Travelling – if it involves leaving behind preconception, approaching the new with wide and wondering eyes and flinging aside habit, can be a wild and wonderful thing, with benefits that stretch much further than the arrivals lounge or the long tiring car journey on congested roads back to the place one calls home.
This most recent short excursion, to Lithuania – or more specifically Vilnius, the little visited capital which sits very close to the centre of Europe, brought all the excitement of a newly discovered culture, an unfamiliar language, days spent exploring the ancient Old Town – declared a World Heritage Site in 1991, a complex and eclectic mix of architecture combining the Baroque, Gothic, Medieval and Renaissance in a startlingly display of composed elegance.
Travelling in a country where even the written word, with its’ Latin alphabet, is unfathomable to the casual tourist, and the majority of the population speak no more than the most basic English, brings its’ own challenges and benefits. I spent the first few days in fear of getting lost in the seemingly endless maze of straight, wide, cobbled streets, lined with tall Barroque buildings, peering endlessly at a tiny tourist map at the dazzling, confusing array of churches – 1 for every 700 inhabitants of the old city.
Once I’d established my bearings, exploring Vilnius was a joy. The quiet tree lined streets seem peaceful and serene in comparison with most other European cities – a Sunday morning run revealed a city still revering the quiet of the holy day – with cafes closed, the few pedestrians walking the pavements, devout elders meandering their way to one of the many churches, or young music students, mustard keen, clutching their instruments and heading for the Conservatoire.
Running shoes have become an essential item in my packing wherever I head, allowing me to gently lope, exploring interesting alleys on a whim, covering the ground fast enough to make for a proper adventure, but with enough restraint to investigate the nooks and crannies of life, to begin to infiltrate the basic essence of the place. As a runner you often seem invisible – not easily identified as a foreigner, a ubiquitous sight in almost every urban area on a weekend morning. In Vilnius I spied locals taking wedding photos, perched unceremoniously on the edge of a particularly busy road bridge with trolley buses lurching past while the bride attempted to gather the hem of her dress away from the kerb. On the far banks of the river, my path led to swathes of brightly coloured wooden houses, seemingly a cross between the Wild West and a Swiss Alpine Village, incongruous amongst the gleaming SvedBank and Barclays buildings beginning to spring up, signs of a developing market economy.
These houses, some of which were torched at the height of the recent redevelopment of the city, in order to force their inhabitants to sell land for development, are a fascinating glimpse of a lifestyle now largely past.
Strangely, the banks of the river which flows in convoluted arcs through the city , are semi deserted – perhaps the biting Easterly wind that funnels down is to blame, but the area in general with it’s grey cement encasing walls and cracked concrete paving, has a feeling of run down gloom. The vagrant clutching a bottle beneath a bridge glances only briefly up as I pass, and the single pleasure boat moored on the wide quay, looks an unlikely tourist attraction.
Vilnius is a city with an atmosphere of restraint. It’s clean, quiet – aside from the seemingly endless drone of traffic, and orderly. It’s people seem reserved, giving little away behind their high slavic cheekbones and watchful dark eyes.
My return route took me past the old KGB building, housing the Museum of Genocide Victims – a vast imposing white palace, whose walls are lined with plaques, memorials to the thousands of Lithuanians murdered during the 50 years of Soviet Occupation. The stone that stands behind tells something of the tragedy of this country. Occupation by the Nazis during the Second World War – the KGB building formerly housed the Gestapo Headquarters, was followed by a Soviet reign of terror which saw thousands of civilians tortured and murdered.
The occupation ended in 1990 but the atmosphere of repression, fear and a certain tension live on within this beautiful city. Lithuania has long been exposed to the whims of bloody and tyrannical invaders – vulnerable as a result of its’ Geography and proximity to Russia. The scars of the past are tangible – reflected in the immense and passionate patriotism of it’s people, in the warm tradition of folk music and art, in a culture proud to be free and making tentative steps towards an identity in a modern world that seems to have left it behind many decades ago.
On my Sunday morning run, I criss crossed the city, with it’s wide open streets empty of cars, and deserted pavements, it was a joy to travel on foot. At each junction – and there were many, crossings indicated when and where it was safe to cross and the stray pedestrians stood rigid and patient, oblivious to the absence of traffic, until the green signal flashed. I found myself standing with them, loath to break this seemingly unwritten rule. When I asked a young English speaker why they waited, she shrugged incredulously. “Only the crazy who want to get killed would cross when the lights are red” she replied.