30 August 1999
(Hello in Lithuanian)
I’m now in Kaunas, the second largest city (and capital during the period between WWI & WWII) of the Republic of Lithuania.
On Sunday morning (after a late night chat with the landlady’s 2 pretty daughters), I took the 7am bus across southern Latvia into Lithuania. The Lithuanians, like the Latvians, are also an ancient Baltic tribe, but unlike the Latvians who were always ruled by other countries, the Lithuanians once ruled a powerful empire in the mediaeval days. From the 1300s to 1500s, Lithuania, together with its union with Poland, once formed the 2nd largest state in Europe, stretching from western Poland to the gates of Moscow.
Today, Lithuania is only a smallish country with 4 million people. It was conquered by Russia in the 1700s, gained independence in 1919, and then occupied by the USSR as a result of the secret Nazi-Soviet treaty that also destroyed Latvia and Estonia. In 1990, Lithuania was the first of the former Soviet republics to declare independence, and this was recognised by the world in 1991, when the USSR finally fell.
I found a Lithuania sunny and fresh, away from the smog and cloudiness of Latvia. The bus travelled across the flat rich agricultural countryside to Siauliai, where I wasted one hour waiting for the wrong bus to the Hill of Crosses. This is one of the holiest Roman Catholic sites of Eastern Europe. The ancients have built crosses on a hill here for the dead warriors. During the Soviet days, it became a symbol of Roman Catholicism and Lithuanians’ desire for freedom. The Soviets bulldozed the place twice but on every occasion, the crosses sprung up again. I was overwhelmed the moment I arrived here – millions of huge and small crosses on a small hill – and the devoted kneeled to pray for family and hopes. I bought a small cross and contributed to this growing hill of crosses.
From Siauliai, I took a 3 hour bus to Kaunas, where the cheapest hotels were full. I had to stay at one of the city’s most expensive – which in any case, cost only US$40. This is a graceful city with lots of old buildings and statues of Lithuanian national heroes at every street corner. The main street, Laives Allejas, is a non-smoking (banned !!!) and pedestrian street, with lots of cafes, street performers/bands, new shops and trendily dressed people…
Some general impressions:
This morning has not started well – My HSBC bank card was “eaten” up by the cash machine (but retrieved after 2 hours) and I got stung by a bee on my left thumb – the hotel staff applied some anti-septic. Lonely Planet says bee stings are painful but not harmful. Hope so. If I return with one thumb less, you know why…
In 1.5 hours time, I will meet Ricardas, an old Lithuanian friend from whom I have been buying stamps for years and also collaborated on some stamp-related internet projects. Don’t even know what he looks like.
After that, I will leave Kaunas for Vilnius, the capital and, I heard, the most attractive city in the Baltic republics. After that, I will go to Minsk, capital of the neo-Stalinist state of Belarus.
OK. Take care and pray for me.