It was about 8 o clock in the morning when we headed to the airport to pick up our rental car for our Lithuanian road trip. Still dark outside, parents and children were bundled up, and were heading to work or school after the long holiday weekend. It was snowing lightly, making sparkles in the streetlights.
We waited in the cold for the bus, poking each other, excited about the day ahead. Kurt was excited to drive in a foreign country, go on a road trip. He wondered, with anticipation, what kind of car we would get.
Breakfast had been in the kitchen of our hotel, an old monastery, where your voice echoed like the voice of some long-forgotten preacher. There was a holiness and quietness about the place, situated right next to the Gate of Dawn.
Breakfast was the simple, continental selection of most European cities: meats, cheeses, boiled eggs, cereal, orange juice, coffee, and the added bonus of a homemade cheese cake with about half the sugar as its American counterpart.
The bus delivered us faithfully, for only a half a euro, to the airport at 8:30. We waded through a foot of snow to the office, where a young man, who looked astoundingly like my grandfather, gave us the keys to our car.
Everyone here looked like my grandfather. This was his home country, the country I had heard about since I was a little girl, the country that I wanted to visit and tell him about before he was gone. It was his home even though he had never stepped foot in the country. He was proud to be from Lithuania.
Kurt was worried about the impending snow storm, but I knew he was a good driver, we had both grown up in places where snow ruled the roads in the winter time; we would be fine.
I had methodically planned our road trip the day before, consulting travel blogs, TripAdvisor, and Google maps. I was sad that we wouldn’t have enough time to make it to The Hill of Witches, or to the Baltic Sea. Next time. I tell myself. Better to enjoy the little time we have than to rush about like a mad person. We don’t see the Hill of Witches.
Hill of Crosses
Our first stop was the Hill of Crosses, probably the most well-known landmark in Lithuania. Although the exact origins are unknown, the symbolism is not-these crosses serve as a quiet, peaceful symbol of Lithuania’s independence from foreign invaders, and their perseverance in times of turmoil. Many crosses appeared on the hill after the peasant uprising in 1831-63, but the crosses date back to the 15thcentury. Today, hundreds of thousands of crosses make up this beautiful hill in the middle of the countryside.
As I slam the car door closed I think that I’ve never been so cold in my whole life. The wind is strong enough to knock me over. My coats, scarf, gloves, hat don’t stand a chance against this weather. We have to walk a bit to see the hill, but when we do, we catch our breath. It is magnificent. Crosses of all shapes and forms line the hill, right on top of one another. Pendants and rosaries hang from the stems and ring in the wind. It is eerie. There are paths leading in between the crosses, but, it feels as if your enveloped by them. Kurt and I quickly lose each other. But, it’s okay. This place feels like a pilgrimage; it feels like something you need to experience on your own.
I try to memorize at least one cross. If I remember one, I’m honoring one person who put it there. I choose a silver one, pointed in all directions, with elaborate designs. I touch a few, and I wonder how many of my ancestors, from both my grandparents on my mom’s side, have been in this very spot. How much of my family is represented in this space? What were their lives like?
The sky is white and there is still snow on the ground. I can see a river from the hill, and a few old houses dotting the landscape. I remember the words of my grandmother: “It is a poor country.” Vilnius did not look poor. But, the countryside did. It may be poor, but its people are strong, faithful, and determined.
We finally left the hill of crosses, after getting a few pictures, a few videos, to try and capture the eeriness, the bells and charms in the wind. The small souvenir shop housed amber and magnets. I bought a few of each, then headed back to the warm car.
We crank the heat up, shed our coats and hats, eat chips and candy, get lost trying to get to the Ninth Fort, and finally get back on track.
Originally built by the soviets, and then later used by the Nazis, the Ninth-Fort was a prison, and the location of hundreds of deaths. It looked like a bunker in the 3:30pm dusk.
It took us twenty minutes to try and find an entrance, we were unsuccessful, so we headed out to the memorial. The memorial is huge-what look like three gnarled arms reaching towards the sky, with people’s faces carved in the distorted fingers and wrists.
The memorial is somewhat terrifying, huge, complex, I don’t understand it. But, I also don’t understand the wall, still filled with bullet holes where men, women, and children were taken and shot in lines. I don’t understand the section of grass, the final resting place of hundreds. I read plaques in a multitude of languages, honoring the dead from a number of different countries. But, I don’t think it is supposed to make sense.
We finally find the entrance, only to be told closing is in 20 minutes and we cannot enter. Kurt and I, the historian and the fascinated, are disappointed. But we use the facilities and carry on with our trip.
If we couldn’t visit the Hill of Witches, I at least wanted to visit the Devil’s museum. Although not strictly Lithuanian, the museum houses an assortment of figurines depicting different devils from around the world. Lithuania was the last pagan country in Europe, so perhaps this museum is at least housed in the appropriate country.
The museum is filled with devils, all shapes and sizes and colors, with different features and personalities. Small plaques describe most of the pieces, and many folk stories are included with the figurines. I read about devils and their tricks from Ireland to the United States, Lithuania, and Brazil. I learn about the different characteristics of the devil, and how he has been portrayed throughout the world.
The place isn’t scary, as I expected. It is somewhat mythical, quiet. It takes us about an hour to move through the three-story building that looks like it came straight out of the communist era. We both have to read all of the signs, all of the stories, it feels incomplete if we don’t.
The devil’s museum is located in Kaunas, so it only made sense to wander around the city, and most importantly, get something to eat. We’re starving, and have been surviving on gas station food since breakfast. We’re on the hunt for traditional Lithuanian food, which we haven’t had yet. The restaurants in Lithuania are small, and people linger over their food. We’ve been faced with long waits, and have only eaten Portuguese, and Italian, twice, while in Lithuania.
We find the perfect restaurant right in the city square, and order four things off of the menu. Cheese and honey (which is the most perfect thing), chicken strips, and two kinds of pierogis. About half of the food is left on our plates. Lithuanian food with the carbs and meat and warmth is very filling indeed.
By the time we leave the restaurant, it’s snowing. We delight in the snow, and I make Kurt take 100 pictures of me in the pretty square, by the Christmas tree, by the #Kaunas sign, by a government building. The city is magical in the snow.
After playing around in the snow for a few minutes, I suggest we go shopping and street art hunting.
Kurt is game, so we head down side streets, peak into cafes and mostly closed shops. Hunt for street art-finally giving up and pulling some up on our phones, although the street art is elusive, or listed under the wrong address because we only find a few pieces.
It’s snowing harder and we’re getting worried about the drive back to Vilnius airport. We reluctantly give up our hunt, say bye to the city of Kaunus and head back in a snow storm.
The drive home goes very smoothly. Kurt makes me take a video of the snow storm. “I can tell people I drove in a snow storm in Lithuania,” he tells me excitedly. We drive slowly, finally stopping for gas. The whole exchange for gas takes several minutes because we don’t know how to say “fill up the tank” in Lithuanian, or Russian, for the attendant. Snow and wind are blinding us, and we have to make several trips from the pump to the clerk in order to get a full tank.
We slide only once on the road to the airport, and then we are returning to our hotel on the bus, tired, and happy.
What We Did and What We Would do
- Our road trip took us to:
- Hill of Crosses
- Ninth Fort
- Devil’s Museum
- If we had more time (the winter days only have about eight hours of sunlight, plus we didn’t have very long in the country to begin with, we would have seen…)
- Hill of Witches
- Trakai Island Castle
- Grutos Parkas
- Curonian Split National Park
- And a few assorted castles and park along the way.
Countries aren’t limited to their cities. In fact, if you only see the famous cities (Paris, London, ect) you miss out on seeing a whole part of that country’s culture. Exploring the Lithuanian countryside, even though it was only for a day, gave me new insight into the place where I come from. Having the freedom to go wherever you want, see whatever you want, and create your own timeline is truly the best way to visit a new place. I can’t wait to take more road trips, especially a Lithuanian road trip part II.