Driving 2200 + miles in 5 countries with 8 border crossings in 10 days is normal business in a normal world but as we live it and experience it every day today, you have to plan more carefully and must rely on experience and expertise.
On our way to Lithuania we drove through huge open fields of barley (while listening to Sting’s Fields of Gold), corn, wheat, rye, and other crops and understood although did not at all accept why the Germans (and the Soviets – people tend to forget) wanted the country as a “lebensraum” so much. Those fields were just rolling endlessly and as the tall grass was waved gently by the summer breeze you felt like surfing. An evidence of German occupation – the typical Todt canopy dressed bunker along the meandering road warns you that war was here once (and suffering and pain). The most terrible site (probably not just in Poland) named Treblinka an hour drive from Warsaw towards Lithuania where people were slaughtered like animals in the killing factory in the deep forest. More men, women, children, infants, brothers and sisters, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, friends, relatives, and strangers were executed here than in any other camp in the world (apart from Birkenau but there the SS had more time to do it). The site today is almost abandoned with very few travelers visiting and as you walk among the trees towards the memorial (nothing remained of the camp) some voice inside tries to cry out but the whisper of the forest quiets you and makes you think: whether you are walking here really alone. When I led groups here in the pre-Covid world you could see school groups visiting from Israel but other than that no people back then either.
Not just scars of World War II mark the roads but evidences of other wars and battles from a long time ago like the Battle of Grunwald (Tannenberg) that was fought in 1410 during the Polish Lithuanian – Teutonic War. The alliance of Poland and Lithuania, led by King Jogaila and Duke Vytautas, decisively defeated the German–Prussian Teutonic Knights, marking the rise of the Polish–Lithuanian union in the region. We did not have time to go to this site just talked about it as we passed by and discussed the rich history of the union and the two countries. Another huge battlefield (from the Great War) along the way is located around the Masurian Lakes as you progress towards the southernmost Baltic country. People know the lakes because of the Great War and because of the Wolf’s Lair, Hitler’s bunker complex where he was almost successfully assassinated by Stauffenberg. The unbelievably gigantic bunkers are still there and worth a visit once you are in the area. Most people go there though to relax for a few days at the numerous and today peaceful resorts. I wonder if they do not visit the Wolfsschanze because they do not care, do not know or want to forget. We knew, we cared and we remembered.
We had so much to talk about on the way, so many battles, so much history that time flew so fast that we almost failed to notice the crossing between the two countries of that old union which was born in that decisive battle 6 centuries ago. The border was empty with very few people passing over it and we saw them, we noticed them only because we broke the trip to grab something to eat so we could observe the locals. Their faces, how they looked like and how they looked at us. There was no difference. When we continued, we realized that there were even fewer settlements than people especially compared with Poland (answer: population density is 111.4/sq mi while it is 318.6/sq mi in Poland). These lonely villages or houses were sticking out of the gold ocean of crops like remote islands in the sea and you felt like swimming to them to find something there. More history, more (remote) past, something unique, perhaps. And we found it. Not a settlement but something very eerie. Once you are in Lithuania there are several signs by the roads letting you know that there is a historical site or monument nearby. Soon after entering the country at Akmeniai you will start seeing these. A mill here, a castle there, old villages and antique farmhouses … and the (once) mass graves and execution sites from WW II reminding you of the horror of the holocaust and the vicious acts of the Einsatzgruppen.
We were sure tired both physically and mentally and all we needed our beds that night. The hotel in Vilnius asked us to have our masks but again, it was not strict monitoring or anything like that. The breakfast was different: there was not buffet but instead you had to order from a menu. I am telling y’all that was the best breakfast of the trip: the serving, the waiting time (there were two other tables occupied when we had our morning chow), the presentation of the food and OMG the taste. By that time, we had not seen much of Vilnius yet but already loved it. The capital city of Lithuania exceeded our expectations. You walk in a medieval city of splendor and charm and cannot resist to pop into small yards through inviting gateways and smell and see and relive life hundreds of years ago. There are mighty buildings, churches, palaces, very well kept (away from traffic – so you can stroll) avenues, parks, the mix of old and new represented in a way that makes you want to go back (what we actually did the other day). If you do a sightseeing, you should start at either in the north or the south of the old town making your way through it. We began our tour at the Gate of Dawn that is a city gate and a major site of Catholic pilgrimage in Lithuania. The best way to explore the city is walking not just because you can see lot more but because of the narrow streets and squares and parks not allowing traffic going through. We finished the sightseeing at the KGB museum after turning left onto the magnificent Gedimino promenade at the mighty complex of the Cathedral, Palace of the Grand Dukes and the Gediminas Tower. The center of the once Duchy between the 13th and 18th century is an excellent example of Eastern and Western European cultures and is still a large preserved historic site here in Europe; its buildings are in Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Classical styles and as we learnt it: Vilnius has been home to Lithuanians, Jews, Poles, Russians, Germans and some other nationalities, tribes and communities so it comes at no surprise that the entire city center is a UNESCO site.
Lithuania has a lot to offer outside of the capital city, too. We picked the medieval castle of Trakai and its fantastic museum. Trakai is a half an hour drive from Vilnius and it is a must where you can kill more than two birds with a stone. The (flat) countryside itself gorgeous with the numerous lakes and activities to choose from. If you ever visit, plan a good 4 hours there excluding lunch. The castle and its museum worth more than the actual entry fee with hundreds of thousands of artifacts on display and stories explaining the history of the country and its people.
On this day just out of curiosity (okay, we admit: we needed some local snacks and sweets) we also went shopping; in the stores and shopping malls you had to wear the mask in Slovakia and Poland, in Lithuania: nada; the only places where we saw a person with a mask were the museum where the staff wore it and our hotel. Tourists: no large groups and mainly Lithuanians and a few other ones from the Union. Talking about the pandemic: I do not watch TV almost at all but when travelling I switch it on to learn couple of things from it what you can easily do if you are surfing. For example, from the channels (language, country of origin) you can gain information on the population and so on. There were mainly Lithuanian and westernized channels (you will see the difference in Latvia in the next part of my Blog) and I stopped at a French news channel for a few minutes that had a report on the pandemic and it portrayed my home country Hungary. The broadcast showed one the many Hungarians spas and discussed (I admit: ridiculed almost humiliated) how the Hungarians kept social distance in that spa representing one of the pools where only 9 people were allowed at the same time and you could barely see the water around the hundreds filling the pool in. That was one fun moment where you laughed and laughed and realized again how small and stupid this world today is. To have a proof of stupidity I had to watch the news on a French channel in Lithuania about the Hungarians responding to the virus.
I assumed (based on my research before the tour) that the three Baltic countries had more strict measures than most of the other EU countries. The assumption was wrong, at least in Lithuania, they were so relaxed I felt that I could have even traveled with American tourists without any problems. After two full days it was time to move on to Latvia. What had happened to us at the Lithuanian border and the past three days made us laid-back and we had just been looking forward to spending some time at the Baltic sea, in Riga and in the countryside of the next country.
Stay tuned and healthy and feel free to comment 😊 to be continued with some appetizing pictures and stories.