- Mission 1: Scout the former tortuous KGB prison (ACCOMPLISHED);
- Mission 2: Photo capture Soviet style monuments and architecture (ACCOMPLISHED);
- Mission 3: Ascend the Vilnius TV Tower for panoramic viewpoint (ACCOMPLISHED);
- Mission 4: Explore Grūto Parkas, a.k.a. Cold War theme park and secure self-portrait photograph with Stalin (DEFERRED).
Highlight: The €1 airport bus.
Lowlight: Stumbling upon two corpses in a single weekend (pretty grim).
Feat of Architecture: Vilnius Palace of Concerts & Sports (Sporto Rūmai).
Recce fact: Once a year, Velykų Senelė, i.e. the Easter Granny travels around the country leaving Easter eggs for every Lithuanian child.
Lithuania marks the first Reconnaissance Europe mission report and what an episode; a former KGB Prison, an abandoned Sports Palace, ornate churches galore, a TV Tower of historical significance and a couple of cadavers along the way. What a fantastically grim beginning.
Once upon a time, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania encompassed what is now modern day Belarus, Ukraine, and even parts of Russia. Yet Lithuanians like to remind us most of all of “that time that Poland was part of Lithuania”, referring to the shortlived Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. But beware of drawing too many parallels between these frosty rivals. For example, the Lithuanian alphabet does not contain the letter “w” and so all ethnic Poles have no choice but to spell their names with a “v” instead on their official documents and are hence rather bitter about the inconvenience. After all, a Pole without a letter “w” in their name is hardly a Pole at all! This is just one example of the modern day challenges of relations between the two.
“I’m about to click on BUY TICKET to Lithuania next month. Fancy it?”. “Why not. Count me in.” Karina (talented Northern Irish/Norwegian singer) agreed after 0.8 seconds of careful thought. Only the most loyal and fantastically loopy of comrades would opt to join me on such an adventure – the prospect of having our photograph taken with Stalin sealed the deal to take our friendship to a new level. Unfortunately, the closest we got was a double half-head shot with a Stalin portrait behind us inside the Museum of Genocide Victims (Genocido Auku Muziejus). Time constraints sadly didn’t permit the day-trip to Gruto Park in Druskininkai to see the Cold War era oddities including Soviet statues, relics and real bears in a mini-zoo. Anyway, I always like to leave a stone or two unturned to ensure I have an incentive to revisit a place.
Although I was not amused by the overpriced airport taxi (which cost 18 times the price of the bus), I thought it best not to poke the Eastern European bear on the first night over the sake of a few euros. Lithuanians in Vilnius seemed polite and tourist-tolerant. The city was comparable to Riga (Latvia), but with a considerably lesser Russian-influenced feel to it. That much was apparent.
The Abandoned Sports Palace and Cadaver #1
This magnificent example of modernist architecture, Vilnius Palace of Concerts & Sports (Sporto Rūmai) has stood abandoned since 2004, after 33 years of hosting sporting arena events, both indoors and outdoors. Allegedly build on a Jewish cemetery, it is awaiting refurbishment to reopen as a congress centre. It even makes a guest appearance in the Lithuanian-cast film, Deadly Code and certainly did not disappoint. Fortunately, there was no one else around to get in the way of the pictures and it was possible to ascend the steps and approach the glass doors to get shots of the inside. As we wandered around the rear of the building away from the sound of passing vehicles, Karina stopped, “Umm… Sable, is that a dead body?“. Right enough, there was, what could only be described as a body-shaped bag, lying still in the corner without any visible openings and soaked with a large orange/red stain. Was it a cadaver or merely someone sleeping in a brightly stained sack with no air holes? We didn’t venture any closer to inspect. But somehow, it fitted with the ambiance and really wasn’t as perturbing as it perhaps should have been.
Former KGB Prison (and Museum of Genocide Victims)
After missing out on the KGB HQ tour in Riga due to one too many Caipiroskas, the KGB Prison in Vilnius was a must-see. The museum above the prison was very enlightening, with numerous rooms dedicated to telling the story of the mass Soviet deportations of Lithuanian people (along with other
Eastern Europeans) to Siberia between 1941-1952. The majority of the 130,000 were women and children, who were sent to labour camps in the harsh Siberian oblasts to work on railway lines etc. Sadly, many perished and the others were released gradually in phases after Stalin’s death in 1953. Even then, tens of thousands were not permitted to return to their homeland. The museum also conveyed the stories of the partisans who rose up against the Red Army, hiding in the forest and using guerrilla warfare tactics. Many of them were captured and were either sent to Siberian gulags, or if they were of specific political interest they may have been imprisoned in one of the cells in this very establishment. As a side note, A Hidden World- My Nine Years in the Soviet Gulag constituted a cracking read on the plane.
A sign pointed down a dilapidated staircase to the NKVD/KGB Prison below. I didn’t opt for the English Tour, but it was impossible not to eavesdrop on the tour
party in front as we all meandered through the cells at our own pace. At the very bottom of the stairs stood two (what I can only describe as) dark, fully enclosed cupboards. This was essentially the “waiting room” for new prisoners, and I suspect the prison officers didn’t rush with the paperwork. Pure claustrophobic horror. Yet, there were more horrific conditions to come (and I’m not just talking about the toilets). Amongst the mere 19 of the original 50 cells remaining was a solitary confinement cell in which the prisoner was forced to stand on a tiny platform surrounded by a pool of ice-cold water. This led to sleep depravity in order to avoid nodding-off and falling in. If the cramped and dismal conditions were not enough to break a man, then the various methods of torture surely would do the job. When eventually driven to insanity, prisoners were transferred to the padded cells, equipped with straitjackets and soundproofing to absorb the wails of despair. I have seldom felt so thankful to be back out in the fresh air again.
The Vilnius TV Tower and Cadaver #2
Another overpriced taxi took us on the scenic route to the Vilnius TV Tower (Vilniaus televizijos bokštas). [Regarding taxis, it seems best to download the eTAKSI GPS app and select the cheapest rate, especially if you have no idea where you actually are.] Part of the scenery included a deceased fellow slumped by the side of a housing estate. Luckily, I was distracted, but Karina watched the police struggling against the wind to secure a plastic sheet over him that blew away to reveal the blue/white lifeless body. Two corpses in one weekend- is this my lasting memory of Lithuania? Nevertheless, onwards to the TV Tower. In hindsight, I should have come here before Berlin a few weeks prior. Sure, the Berliner Fernsehturm stands only 40m higher, but well, the big Soviet disco ball is a greater sight to behold. However, this TV Tower featured in a very important chapter of Lithuania’s history in January 1991, almost a year after Lithuania became the first Soviet state to declare independence. The KGB and Soviet military were faced with mass protests and shot live rounds into the crowd (even rolling over some civilians in tanks) in order to thwart the uprising. The military stormed the TV Tower in a desperate attempt to prevent the broadcast of these events to the rest of Europe. It didn’t stop news reaching a small studio in Kaunas, where university professors were called in to report the events in as many languages as they could speak. Their attempts were not in vain, as Sweden was the first to pick up the communications and relay the news to the rest of the world. Even with the lego-like socialist housing, Vilnius is quite vibrant in colour from the panoramic view (top photo). Did you notice the statue of the lady reaching out to the sky (below)? Well, see if you Tomb Raider fans can figure out how to solve the puzzle. I kicked myself when I got home…(Spoiler here).
Food of Lithuania
Moving onto my favourite subject; culinary delights. One cannot come to Lithuania without sampling cepelinai (stodgy pork mince-filled potato “zeppelins”),
saltibarsciai (cold beetroot soup with sour cream) and gira/kvass (a fruity mead-like caraway beverage). Any time I see an Uzbek restaurant in my travels I always dive in. There were a couple in Vilnius and I simply cannot pass on an opportunity to indulge in some manti (Uzbek dumplings). P.S. Georgian wine is the finest without a doubt.
Mission Lithuania Summary
Yes, indeed we saw two more dead bodies than we would have liked during this trip. But that aside, I have a greater understanding of the political events which led to Lithuania’s independence, as well as the trials and struggles against oppression and genocide. A couple of days was more than enough time to get the gist of Vilnius (and pick up a few Soviet badges to add to my growing collection). Next time, Kaunas and the Cold War theme park.