lithuania_sm02We visited Lithuania in August 2003. It is the largest of the three Baltic Countries at 65,200 square kilometers ( 40,513 square miles) with numerous wood lands and thousands of lakes (4000).

Lithuanians account for more than 81% of the population of 3.6 million people. 8% are Russians and 7% Polish.

Lithuania’s assention into the EU has been supported by by the EU on the condition that the nuclear power plant at Ignalina, about 100 kilometers north of Vilnius, be shut down by 2010. Ignalina is a Soviet era reactor with a design similar to the nuclear reactor in Chernobyl, Ukraine - the home of the worlds worst nuclear disaster in 1986. With 80% of Lithuania’s power being generated by this plant the issue about its shutdown is a thorny one.

We came into Lithuania from Poland and crossed the border late in the afternoon, thereby spending 2 hours getting through. It took us about 20 minutes to buy insurance, then waited in line for passport control for 1 hour 20 minutes, then spent 20 minutes while the guards checked our passports and bike papers at two different booths. Whew! What will these guards think next year when the border becomes open within the EU?

Our first stop was in Marijampolé as it was the first place we found with a hotel. Surprisingly, we found an excellent hotel with a clerk who spoke excellent English. We went walking around town after dinner and found the place empty - no one was out and about at all! The next morning the place was buzzing with people busy in their daily routines.
inside baroque church
craftsmen statue
We then drove east to the capital, Vilnius, founded in the 1320s by grand duke Gediminas. Today it boasts Europe’s largest Baroque Old Town which runs for 1.5 km, full of buildings from the 15th and 16th centuries on narrow, winding streets with hidden courtyards. It is also full of churches - at least 22 noted on the city map. Above left is the inside of St. Casimir’s Church, a beautiful Baroque church at the south end of town. This church has had a varied history, founded by the Jesuits in 1604, later to be turned into an Orthodox church before becoming a cathedral which was later used temporarily as a Protestant temple. It also served as a grain store during the Napoleonic wars and the soviets turned it into a museum of atheism. 

russian churchThe river runs through the north part of town and on the bridge were some remnants of the Soviet period - classic Soviet statues, the one above right surely advertising the goodness of the worker. There is something about these statues, perhaps the expressions or the stances that clearly identify them from this period.

Walking up the main street to town, we spotted this beautiful Orthodox Church of St. Paraskeva (left), initially constructed in 1345 and reconstructed in 1865. While this old town was interesting, we found it a bit elusive as it didn’t have clearly defined squares like other European towns. but it is worth the stop for seeing the variety of architecture.

jim verna center of europeJust 25 km north of the city is the point designated as the Center of Europe (at least by the French National Geographical Institute). So of course we had to stop for a picture (right) at the rock which designates this point (even though the plaque stating such has been removed from the rock). We find it somewhat strange to think of this as the center of Europe because we are so used to thinking of Europe as a political entity, not the geographic one. So here we are at the geographic center of the European continent - there, that sounds better.

After finally finding this obscure rock off a dirt road, we headed to Kaunas, in the south-central portion of the country.
old town square
We found Kaunas to be a delightful little city (the second largest city in Lithuania) with an old town square (above) full of German merchant houses from the 15th and 16th centuries. At the corner of the square stands the gothic cathedral of St. Peter and Paul,  sumptuously redone inside in a baroque style. Where the young man is standing in the square is a view to the site where wax was made and traded all over northern Europe. This was the only place in Lithuania where the wax could be made, so they had a monopoly on the trade.
st michael the archangel
post office
The pedestrianized street runs almost a kilometer from the old town to the new town which continues the pedestrianized street for another 2 km. The center of this new town area is full of shady trees and near the end stands the domed church of St. Michael the Archangel (above right). The street was full of people strolling, shopping in the many stores that lined the street, and the restaurants and cafes were busy with diners. As the evening progressed, more and more young people came out in their evening dress (slinky dresses and heels for the ladies, jeans and T-shirts for the men). On this street stands a large department store which is said to be the one used in Soviet films because it was the best stocked in all of Russia!

We then continued heading west to the Baltic Sea where we stayed a night in Klaipėda. This town was practically leveled during the war, but there are a few half-timber houses left from the 18th century. A castle with a most once stood on the riverside, but was torn down in the 19th century and now is an open park. One particularly interesting building is the post office, an intricate brick edifice that was once a rich merchant’s mansion (right). The reconstructed tower contains a carillon of 48 bells, the largest musical instrument in Lithuania. The post office is located on Liepu Street (Lime Street) as it is lined with Lime (Linden) trees planted at the beginning of the 20th century. This street was once called, for a brief time, Adolf-Hitler-Strasse.

cepelinaiIt was here in Klaipėda that we tried, for the first and last time, Zeppelins (or cepelinai, to the locals). They are a doughy bundle of grated potato stuffed with ground beef (or curd-cheese or mushrooms). Then the whole thing is smothered in a sour cream sauce made with butter, onions and bacon (below). Although the same meat and potato packet can be found elsewhere, only in Lithuania does it come in this elongated shape. The legend has it that once the German army built the first zeppelin hangars during W.W.I near the town of Zokiai, the locals were so inspired they started making their potato creations in the same shape as the zeppelins. The good news is they are cheap and very filling. The bad news is that your arteries will never forgive you.

dunesOn the coast is a long narrow peninsula separating the Baltic Sea from the Curonian Lagoon. This spit of land is almost 50 km long on the Lithuanian side and continues for about the same distance on the Russian side where it connects with the land. On the Lithuanian side most of it is part of the Curonian Spit National Park for protection.  The spit is covered with dense pine forests and sand, some of the dunes reaching 67.2 meters in height. But the ecosystem is fragile and some expect that the dunes may be lost within the next 2 centuries.

Above right is a photo of the Gray Dunes, so called because of low grasses growing on them wdunes and baltichich cause the dunes to appear gray from any distance.  At left is Jim walking back down the dunes. this photo is looking west across the thick forest of pine to the Baltic Sea beyond. Luckily it was a beautiful day when we were there as we suspect it would not look quite so beautiful on a dull rainy day. These dunes were once the home of the Nagliai village, the inhabitants of which moved several times from one place to another while retreating form the wind-blown sand. After a long and unsuccessful struggle with the shifting dunes, (dune movement is between .5 and 5 meters per year) the people left the site of the last village and formed other villages in more stable parts of the spit. 


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