VilniusAugust 8 in Lithuania
Travel is all about the people and the places, and Vilnius encapsulated this adage. Vilnius itself is another very picturesque Eastern European city, easily walkable and full of green parks, wide open squares and more churches than actively practicing christians, and as with every other Eastern European location, it also comes with a side of crazy. In Vilnius’s case this comes in the form of the Republic of Uzupis.
Uzupis is a self-declared, largely unrecognized, independent republic within the boundaries of Lithuania. Declared a micro-nation by a group of art student squatters in an abandoned neighbourhood near the local Art School on 1 April 1998, this community of bohemians may or may not be playing an extended April Fool’s Joke, but if it is, it’s an elaborate one. There is a President and a cabinet of ministers, and the parliament convenes each Monday at the “Barliament” to debate laws. A 42 point constitution is in place, which includes such edicts as ‘everyone has a right to have no rights’, ‘a cat is not obliged to love its owner, but must help in time of need’ and ‘Everyone has the right to die, but this is not an obligation’ (the full list is well worth reading and can be read on the official embassy site - http://uzhupisembassy.eu/uzhupis-constitution/). Currency has been created and circulated, and is the only currency in the world pegged to the price of a half litre of beer. A flag flies (four flags, actually, one for each season) and an army has been mobilised… with 11 troops in all. There is also the only known public statue of Frank Zapper, as the Republic’s Parton saint.
Having celebrated its 20th year of ‘independence’ this year, it is still going strong, so strong in fact that the Republic now boasts the most expensive real estate in the city (nothing can stop gentrification!). It’s a fantastic, whimsical neighbourhood and somewhere I was drawn back to continually during my stay. Some of you can expect to receive postcards from there, bought from the Foreign Minister’s shop. The Minister’s name is Mister Mister and he is a cat, who will viciously attack anyone who disturbs his peaceful slumber.
Vilnius also came with an added dose of crazy, in the form of Monika, who I met, along with her husband, Matis, on my first evening after they started chatting to me at a cool little basement bar, not far from the town hall square. The irrepressible Monika was larger than life and completely overshadowed her somewhat dour husband, extremely extrovert, always laughing and seemed to enjoy nothing more than making fun of the ‘ignorant’ Australians mumbling accent. She also happened to be a bit of a local personality, being the ex-host of the most popular youth radio show in Lithuania and the current star of the “number one” (only) animal themed show on Lithuanian TV. After taking me out for a great Lithuanian meal and many shots of vodka, they dropped me off with the strict instructions to be ready and waiting at 2pm the following day with swimmers and sturdy shoes. After exploring the city during the morning, I dutifully waited at the designated pick up point where Monika finally rolled up fashionably late in her BMW following her morning TV shoot and we headed off to Trakai, a national park not far from Vilnius where we went swimming and paddling on the beautifully clear lake, before being joined by Matis after he had finished work and went to a nearby forest to collect mushrooms and blueberries. Unfortunately, there had been no rain recently, so mushrooms were in very short supply, but the blueberries were plentiful and didn’t survive the walk out.
On the way back to Vilnius, they decided that there was one more activity for the night and so we pulled off to the largest corn maze I have ever seen. It was long closed, but Monika used her star power to convince the owner to let us in and so we stumbled through the 3km+ maze in complete darkness while chewing on the sweetest sweet corn I have ever eaten.
The next day followed a similar pattern, I sight saw until the mid afternoon, the highlight of which was the ex KGB building, which has been turned into yet another grim, but fascinating, museum telling the story of the various Lithuanian resistance movements throughout the 20th century. The building itself has been kept largely as is, including the basement prison, torture rooms and execution room, where an average of 50 people a week were executed by the KGB during the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. the outside of the building is covered with engravings of those partisans killed by various Russian and German regimes providing a permanent and grim reminder to the tragic history of the Baltic states during the 20th century.
Following my sight seeing, I was once again picked up by Monika, this time for an excursion to Druskininkai, home of Grutas Park, an open-air sculpture park and museum housing old Soviet statues that were removed from cities and towns all over Lithuania. Larger than life statues of Joseph Stalin, Vladimir Lenin, and other Soviet figures loom over the park, creating an eerie atmosphere. Adding to the creepy feel of the park are the watch towers quietly playing Soviet music, tanks, and small indoor expositions. I had been promised a home cooked dinner from her grandmother (despite the lack of foraged ingredients), but something I quickly learned about Monika, was that she had a very poor sense of time and the 3 hour round trip meant that this promise was broken. Monika was heading to Kaunas early the next morning to host a car race and so it was a extremely grateful and appreciative farewell when we got back to Vilnius and she drove off leaving me reeling in her dust and once again in awe of the random and wonderful situations one can get into while travelling.Read more