Category Archives: vacations

Zip Line Trumps Castle

Did you know that bars of silver were used as currency in medieval Europe, and that the value of the bar was determined by the number of notches made in it by a silversmith? And if you took that bar of silver and made a few extra notches in it, it was considered counterfeiting? And if you got caught (because no one can exactly reproduce the mark of a bona fide silversmith), do you know what they’d do to you as punishment?

They would melt that bar of silver and stuff it down your throat.

silver bars

Silver Bars

We learned these interesting facts, and many others, during our tour of Lithuania’s Trakai island castle, which was built in the 14oos by Grand Duke K?stutis. This castle is the real deal, with a moat and turrets and everything, and its surroundings are just as picturesque as depicted in photos and postcards. Including this one which I don’t mind saying I took myself:

trakai boats

Trakai Island Castle, Lithuania

The children had learned all about this storied place in Lithuanian school, and I was anticipating that it would be one of the high points of our trip. After all, what kid doesn’t love a good old fashioned moat and dungeon type situation?

Trapped pat

Trapped

Trapped kids

Also Trapped

And indeed, all four youngsters in our entourage (we went with good friends of ours and their children) were captivated by the castle and its history as told by our charming tour guide.

After eating our fill of “kibinai,” (a type of dumpling introduced to Lithuania by the Karaim tribe of Crimea that came to live in the city of Trakai to serve as bodyguards of Grand Duke Vytautas the Great after he battled Ghengis Khan’s Golden Hoard), we still had a lot of daylight to burn, and decided to check out a nearby “adventure park” recommended by a friend of my friend Rita’s. We knew nothing about the park except that it was supposed to be very pretty and great fun for kids.

The park, as it happened, was called “Tony Resort.” Who is Tony? Is there a significant Italian population in Lithuania? No one knows. But what we do know is that Tony’s Resort, tucked away in a lush pine forest by the town of Anuprišk?s, was a most excellent diversion. The resort boasts a very modern hotel/spa situated next to a placid lake, but its main attractions are obstacle courses and zip lines.

And it was totally legit, too, with instructors and release forms and a safety lesson included in the cost. So what if the instructors split after giving a couple of pointers, and so what if there’s no one around to ensure that kids are properly harnessed? This is Lithuania, not the litigious U.S.!  If you meet your demise because you weren’t using common sense or paying attention, that ain’t none of Lithuania’s bidness.

lady napping at tony resort copy

See the crumpled figure in the bottom left of the above photo? She’s not dead! She’s just resting.

The P-Dawg, his friend Art?ras, and all of the children had hours of fun there. Even the youngest eventually worked up the courage to ride the BIG zip line, losing a shoe in the process but returning with a smile of utter ecstasy on his face. Meanwhile, my friend Rita, her mother and I enjoyed adult beverages in the shade.

intrepid

Intrepid

Jonas Zip Line

Jonas, Hanging on for Dear Life

Jonas declared it “the best day of his life.”

And that’s how Tony the Italian trumped Grand Duke Vytautas the Great.

trakai sulinys

(We came across this villager getting well water on the trip from Trakai Castle to our car. NO ONE HAD EVER WITNESSED such a site, so we all gathered ’round to watch.)

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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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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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