Into the Baltics III: Lithuania

July 31 – August 2, 2022

Did you know that at one time, the world’s second smallest country existed inside Lithuania? Me neither.

Did you know that since 1997 there is an independent Republic in Lithuania that measures only 148 acres and has seven thousand inhabitants? Again, me neither. Part of the fun of traveling the way we do is learning about these places.

We left Riga, Latvia on the 31st of July, on a winding route towards Vilnius, Lithuania. Our first stop was just across the Lithuanian border, in the small village of Zagaré, to take a photo of the most photographed house in Zagaré.

The “Pan House” started out in spite: the owner of one half of this duplex wanted to remodel its’ interior, but his neighbor had to agree, and refused. However, the neighbor had no say over the outside of this half of the house, so the owner started attaching found objects to the walls, roof, anywhere he could. No word on the neighbors’ reaction.

Next stop was a bit further south outside the town of Šiauliai.

Without thinking, we arrived at the Hill of Crosses on a Sunday morning. I expected to ride up and find two or three cars there and a few families. Nope. Hundreds of cars, a live TV broadcast crew, a live band, and a full church service was going on at an outdoor chapel in the field at the bottom of the hill.

This major Catholic pilgrimage site has well over 100,000 crosses of all sizes. Many have individual or family names on them, while some have military connections from many different countries (most refer to Baltic Air Policing NATO forces).

While Lithuania was part of the Soviet Union, the Soviets bulldozed the site at least three times, and even considered placing a dam in the nearby river in order to flood the hill to prevent people from putting crosses on it.

We eventually headed to Vilnius, but about twenty miles before we arrived, lo and behold, it started raining, AGAIN. And it rained steadily the entire trip in, on a polished asphalt highway with large “slippery when wet” signs. And they weren’t kidding.

Once we were in Vilnius, our Garmin GPS decided to entertain us (in the rain) by leading us down dead-end streets one after another. Eventually I gave in and rode between some concrete stanchions that were intended to prevent cars from crossing a pedestrian zone. Garmin then told us we were going the Wrong Way! on a One Way Street! Which was actually a two-way street, as the sign directly in front of us announced. Despite the GPS’s best attempts, we arrived at the AirBnB apartment and dragged our wet luggage inside.

The next day still looked dark and rainy, but the rain stopped long enough for us to wander around town.

Can’t pass up a photo of a church. Except there seem to be dozens of these churches in Vilnius, if not more. Anyway, here’s St Anne’s.

A sign in the Republic of Uzupis. This neighborhood on the river declared its independence as a Republic in 1997, and they celebrate Uzupis Day on April 1st of each year (coincidence? Probably not). Of the 7,000 residents, about 1,000 are artists.

Uzupis has its’ own Constitution, and it is posted on a wall in 23 different languages. And as you would expect from a bohemian artist republic, it is a bit odd.

Here’s the English version. It’s kind of hard to read due to the reflection, so if you want to read all 41 items, it’s on Wikipedia.

Some of the street art in Uzupis.

Not far from Uzupis but in Vilnius, we stumbled on this bust of Frank Zappa on a pedestal in a parking lot.

Frank Zappa is not Lithuanian. As far as anyone knows, he never went to Lithuania. But apparently he has a very rabid fan base here, though it may be a fan base of one for all I know.

We had to try some of the local food, so we started with Saltibarsciai, or Lithuanian Pink Soup, made from beetroots, cold kefir (a thin yogurt drink), fresh dill, cucumber, and a hardboiled egg. It’s actually way better than you would think!

Next up was cheese ice cream. Yup. Kinda tastes like cheesecake, but really cold.

At the end of our time in Vilnius, we headed south again, with a couple more stops before crossing the border into Poland.

On our way out of Vilnius we saw this enormous banner on top of a large building. No explanation necessary.

First up was a quick trip to Trakai Castle, just outside of Vilnius. The castle was built in the mid 1300s, and completed in the 1400s. It fell into disrepair over the centuries, but was restored in the 1950s and 60s, against resistance from Soviet authorities. Today it’s a major tourist attraction.

Next up was a detour to the middle of nowhere. In an area of nothing but farmland lies the remains of the Republic of Paulava, or Pavlov Republic.

In 1767, a Polish priest bought the Merkine estate (approximately 7500 acres) and in 1769 he turned it into a micro-republic with its’ own military, currency, flag, coat of arms, and himself as president. He abolished serfdom — the common practice in the countries surrounding his republic — and replaced it with land rent. He also created a mandatory education system for all. A total of about 800 people lived in Paulava, and it lasted for about 25 years, until the Kosciusko Uprising caused its’ fall. At the time, it was considered the second smallest country in the world.

Our last stop in Lithuania was in Grutas, just a few miles from the border with Belarus. Here is a park full of Soviet-era statues. Referred to by some as “Stalin World”, it contains over 80 of these large statues, which would have been demolished but for the efforts of one man to bring them to this location.

Oh yeah, and a few llamas too. We didn’t actually go into Stalin World (not the official name), as it would have cost about $25, which seemed a bit steep to see a bunch of statues of people who, aside from Lenin or Stalin, we had no idea who they were (not to mention any political opinions). So we ate lunch on a picnic table just outside the park, watched a few llamas, and rode away into Poland.

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