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Lithuania Day 4: On the Road

skidspoppe and I were up and out early on Saturday morning. We'd rented a car to head west northwest to the coast, specifically to the Curonian Spit, and wanted to get an early start. We were going to meet his friend Lina, to whom we were giving a lift back to her hometown for the weekend, so with high spirits, we were off to Rotuses Aikste (the main town square) where the rental car was parked . . . except that when we got there the car wouldn't start. So while Skids called the rental car company for a jumpstart, I photographed the town hall (called by locals alternately the White Swan or the Wedding Cake, partly because of its beautiful white facade and tall, tiered tower in the front, and partly because it's wedding central each weekend), and the cathedral and then went to meet Lina at our designated rendezvous point, Kaunas Castle, to give her the scoop and bring her back to the car.

Kaunas Castle
Kaunas Castle sits a block or two off the main square on the banks of the Nemunas River. It's another recently reconstructed cylindrical tower topped by a conical roof and surrounded by remnants of walls of other buildings. I like what they do here with their castles: the original ruins of walls remain in their original materials: rough pale stones piled and cemented, and then the reconstructed walls are made of red brick. This way you can see what's original and what's reconstructed, and still see the whole building looking more-or-less as it did originally. Lithuanian castles seem to me to be smaller than castles in other parts of Europe (though I could be wrong about this). They are compact, but based on maps I saw at other sites, they appear to have been more closely located to each other. I met Lina at the bridge that crosses the former moat, we poked around a little bit, and then headed back to the car where Skids sat with the motor running, ready to take off.

The Ninth Fort
As we exited the city, Skids pointed out a gigantic sculpture off to one side of the freeway. It was massive. "That's the Ninth Fort," he said. "What's that?" I asked, and he turned the car around so we could go back to see. The Ninth Fort, as it turned out, is a memorial and museum, the remains of a Nazi deportation center and concentration camp where Jews were murdered. Later, it's where the Soviets perpetrated atrocities against Lithuanians. Besides the museum (which wasn't open so early in the morning, which means I have some reading and research to do to learn more about this place), you can see the remnants of prison buildings, a wall against which Lithuanians and Jews were shot and killed, and the gigantic three-part memorial sculpture erected in 1984, a towering wall of grim faces and fists raised in resistance. The sculpture is like many of the things I saw in Paris: so big it's hard to convey without being there. With the dramatic sky full of gray storm clouds marching along above us and the wind blowing around us, it was an impressive site. A quiet sense of reverence and firm resolve pervades the place, and we stood there, Lina and I, while Skids waited in the car, just absorbing it all.

As we walked back to the car, she told me about how her grandparents and family had been sent to Siberia by the Soviets. Apparently, they'd owned too much land. They were there about four years and her grandfather had been changed--not for the better--by the experience. Skids had told me earlier in my visit that everyone he knew here had a story like that; this was the first time I'd heard such a story firsthand and it was sobering.

When we were done we headed back to the car. About halfway back I discovered that I'd lost my camera cover. Not the lens cap, but the foam cover that protects my camera. We looked for it, to no avail. Either I'd lost it before we left Kaunas or it had blown away somewhere at the fort. (The wind was impressive that morning, heralding the torrential rain we'd fight through for the rest of the day.) At any rate, it was gone, and I chose not to get upset about it. Such things can be replaced; we had a three-hour drive ahead of us and I didn't want to delay the expedition.

On the road in Lithuania
I've mentioned before that Lithuania reminds me of the Pacific Northwest. This road trip confirmed that impression. With all the rain that the country gets, it's a lush and green place, though it's not at all mountainous. The land rolls gently on, geometrically patterned farmland stretching to either low hills or lines of trees. Houses are small; barns are correspondingly sized. Cows are invariably black and white. Freeways, I decided, are more-or-less the same everywhere: a lot of road and a lot of nothing between departure and destination points--except that this nothing was picturesque and familiar somehow, and I enjoyed the vistas for both of those characteristics. Lina was entertained by my interest; when it's something you've seen time and again, its novelty wears off. Here and there she pointed out items of interest.

We stopped in Rietavas, a town near to where she lives, to see its beautiful church, and then headed to Plunge (say "ploong-eh") where her family lives. Her comment about it was that a lot of Jews used to live there. This is true everywhere in Lithuania, and her observation was rather wistful. The town was small, with older and newer parts, the newer parts better kept and more modern. I was sorry she had to leave us; I found her company quite pleasant.

Skids and I hit the road again, driving to Kleipeda. We passed, weirdly, a deer farm along the way. Why a farm specifically for deer? I have no idea.

Kleipeda itself is a small city that can barely be called a city except that it's not a town. The highlights I saw on the way to the ferry dock were a mall (Akropolis) and things that looked like small, rundown corporate parks. The dock was definitely part of a working industrial port, and the ferry itself nothing like what I expected. Coming from New York and Seattle, when I think of a drive-on ferry, I think of a big, cruise-line sized thing that you can park in and wander around on. The ferry we boarded was an open-air working boat, and we were packed like sardines on the deck. The ride was only 4 minutes across the strait that connects the Curonian Lagoon to the Baltic Sea--and then we were on the spit.

The Curonian Spit
The Curonian Spit is a long, thin ribbon of land that starts in Kaliningrad, Russia, and stretches to a spot just short of connecting to Lithuania (hence the need for the ferry ride.) It separates the Baltic Sea from the Curonian Lagoon and is, for most of its length, a forested semi-wilderness. At the very tip, at Nida, you can actually see Russia, the Baltic Sea, and the Curonian Spit depending upon where you stand. We drove all the way out to the tip and, in the pouring-down rain, got out to take in this view for ourselves as our umbrellas were deformed by the hard-blowing wind. There's a large sundial there that I would have enjoyed seeing in the sunshine; alas, it was not to be. We took in the view just long enough to get seriously wet and windblown, and then got back into the car to drive slowly back. We had lunch, enjoyed the passing forest as we drove, and then we went to what Skids described as "a thin place," where the walls between the worlds are permeable and anyone can come and go.

Witch's Hill
In Lithuanian folklore witches can be either good or bad much like, you know, people. Witch's Hill in Juodkrante is a sculpture park in a forested setting featuring wonderful wood carvings illustrating stories out of Lithuanian folklore. In the torrential downpour, we had the place pretty much to ourselves so it was us, our umbrellas, and my camera tromping the trail and viewing the carvings. Skids has led student tours there, so he became my private tour guide, sharing stories as we came to sculpture after sculpture. I learned about Egle the Queen of Serpents, Perkunas the thunder god, and lots of stories about people trapped or tricked by gods and witches. The carvings were marvelous, full of life and wonder, and the stories were inspiring. There's one in particular that I want to investigate more fully as the possible basis for a short story--or maybe something more ambitions. Skids later gifted me with the book from which he learned all this folklore. I am awed by this generosity, and truly grateful. We spent a wonderful chunk of time wandering the paths of Witch's Hill and when we were finally done--and soaked to the skin--we retreated to the car.

We departed the spit quite well satisfied with our excursion. With the rain pouring down and us feeling like drowned cats, we weren't feeling like more adventures in the rain, but we still had some daylight. Jaq knew about a walking sculpture tour in Kleipeda, so what he did was drive us through the tiny alleys of the city to show me some of the sculptures we might otherwise see on foot, which ended up being both entertaining and a test of his driving skills. We saw a cat and mouse, dragon, a chimney sweep, a pot of coins.

After that the only question was--what to do next? Our original plan had been to drive to Druskininkai in the southern part of the country, spend the night there, visit Gruto Parkas, and then head back to Kaunas. But what ended up happening was that the GPS unit pointed us back toward Kaunas to get to Druskininkai. Rather than spending money on a hotel, we decided that heading home was the better part of valor, less expensive and more sensible, so Skids drove us back in the driving rain. We listened to a Doctor Who audio book on the road, arrived in Kaunas, and just passed out.

Other trivia
In this region, some of the fishing boats and later, houses, have these elaborately decorated and beautifully detailed weather vanes. These vanes are traditionally used not just to tell which way the wind is blowing, but to indicate what family lives beneath it, what business they're in, and so on.

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