Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Uzupis, the artists’ sovereign state

After two weeks in the monastery across the street from the Presidential Palace, we took a rather posh apartment in the unique and quiet Uzupis neighborhood.  Uzupis is to Vilnius what Brooklyn is to NYC.  It is bohemian, and fun and it has a greater sense of community.  It is also on the other side of the river Vilnia.  This community is largely made up of art students, poets, film makers and writers such as Aiste Ptakauske.


On either end of Uzupis is a sign that states its independence with pride.  One such sign can be found just across the river from the Uzupio Kavine, which is delightfully situated on the river beside the bridge.  This is a fabulous place to languish with a cool beer on a warm summer day.  I don’t recommend the food here, as it is overpriced and undercooked.  At the back corner table on the outdoor deck you will find a pair of very worn slippers nailed to the floorboards.  A local poet has claimed the spot as his own.

 Uzupio Kavine

The bridge beside the Uzupio Kavine, as well as three other bridges in Uzupis, is covered in padlocks and we assume that the river bottom is covered in small keys.  On any weekend in June you will find a cavalcade of wedding parties on these bridges ceremoniously placing engraved locks here and throwing their keys into the river.  Not for nothing, but the river makes a nice backdrop for photos, too.

A 5 minute walk down this road, Uzupio Gatve, you will find the center of town – the Angel.  This statue is a recent addition to the environment but has quickly become a central theme to surrounding stores and a well-known landmark.  At the corner here you will also find the local hang, a hipster pizza joint, beside which is hung the Uzupio Constitution.  Here the intentions, pursuits and desires of the locals are clearly stated, such as: everyone has the right to love, be idle and care for a cat.  You know, the basics.  


On the river is the Vilnius Academy of Art.  There are several aged learning institutions in this ancient city, but none quite as fun and cheeky as the art school.  The reeds in the river at this spot grow insanely long and undulate as if animated beneath the water.  As you walk around the grounds you will find young students napping at the banks, likely lost in a flow of inspiration.


Uzupis is a 15 minute walk from the foot of Pilies Gatve and is a great afternoon tour for visitors.  Bring beer money and your sense of humor.  Enjoy!


Sunday, July 5, 2009

creepy vilnius

park across from KGB museum on Gedimino Pr.

Across the street from the former site of a huge Lenin statue is perhaps the creepiest place in all of Vilnius.  As disturbing as it is, I would still say it is a top 3 ‘must see’ in this city.  It is the KGB museum, and it is housed within the former KGB headquarters from the days of Soviet occupation.  In the basement of the building you will find actual prisoner cells and guards’ stations, most of which remain completely intact.  Some of the rooms have been recreated, but the feeling of doom and desperation remains stagnant in the air.

 basement of old KGB prison, cells on either side

When you reach the bottom of the stairs, to your left you see two small closets where detainees are initially held.  Captives were sometimes held in here for many hours.  You can stand inside and close the door.  It is a tight squeeze and there is no ventilation.  A few steps down the hall you will find the guards’ office where prisoners’ information was registered and an old red phone in the corner would ring occasionally with instructions from higher ups.  Some original uniforms hang on the wall. Across from them is a noble painting of Stalin.  Across from this room is the strip search room where prisoners were searched very thoroughly and sometimes interrogated for extended periods.  They would hold some prisoners for days before contacting their family.

 holding cell

guards' room with original KGB officer uniforms

The worst of the rooms are towards the end of the hall, like the padded cell and the torture rooms.  The padded cell was meant for prisoners who had lost their minds after constant abuse and interrogation.  They were placed in straight jackets then (it is assumed) beaten.  The padding was there so that no one could hear the screaming.  At the end of the hall are the ice rooms.  A small pedestal stands in the center of the room just about 6 inches from the ground.  Prisoners, male and female, were stripped down nude then forced to stand on this pedestal for endless hours.  The floor would be covered in freezing water.   

padded cell and straight jacket

 water torture room

While all of this is quite sobering and scary, the worst part of the museum is in an adjacent building.  It is called the execution chamber.  Hundreds of people were brought into this room to meet their death then have their bodies left to rot like rubbish.  The original floor has been preserved by a glass cover that sits about 2 feet over it.  Guests can see some remaining items, like a pair of shoes or broken glasses, that were left behind.  It is beyond quiet in this room, it is a vacuum of sound. Photographs of the victims line the walls so that everyone in the world who dares pass through this place will know what happened to them.  You will leave this room a bit altered, I must warn you. 

 skull of a resistance fighter

Upstairs you will find some more artifacts and clever, impacting exhibits using these perfectly preserved articles.  Several rooms manifest different eras and phases of the occupation.

 children's memorial drawings line the outside wall

Entrance for adults is around $2 USD. 


Monday, June 29, 2009

nida is the hamptons

If you’ve ever been to the outer banks of North Carolina then you have a good idea of the ecological wonder that is a sandspit peninsula.  Personally, I have always loved the outer banks since I was 18 and had taken my very first parent-less vacation there.  The weather is a perfect compromise between warm and refreshing, the water is always cool and inviting on a hot summer afternoon, and there is always delicious and fresh seafood to be found.  Take that, add some German tourists and Lithuanian culture then move it onto the Baltic coast – now you have Nida.


I compare it to the Hamptons because I get the sense this is the posh place where Lithuanians with expendable income go during the 15 minutes of beach weather this country has.  In the parking lots I see lots of BMWs, Audis, Range Rovers and I’ve even seen a few Bugaboo strollers.  The people vacationing here are young, well-dressed Eastern European yuppie parents, older German tourists and of course – writers and artists.  This is not a party town, it is a quiet resort town not easily accessible to the city folks.  From Vilnius, it is a 3 – 4 hour drive to the port town of Klaipeda, where you catch one of two ferries to the outer banks.  One ferry leaves you a 30 minute drive from Nida, from the other it is about an hour…without traffic.  For a car it costs about 40 litas (around 18 USD), and then you have to pay a 20 lit toll to enter the residential part of the island.


Once you reach the outskirts of town you see quaint, well-kept summer homes progressively increasing in size until you reach the center of town.  While you won’t see any Double Coffees or an Apple store, you will find a Cili Pica right in the center of town.  The Maxima is reasonably overpriced as are the menus of 80% of the restaurants but remember – it’s still in litas!  I hear most accommodations are equally overpriced but we stayed at the writers’ union hotel, which is an original Soviet complex (unrenovated and molded over with frayed, grey history and spider webs) turned hipster hideout.  The rooms are ghastly but they are cheap (if you’re in the writers’ union) and there is a great restaurant on the roof.  Don’t stay here if your life depends on it but please try the restoranas!  It is owned by the same people who own In Vino in Vilnius and maintains a standard of great wines and delicious food.  Plus it is has a sketchy wooden footbridge between rooftops, and a marvelous collection of film posters and quotes by familiar icons like Jean Luc Goddard in unfamiliar Lithuanian.  It’s a fun place.


One of the best things to do here, besides go to the beach, is hike the sand dunes.  There are several serene trails you can take to the sundial, which is a central vantage point and gorgeous view of the dunes, the ocean, the bay and the ominous border of Kaliningrad.  There is always great controversy sparked by fierce environmentalists about actually walking ON these dunes but people do it anyway.  And they generally respect the natural environment, even though I did see one empty beer can and one empty bottle of champagne.  Our hike took about 3 hours in total and we ended up on a beach on the bay side.  Even though the weather was hot for local standards it was still cool enough not to pour sweat at any point in our hike.  But even if we had there would be no release – the bay water was freezing.  I recommend checking these dunes out, just remember it’s a lot easier going down than it is to climb up, and don’t litter!


If you’ve never been to a Northern European beach I think you should check it out once before you die.  You will never find such gleeful sun worship in any of your travels.  I am informed that it is a Scandinavian practice to sunbathe in the buff for health reasons.  Your bathing suit is nothing but an obstacle for the sun’s nutritious rays and will hinder you from receiving all the vitamin A and D we need to get from it.  This far north they don’t get to lay out much, so while it seems extreme to us, maybe they have a point about going all out with their balls out when weather permits.  The nude beaches are right next to the non-nude beaches, and when I say ‘next to’ I mean we can all shake hands.  Everyone gets naked from grandma to lil’ babies, and some of them even go in the unforgiveably cold Baltic.


At the beach there is a small kavine where you can get lunch and beers and there is a stand where you can get freshly picked berries to munch on while lounging in the sand.  They’ve even built a lovely wooden playground for the kiddies.  People throw down their towels at random so you will find people lounging all along the pathway leading to the beach.  I don’t understand this because there is always plenty of room on the shore.  Maybe they don’t realize there is more beach beyond the moorings?  Oh well, more beach for me!


While Nida is very touristy and exclusive, it must be said that it was originally a fishing village.  All of the villages on this peninsula are fishing towns.  There are other areas you can visit like Juodkrante and Perevelka, the former being the site of a locally famous sculpture park and has several cute kavines and souvenir shops.  Follow signs for Zuvis for a revered local treat.  It is local fish found in the area in great abundance, smoked for hours on cedar wood.  The fisherman’s wife will hand you a full fish in a small plastic bag for something like 10 litas.  It is delicious and fresh and messy to eat.  You must try one if you visit.

Sunday, June 28, 2009


ancient hills at Kernave

About an hour outside Vilnius to the north is any history nerd’s delight – Kernave.  This is a real archeological site and museum and cultural reserve where layers of history have been uncovered.  Kernave is famous for it’s manmade hills, which where at one time used as a vantage point to see approaching invaders.  Within the hills are relics and evidence of a settlements as old as the 5th century BC.  That is pretty damn old, no?  

Museum and Cultural Reserve at Kernave


Kernave is also the site of one of the biggest solstice parties in Lithunania.  Hundreds of sun-crazed Lithuanians gather here to sing ancient songs and dance ancient dances on the longest day of the year.  No, it is not a rave.  They are not dropping ecstasy and playing with glow sticks.  It is a pagan ritual, and like many ancient practices, the Lithuanians are keeping this ritual celebration alive with folk music, ancient villager dances and songs. 


When you pull up to the parking lot, you see some new-ish buildings and a snack cart.  This could easily be the community college parking lot if you didn’t know where you are.  Once you start walking you come upon two churches – one old and one really old.  If you look closely, you will find a random, misplaced Lenin head back from the old days of Soviet occupation. 


There are several mounds as you walk towards the Neris river (which also runs through Vilnius), and through them is a foot-path.  Once you clear the hills, there is a small stretch of flat land before you hit the river.  The fields are covered in patches of these violet-colored heather type flowers and they create a lovely effect as they undulate with the breeze. 


The river at this point is very wide but, at least today, it was fairly quiet and slow.  You could easily lose yourself in centuries old contemplation on these river banks.  In the US it is very difficult to find places so unspoiled and undisturbed by the white noise of traffic, airplanes and the like.  This is a special place and if you listen it will tell you lots of ancient stories.



About a 20-minute drive outside of Vilnius in a particular direction you will find the flea market.  It sounds like a fun shopping extravaganza, but I recommend bringing some hand sanitizer and prozac if you intend to check it out.  Also, leave the fanny pack at the hotel and duck tape your cash to your inner thigh.  I am told there are some pretty shifty pickpockets around here.

 'exit', or 'get me out of here'

Springfield?  No.

In the shadow of an active nuclear power plant with two looming smoke stacks you will find every worthless knock-off created the northern hemisphere.  You will find it all from faulty power tools to nameless bridal gowns and all of it won’t cost you but a few bucks.  There are dozens, maybe tens of dozens, of tents.  You can walk through the maze of spurious and cheap merchandise for hours and not have seen every stand.  And it is random – there will be jeans next to toys next to bras next to shoes next to house-wares, etc. 


The attendants are all Russian or Belarussian, for the most part.  I was informed of this, as I had originally thought they were gypsies.  It is hard to tell because most of these people are so thuggish and bitter looking that you can’t see them without the filter of fear distorting everything.  Yet people seem perfectly comfortable shopping here.  I am told this is where many locals go to extend their recession era paychecks a little further.  Maybe a little like Target?

premium pants wares for 'moteriu' (women) 

can use plastic bags as helmets, extra litas

There are food stands strewn about, but I didn’t try any of the fare.  It appeared to be mostly pastries and empanada-looking snacks.  The food carts were crowded and dirty and the people running them were not friendly.  But don’t live by my advice.  I can be a snob about these things.  I saw plenty of people walking around eating these treats and I assume they survived.  You can decide for yourself if you make it out there.


To be fair, this is definitely a smart place to pick up odds and ends that can cost a pretty penny in the city, such as shower curtains, beach towels with obscene illustrations on them, fake flowers, galoshes, dangerous childrens’ toys, loose women, etc.  While you can find probably millions of clothing items, none of them are worth the money.  Everything I saw looked cheaply made and out of style. 

 don't warry, be happy

When parking your car I recommend leaving it in the attended lot.  I am told all sorts of things can happen to an unattended vehicle and parking is a mere 5 litas.  That is something like $2 USD, and probably the best bargain at this flea market.



Saturday, June 27, 2009

hip hip, hooray!

Summer has officially arrived in Vilnius!  Today was sweaty and sunny and it looks like all next week will be the same.  Yay!

More to come - I have seen the Baltic Coast and will tell you all about it shortly...

Sunday, June 21, 2009

small talk

On weather:


I’ve described the fierce and marvelous sky, and the wonder of endless sunlight that bathes this euro-postcard city…but only for two months out of the year, if you’re lucky.  ‘Jonines’, or the summer solstice, is a pagan festival that celebrates the earth’s nearest proximity to the sun.  It is a gradual process by which the days get unnaturally (for me, being from northeast coast of USA) long, sunlight shining past 10pm, as the climate becomes warmer and drier every day sending the natives into a frenzy of tank tops and outdoor dining. 


For the rest of the 10 or so months of the year this country is freezing, grey, wet and dark…dark for almost entire days, building to a gradual vacuum of light revolving around the winter solstice.  I do not long to experience this part of the year.  I get plenty shivers just hearing about it. 


I cannot tell you just how cold it gets, but I hear its pretty damn cold.  I can tell you that it does get downright gorgeous here around the summer solstice.  Last time I was here, in late May, we had a wave of unseasonably warm weather – low 80’s and not a drop of condensation.  While this is supposed to be characteristic of late June through July we have only had a few precious days like this so far.  When the sun is loosed upon us, it is delicious.  When the rain clouds return, it is maddening.  At times the rain will go on for days without a break, and that can really get in the way of getting your summer on.  The rain here is always cold and always damp.  After a few days of it one may develop mold on her scalp.


On tourism:


The last time I was here in May of 2007 I felt like an adventurous American exploring a city less traveled.  I commented on the local fashion trends with condescending humor, because let’s be honest – they weren’t ‘Betsy Johnson’ colorful, they were ‘Telemundo’ colorful.  Now I find that the natives have added some very important elements to their wardrobe, like the low-rise skinny jean, the designer hoodie and the hipster haircut.  Vilnius is looking more like Brooklyn than Eastern Europe! 


This time I am not here alone representing the States.  Amongst the wide range of languages I hear people speaking on the streets, shopping bags on their arms filled with the booty of a long, beer-filled day of dropping exchanged cash, I hear something that rustles the cilia of my inner ear like a lusty breath – Americanus!  Everywhere I turn, American English dots my aural landscape like dandelions. Can it be that an influx of American tourism is helping to usher this young democracy, a teenager nation, into cultural hyperdrive?


I wonder this, then walk past a folk dancing group that meets in the same church courtyard every Thursday.  I see young kids in metal band t-shirts dancing with well-dressed ladies, young families and older residents, all exchanging arms and swinging around in ancient dance rituals to the folky harmonium music being played.  And I realize that no amount of tourist residue can make these people forget what they have struggled for centuries to keep alive.  We don’t really have anything like this back home.  I like what I see here.


And check this out:



Every evening between the hours of 9pm and 11pm the sky becomes a masterpiece of bouncing light and colors.  It is breathtaking, and no photo can capture every detail of the hypnotizing swirls of pink clouds blanketing the sky.  No camera lens can reflect the delicate balance of grey and pink illumination of the space around you.  This can only exist in the moment you experience it.  Between the hours of 9pm and 11pm Vilnius is saturated in beautiful twilight, and I absolutely love being in it.