This summer I took a trip that I’ve wanted to take for a while. I don’t think Lithuania is on most people’s top travel destinations, but it’s a really fascinating place to visit. I’m Lithuanian, but had never actually visited the “homeland”. So this summer my dad and I packed our bags and set out for Lietuva.
We decided to bookend the trip with a few days in Stockholm and a visit to see my sister Switzerland.
We were only in Sweden for 3 days and I don’t really think that was enough time to get a feel for the city. But, we made the most of it while battling the jet lag that 9 time zones and 22 hours of flying produced.
My first (obvious) observation was just how far north we were. We hit the mid-summer festival, which meant it literally did not get dark. The sun set, but the grey skies never turned black.
The other cool thing that I noticed is that the Swedes have a bit of a different perspective on history than your average American or continental European. It’s a bit of an outsiders perspective, which entailed more observation and (sometimes) conquest into the baltic than the east-west battles that swept back and forth across the continent.
We spent 3 weeks in Lithuania which was more than enough to get a handle on this Iowa-sized country. I’d say most people would be happy with a 3-5 day trip to Vilnius, but we went all over.
We stayed in Vilnius for the first 5 days. And saw the typical tourist sites: Gediminas Tower, Cathedral Square, Senamiestis, Trakai, Gates of Dawn, etc. It’s great and set up tourists (everyone under 40 spoke great english and is super friendly).
Next, we went to Palanga which is a resort town on the Baltic coast. The Baltic is beautiful and the Tiškevičiai Palace park had some of the best running that I’ve encountered while traveling. The other really cool thing near Palanga is the Curonian Spit which has this little trail called Raganų Kalnas (Witch’s Hill). On the short 1⁄2 mile walk, there are dozens of intricate, life-size wood carvings from Lithuanian fairy tales.
Palanga is curious though. It’s certainly off the beaten path for Americans. Outside of talking to one american girl who was visiting with her Lithuanian mother, the only english I heard was my dad.
The main boardwalk has a Jersey Shore carnival feel too it, but replace the Italian meatheads with Russians. It was really different.
Our next stop was Kaunas, which is where most of my family was from. I say was in the past tense, since almost everyone emigrated when the Soviets occupied the country. But, we found a distant relative! While looking for where my great-grandparent’s house was, my Dad started talking to an old timer, who told us to visit a house a half mile away because “they might know something.” At this house, they told us to go two houses over. Then it started getting crazy. This guy came out and said well I don’t know anything but my wife is a Jasaitis (which is my last name, before it was changed to escape the Russians, it’s a crazy story…) and you should talk to her brother. He drove us across town and the brother came out and said “Yeah! You look just like them…” and took us to yet another apartment building where an old women was living. Lo and behold, she had some of the same pictures in her photo album as my dad! My dad and this woman are something like 2nd cousins, but through her we learned that there was another (lost/forgotten) Jasaitis who was a Forest Brother. The Forest Brothers were the resistance to the Soviet occupation of Lithuania. I was just floored by this discovery via 5 different seemingly random connections.
After this we went down to south-eastern Lithuania to look for another piece of land that my other grandmother owned. We stayed in this great manor home called the Burbiskis Davos near Anykščiai. We spent a couple days tooling around the countryside trying to figure out where this piece of land was. Ultimately, we found the old cellar which was all that was left from the original manor. Apparently the Russians used it to store wine for officers since it was on the road to Moscow. But, the Nazi’s leveled it when they rolled in with there Panzars.
This type of destruction was the key theme of Lithuania. It was essentially leveled in WWII by both the Nazis and the Russians when either side moved out of a town (they didn’t want to leave anything for the other side to use). In this rubble the Soviets rebuilt cream and grey concrete block cities. The preceded to ensure paranoia among the remaining citizens using the KGB. It’s really a tragic history, that you never learn in your European history class.
After Lithuania, we went to spend a week with my sister on Lake Geneva.
It was a complete mindfuck to come to Switzerland from Lithuania. First, Lithuania is pretty cheap and Switzerland is ridiculously expensive – good bye 1.50€ beer and hello 10CHF beer. Second, whereas the gritty reality of Lithuania is present everywhere you look, Switzerland is pristine. Where do all the service workers live? How is it possible to have eliminated poverty? These questions swirled in my head the entire week.
Lac Leman is a stunning glacier blue with steep mountains rising right from the shore. With Chamonix only 1.5 hours away it is a alpine fairy land. My sister toured us around and we visited Bern, Château de Chillon, Vevey, Montreux, Lausanne, Founex, and of course Geneva itself. We even took a day to go to Chamonix and up the two trams to the top of the Aiguille du Midi. This excursion was torturous for me since Chamonix is the Alpinist Mecca, yet I wasn’t climbing. Next time…
Lithuania probably isn’t on your list of places to visit, but it should be. It’s history is tragic and fascinating and it is really starting to come into it’s own now.
Switzerland is this little paradise that’s almost too perfect. It’s easy to see why my sister never wants to leave. Next time I’m packing my ice tools and will make the most of Alps.