Sunday, June 22, 2014

Trakai, Ponary, and our first exposure to Vilnius ~ Sunday, June 22, 2014

Walking toward the island castle in the mist
Our new bus driver arrived promptly, and we loaded our luggage and headed toward Vilnius in the rain.  Leonardas won our hearts by turning on a Russian music video (after 20 minutes we begged him to turn it off), allowing us to eat in the bus, entertaining us with creative driving maneuvers, and talking animatedly in Russian with Prof. O’Sullivan throughout the trip.  He also agreed to let us spend one hour in the Trakai Castle, while he went and fetched us the famous local main-dish pastries, kibinai.

From here you can see them making kibinai

The Trakai Castle was built on an island in the 14th century by a Lithuanian grand duke.  It had glorious red stone walls, drawbridges over moats, and turrets.  The Soviets restored it as a gift to Lithuania after World War II, and it is a popular tourist destination.  Some rooms had exhibits of Victorian-style china, coins, and purses, while others contained paintings.  We raced through the rooms and squeezed up the narrow flights of stone stairs.   Our visit to Trakai was over far too soon.  We gathered at the bus stop and welcomed Leonardus and his precious booty, kibinai stuffed with lamb, pork, chicken, or cheese.  

Just outside of Vilnius we stopped at Ponary, or Panierai. 
one of the Jewish memorial stones
Making our way through the rain we went into a little museum and were greeted by an old and eloquent guide who pointed to the museum exhibits and told of the horrendous events that occurred here.  Panierai was a village alongside a rail line, and nearby were large pits built by the Soviets for oil storage.  The Germans used the site for mass murdering 100,000 people here and using the pits as mass graves.  Later they tried to hide their crimes by forcing prisoners to cremate the dead.  About 70,000 of the victims were Jews from Vilnius and the surrounding areas, many who had been imprisoned into the Vilna Ghetto.  The rest were soldiers and civilians who were non-Jewish Lithuanians, Poles, Romani, and Russians.  We stopped at the stone memorials and sculptures honoring the victims.  It was melancholy and beautiful, the forest and grass damp from the misty rain.  A moment of grace occurred when a moose appeared on a path between the trees nearby the students.  Noticing us, it disappeared into the woods.

Back on the bus, it was a short, quiet ride to the capital city.  The hostel was not yet ready for us, so we left our luggage and walked into Old Town Vilnius.  The air was cool and clean, and people were playing games in the midst of the street shut off from the traffic.  We could see that we would enjoy our last four days of our trip in this pretty and lively town.

fried onions, sour cream, and butter on top
of potato dough and a bit of stuffing

That night we had a group dinner featuring the national Lithuanian dish, cepelinai.  It’s sort of like a dumpling, but with moist, thick, bland outside, and inside is a mystery meat (or, in the case of the vegetarian version, a mystery cheese).

Perhaps the 2.9 million Lithuanians love it, but let us just say that for most of us, it was the first and last time cepelinai will pass our lips.

An Užupis wall tile commemorating a poet, writer,
 and diplomat from these parts who refused to identify
himself as either a Lithuanian or a Pole

And, to top off the day, we went to yet another cemetery.  It was in the charming section of Vilnius known as Užupis.  Prof. O’Sullivan’s friend Aurimas took us on a tour of this artsy neighborhood which has declared itself a separate, independent republic.  “Everyone has the right to be unique,” “Everyone has the right to be unhappy,” “Everyone has the right to love and take care of the cat,” and “Everyone has the right to celebrate or not celebrate their birthday” are among the 39 articles of their constitution.

Wire, ceramic, tile, and stone sculptures are placed between the trees, on the buildings, and in the square.  We loved their quirky humor.

Aurimas insisted that the pretty, wooded cemetery established in the 19th century was not a site to miss. It appeared strangely normal, filled with graves of people who mostly lived and died like they were supposed to.

We returned to the hostel.  Some students stayed up to watch the World Cup, others collapsed onto their clean beds.

1 comment:

  1. I'm very happy that you did a Lithuanian local tour of food! These cepelinai look so yummy, don't they? Don't hesitate to get full Lithuania tour packages next time, when you'll do your tours in Vilnius!