Stockholm- A Culture Capital

Stockholm- A Culture Capital
“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” – St. Augustine

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Baltic Series: Hill of Crosses

My last stop before leaving Lithuania for Latvia was The Hill of Crosses. This hill is a few kilometers outside of the city Siauliai. The hill began in the 1800’s but began to grow and be covered in crucifixes in response to the Soviet repression of religion. People from all over the country would erect crosses at the sight and it grows every year. Many families have their own cross and will add other small crosses or crucifixes with their children as their family grows. Currently there are thousands of crosses at the relatively small sight but the effect is impressive. If you are only going to Lithuania once, it is something you should take the time to see.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Baltic Series: Kaunas Lithuania

Kaunas- a city that acted as the Capital of Lithuania during war times is much smaller and more run down than Vilnius. To be honest if I was there completely alone, I think I would have seen it all in one day and left without being very impressed. However I was lucky enough to stay with an amazing couch surfing host- Marius. Marius is Lithuanian born and bred and he is also an architectural student so I was lucky to be imparted with all the history and architectural insight that would escape a foreigner wandering the streets.

Kaunas may be small, but it has a very old and charming center and the old town is wedged between two rivers lined with decorative slopes. I would suggest going in historical order in this city to see its evolution. Start with the old Kaunas Castle and the park around it, then move into the old quarter that is all brick work and cobbles. This is the best place to find live music, traditional Lithuanian food and religious and mercantile buildings dating back to the XV Century. If you have never had the chance to try the Russian borscht you can try the Lithuanian version Saltibarsciai- a beet soup served cold with sour cream and a side of hot potatoes with dill.

Once you have browsed the traditional little shops around the center continue to the slightly less charming, but fascinating Soviet area down the street Laisves Aleja. Here you can find more shops, museums, statues and the beautiful St. Michael the Archangel Church. The center does not provide much else.

I was however taken to a Devil museum! Lithuanians love three things- Mysticism, Basketball, and hating on Russians. The Devil museum falls under the first category and had a collection of devils from Old Lithuanian times and from all around the world. Basketball is everywhere, even decaled in flowers on the side of the river, and even though many Soviet buildings remain the Lithuanians make sure to denounce them and most Russian politics quite regularly.

The best part of Kaunas for me was spending time with the locals and drinking and snacking by the river while the sun sat. It was invaluable for my understanding of the country and the Lithuanian people. Although I may not specifically take a trip to Kaunas in the future I would tag it as a must if you were planning on touring this small and unique country.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Baltic Series: Vilnius Lithuania

Suddenly finding myself torn from an established life in the largest city in Europe and dropped in Vilnius-the quaint capital of Lithuania was a bit of a shock. The first day was a lot of walking and figuring out what exactly I was supposed to be doing with myself. My mind needed to let go of my life, as I had known it for a year and turn on exploration mode. Once it did everything got a little more sublime.

Vilnius is a small city that can be explored on foot or by bicycle with ease. The city is a mix of old medieval architecture, some Soviet bricks, and new European style with lots of glass and modern lines. Although there are some Soviet remnants here Lithuania is not like the rest of Eastern Europe and the people will sternly remind you as such.

I would suggest touring this city by meandering slowly between some of the major attractions in the old town and then move into the new development once you have exhausted the charms of the cobbled streets near the river.

Day one I got up early, loitered in one of the many coffee shops near the central square. Browsed the churches speckling the city, most memorably a small chapel built atop a portico of the old city walls with a shiny pipe organ. Then settled in for lunch.

After an easy morning I laced up my flip-flops and hiked up the hill to the city’s old castle. This panoramic view of the city is second to none- the highlight of the Vilnius. Around the base of the hill are Vilnius’ museums and most famous cathedral- definitely worth a look.

Next head down Gedimino Prospektas on the way to the new city where you will find some shopping and great patios. Although I would not suggest coming to Vilnius for a fashion getaway there are several trendy malls and some non-impressive boutiques you can sniff out in this area. If you feel like history you can find the highly acclaimed KGB Museum not far from the old city down this street. This is also the area you want to have dinner if you are looking for something trendier. If not, old town will serve up all the Lithuanian specialties you like and there is live music all around the main square in the evenings.

Lithuanian food is not identical but similar to Russian cuisine with cold beet soup and other fairly heavy meat and potato dishes. But if it’s a hot summer day you can find ice cream to chase it down.

The nightlife in Vilnius is really good for the size of the city with a variety of different musical genres and vibes to be enjoyed. All summer this city like the other Baltic capitals takes advantage of the heat and stays up late.

Day 2 I filled in some empty patches on my map but spent a good amount of time by the river. There is grass to recline on and catch some rays. A skate park, public beach volleyball courts where locals flock in the evenings and plenty of food and drink are a short walk away.

Overall Vilnius was a relaxing and charming introduction to the Baltic region. The city rejoices more in Lithuania’s Medieval roots from when they were fighting German crusaders than their dark days behind the iron curtain. They are doing an excellent job of developing their own unique identity in Europe. The prices are cheaper than the rest of Western Europe and would make a great getaway for those looking for something new.