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Vibrant Vilnius stands out

S. Menkashi

As I left the vibrant city of Riga behind and headed to Kaunas (Lithuania), I was excited to stop at The Hill Of Crosses. It is a place I’ve been wishing to visit for many years now as I have read so many travelogues on this place, but didn’t realise I would connect so much with it.

Nowhere else in the world will you find such a place. The Hill of Crosses is a unique sacral place, and the only one of its size and history in the world. The tinkling of the crosses in the hill is wonderfully eerie. There was an uprising in 1931 against the Russian Tsar and the tradition of leaving crosses began. Installation of crosses was banned by the Tsarist authorities not only by the roadside but also in cemeteries. In Soviet times it was declared illegal to plant crosses but people continued to do so.

On the night of April 5, 1961 all crosses were bulldozed and crushed, and then pushed downhill. Wooden crosses were burned right on the spot, metal ones were taken and melted, and concrete and stone ones were crushed with crushers and used for road construction. After the first devastation, the Hill of Crosses was devastated four more times. However, the more fervently the hill was destroyed, the more powerfully it would be rebuilt.

People were stubbornly bringing crosses at night, despite the dangers, prohibitions and persecution by authorities. The Hill of Crosses became a symbol of an unshakable faith in the people, their sufferings and hopes. When crosses continued to appear, the Soviet authorities stationed KGB agents around the site to stop people sneaking through the forest to plant crosses.

Now people come and leave crosses in memory of their loved ones. It’s a bodiless grave, one that makes a huge impact on you. Crosses of all shapes, sizes, material and design are planted here. It is estimated that there are more than 2 lakh crosses here. For me, the Hill of Crosses is a powerful testament of religious devotion and love. A very special place in the world, accumulating the suffering and pain and I was teary eyed when I saw so many departed souls being enshrined here in memory.

The drive to Kaunas was solemn. This is the longest I drove on a single day on this trip, about 315 km and my car quickly gobbled up the kilometres. These countries are so tiny, it’s like driving from one state to another back home in India.

Kaunas is the second biggest city of Lithuania. Old town Kaunas is charming and sits by the river. Picturesque with the usual cathedrals, town hall building, castles, squares etc. I walked around for about an hour and I was eager to head out to the Ninth Fort Memorial.

The Ninth Fort Memorial is an extraordinary and gargantuan Soviet-era reinforced concrete memorial to the 50,000 Jews and others from Lithuania and abroad who were brutally murdered here during the Holocaust. It stands 32m high and at least three times as wide. The Ninth Fort massacres of November 1941 were two separate mass shootings of 4,934 German Jews in the Ninth Fort near Kaunas, Lithuania. These were the first systematic mass killings of German Jews during the Holocaust.

There was an eerie silence and hardly any people. This is a mass grave of 50,000 people. World War II stories have always intrigued me. I’ve probably watched all movies related to it, even in other languages. I’ve read Mein Kampf not once but a couple of times to figure out what induces a human to behave and do the things he did! How can anyone be so demonic?

The drive to Vilnius is caliginous. A friend had recommended I go to Trakai and I decided to stop there before I reach Vilnius for the night. Trakai is a historical town and has a unique castle which is the only one of its type in the entire Eastern Europe. It is an enchanting castle built on an island. The weather was glorious and I took a boat ride for half an hour. Trakai Castle is one of the most visited sites of Lithuania and I was so glad that I took the detour and it definitely lifted my spirits after the goriness of the Ninth Fort Memorial.

I headed to old town but I didn’t want to do the typical sightseeing. I took a 2-hour walking tour that gives you an insight into the alternative side of Vilnius. It is the best way to get a different perspective of this city. Lithuania has been through turbulent times.

As a small country in Europe it has been periodically invaded and its people have been subjected to hardship and constant change. Strolling along this idyllic city, you don’t see that at all. Lithuania was the last of the pagan worshippers. It became a Christian country in 1387. The people of Lithuania were lured by monks to be baptised with a white woven shirt — everyone baptised would be given a woven white shirt.

In a small courtyard is a statue of Medeina, a Lithuanian Pagan Goddess. She rides a bear and Martina my guide told me that some of the pagan traditions are slowly coming back.

Vilnius has a large number of churches, 28 if I’m not mistaken. Under the Soviet rule they were used for different purposes — a brothel, a garage, basketball court, to store watermelons etc, everything other than worship. These days all these churches have been restored and returned to being places of worship.

The Uzupis is a self-proclaimed Republic, with its own constitution and Barliment, yes Barliment, no typo here. Until Lithuania’s declaration of independence in 1990, it was one of the most neglected areas in the city, containing many run-down houses, many without utilities. The district has been a common haunt of artists and bohemians since Soviet times, and even today many young artists are squatting in abandoned buildings near the Vilnia River.

It has become the bohemian hip area of Vilnius. People did not venture into this area some 25 years back, on account of it being dangerous and filled with hippies. Now it has become the most expensive residential part of the city. Art is everywhere. They even have a statue of Christ with a backpack.

Of all the three Baltic country capitals, I found Vilnius most captivating. So happy to have walked the streets of this beautiful city. Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius are all different in their vibes but Vilnius is my favourite.

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