Day 96-97 – Warlords and Poets

Lithuania

Lithuania

Everything I said yesterday about odd familiarity with Lithuania’s countryside, is true tenfold when it comes to Vilnius.

I wouldn’t touch the national issues of our little corner of Europe with a barge pole: if it hasn’t been fully Balkanized yet, it’s only because we all usually have bigger problems (read: neighbours) on our heads than each other: trapped between Eastern (Russia and Turkey) and Western (various German kingdoms and/or Sweden) Empires, the Baltics, Poles, and Eastern Slavs have had a complex relationship ranging from forming a proto-EU to attempted mutual genocide.

The resulting stew found its expression in Vilnius, a once multi-ethnic, multi-cultural city, that defies nationalist description. A Polish city in Lithuania, a Lithuanian city in Poland, a Jewish city in Eastern Europe, it is many things to many people. It is, certainly, a grand old city, its Old Town comparable to those of Cracow and Prague in scale and value; it’s easy to get lost in the narrow, medieval streets for a whole day or two.

It being one of the hottest days yet, this northern city resembled Malaga far more than its parallel towns like Novosibirsk or Newcastle. At the beginning, we wandered mostly from one soft drinks kiosk to another, in the sort of vague daze that walking around a 30+ degree brick-and-cobblestone avenues in midday induces, noticing a lot of churches – of several religions – and fancy palaces of the nobles, all built in a variety of styles: gothic, renaissance, baroque…

Very peculiar is the cathedral-palace ensemble at the entrance to the Old Town, and quite unlike anything we’ve seen so far. The cathedral is not your typical gothic or baroque church, but a neo-classical colossus, resembling a great Roman temple. Next to it, a belfry rises on the foundations of an old wall tower, behind it – a Royal Palace, or the Lower Castle, freshly rebuilt from the 200-year-old ashes (so new it’s not even mentioned in our guide book), and still behind, a tall, conical hill, topped with a brick tower, remainder of the Upper Castle. Together, these represent hundreds of years of common history of Poland, Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine (with bits of Latvia and Estonia thrown in). The fantasy-sounding names of the warlords, dukes and kings are etched in great letters into the walls and pedestals of monuments: Gediminas, Mendaugas, Kestutis, Vytautas, Jogaila…

A visit to the Vilnius University campus brought some well-needed respite from the heat; the campus is a fine compound of courtyards and arcades, well worth seeing even if you’re not interested in the any of the many famous alumni hailing from these walls. For the people of this region, however, this is where the cultural heart is beating: poets, writers, scientists, politicians and philosophers, Nobel prize winners, bards and leaders, have all studied here throughout the ages.

We meet with some friends who are passing through the city in opposite direction, and eat lunch in an unlikely Ayurveda vegan restaurant housed in atmospheric remains of a monastery turned into a yoga ashram, before heading for a very different part of the city: Uzupis, the district of squatters and artists, Vilnius’ answer to Christiania. Naturally, it’s as different from Christiania as Lithuania is from Denmark: it’s a chaotic, neglected jumble of old houses; the heat forced almost everyone inside, though, and the place feels half-abandoned.

We leave Vilnius and turn back towards Poland. We stay the night some 30 km west of the city, on the shores of Lake Galve, a sapphire gemstone dug by the glacier deep into emerald hills, the heart of Trakai National Park. From the “small beach” (this is how the receptionist called it) at our campsite – a once-opulent spa resort – we could clearly see the dazzling red brick towers of the Trakai Castle, our final destination in the Baltics.

Trakai is a tiny village with enough attractions to last for a busy day. It has not one but two great castles: one in ruin, the other splendidly renovated in Gothic brick, the seat of Lithuania’s most famous ruler, Vytautas almost king the Great. It has clear sandy lake beaches and marinas. And it has a significant population of the Karaites, one of the oddest religious and ethnic minority: Turkic followers of Judaism from Crimea. The Karaite houses are beautifully painted and their gardens well kept, making Trakai into the prettiest village in all the Baltic states; they also bake what looks like small Cornish pasties, called Kibin, an increasingly popular local fast food.

We have to take a small detour back through Kaunas, to pick up a cable we forgot the night before at the campsite, and then it’s back on the dreaded Via Baltica, dodging the crazy Lithuanian truckers, and into Poland.

Angel of Uzupis

Angel of Uzupis

Trakai

Trakai Castle

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Days 67-68 – The Beautiful People

Stockholm

Stockholm

Among many dangers of a trip around Scandinavia, one thing we weren’t quite prepared for was… melting in a 30 degree heat. Luckily, Stockholm turned out to be just the city to be when it’s hot.

A public beach in Stockholm in the middle of the summer represents the pinnacle of human society’s progress towards equality. There are people of all possible skin colours and ethnicities here; young and old; tattooed goths and spandex-clad jocks; fit and disabled; gay and straight; post-chemo kids, teens in wheelchairs and muscle-bound bodybuilders; expecting mothers and pram-daddies; all sharing the water without anyone batting an eyelid, without getting in each other’s way, without the least problem. All gorgeous and free in the sun. A liberal’s dream, a conservative’s nightmare.

After this summer, Stockholm is definitely our second favourite city in Europe. It has most of what makes London great, without many of its drawbacks: the longest commute by T-Ban is half an hour, the crowds are manageable, the traffic leisurely, the canals clean enough to swim, and there are no giant phalluses of glass and steel looming over the city centre, reminding everyone who’s the real master. Unlike other Scandinavian capitals, it is big and old enough so that you don’t feel you’re really in a swollen, overgrown town; and unlike Copenhagen, a close second favourite, it’s not as sterile and perfectly organized. There’s a bit of an edge here, just enough chaos to make a city work. Of course, all this comes at a price: Stockholm is horrendously expensive for a non-native, and it’s not that easy to settle down here unless you’ve already got a job or a place at a school.

Everything is young, vibrant – in the real sense, not estate agent sense -, full of life, and beautiful here in the summer: the streets, the parks, the sea, the people. We had visited Stockholm a few years ago, and saw most of the sights and attractions, so this time we could just wander about Sodermalm – the city’s hippiest, most happening district – and the Old Town, and soak in the atmosphere.

We’ve discovered a few things about the city we didn’t yet know. Swimming on city beaches was one thing; that Stockholm has some of the best urban furniture in Europe: everywhere you go there are benches, trees, fountains, playgrounds, street sculpture; that in the summer it gets as hot here as in the Mediterranean. But the most surprising discovery is that Stockholm is a multi-level city. Its islands are hilly and full of massive rocky outcrops, crags and canyons, and the urban planners took great advantage of it. There are viaducts, bridges, low streets, high streets, stairs and ramps; usually, the pedestrians occupy the bottom, with the cars zooming above – sometimes there’s even a third separate layer in between for cyclists! As the result, there is a LOT more of Stockholm to walk about – and the city is not only perfect to walk or cycle around, but many people¬†also kayak between the islands –¬†than could be guessed just from looking at the map.

The whole northern side of Sodermalm, perched on the edge of a tall rock beyond the massive red-brick facade of the Munchen Brewery, is a stunning, perfectly preserved 18th century garden town – for my money, much more attractive than the tourist-filled Gamla Stan; in the summer it is drowning in flowers, plus it’s within walking distance of some of the finest cafes, bakeries and cheap eateries of Northern Europe, and bounded by a fine park to the west. If we could afford it, this is where we’d want to live for at least a few years…

Filled up on coffee, cinnamon buns, fried herring and positive vibe, we are now almost finished with Sweden – only one more day left – and make ready for the last stage of the journey: Finland!

Once a coal shute, now - air conditioning

Once a coal shute, now – air conditioning

Brilliant idea: floating benches

Brilliant idea: floating benches

Johan&Nystrom - One of the great cafes of Sodermalm

Johan&Nystrom – One of the great cafes of Sodermalm