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.

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