Monday, July 27, 2015

Country #98: Lithuania. Getting closer.

98 countries!! I am now two countries away from hitting triple digits! What began as a game with a friend has become, if not exactly an obsession, at least an active quest. And what do I get for my efforts? In theory, I could join the Travelers' Century Club, made up of members who have all been to 100+ "countries" but they are way too liberal with their classifications and time requirements. A fuel stop in Puerto Rico counts as a visit to a new country in their eyes. Amateurs.

There is, of course, bragging rights but after a while, introducing myself as "Hi, I'm Berti and I have been to 100 countries" might get kind of tiresome.  Not to mention the murmurs of "Dude, don't even make eye contact with that girl.  Yeah, the one carrying around the atlas.  Trust me on this.."

As I close in on my goal, I am realizing what the real prize of all this is.  It is the motivation that it has given me to visit places that I might not have otherwise considered.  A perfect example of this was my recent city to Lithuania's capital city.
Vilnius is not a name that frequently makes it onto peoples' lists of Europe's must-see cities.  That's a shame.  If more travelers gave it a chance, they would find a charming yet quirky city with plenty to offer.

I almost didn't make it.  My flight from Amsterdam left late, meaning I almost missed my connecting flight in Warsaw (note:  if a LOT flight attendant ever tells you not to worry because there will be a golf cart waiting to whiz you over to your gate, what they mean is that a guy that looks like the Polish Harry Potter will be standing at the door with a "Vilnius" sign and as soon as you identify yourself, he will take off running on his little boy wizard legs and you'd better keep up).  When I did eventually arrive at my destination, my phone was dead and more distressingly, I had no charger.  Fortunately, Lina, aka the coolest hostel owner ever, had a map handy, listing things to do and see and most importantly, the location of an electronics store.

As I crossed the old town with my poor lifeless phone, I was torn between stopping to admire the scenery and getting to the store before it closed.  My dependency on technology won out, but the truth is that the second I had a charger in hand, I instantly reverted into full tourist mode.

Even their monuments were cool.  There was the bridge with the Communist era idealized workers pointing proudly.

There was whatever this is.

A roller-blading imp in the center of town, why not?

But my favorite was probably this statue of Frank Zappa.  Upon hearing about it, my first thought as "I'd didn't know he was Lithuanian".  Well, he wasn't.  He never visited Lithuania.  He never wrote a song about the country.  It is quite possible he had no clue where Lithuania was (unless he too was counting countries).  The only reason the statue exists is because some hippies wanted to see how far they could push the newfound ideals of freedom and openness following the collapse of the USSR. They started a fan club, held an exhibition showing Zappa's belonging (none of which were actually his, they were just random crap the fan club Pres. had lying around his apt) and started a petition.  A Lithuanian artist designed the bust and in a show of governmental awesomeness, it was soon overlooking the old town.

Concerned bear looks concerned.
My second day, I set off with a fully charged phone and Lina's map to explore the old town.  There were the requisite pretty churches...

The much photographed old city gate...

More public art...

And generally, just a beautiful city that was not so twee as to seem Disneyfied but that delighted nevertheless.

I prefer the title "travel aficionado"

There is a wall that honors Lithuanian authors.  During an excellent free walking tour that I did on my 2nd day, the guide explained that this was a very small country trying to fill in a lot of wall. Their standards are laxer than those of the Century Club.  In order to qualify for the wall, you did not actually have to be from Lithuania.  If you visited, that was enough.  If you mentioned the country in your book, that was good too.  Thomas Harris has a plaque. Why?  Because he chose to make the character of Hannibal Lecter, a cannibal and Chianti enthusiast, of Lithuanian descent.

What does it say of me that as a new knitter, I was more excited about a yarn bombed tree than a really architecturally cool church?

St. Anne's was as fine an example of of brick gothic as you could hope for...

And it is on the way to Castle Hill, one of several scenic vantage points. Climbing up Gediminas' Tower allows you to see the city from one end to the other.

During the walking tour, our guide was explaining how Lithuania was the last country in Europe to buy into the religious fervor that swept the continent and to this day retains some of its pagan history. Someone in group said that Latvia was making the same claim.  This very sweet and smiley guide who had not had a bad word to say about anyone all tour long responded with "No, they are liars. They are very much lying."

When the missionaries came through, they wanted to baptize en masse, so they would go to a village and pronounce that all the women in the village would hereafter be known as, say, Mary and all the men as, let's go with John and then they would give them a new white shirt for the baptism.  The people weren't buying any of this but white matches with everything and a free shirt is a free shirt so they would travel from village to village collecting new names and expanding their wardrobes.

The pagan goddess to topless bearbacking.

Another reason to like the Lithuanians is the republic of Uzupis.  Much like Copenhagen's Christiania and Key West's Conch Republic, this is a self declared sovereign state founded by artists.  The sign at the border makes the rules clear.  You should smile (not always a given in Eastern Europe). You should not drive in excess of 20km per hour.  You should be an artist.  Seriously, don't go over 20 km/hr, you're going to end up in the river.

Anyone wanting to be an ambassador only has to meet with the President over a beer and declare who it is they want to represent and if things go well, they will walk away with a certificate.  By now, the obvious groups have been spoken for so a bit of creativity is required.  Had I come across the big cheese during my stay, the Cuban Knitters who Like to Travel would have had their voice heard in Uzupis.

Backpacker Jesus approves of Uzupis.

As with all great nations, they have their own constitution. Unlike the others, this one guarantees the rights of a dog to be a dog and of a cat to not love its owner (but lest anyone think they are getting off easy, they are still obligated to help out in a time of need).

One of the many vegetarian restaurants in town,
All of this fun and frivolity came at a price and this is explored in the KGB museum, housed in a former Soviet prison. Between Soviet rule and the Nazi occupation, these are a people that have seen a lot of suffering and it is well documented in this small but well presented exhibition.

Did I mention that that Lithuanian men were Hella Hot?  A photo of the victims of Soviet abuses ends up looking more like a Versace fashion shoot.

After that sobering display, I opted to return to the more whimsical city center and its many many bars, most of whom feature a good number of excellent local craft beers.

On my final day, there was one last thing I still wanted to do.  Lina had recommended climbing the tower in Cathedral Square.  Originally, a lookout point in the original city walls, it had been extended to become the church's bell tower and provided a great view of its surroundings.  

If you stand on the red tile and spin three times, your wish will come true..or so they say.  If I get to stay in Amsterdam a couple of extra months, I will credit it to the magic tile.
The first city wall segment had solid brick steps but once I got to the church part, it was a series of endless steep ladder steps that scared the crap out of me.  I was the only one in the tower and if I misstepped and ended up gracelessly tumbling down to my demise, I wondered how long it would take for someone to find me. How many non-country counting people are visiting Vilnius?

After much sweating and many "I can do this"'s,  I finally made it to the final rung.  I was alive. I had made it. I was panting and collecting my breath but I was also celebrating the fact that I was still alive.  This was not so b.....DONGDONGDONGDONGDONGDONG!!!!!!!!!  Just as I was about to stop shaking, the fucking bell...  In the shock of the moment, I called the offending clanger a "comepinga".  That's right. I called an inanimate object a cocksucker.

But at least the view was worth it..

Just as Vilnius was totally worth the visit and proved more than its own reward for this crazy country counting kick I've embarked upon.

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