Winding Castles

After two days of Rīga, it’s feeling like a time to get out again. I have the same feeling every time I’m in a city for too long. At the end of the day, every city starts to look the same and I crave some nature. So we head out East, to Latvia’s first national park, Gauja. Covered in trees and castles, Gauja is a great nature break when spending time in Rīga. IMG_8923There’s a little ‘cave’ made of sandstone where people have been chipping away and signing their names for decades. And there’s a funky jazz saxophone man playing for change in the background. His toots echo off the cave wall, and Šarūnas strikes a pose.IMG_8931My ‘invisible selfie’

We spend the day wandering the forests, as castles seem to sprout up like the pines surrounding them.

IMG_8949The Baltics are more famous for brick castles, compared to the stone monoliths you see in Western Europe. The ochre mixed with evergreen make for a great palette. We walk around the castles and decide it’s time to head back home to Lithuania for the night. We pull the long haul drive of 3:30 hours back to Kaunas, where we buy a kebab before heading to Šarūnas’ dad’s sauna house. Kind of like a summer house, sauna houses get a lot more use (maybe because there isn’t much summer) up here in the north. It has the same basic amenities as a summer house, with bed and all. So we take a nighttime drive to the house, located out in the countryside next to where Šarūnas’ grandparents live. We open up some beers, light a mosquito candle, and watch the stars.

The next morning, we’re awoken by Šarūnas’ grandmother eagerly shouting “Labas!” (Hello), waiting for someone to respond. She doesn’t know who is staying at the sauna house yet, but she’s brought freshly picked strawberries regardless. We come down to say labas and eat some strawberries, and she’s so excited to meet an American that knows how to say hello in Lithuanian. She decides we need a salad, so we wander through her garden picking out onions and cucumbers and dill to mix with our tomatoes for a fresh morning breakfast salad. Again, I’m always amazed by the kindness of strangers. She hands us the vegetables to wash while she goes to the hives to collect some fresh honey. Ten minutes later, she comes back a bowl full of honey that must have used half of the hive. I’m not even sure what anyone is supposed to do with all this honey, but we try and eat as much as possible. Dipping fresh cucumbers into honey and enjoying our tomatoe-onion-and dill salad, we make a meal to start the day.

The plan is to drive to Vilnius. It’s only an hour away, and there’s a fair amount to see along the way. Specifically, we need to go see Trakai castle. An image of national pride for Lithuanians, Trakai castle sits on a tiny chain of islands within a system of lakes. Built to defend Vilnius during the times when Lithuania was one of the largest countries in Europe (I was surprised, too), Trakai features more of that ochre brick on evergreen that looked so perfect in Latvia.

IMG_4192This is by far the prettiest spot we’ve been to on the trip. The clouds are tempestuous, creating a combination of red, green, blue, and grey that come together in perfect harmony. IMG_4212The lake are so pristinely clear and serene, which is quickly ruined with the introduction of swarms of tourists. Trakai is most likely one of the most touristy places in the Baltic’s, and for good reason. It’s right next to Vilnius, and offers calm views mixed with interesting history. A ticket to see the castle will set you back 7 euros, but it’s pretty worth a visit. If you’re not into spending the money you’re allowed to walk around the outside of the castle which is equally gorgeous.

IMG_8945Šarūnas decides to try out some torture equipment.

After a walk with the tourists through the castle, we make the drive to Vilnius where we stay at the Downtown Forest Hostel. In a perfect relaxed part of town, and with really reasonably priced rooms, it’s a great place for a backpacker to stay. They also offer complimentary ear plugs, which I wish more hostels offered.

The next morning, Šarūnas has to spend some time working on an upcoming exam, so I’m left to my own devices. I always like to get a birds-eye view of a city if possible. You can easily point out where things are, and it really helps to get a good lay of the land. I head straight up the hill to the three crosses, a symbol of Vilnius. Built to honor a missionary who was killed by pagans, this monument offers some of the best views of the city. IMG_4216Walking back down the hill, I go through the ‘country’ of Užupis. A bunch of artists decided they wanted to make their neighborhood a country, so they typed up a constitution, printed their own faux Euro currency, and made themselves a Republic. It’s a hip part of town with a lot of graffiti and art installations and is definitely worth the wander. Afterwards, I walk around Vilnius a while, meeting up with Kotryna, another roommate living here, and her boyfriend. We go to the museum of genocide, built in the old KGB interrogation chambers. If I thought the 9th Fort back in Kaunas was depressing, this museum brought it to a new level. The center for mass interrogations and executions of political prisoners, this museum is located right across from a perfectly calm park with a public library in it. Quite the juxtaposition. Kotryna and her boyfriend Lukas are musicians, so we meet up with Šarūnas and head to a gig where some of Lukas’ friends are performing. Vilnius is a far more relaxed and underrated city than Rīga is. It offers great architecture, good prices, and a far more laid-back vibe than most other European capitals. It blends the cool vibe of Berlin with a more cute vibe of Prague, on a very walkable and enjoyable scale. But honestly, I think I like Vilnius because I had no expectations beforehand. I didn’t even research any sights before coming. I just let the locals steer me, and that gave me the best time possible.

Tomorrow, I would be leaving back to Denmark, and I wasn’t extremely happy about it. Lithuania has offered a lot of nature that I had missed being in Denmark for so long. It had given me a new sense of life, and a new perspective on the different rhythms of language that the 15-year-old me and been so intrigued about from the start. In a way, coming here gave me a sense of closure. Closure in the fact that I was right about Lithuania being an intriguing country. It’s a lot more interesting than a lot of other cities in Western Europe that receive a lot more notoriety. I’m not sure why, but that doesn’t seem right. Lithuania and Latvia are filled with wonderfully hospitable people with an incredible respect and appreciation of nature. Lithuania was a great experience, and I hope to be back as soon as possible.

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