AN ADVENTURE IN INDEPENDENCE
History has roots in a small country with a big soul
By Karen Torme Olson
Special to the TribunePublished October 24, 2004
VILNIUS, Lithuania -- For most Americans, this newly admitted member of the European Union is terra incognita. But for thousands of descendants of Lithuanian emigres in the Chicago area and elsewhere who come here each year looking for their roots, Lithuania and its people quickly become terra nota.
Now I'm one of them.
In 1865, my Lithuanian great-grandfather left his family and friends to find a better life in America. He was just 16, but his determination and self-reliant spirit helped him thrive in his adopted land. In the face of daunting odds, he became a successful farmer, store owner and, finally, landlord of a two-flat in Chicago's North Lawndale neighborhood, where he lived until his death in 1932.
I knew him only through sketchy family stories, but when I was offered a summer teaching opportunity in Lithuania through Snowball, a Springfield-based prevention organization for teens, I signed up for this chance to learn a little more about my roots.
The adventure began at the Skrydis Vesbutis, a hotel with a distinct Soviet-era feel near the airport in the capital city of Vilnius. Despite spotty improvements (decent water pressure, strategically placed plants in the hallways, phones in all rooms), the "sentry" desks at the end of each hall and the staff's by-the-book guest relations imparted a barracks aura. But at 120 litas a night ($44) for a single, the price was right.
From there, I'd arranged to take a side trip with Jack Irwin, a Snowball leader from Geneva, Ill., who'd spent considerable time in this Baltic country of almost 4 million people that's less than half the size of Illinois. Then we'd rejoin the group and explore Vilnius before leaving for Snowball camp in the extreme southern part of the country.
Within minutes of checking in, Jack's Lithuanian counterpart, Audrone Auskeliene, arrived to drive us to her apartment in Vilnius' Old Town, where Audrone and her husband showered us with Lithuanian hospitality. Then it was off on a fast-paced walking tour of some of the more than two dozen churches in the city center.
We visited the extravagant Church of St. Anne, which so impressed Napoleon that he expressed the desire to take it back to Paris, and the imposing Vilnius Cathedral and its ornate St. Casimir chapel. The cathedral sits on Cathedral Square, a large open space paved with stones from the wall that once surrounded the city and site of a huge monument to the city's founder, Grand Duke Gediminas.
The ever-present sounds of construction reminded us that Lithuania's fast-growing, post-independence (1991) economy has turned Vilnius into one big renovation project of hotels, gleaming shopping malls and rehabbed living spaces.
On the way back to Audrone's, we browsed among the street vendors' wares of woodcarvings, local art--and amber jewelry. My fear of buying plastic rather than genuine specimens of the prized hardened pine resin led me into the ubiquitous jewelry shops, where white, red and green varieties of Lithuania's "Baltic Gold" are sold with certificates of authenticity.
Then it was off to dinner at Bellamontas, an ambitious riverside restaurant-park-playground-dance hall-cinema complex set against a backdrop of krikolai (waterfalls) and gardens connected by cobblestone paths. We shared beer bread (a battered, fried snack oozing with garlic) and banana-stuffed blinis. Bananas are popular ingredients in local dishes, Jack explained, because the tropical fruit had been banned as a punishment for Lithuania's resistance to the Soviet regime. Now that bananas are available, they are unofficially regarded as an edible solidarity symbol.
The next morning, Jack and I picked up our rental car and headed for Kaunas, Lithuania's second-largest city, about 50 miles west of Vilnius. Like many Eastern European cities, Kaunas has a quaint senamiestes (Old Town) with quiet streets, churches, a castle, shops and cafes.
One of the most unusual sights was a church parking lot full of bridal parties tailgating while waiting their turns at the altar. Most Lithuanians, though Roman Catholic, don't get married at mass but in a shorter church ceremony. Sometimes as many as 20 couples will say their vows in a single day, turning the parking lot into a kind of nuptial staging area.
We ended our walking tour of Kaunas on Laisves Aleja (Freedom Avenue), a mile-long pedestrian boulevard lined with restaurants, bars, and such specialty European retailers as L'Occitane and Bennetton. The silver-domed Church of St. Michael the Archangel looms over Independence Square at the eastern end of the boulevard.
St. Michael's dates to 1893 as a place of worship for Russian Orthodox troops stationed nearby. Used by the Soviets as a museum during their occupation, St. Michael's became a Roman Catholic Church in 1990.
The guidebooks say that Kaunas is a city of museums: The Devil Museum and its collection of more than 2,000 mostly comical representations of Satan, the MK Ciurlionis Art Museum and the popular Lithuanian Open Air Museum all are there.
But the most moving exhibit in the area is the Ninth Fort complex on the edge of town. It is a cluster of three sites: a small building filled with artifacts, jail cells where Jews were confined before being executed and a huge, jagged concrete monument. These structures stand where tens of thousands of Jews (as well as Lithuanians and Poles) were murdered during World War II--not in a gas chamber, but by handguns--in just three years (1941-1944), virtually wiping out Lithuania's Jewish population.
Beneath the soaring concrete monument, five long slabs of polished granite resembling giant tombstones are set low in the grass. Each is inscribed in a different language, but all say the same thing: "This is the place where Nazis and their assistants killed more than 30,000 Jews from Lithuania and other European countries."
Beneath the stretch of tidy lawn behind the markers are their remains.
After paying our respects, we hit the highway for the bustling port town of Klaipeda.
Most of Lithuania is flat farm country, making the 125-mile trip akin to a drive across Kansas, except for the patches of dense forest--and the pseudo-theater for motorists staged alongside Lithuanian roads.
All along the way, people were selling baskets of just-picked wild mushrooms and freshly gathered berries. It seemed more a social activity than an economic enterprise since almost all the entrepreneurs we saw seemed more interested in sunbathing, sleeping, playing cards or just talking, seldom raising their heads to look at passing cars.
Then there were the storks. The birds looked like roadside sentries in their huge nests atop telephone poles and chimneys.
According to Jack, the people of Lithuania (and Poland) believe it is good luck for a stork to build a nest on their property, so people let them stay.
Eventually, the Baltic Sea appeared beyond a cluster of construction cranes in the Klaipeda shipyard.
We drove to the Hotel Klaipeda, which Jack remembered as an Economy-Class holdover from the Soviet days.
However, the tenement-style tower had undergone a renovation and now had a slick lobby and amenities that included a fitness center, restaurants, a rooftop bar with a view of the harbor and city, and well-appointed rooms with satellite TV (including two English-language stations). The 280 litas ($100) tab for a single wasn't what Jack expected, but I was thrilled to get my hands on a hairdryer.
Klaipeda is Lithuania's third-largest city and the only northern port on the eastern coast of the Baltic that does not freeze, boosting its commercial and strategic importance. The city boasts a full schedule of festivals, a host of historical structures and a university, but that wasn't why we were there.
So we spent our short time on a quick walk through the Old Town, a one-stop-shopping experience in the Wal-Mart-like store called Hyper Maxi and in the hotel's restaurant-bar.
Our main reason for this stop was the 10-minute ferry ride across the Curonian Lagoon to the Curonian Spit, a narrow, 60-mile peninsula included on the UNESCO World Heritage list as a cultural landscape reservation.
Various countries have coveted--and controlled--the Curonian Spit for centuries. Lithuania currently has jurisdiction over the northern half, while Russia administers the rest, which is part of Kaliningrad--a region cut off from the rest of Russia.
Lithuania's portion, known as Neringa, includes a national forest, sandy beaches, harbors, bicycle trails, shifting dunes, an open-air collection of giant oak sculptures on Witches' Hill in the village of Juodkrante and the fishing village-turned-resort town of Nida. The ferry between Klaipeda and Smiltyne on the northern tip of the spit runs every 30 minutes. Our transport was packed with hikers, bikers and motorists heading for a day at the beach. We immediately headed for Nida, the largest and most visited village on the peninsula.
Besides galleries, churches, dunescapes and beaches, its attractions include the Urbas Hill lighthouse, restored in the 1950s after being blown up during World War II; a hilltop monument to Nida's Gliding School; the Nida Ethnographic Cemetery and its 12th Century krikstas (wooden gravestones embellished with carvings of horses' heads, plants, and birds); and Thomas Mann's Memorial Museum, once the Nobel laureate's summer home.
Before we caught the ferry back to the mainland, we stopped for a leisurely lunch near the shoreline and watched vacationers walking, biking and running along the paths that skirt the water, some carrying packages of rukyta zuvis (smoked fish), which is sold in kiosks up and down the main drag.
While the villages of Neringa municipality offer a rustic experience, it is Palanga (Polanga?)
--just 17 miles north of Klaipeda--that is the primo Lithuanian seaside playground. Here tourism is an art form, and Palanga draws tens of thousands of visitors a year to its white sandy beaches, botanical park, public sculpture garden and amber museum.
For us, however, Palanga was a drive-through on our way to Siauliai, 95 miles to the east, and the nearby Hill of Crosses.We arrived in Siauliai late on a Sunday afternoon and found most hotels full.
We had to settle for the Hotel Salineau, a no-frills hotel from the Soviet Intourist-era in an early stage of renovation. We entered the lobby from the grimy basement via tiny elevators reeking of decades-old cigarette smoke.
Then we lurched up to a red and orange-carpeted 12th floor hall leading to rooms with frayed sheets and towels, pink acetate curtains on screenless windows, and walls textured with peeling salmon and beige paint.
We had been asked to pay the charge for each room (about $26, including breakfast) in advance, and laughed when the clerk warned there would be no running water after 8 a.m. due to construction.
But TV with CNN and a generous breakfast of bread, meat and eggs made the experience tolerable.The Hill of Crosses is about 8 miles northeast of Siauliai on farm roads that are well-marked--a good thing because the hill is in the middle of a field.
It's difficult to describe the impact made by the sight of thousands of crosses in a huge range of sizes next to, on top of and hanging on each other.
There are several legends about the origins of the Hill of Crosses
, but the most frequently cited says the hill originated as a spontaneous memorial to insurgents killed in a 19th Century rebellion.
In the 1950s Lithuanians began putting up crosses in memory of loved ones who had died in exile in Siberian concentration camps. In 1961 and several times thereafter, the Soviets bulldozed the hill and its offending symbols, but the crosses always reappeared, sometimes overnight.
Since independence in 1991, the hill has grown daily, spilling off the mound and onto the meadow below. It has become a site of pilgrimages and a symbol of Lithuanians' belief in God.
The hill was our last stop on this road trip before Jack and I drove back to Vilnius where our five colleagues were waiting. During the next two days we explored the city and environs with a passion:
We walked through the Gates of Dawn, and saw elderly men and women struggling up worn marble steps to pray in the chapel at the top.
We read the names of Lithuanian patriots inscribed on the walls of the creepy KGB museum, and sampled beaver stew and blueberry dumplings at Lokys, one of Vilnius' oldest restaurants.
We drove to the town of Trakai to explore its 15th Century castle on a lake, and bought dozens of cookies, bags of cherries and amber jewelry in the shadow of the red-stone edifice.
We visited a weekend cottage on farmland outside of town, and shared a meal lovingly prepared by Lithuanian teen leaders.
We scoured a vast Hyper Maxi for bargain souvenirs, and sipped Pepto-Bismol-colored beet soup (saltibarsciai) in a Planet Hollywood-type restaurant featuring Lithuanian specialties.
We bought hand-carved wooden statues of Lithuania's "sad" Jesus from a folk artist, and amber-crusted Christmas tree ornaments from an upscale shop in the Gothic Corner on Stikliai Street.
Then it was time to go to work at the Snowball seminar, where 40 teens were waiting for us near Druskininkai. But after a week of riding herd on rambunctious teenagers, cabin fever set in.
Teachers Pat Gerber of Carol Stream and Linda Savick of Frankfort and I took a page from "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and played hooky for an afternoon of cruising the countryside in a borrowed stick-shift van.
Our first stop was the tiny hamlet of Grutas, where we walked slack-jawed through Gruto Parkas, a surreal sculpture garden whose major attractions are enormous recycled statues depicting the scions of Communism. The statues had graced almost every town square before being torn down and hauled away after the breakup of the Soviet Union. We dubbed the place "Leninland" and left humming the socialist marching songs that blared from speakers hidden in the trees.
Next was Druskininkai itself, a resort town on the Nemunas River that's famed for a spa that offers medicinal mud baths, massages and healing spring waters. We thought about the massages but had time only to peek at the baths and choke down a paper cup of salty mineral water.
On the way back to camp and our final sessions, we contemplated our truancy in stalled traffic near the tiny town of Varena. Police had halted movement on our side of the highway to let hundreds of singing pilgrims pass on their way from Poland to attend a mass celebrating the 60th anniversary of the supposedly miraculous Mother of Mercy portrait at the Gates of Dawn in Vilnius.
In the morning, our driver arrived in his well-used but immaculate family van. Audrone explained that this wizened man dressed in worn clothes was a friend of her family who had taken the job to earn a few extra litas. During the 90-minute drive back to Vilnius he proudly called our attention to landmarks, trying to explain their history in broken English that was far better than our Lithuanian.
On the surface, he was an unremarkable man, but his values clearly reflected determination to complete even the most menial tasks with dignity. Watching him, it occurred to me that this man epitomized the fabric of Lithuania's soul--proud, gallant, hard-working and independent.
I hadn't had enough information to find my great-grandfather's hometown, but I think I found the source of his spirit.- - -
IF YOU GOGETTING THERE
There is no direct route to Vilnius from Chicago, and fares for the same Economy-Class seat can vary wildly, so it is best to do some comparison shopping. I flew LOT Polish Airlines with a stop in Warsaw for $1,250. (I paid around $440 in 1993 on the same airline)
My colleagues flew SAS via Copenhagen for about the same price but with a longer layover. I left O'Hare three hours later than they did, but we arrived in Vilnius 20 minutes apart. Both airlines offer online booking at www.lot.com or www.scandinavian.net
Other connections are available.
HOTELSAccommodations in Vilnius range from decadent to minimalist, but all are bargain priced for Europe. Lithuania officially is an EU member but has not yet switched over to the euro.
Some establishments list prices in euros and some in litas; prices here have been converted to dollars. Most hotels offer a discount for Internet bookings. When calling from the U.S. to any of the phones below, dial 011-370 before dialing the number.
Stikliai: The romantic Stikliai could be classified as a boutique hotel. It has 44 unique rooms (10 suites), each with luxury amenities and price tags to match that include a generous buffet breakfast. Stikliai guests have access to an upscale restaurant and tavern as well as a fitness center, pool and billiard room. The Stikliai is a member of the Relais & Chateaux International chain. $205 single, $248 double. Gaono Str. 7; 5-2649595; www.stikliaihotel.lt
Novotel: The sparkling new 158-room Vilnius Novotel in the center of town opened in April. Rooms are done in crisp Scandinavian decor, and each has an Internet connection, coffeemaker and mini-bar. Ninety of the rooms have been designated "non-smoking," a rarity in Lithuania.
The hotel has an 80-seat restaurant as well as a chic lobby bar. There is a fitness center where massages are available and an electric shoeshine machine at the end of each hall. Room rates include breakfast. $136 single, $149 double. Gedimino Ave. 16; 5-2666200; www.novotel.com/novotel/fichehotel/gb/no v/5209/fiche-hotel.shtml.
Radisson SAS Astorija: The 120-room Radisson is just a few doors down from the exclusive Stikliai and a favorite booking for tour groups. Its rooms have touches of luxury such as thermostat-controlled heated floors in the bathrooms, satellite TV and a trouser press.
Business-Class rooms add in free movies, newspapers and access to the fitness center, which is outfitted with a sauna, steam bath and Jacuzzi. The hotel is walking distance from Vilnius' major attractions and has a brasserie and bar. President Bush reportedly slept here. Room rates include an extensive "Super Breakfast" buffet. $210 single, $222 double. Didzioji 35/2; 5-2120110; www.radissonsas.com
Skrydis Vesbutis: This airport hotel is a practical choice if you have an early flight out or a late arrival in Vilnius. Some of the rooms have undergone a "lick and a promise" renovation, some have not. Some have shared bathrooms, and all are relatively inexpensive. $39-$61, breakfast not included. Rodunios kelias 8; 5-2329099; travel.yahoo.com/p-hotel-331173-skrydis-hotel-iHotels in Siauliai:
Saulys: This new, glitzy hotel was full when we arrived, but a quick check confirmed that it has some of the priciest beds in town. Amenities include satellite TV, fitness center, pool and sauna (extra charge), and a fashionable restaurant. $65 single, $91 double. Vasario 16-osios 40; 41-520812.
Siauliai: This drab Communist-era tower is the tallest building in town, making it easy to find. Renovations are in progress, so if you want to experience hospitality Soviet-style, you had better book soon. $26-$55 with breakfast.
Draugystes 25; 41-434554.
Hotels in Klaipeda:Hotel Klaipeda: One of the largest hotels on the Lithuanian coast with 220 rooms, it was transformed from no-frills Soviet to "Best Eastern" in 2001, and the rooms are comfortably outfitted with Best Western-style amenities such as toiletries, hairdryers and satellite TV. There is a rooftop restaurant/bar with a great view and a more traditional dining room where the breakfast buffet is set up.
There also is a fitness center as well as a business area where guests can access the Internet on a lone computer. $102 single, $109 double. Naujoji Sodo Str. 1; 46-404372; www.klaipedahotel.lt.Hotels
Galia I & II: These sister hotels across the street from each other house rooms with character at bargain prices. The small apartments have generous sitting rooms and kitchenettes. One has an aerie, and all are decorated in homey kitsch. $73 for apartment; singles and doubles also available. Maironio 3 (Galia I); 370-313-60510. Dabintos 3 (Galia II); 313-60514. www.galia.lt
Avis, Budget and Hertz have offices at the Vilnius airport, but we chose Unirent, a local agency. We were asked roughly what time we would return the car on the appointed day, but told that that was flexible. When we showed up with our Ford Focus two hours later than the estimated time, the young clerk reprimanded us for not calling in and charged us for an extra day. We ended up paying about $100 a day. My advice: Book your car before leaving the U.S.--and stick to the majors.
Negotiate your fare before getting into a cab in Vilnius. We paid wildly different prices for the same ride until we got wise and started a bidding war between two taxi drivers at the cab stand outside the Akropolis shopping mall. Tips are not expected, but appreciated. (I learned this the hard way)
One of the best surprises on the trip was my U.S. cell phone with quad-band technology. Calls to Chicago from the middle of a Druskininkai forest, the Warsaw airport and Vilnius city center were immediately connected, and came in loud and clear for a $1.79-minute roaming charge. If you have a phone with this technology, all you have to do is call your service provider, ask for overseas code activation, and you're connected.
TOURS AND INFORMATIONChicago's Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture sponsors frequent trips to Lithuania, and the museum itself is a treasure trove of artifacts and culture from the Baltic republic. In addition, the Balzekas sponsors a Children's Museum, and maintains a file of obituaries and other media articles on Chicago Lithuanians and their descendants, which can be used to search for long-lost family connections. 6500 S. Pulaski Rd.; 773-582-6500; www.lithaz.org/museums/balzekas
One of the best sources for restaurants, hotels, maps and other information (including how to use a phone in Lithuania) can be found in the "In Your Pocket" guides available at news kiosks and hotel lobbies throughout the country. They are specific for all the major Lithuanian cities, in English, and cost 8 litas each (about $3).
Lithuania's "official" travel site on the Web (www.travel.lt) is fairly comprehensive, but in order to get quotes on room rates, you must go to individual hotel.For general information about Lithuania and news items about the country's economy and politics, contact the embassy: 2622 16th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20009; 202-234-5860; www.ltembassyus.org.-- Karen Torme Olson
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