Friday 27 December 2013

Europe Summer Series: Vilnius, Lithuania (Part 2)

The last post ended with me strolling along the streets of the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius. Here's what happened next...

The material world awaits just down the street as it dramatically opens onto a broad, triangular square fronting the town hall.

To one side, the cafe Amatininku Uzeiga stands out like a movie set, its bright floral tablecloths on tiny external tables presenting a huge contrast with the grey-brown paving scheme.

It’s an irresistibly textbook piazza cafe, so I sit down and order an arbata (tea).

The view across the square may be attractive, but the waitresses here are competitively distracting, wearing an unlikely uniform of tiny tartan aprons over denim miniskirts.

It’s not something that a proprietor back home could possibly get away with issuing his staff; another reminder that I’m not in Kansas anymore (so to speak).

Walking further north I enter Pilies Street, ground zero of tourism in Vilnius. I check out the craft stalls outside another impressive church, browsing Russian dolls and amber jewellery.

Having spent time in the bustling markets of the Middle East, I automatically try haggling over some craftwork passport pouches. They’re marked as 15 Litas each, so I suggest “Two for 20”.

The smiling stallholder responds with “Many work!”, then shrewdly asks “American?”, her mind clearly on the sliding US dollar exchange rate. Not wanting to give Australia a bad name, I quietly withdraw.

Lunch brings more gastronomic surprises. I’ve heard that kepta duona is the perfect snack to go with beer, so I order some.

It turns out to be composed of sticks of fried rye bread with an accompanying garlic dip.

They’re very solid and chewy, like eating small pieces of wood. But they are admittedly excellent with beer. And then, thinking of my arteries at last, I order a light chicken salad.

But there’s a darker side to Vilnius’ history, beyond the improbable snacks and the beautiful churches.

West of the centre, I get a taste of it at the KGB’s former local headquarters - now turned into the grimly-named Museum of Genocide Victims.

This grand 19th century building on a prominent boulevard features the names of the Soviets’ victims carved into the stonework of its facade.

The exhibitions, well labelled in English, chart the Lithuanians’ misery under the Soviet regime, the text punctuated by displays of uniforms, equipment and original documents. For such a small nation, the number of exiles, prisoners and executions in its tragic history are staggering.

But the worst is yet to come. In the basement, the KGB Prison is less intellectual and more gut-wrenching.

Left as it was when the secret police departed, its cells present a terrifying insight into the methods the regime used to silence its critics. And the really disturbing thing is how recent this all is - the interrogators only moved out in 1991, after Lithuanian independence was achieved.

Outside again, blinking in the sunlight, I walk along Gedimino Prospect, now a shining renovated street that’s full of swanky shops and eateries.

I take a seat at Avilys, a chic restaurant that serves a dark beer with ginseng, brewed on the premises.

Around me are smartly dressed locals at other tables, grabbing some food before proceeding to shopping or work.

It could be any posh strip in any European city, and it’s hard to reconcile it with what I’ve just seen in the KGB’s former digs.

As someone who grew up with Cold war fears of nuclear war hanging over my head, it’s more than startling.

I shake my head, trying to wrap my mind around the contrasts, then head down the street to Vilnius Cathedral. This vast white building looks more like a Roman temple than a church, decorated with enormous pillars and giant statues resembling Olympian gods.

I turn to glance toward the separate belfry in front of the cathedral; and then I find the stebuklas, the “miracle tile” embedded in the pavement between the two.

In 1989, a human chain was formed all the way from Tallinn in Estonia to this very spot, uniting two million people over 600 kilometres in a protest against Soviet rule.

The final footfall of the chain was marked by this colourful tile, and its name is no overstatement.

It must have seemed a miracle to Vilnius’ citizens when Lithuania became free two years later; and it’s a fittingly low-key monument to a little city in a little country that’s a delight to the eye. 

And as Lithuanians do, I turn clockwise on the tile and make a wish.

Friday 20 December 2013

Europe Summer Series: Vilnius, Lithuania (Part 1)

Through December and January, I'm running a series of my previously published print articles on Central and Eastern Europe. Welcome to Lithuania...

There’s a dumpling on my plate the size of a miniature football.

In fact, it’s the shape of a football - which is why it’s called a cepelinas (zeppelin), after the famous airships of a century ago. The pale, doughy exterior is made of potato, and it’s wrapped around a meat filling. On top is a sauce involving sour cream and pork crackling.

It may not be the lightest meal I’ve ever ordered, but it is one of Lithuania’s most distinctive dishes, so it would clearly be an unforgivable international snub not to try it.

Actually, accompanied by a stein of local beer, it tastes quite good - though I suspect my doctor would advise me to eat them only in moderation.

On my way back from the restaurant to my hotel along the cobblestone streets of central Vilnius, I encounter a busker singing a capella near a beautiful baroque church in the twilight.

I stop, unexpectedly entranced by his voice. The music is haunting and indescribably beautiful, giving an impression of a language intriguing, deep and very old.

It’s a delightful introduction to Lithuania’s capital, especially since I know very little about the former Soviet republic.

Its cuisine may not be set to sweep the world, but Vilnius’ beautiful UNESCO-listed Old Town is grabbing the attention of an increasing number of visitors from Western Europe and beyond.

Fortified by my zeppelin encounter, I decide to stroll off some of the calories through the Old Town, starting at the Gates of Dawn.

It’s a beautiful sunny day, though cool in the shade, and this remnant of the medieval city walls stands out attractively white against the blue sky.

Passing through, I spot a carved wooden dwarf set back from the street, and am drawn by curiosity into a beautiful compact courtyard dotted with shady trees.

In a corner sits a white-haired man in a bandana, oiling a violin. I step past him into an art gallery, whose doors are studded with curious wooden sculptures resembling hands and insects.

The interior reveals more of these rough-hewn carved pieces, mostly resembling folkloric figures: animals, mythical creatures, stars, and villagers.

There’s something very appealing about their simple, primitive look. I’d read that Lithuania was the last country in Europe to give up pagan worship, and these figures seem to be a link to an era of belief in spirits and nature.

It’s something to ponder as I enter St Teresa’s, an extravagantly decorated church a little further on. Vilnius is famous for its numerous baroque churches, and this one doesn’t disappoint.

Outside it’s impressive, inside it’s spectacular. Gilt paint is lavished everywhere, especially on the elaborate frames highlighting statues and paintings of saints.

As I sit and take it in, visitors come and go, each footstep echoing through the cavernous space.

To my left, a small group of women, some wearing colourful headscarves, are making a procession from one statue to the next around the walls, chanting as they go.

The combination of the chanting, the natural light and the gilt splendour is surprisingly moving, and I’m surprised how calm I feel. I’m not at all religious, but I can see how this atmosphere aids a meditative state of mind.

But the material world awaits just down the street...

[Next post: Passport pouches, a miracle tile, and the den of the KGB...]

Friday 13 December 2013

Europe Summer Series: Tatra Mountains, Slovakia (Part 2)

The last post ended with me entering a tiny single-cabin cable car for the ascent to Lomnický Štít, a high peak in the Tatra Mountains of Slovakia. Here's what happened next...

Then a miracle happens.

The dense cloud cover starts to dissipate under the sunlight's warmth, splitting apart to reveal a stark rocky peak way above us.

Set within it is the cable car station, an improbable construction wedged into the rock, like the lair of a James Bond villain.

As we reach it, I suddenly remember that there’s nothing beneath our feet for a very long way; and then we gently ease into place, 2634 metres above sea level.

Ascending stairs, we find ourselves in an unexpectedly classy cafe, though most of us continue through onto a viewing platform in front of the building, partly built into the rock and jutting out into thin air.

We can see far down into the valley; this time the towns are minute. Neighbouring rocky peaks are visible, and it’s stimulating to just stand and look, while breathing the crisp air.

Eventually I go inside, wondering what drink is most suitable to celebrate such an experience (Whisky? Beer?), and end up with a frosted glass of demanovka, a traditional Slovak liqueur.

Back outside, there’s an odd mood of exhilaration in the air.

I think, like me, everyone is thinking how improbable this all is, that human beings shouldn’t be this high up from the earth, and certainly not sipping alcoholic beverages while doing so.

We’re all delighted at somehow being part of this impossible thing, and braced by the strange mix of material comforts and an underlying sense of danger.

I want at the same time to shout out “Aren’t we clever?” and “Aren’t we crazy?”

But such atypical periods of one’s life - removed from the concerns of the mortals below us - have to come to an end.

After 50 minutes our return car arrives and we make our descent.

I have lunch at the restaurant at Skalnaté Pleso, enjoying a decent Hungarian goulash.

Then it’s out onto the rocks for a hike along the mountainside west to Hrebienok, from where a funicular railway leads back down to Starý Smokovec, terminating just above the hotel.

After all this physical effort, the sight of the Grand is a relief, and its wellness centre a godsend.

Wrapped in a sheet, I take a well-earned dose of relaxation, moving between the sauna, the steam room, the infrared sauna with its weird colour-changing globe, the ice-cold pool and the heated ceramic beds in the tepidarium.

There’s nothing like some physical effort to make you really feel you’ve earned this sort of pampering, and I appreciate every moment.

Then, on my way back to my room, I bump into Joan and Joan, the two women I’d noticed in the cafe earlier, and join them for tea.

It turns out they’re British widows who travel together once a year, usually to Western Europe, but a trip to Austria fell through so they ended up here.

They’ve been going off every day on tours around the countryside; tomorrow they’re rafting down the Dunajec River on the border with Poland.

Since we’re getting along like a house on fire, I mention the hotel’s resemblance to a Christie plot item, and they agree.

Daringly, I suggest they’d fit right in to the story, and they laugh. “Like Miss Marple?” says one.

Still on a high from my ascent of the mountain, I can only smile. The only mystery surrounding the attractions of the Tatra Mountains, is why they aren’t better known outside Slovakia.

Friday 6 December 2013

Europe Summer Series: Tatra Mountains, Slovakia (Part 1)

Over December and January, I'll be running a series of my previously published print articles on Central and Eastern Europe. First up, Slovakia...

“Everywhere there is evil under the sun.”

I have Hercule Poirot’s words on my mind as I stroll through the foyer of the Grand Hotel.

It’s a building that appears to have sprung straight from the pages of an Agatha Christie novel; built in 1904, it’s a high-ceilinged structure decorated with sweeping, elegant art nouveau curves.

It doesn’t take much imagination to imagine the hotel being packed with foreign spies, American shipping magnates and exiled Russian countesses with secret sorrows.

But as I step into the cafe lounge, there is little evil to be seen - only two silver-haired ladies, sipping tea next to a bay window that offers a spectacular view over the slopes below.

The only thing that doesn't quite fit with my glamorous detective fantasy is the name of the lounge: the Castro Cafe.

And that’s because I’m in central Slovakia, and the hotel’s most famous guest ever was Fidel Castro, who visited in the 1970s when this was part of communist Czechoslovakia.

It’s a reminder that not all is as you expect when you venture east of the long-vanished Iron Curtain.

To be fair, other rooms in the hotel have had the same star guest treatment: the Sinatra Bar (Nancy), the Wilson Bar (after the British prime minister) and the Lefevre Restaurant (after the interwar French actor).

There’s even the Sailer Wellness Centre (after Austrian skier Toni Sailer), an impressive modern take on of Central Europe’s long obsession with spa treatments and health-related holidays.

When the Grand Hotel was built, Slovakia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A few wars and revolutions have passed by since then, and it’s now at the hub of a thriving tourist zone centred on the Tatra Mountains, the northernmost end of the mighty Carpathians.

The town it’s in, Starý Smokovec, is neatly placed in the foothills, with towering peaks above and a view down the slopes to the regional city of Poprad and the surrounding plain.

As glamorous as the hotel is, I have to get out among those amazing, lofty mountains. So I catch an electric train to the nearby town of Tatranská Lomnica, the starting point of a cable car that heads up to Skalnaté Pleso, 1751m above sea level. From there I can catch a second cable car right up to the peak of Lomnický Štít, one of the highest points of the range.

This first stage of the journey is undertaken in a small four-person cabin, which sways in the breeze as it’s hauled up the cable. Until this point I’ve conveniently forgotten my mild fear of heights, which is reawakened now as we lurch upward out of the base station.

It’s both a terrifying and exhilarating feeling to be dangling high in the air, held only by a moving cable. The scenery is brilliant: beneath us I can see rocky outcrops covered by a strange grey-green moss, interspersed with hardy trees and the odd surviving winter snowdrift sheltered from the sunshine by rocks.

When we reach Skalnaté Pleso I have to wait an hour for my assigned car up to Lomnický Štít, so I wander out of the station onto the rocky slope outside. It’s fairly level at this point, with a fenced-off viewing area that allows visitors to stand beneath the incoming cars.

Around me people are milling, and taking photos of each other and the town far below. Also smoking – which seems an odd affront to the beautifully clear cold mountain air, but each to their own.

As I'm taking in the view, someone points up, and I see a cable car ascending the second stage to Lomnický Štít, another 900m higher.

This car is different, basically a large red box which ascends solo. There are no supports to its cable; it arcs up until it disappears into the cloud cover just above our heads, seemingly on its way to heaven.

So at 10.10am a dozen of us cram into a small red metal box, the operator starts it up, and we swing out into nothingness.

Strangely, it’s less scary than the previous ride. Although the ground is soon far beneath us, and the landscape becoming progressively more craggy and forbidding, the ascent has a surprisingly smooth motion, like riding in a lift.

Then a miracle happens...

[Next: The miracle!]