Lithuania Pictured

Click on photos to enlarge

Nikon F2 35 mm f 1:1.4

'Bathed in Amber, the substance of the sun'
Sunset at Palanga on the Baltic coast of Lithuania

Rustic House in favourite Lithuanian yellow near the village of Marcinkonys

Trakai Castle near Vilnius

Country House of Uzutrakis built by the Polish Count Jozef Tyszkiewicz at Trakai

Vilnius from Gemidinas Castle

Millenium Celebrations in Vilnius Lithuania July 2009

I have always wanted to complete my picture of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and recently spent two weeks touring Lithuania.
The weather has been pretty frightful in Warsaw this summer - storms nearly every afternoon and evening.

Lithuania was much better. As those who read this blog will know I have recently returned from two weeks touring Lithuania by car. It is a great shame that the tourist industry in this fascinating country is not sufficiently promoted to assist growth in the economy. The country beyond Vilnius seemed unaccountably deserted.

I spent a week at the Baltic resort of Palanga which was an absolute delight - the Curonian Spit is on the UNESCO World Heritage list and I can quite see why with its magnificent sand dunes and kilometres of deserted beaches. I learned so much about that glorious and fascinating resin, amber, 'the substance of the sun' that trapped insects 40 million years ago. At the charming town of Nida Thomas Mann built a summer house and wrote the masterpiece 'Joseph and His Brothers' - an inspired writer's choice of location but then he loved the Baltic shore with a passion. I am planning another travel book following the ancient and unknown Amber Road trading route from the Baltic to Byzantium. Plenty on the Silk Road but there is so little material on this fascinating ancient European route which was so important in the exploration of the unknown and barbarian 'northern shore'.

Excellently resurfaced and deserted roads pass through magnificent pine and birch forests following the picturesque Nemunas River (the Niemen) to Kaunas. This city perhaps more than any other authentically indicates the full extent of the economic crisis now gripping the country. Museums here are excellent although some are still trapped in a Soviet time-warp.

Vilnius is a fine city of superbly restored baroque churches - 'an orgy of the baroque' commented the Nobel prize-winning author Czeslaw Milosz - a city heavily populated with the ghosts of Poles. Pilsudki's heart and the complete body of his mother are under a formidable black slab of marble at the entrance to the main cemetery. Large numbers of young Poles there unaccountably reading the bible in the shade. The KGB museum is one of the most gruelling I have visited in East-Central Europe. It indicates the true extent of the Soviet transportation of Lithuanians to Siberia and paints a graphic picture of their deep, largely unknown, suffering. The miraculous Madonna of the Ostra Brama lies deep within the Polish psyche.

I was there during the 1000 year independence celebrations and the intense nationalism was expressed in marvellous dancing in full folk costume (folklore is massively important in Lithuania) and massed choirs - a unique spectacle in Europe. The flaxen-haired Lithuanian girls I saw everywhere in Vilnius are achingly beautiful.

The monumental restored island castle of Trakai just outside the city was an extraordinary discovery. On my return to Poland I visited the Lithuanian spa town of Druskininkai not far from the frontier - a charming place and marvellous 'discovery' with scarcely any tourists and fantastic new facilities and magnificently restored fin de siècle hotels desperate for clients. A serious, even entertaining, Social realist sculpture museum set up by a mushroom millionaire called Grutas Park lies outside the spa - the megalomania of the vast statues of Lenin et al give one an excellent insight into the vain and paranoid Soviet mindset. I heard not one British voice my entire time in Lithuania - a smattering of Americans and Australians of Lithuanian descent seeking their roots and some Germans lamenting their losses.

This excursion was a wonderful and insightful surprise - a European country mercifully lacking any mass tourist development. Palanga is a discriminating seaside choice for those tired of fighting the European summer hordes of July and August flooding the Mediterranean.

Baltic as opposed to Slavic culture is fascinating in its pagan elements. I felt great sympathy for their present economic plight after finally kicking off the Soviet boot.


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