I’m writing this as I wait for the weather to clear so that I can ride the last few miles to the Russian border. It may be a long wait – rain is forecast for the next week.
I arrived in Vilnius on the 28th May. It is a beautiful city, as all the guidebooks agree, so I won’t say much about it, except that I was lucky to meet with a troupe of Georgian folk musicians and dancers who were there for a folk festival. I took the “free” guided tour, conducted by a very enthusiastic young lady who showed us many nooks and crannies of the city that we wouldn’t otherwise have seen: little courtyards with interesting sculptures in them, and a back street devoted to bookshops, whose walls were lined with plaques commemorating authors who had said something about Lithuania, including Ernest Hemingway, and a tree “clothed” for the winter. She gave us a pretty thorough tour of the “Independent” country of Uzupis, founded by artists as a protest against the city’s failure to provide services to what was then a poor area near downtown. It even has a “port”, which we reached along a muddy path by ducking beneath a series of concrete road supports, on the Vilija River. But again in Vilnius, in what had been one of the main centers of Jewish life and in which Jews had been almost a majority of the population, one sensed the willful forgetfulness of their contributions and even of their existence. A Synagogue had been replaced by a pre-school, and for 20 years there have been proposals to restore the ruins of the Synagogue, but nothing has been done. The area around it, what had been the ghetto, is a series of Communist blocks surrounded by unkempt open areas.
I took the train to Kaunas to save time: it was really a backwards step on my itinerary anyway, being closer to Alytus than is Vilnius. After some trouble I found the Hostel, tucked away in a scruffy courtyard, but it was nice enough. Kaunas was the capital of Lithuania while the Poles occupied Vilnius between the wars: it has a 2 km long main boulevard connecting the Old Town with the Russian Orthodox cathedral. The old town is pretty, with an impressive castle in the fork of the Nemunas and Neris Rivers, and a very nice renaissance town square, with the usual giant Backstein Gothic church dating back to Hansa days.
But on the whole I was not impressed with the town, though I met a couple of people who preferred it to Vilnius. Nobody, not the lady at the T.I. office nor a group of spandex-clad cyclists that I asked, could tell me a safe way out of Kaunas to the north: all normal exits are blocked by a huge highway interchange complex. So I took the bus to Kedainiai, a small town 20 miles north.
Kedainiai was a beautiful little town, and I found a hotel there – in hindsight perhaps the beginning of my encounters with Soviet-era Intourist Hotels: not quite in the best location, massive concrete architecture, all floors tiled and all walls bare. But the staff were welcoming. Kedainiai’s downtown preserves much of its secular and religious heritage, with a large Lutheran church in which some of the Radziwill family are buried, including two who signed a peace treaty between Sweden and Poland-Lithuania. Scottish Protestants arrived in the late 16th and 17th centuries, encouraged by the conversion of Anna Radziwill; the community exerted considerable influence in the city and persisted until the mid-19th century. The Catholic church is a large and beautiful wooden construction. Here again, though, the ghosts of the erstwhile Jewish population cry aloud – the city proudly mentions its beautiful synagogues and its eminent Jewish scholar-rabbi, but one synagogue is a shuttered and ill-maintained museum, the other a wreck, covered with pealing posters and graffiti. Wikipedia: “During Operation Barbarossa, Keidainiai was occupied by the German Army in the summer of 1941. On August 28, 1941, the entire Jewish community of Keidainiai, a community which had been there for 500 years, were killed under the direction of German Special Police Battalions, with the aid of the local Lithuanian population. The Jewish population prior to the Holocaust was 3000.”(Citation: Gilbert, Martin (2004). The Second World War: A Complete History. Macmillan Publishers. p. 214. ISBN 978-0-8050-7623-3.).
The 3-speed cable of my bike pulled out of its clamp in Kedainiai, causing me to spend a couple of hours in the morning trimming the cable and casing with the utterly inadequate wire cutters I carry for this emergency. Task achieved and repair made, with great difficulty. However, the gears weren’t shifting quite right, and 1,000 km later, in Tartu, I got that fixed – I didn’t quite have the cable lined up with its housing properly. From Kedainiai I rode due north up the beautiful valley of the Nevezis River, passing through a “Geomorphological Reserve” near Krekenaye. For the life of me I couldn’t see anything special about the area. I spent the night in a rather expensive little hotel just north of the center of Panevesis: Panevesis is a grim industrial town whose center is a shopping mall and a bus-station, surrounded of course by huge parking lots.
The next morning I got up early and rode 102 miles to Riga: a following wind meant that I was there by 5.00 pm. I should have diverted to the Palace at Pilsrundale, and I should have spent more time around Bauskas, a quaint old town where my lunch was my introduction to borscht, and also to some of the quaint hangovers from Communism, which become much more noticeable in Russia. Lovely little wooden restaurant by the side of the road. Menu on a board: Borscht and a Drink – Eu 4.00. No choice whatsoever, great price, good filling food.
In Riga the first person I met was “David Californiaman” who went gaga over me and the bike as I went through the Town Hall Square. He said they had passed several good looking hostels running less than Eu20. His wife, though, had noticed the T.I., and for some reason the girl there would not hear of me staying in a hostel, but instead found a very inexpensive hotel about 1 km outside the historic area. It turned out to be be very nice and, in hindsight, was probably an old Intourist hotel: still every night four busloads of German or Polish tourists on their Great Baltic Tour turned up at 7.00 pm, and were gone by 8.00 am. However, it was in a truly grungy area – a drunk was lying on his back on the grass with his pants down as a I rode by, and others were rolling around but upright, mas o menos.
This was actually a good introduction to Riga, a much bigger city than Vilnius or Kaunas, and an important port. Perhaps for this reason, the contrast between fixed-up-and-well-scrubbed and broken-down-and-decrepit is much more obvious. Empty lots dot the posh parts, and in the Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) District, fancy buildings with their facades all covered in sculpture still sit next to traditional wooden houses, their paint all peeled off and leaning from the ravages of age on their frames.
The old medieval center is all restored, and has prices to go with it. I took the free tour, but its content has faded except for some stories of rivalry between the guildsmen (Germans) and the rest of the populace (Letts and others): however, I and three young ladies who had been on the tour ended up at the same very expensive cafe, recommended by the guide, for lunch. One of the ladies was British (Yorkshire), one New Zealander, and the other Canadian/American (as I recall, her father was a Canadian diplomat who had been posted to Washington for a major part of her formative years). All of them had lived in several foreign countries (Japan, Thailand, Britain, Korea), and all of them were now living and working in Moscow. They enjoyed living in Russia, and none of them would dream of living in the United States, mostly because of the lack of a National Health system, which they all have in their native countries and which they rely on in Russia. Their experience of medical care in Russia had been pretty good, in spite of the scare stories we hear in America.
After lunch I wandered off to the Natural History Museum, which is in a converted department store. It was closed, but the lady at the front desk sent for the Paleontologist, who happened to be working on his day off, and he came down and gave me a personal tour of the Paleontology and Geology sections. Ivars Zupins was an enthusiastic and friendly person with excellent English – he is a specialist in the Devonian fish of Latvia and Estonia. I was able to see lots of Paleogeographic maps that helped me to understand the country through which I would be traveling.
I then walked around the walls of Riga Castle – it was not possible to go inside as it is the seat of the Latvian government – and continued to the Jugendstil district, where extremely ornate early twentieth century buildings fill whole streets, their bas-reliefs of animals and scenes from classical mythology and their fancy moldings giving an impression of real excess. In other streets the same ornate multi-storey buildings stand cheek-by-jowl with decaying, unpainted sway-back wooden buildings from an even earlier era.
The next instalment will describe my route north to Helsinki.