drinks there.

Being an IT person, my host said he was using a PC but his next purchase was going to be a Macintosh. He also told me Apple iPhones cost $1,200, so many are purchased cheaper overseas and then people “jailbreak” them for use in their own country.

Vilnius was known as the Jerusalem of Lithuania before the Nazi invasion murdered 95 percent of the Lithuanian Jewish population of 265,000. Such a high percentage killed was due to the willing participation by many local residents, but even in this barbaric tragedy there were a few courageous Lithuanians and even Germans who helped Jews escape.

The Blessed Virgin Mary Mother of Mercy in Vilnius, photo by The Kaeru Kid

Vilnius’ Old Town is a deserved UNESCO World Heritage site. An excellent audio guide is available from the Tourist Office, and the walking tour is extremely comprehensive but exhausting. A very useful guide available for downloading is at http://InYourPocket.com and it is not only informative with a witty writing style but also provides facts that may not be widely known, such as the location of a sculpture of Frank Zappa’s head commissioned by a student and cast by an 80-year-old sculptor. The guide also states that the exact geographical center of Europe is located close to Vilnius.

A lunch stop for typical Lithuanian food consisted of cold-fluorescent red-colored beet root soup, a sour beer-like drink made from rye bread, and cepelinai, nicknamed Zeppelin because of its shape. It is a potato with the middle scooped out, replaced with hamburger meat and with sour cream sauce on top. They all tasted better than they sound, but remember I was famished.

Seeing the “miracle tile” located on the cathedral grounds was among the highlights on my walking tour. The human chain described previously that started in Tallinn, Estonia ended at this very spot in Vilnius. There are stories claiming miracles will occur by standing here and going through a ritual to get your wish. I didn’t get my wish.

The bohemian enclave of Uzupis in Vilnius, once a rather run-down area until artists swarmed in for the low cost, is a don’t-miss stop. These new arrivals soon declared their independence by having their own president, ministers and constitution (not taken seriously by most) and since then property values have skyrocketed.

The square in the center has a statue of an angel blowing a trumpet. As one crosses the bridge over the Vilna River toward this area, look to the left and there is a mermaid sitting in a little alcove. The bridge has many locks along the railing signifying couples that came to vow that their love will be locked together and then they throw the key into the river. This might start a trend at the Golden Gate Bridge and elsewhere.

There are many churches and one synagogue on the tour. They include the Vilnius Cathedral and Bell Tower, St. Anne’s Church and, just behind it, the Church of St. Francis and Bernardine, and next to the only remaining city gate out of nine original gates, the Gate of Dawn, is the chapel containing the Blessed Virgin Mary Mother of Mercy gold and silver icon that is world-famous.

I visited the former KGB headquarters — a place that was not on the audio tour — now turned into a museum, showing the brutal interrogation techniques and executions as well as having a holocaust exhibit. It is a sobering reminder of the hated Soviet occupation of Lithuania.

A Japanese restaurant lured me in since I had not eaten rice for a while. As might be expected, the food was mediocre. Euros cannot be issued in the Baltic Islands, which I found irritating, as it forces one to convert money into each separate country’s currency, which can be costly and confusing. This minor annoyance bothered me but more important was realizing that the craving for decent gohan, okazu and tsukemono were clear signs that it was time for me to return home to recharge my batteries before beginning my next voyage.

Ls Vegas Tidbits

There are many myths and fallacies about video poker that one should be aware of, such as:

• Playing with a slot card changes the odds of winning

• Video poker machines have hot and cold cycles

• The odds of winning are better on multi-hand machines

Many more are available (and explained) at www.videopokerinfo.com/myths.htm (a good site for valuable information about videopoker  in general).

Another site that lists video poker myths is: www.videopoker365.com.

The Kaeru Kid writes about his various adventure travels. He lives in Las Vegas and includes tidbits about the city at the end of each article. He can be reached at KaeruKid@yahoo.com.

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