Category Archives: Lithuania Trip 2013

Blood and Sunshine

The area in front of the Vilnius’ TV tower is unremarkable, except for a group of wooden crosses that stand in contrast to the futuristic form that serves as their backdrop. But what happened there on the morning of January 13th, 1991 is forever etched in the memories of Lithuanians all over the world.

kryziai prie boksto

It’s the sight where thousands of citizens convened in the days following the Act of the Reestablishment of the State of Lithuania to stand guard against Soviet militia that descended upon the city in the wake of Lithuania’s refusal to follow Moscow’s order demanding the restoration of the constitution of the USSR. And it’s the place where thirteen of the peaceful protesters were killed and hundreds more injured during Mikhail Gorbachev’s last ditch attempt to keep Lithuania and the other Baltic nations under the Soviet thumb.

After taking over the National Defense Department, on the morning of January 13th, a column of Soviet tanks rolled into the area in front of the Vilnius TV tower, firing at random into the crowd and running over unarmed bystanders who had formed a human defense shield. The last image transmitted on Lithuanian television that night was of a Soviet soldier running toward the camera and turning it off.

Shortly afterward, a small TV station in the nearby city of Kaunas began broadcasting, asking anyone who was able to pick up the signal to re-transmit the broadcast in as many languages as possible to let the world know that Soviet militia were killing unarmed Lithuanians. Sweden answered the call and began re-transmitting. The next day, the tanks retreated, but it would take several more months before Mikhail Gorbachev let go of the reins for good. (Though Iceland was the first country to recognize Lithuania as a sovereign country, in February of 1991.)

We visit the TV tower on our last day in Vilnius, and though I remind my children why it’s hallowed ground, after an obligatory photo session in front of the memorial, they do what they are programmed to – they run along the stone wall, shrieking, and then jump off.

kids in front of tower

Vija, Jonas, and Friends

If not for the granite slab with its tribute to the victims, if not for the wooden crosses put up in their names, one could hardly know that this place is where years of silent oppression finally came to a head. I try hard to imagine it as it might have looked on a cold night in January, but I can’t. There are neither spirits nor demons here, not even the slightest trace of blood.

It’s a hot blue summer’s day, after all, and we’re in a young-old county. The concrete column of the Vilnius TV tower, where we’ll go later for drinks, is unequivocally Soviet. But the stoic wooden crosses, those are 100% Lithuanian.

TV bokstas statula

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Artists Sleep on Mondays

Užupis is a tiny bohemian neighborhood in Vilnius that declared itself an “independent republic” in 1997.  As such, it has its own tongue-in-cheek constitution, flag, and anthem, and every year on April Fool’s day, visitors to the Republic can get their passports stamped with its (totally unofficial) seal. Once home to squatters and prostitutes, Užupis (which literally means, “Beyond the River”) has undergone a transformation of sorts in recent years, and now it still looks kind of poor and run down, but has a few cafés,  wine bars, and art galleries.

Sign by Bridge to Užupis

Sign by Bridge to Užupis

uzupis wall

Graffiti a Go-Go

Locks of Love on Užupis Bridge

Locks of Love on Bridge Leading to Užupis

I’m sure it would be a fun place to party on April first, but on the Monday afternoon when we visited, most of the art galleries were closed and the only artist I saw was a guy from Chicago who I used to know in high school. Something tells me there’s fun to be had in Užupis for the people who actually live there, but not so much for the middle-aged housewife marching along the sidewalk with husband and kids in tow, wearing comfortable sandals and a cross-body bag containing maps, toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and all of her important documents. 

Middle-Aged Housewife with Cross Body Bag

Middle-Aged Housewife with Cross Body Bag

Užupis Angel

Užupis Angel

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Lithuanian Vacation: What We Ate

Let’s take a little break from castles and talk about food. Generally speaking, Lithuanian fare can be divided into the following food groups:

  • Potatoes
  • Mushrooms
  • Pork/bacon
  • Beet root
  • Cabbage
  • Dumplings (meat, fruit, mushroom, or cheese filled)
  • Crepes with cottage cheese, mushroom, or chicken filling

Take any combination of the above ingredients, boil them, fry them, bake them, sautée them or immerse them in a broth, garnish them with fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, dill, fried onions and sour cream, and you have yourself a Lithuanian meal.

Give a Lithuanian a potato, and he will turn it into a square meal faster than you can say, “Nešiok sveikas kol pamesi.” Potatoes are a huge staple of the Lithuanian diet and therefore ubiquitous in our cooking. Pancakes, dumplings, casseroles, sausages – you name it, we can make it out of a potato.

vedarai

Potato Sausage (V?darai)

Kugelis (Potato Casserole)

Kugelis (Potato Casserole). Find my recipe for it here.

One thing Lithuanians love to do is stuff things with meat filling. I have already introduced you to kold?nai  dumplings that are usually filled with either meat or mushrooms and often served with fried onions, bacon and sour cream – but it’s also important to mention kibinai, the larger, baked cousins of kold?nai, which were introduced to us by the Karaim warriors of Crimea who settled in Lithuania during the 1300s to serve as the security detail for Grand Duke Vytautas. We ate meat and mushroom-filled kibinai in the town of Trakai (more on that in another post) and they were delicious.

kibinai_edited-1

Kibinai

I would be remiss if I failed to mention Lithuania’s national food “cepelinai” in the meat-stuffed food category. Cepelinai (literally, “zeppelins”) are gigantic potato dumplings with meat filling, served with  sautéed onions, bacon bits, and sour cream. In my family we call them “gut bombs,” and if you follow this link, you’ll see why.

Lithuanians have a fondness for cold soups, but the favorite of these by far is cold beet soup (“šaltibarš?iai) made with buttermilk, grated beetroot, cucumbers, hard-boiled eggs, and served with – you got it – fried potatoes. I make this soup at home often in the summertime, but it was really fun to be able to order it in each and every restaurant we visited in Lithuania, like it’s a normal thing.

saltibarsciai forto dvaras

P-Dawg, enjoying cold beet soup al fresco

forto dvaras menu

The Menu

Now let’s talk about pigs. Lithuanians love a fried pork chop just as much as the next guy, and we also have a soft spot for kebobs (another gift from the East). But what really gets our blood flowing is seeing how many different parts of the pork are edible and in what strangely satisfying ways they can be prepared.

To wit, pork bits encased in cold gelatin (“šaltiena” or “košeliena”), served with horseradish, vinegar dill dressing, and potatoes:

saltiena

Šaltiena/Košeliena

You could also throw some diced carrots into this, as my grandmother used to, and make it a square meal. It tastes a lot like what you would expect pork bits encased in salted gelatin to taste like, but some people really love it. My grandmother used to prepare a sanitized version of this with chicken, but I think you’re really supposed to make it with pork and leave some gristle in for good measure.

Next up, pig ears:

pigs ears

Pig ears (on the right) and assorted charcuterie

Can’t say that I loved these. They were . . . kind of crunchy.

We ate a lot of skilandis, which is a sausage made of garlic flavored minced meat and bacon, using pig’s stomach as casement. In the photo below, the skilandis is on the bottom and the item above it is chicken gizzards.

Gizzards and Skilandis

Apparently, chicken gizzards are a popular snack in Lithuania, and they are often eaten while drinking beer. Like bar peanuts, but chewy.

For the most part while in Lithuania, we stuck to restaurants that served traditional Lithuanian fare (and to my aunt’s excellent home cooking.) But Lithuania has come a long, long way since Soviet times and, especially in big cities like Vilnius, you can eat everything from sushi to pizza. One night we went to a trendy little restaurant, Lauro Lapas, where I had Baltic cod with local chanterelles, fennel, and sweet potato. The service there was great and the food was delicious.

lauro lapas

Husband and daughter at Lauro Lapas 

In closing, I must mention fried garlic bread sticks. Made from dark rye bread, rubbed with copious amounts of garlic, and deep fried, they, like gizzards, are traditional bar fare. I don’t have a good photo of pure, unbasterdized garlic breadsticks, but here is a plate of cheese covered ones we had at a Vilnius microbrewery one night:

cesnakine duona

Fried cheese covered breadsticks

One thing I noticed about eating out in Lithuania was how fresh and full of flavor everything was, even the salads we ordered in chain restaurants. All the vegetables were locally grown and the meat locally raised, and you could most definitely tell the difference.

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City Building 101: The Founding of Vilnius

Legend has it that roundabout 1323, Lithuanian Grand Duke Gediminas went on a hunting expedition in the holy pagan valley of Šventaragis, near the confluence of the Vilna and Neris rivers. After a successful hunt during which Gediminas speared an enormous bison, he and his entourage set up camp on a hill overlooking the valley, because there was no Ramada Inn.

During the night, Gediminas had a dream in which an iron wolf appeared to him, howling with the strength and volume of one hundred wolves. The dream so affected Gediminas, that he went to ask the high priest, Lizdeika, (a guy who his dad found as a baby in an eagle’s nest) to interpret it for him.

Statue of Gediminas Near Base of Gediminas Castle Hill

Statue of Gediminas Near Base of Gediminas Castle Hill

The high priest told him the dream meant that a mighty city should be built on the spot where the dream was dreamt, and that the loud howling of the wolf meant the city’s name would reach lands far beyond its borders.

This sounded good to Gediminas. He ordered a castle to be built on the hill, and around that castle the capital city of Vilnius, Lithuania, sprung up. Originally built in wood, the castle burned down during the 14th century and was then rebuilt in brick. It was attacked  many times by Teutonic knights who wanted to convert the heathen Lithuanians, and all that remains of the original castle complex today is the upper tower (which was rebuilt from its foundations during the 19th century).

The castle is iconic to Vilnius, and if you come to Lithuania, it’s practically a crime not to visit it.

gedimino pilis_edited-1

Upper Castle

We set off to climb Gediminas hill on the second morning of our trip, making a deliberate decision not to tell the children that there was an elevator on the opposite side that could transport them to the top in about ten seconds flat. We were going to be doing a lot of walking in Lithuania, and those kids needed to learn how to buck up.

walkin up the hill

P-Dawg, walking.

flying ants

Flying ant warning at entrance to castle

The view from the top of the castle was spectacular.

vilnius skyline

View of Vilnius Old Town

A museum inside the tower housed several suits of armor, as well as various tools and weapons that were excavated around the site. I was pleased to see that a fully developed medieval knight was about the same height as me. If my kids ever build that time machine they’re always talking about, I could totally go back to medieval Lithuania and kick some Teutonic butt.

One floor of the castle housed an exhibit that included a TV video. It didn’t matter what was playing (a black and white documentary about the “Baltic Way” human chain that took place in 1989 across Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia to protest Soviet occupation), the children made themselves right at home in front of it and began to watch. This was to become a pattern throughout our trip.

bokstas TV kids

Them’s My Kids

We revealed the existence of the elevator (or “funicular,” as the English guidebooks call it), just in time for the trip back down the hill. The funicular, of course, was the highlight of the whole castle tour. I mean, who gives a flying ant about iron wolves and chain mail shirts when one can fight his sister for the glory of pressing the DOWN button, instead?

funicular

Putting the “fun” in Funicular

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