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Lithuania for lovers

Dr. Anton Anderssén  Feb 27, 2009

Lithuania celebrates its millennium in 2009. The first written mention of Lithuania is found in a medieval German manuscript, the Quedlinburg Chronicle, on 14 February 1009. Why on Valentine's day? Some might say, "…because Lithuania is for lovers!"

Lithuania is the motherland of the famous Cinderella peasant Martha Skavronskaya, a lowly camp wench captured by Russian soldiers in 1702. She quickly climbed the military social ladder until she attracted the interest of the Generalissimo, Prince Aleksandr Menshikov. Through the prince, she gained access to Czar Peter I (better known as Peter the Great), thereby trading in her "starter royal" for the Czar. Peter and Martha fell deeply in love; in turn she converted to the Orthodox Church, and changed her name to Catherine. Peter married the lucky Lithuanian, having her crowned Czarina Catherine, and joint ruler of all the Russias. This Lithuanian laundress went from rags to riches; it's a love story worth remembering. If you're interested in the salacious and sordid version of her ascent, consult volume five, page 526 of the Encyclopedia Britannica from 1911 – you'll be surprised what she did for love.

I fell in love with Lithuania when our ship arrived at the warm-water port, Klaipėda, a fairy-tale village where buildings have pointy roofs, half-timber façades, Snow-white style gardens, and Gepetto-like art studios. Known for most of the past 750 years under its Hanseatic League name Memel, Klaipėda has been a center of maritime trading since pre-historic times, fortuitously due to its location along the ancient Amber Road.

Klaipėda is famous for its golden chunks of amber, which wash up naturally along its white quartz sandy beaches after thunderstorms. This translucent gem has been prized by royalty and even the hallowed since antiquity; the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun had Baltic amber among his burial treasures, and amber was transported from the North Sea to the temple at Delphi as an offering to the god Apollo. Amber beads and other Stone Age artifacts have been found in the area dating back to the third millennium BC.

Liudovika Pakalkaite (our witty and pulchritudinous tour guide from Meja Travel, charming daughter of the proprietor, a business-savvy belle named Migle Holliday) met us upon arrival at the port. She brought a list of interesting cultural and historical sites to visit, including the Curonian Sandbar, a UNESCO World Heritage Site of great natural beauty (and officially the sunniest place in the country).

Liudovika took us to a quaint Lithuanian bistro, where we enjoyed the traditional welcome food: a little loaf of bread and a pinch of salt, served on a colorful towel. Bread is considered special in this little country; it is so deeply rooted in tradition that newlyweds have been greeted with bread and salt for centuries.

Lithuania is the fastest-growing tourist destination in Europe. Visitors discover there is a lot to love in this tiny country.

Raganų Kalnas (Hill of Witches) sports a unique ensemble of figures (all carved from oak) which are clustered on a forested hill in Juodkrantė. The project was inspired by the discovery of 4,000-year-old amber carvings found in the area, which archaeologists believe were used by ancient people in sacrificial rituals. Today, each wooden effigy embodies the heroes and characters from ancient Lithuanian folklore, be they witches, devils or fairy-tale monsters. According to tradition, one whispers into the witch's ear a secret wish, which will certainly be fulfilled; or one can sit on the bench which is said to heal all diseases. I inquired of Liudovika whether a more capacious derriere might elicit a more efficacious cure.

Lithuanian folklore is rich in colorful legends. According to Lithuanian beliefs, on Christmas Eve exactly at midnight animals can speak. To great chagrin, they usually tell you stuff you don't want to hear. Woe betide the overly curious, lest the animals foretell the day and hour of your death. It's best to retire early this night, unless you're in for a whale of a tale.

The Thomas Mann Museum, in the nearby sleepy fishing village Nida, was once the holiday cottage of Thomas Mann, the Nobel Laureate in Literature. Mann loved the glittery sands of the Curonian Dunes area so much spent his summers here, writing and creating his greatest tetralogy "Joseph and His Brothers" directly from his handsome villa overlooking the Curonian waters. Since the Baltic Sea lies to the west, sunsets over the aquatic horizon make for romantic evenings colored by a pageantry of spectacular hues encompassing the entire spectrum. Indeed, these seaside villages are charming, nostalgic, meticulously manicured and stunningly beautiful - blessed by fresh breezes, dazzling reflective sands and Lietuvan flora – a conflation of perfections to beget the supreme muse that could inspire even the most reticent of writers.

A beautiful tradition occurs during St. John's feast (midsummer solstice), when young ladies awaken early to gather the dewdrops upon the flora, then wash their faces in the morning dew. This is thought to give young ladies beautiful complexion. Maybe there's something to it – our tour guide, Liudovika Pakalkaite, has radiantly beautiful complexion.

Flowers are bountiful in this coastal area. Folklore relates that during the night of St. John, the fern comes into flower and if you find the fern's blossom, you'll be imbued with power to find hidden treasures. According to other legends, you'll receive extraordinary luck (perhaps marrying a noble).

The Palanga Amber Museum is housed on the estate of Count Feliksas Tiškevičiai, a Ruthenian noble with roots traced into the times of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Here, Liudovika Pakalkaite showed us more than 4,500 pieces of amber (some specimens being as large as the swans outside the palace). The museum serves to educate visitors about the science behind amber - the pieces were formed from pine tree resin during the Eocene period (55 million years ago) in Scandinavia when the climate there was mainly warm to sub-tropical. The museum gift shop offered finely cut and polished amber jewelry with gold and silver mountings at reasonable prices, but the necklaces at the vendor stalls in the market square cost as low as one euro each. Since the villagers simply comb the beach to gather the vivid gemstones, they are able to sell them to tourists for a song. Amber jewelry is popular with tourists, who take the pieces back home and give to loved ones at Christmas.

One essential element upon the Christmas Eve table is Slizikai, a sort of shortbread cookie drizzled in sweet poppy seed crème. Slizikai is part of only one course at the Christmas feast – there are twelve courses in total, which guarantee guests will be thoroughly stuffed. But food remains on the table through the night – this food is for the spirits of loved ones who have passed. An empty plate is also set out in remembrance to a recently lost loved one.

The Lithuanian Maritime Museum is situated on the site of a whilom Prussian Fort which once defended the entrance to Kalipėda's harbor. In a sharp turn of historical mission, today's visitors are warmly welcomed at the barbican to enjoy the pleasures lying therein: dolphin shows, aquariums with fish from the Baltic and tropical seas, penguins, Baltic seals and sea lions lazily basking around the pools, as well as archaeological, ethnographic and iconographical items, numismatics, ancient maps, ships and nautical curiosities. Folk music concerts and festivals are celebrated in the bailey at the ethnographic Mažoji Lietuva fisherman's homestead exhibit. At the Fortress of Kopgalis exhibit, a flag-raising ceremony accompanied by a volley of its many cannon help re-create a quondam picture of its artillerial grandeur through sight and sound.

A pleasant stroll along the Danes River brought us to the heart of Old Town Klaipėda , now an artist colony hosting scores of art studios and galleries. Liudovika took us to the studio of a textile artist weaving traditional Lietuvan cloth, whose reticulated surface burst into color and festive designs. Glass artisans displayed their works backlit by spotlight, intensifying the bold colors and swirling patterns. Old Town offers a myriad of boutiques with individualized hand-crafted sculptures, paintings and amber-studded giftware.

The "Kaziukas Fair" is the biggest traditional street fair in Lithuania, held on St. Casimir's day, March 4. Talented weavers, potters, blacksmiths, woodcarvers and other craftsmen from all over Lithuania come together to display their hand-made objets d'art. Some of the most beautiful Fabergé-style eggs are on display.

In Lithuania, children hunt for hidden Easter eggs left for them by the Velykų Senelė (Easter Granny) or Velykė. There are Easter bunnies, but they are the artists who decorate the eggs. Very early on Easter morning, the bunnies load Easter eggs into a charming little cart pulled by a tiny swift horse. The Velykų Senelė uses a sunbeam as a whip to drive the tiny horse onward. In some villages, bunnies themselves pull the cart laden with Easter eggs. The Velykų Senelė hides the beautiful eggs around the houses of good children. If a child has been bad, he receives an unadorned, plain white egg from the Easter Granny, and spends his Easter holiday in disgrace, taunted and ridiculed by the "good children." Ironic, isn't it?

Perhaps the most unique excursion offered by Meja Travel is the visit to the home of the former British Defense attaché in Lithuania, where seekers of the picturesque are invited to enjoy the beautiful gardens, and are subsequently treated to peasant-style refreshments including locally distilled moonshine. The British family shares what it was like transitioning from Soviet control to Lithuanian independence, their national values, hopes, dreams, and the vision for their future.

My dream for the future is to return to Klaipėda and spend several weeks in the summer, walking in the footsteps of Thomas Mann, taking in all the glory that is Lithuania. Incidentally, Liudovika told us the word Klaipėda itself is a hybrid of the phrase "klampi pėda" (marshy footprint), and, at least for me, becomes a metaphor for leaving an impression in the soil, which will one day lead me back to that charming and memorable land.

Lithuania for lovers

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