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Sunday, November 12, 2017

A Cold Wind's Blowing

My daughter experiences the Cold War in more ways than one

The Cold War. It came to an end twenty-six years ago with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and is now just another page in the history books for the couple of generations that have since come along (including Amber's). Yet I remember it all too well. I wasn't around during the Berlin Airlift, the construction of the Berlin Wall or the Cuban Missile Crisis, but I do recall the deployment of Pershing missiles by NATO (and the resultant demonstrations against it) during the Reagan administration, as well as frightening TV productions such as Threads and The Day After. In college I was taking courses on Soviet foreign policy and Eastern European political systems while there was still a U.S.S.R. and a Warsaw Pact. So when I learned that there was a former Soviet nuclear missile base in Lithuania that's open to the public, I knew I had to see it before the end of our tour here. That time came this Veterans Day weekend, when my family left Vilnius in the early afternoon of Friday for the three hour-plus drive to Plungė, a small city of 23,000 people in the northwestern corner of Lithuania.

Breakfast, Lithuanian-style

Plungė is the gateway to the Žemaitija National Park, a 200 square-kilometer landscape centered on beautiful Lake Plateliai. In summer I'm sure the lake is great for swimming and boating, but in early November atmospheric conditions are nasty, and the weather Saturday alternated between heavy rain and sleet and hail as we drove from our hotel to the Cold War Museum (Šaltojo Karo Muziejus), located on the site of the aforementioned nuclear missile base. Visitors are allowed on two levels of one of the missile bunkers, with exhibits on the history of the Cold War (especially as it pertained to the Baltic region) and on the construction and operation of the base:

The Cuban Missile Crisis as reported at that time in the...Bennington Banner?:

Remember to duck and cover, kids!:

Amber was a little creeped out by the gas mask-wearing mannequin:

The highlight of the visit to the Cold War Museum comes at the end - as you exit you peer into the nuclear abyss in the form of one of the missile silos, one of the most chilling sights I've ever seen:

The Cold War is long gone, but the threat of nuclear annihilation is still with us, only instead of nuclear-armed superpowers playing a game of proxy wars (Vietnam, Afghanistan etc.), my daughter's generation will have to deal with the likes of North Korea, India and Pakistan going to war with each other or the threat of terrorists getting their hands on a nuclear device. It makes one (almost) long for the relative sanity of MAD.

Following our reemergence into the outside world from the nuclear bunker, we set off in search of a place to have lunch, but the curse of traveling at the end of the tourist season meant we couldn't find anywhere open within the national park (the Plateliai Manor Museum Complex was also closed on Saturday). In the end we had a lunch at a hotel (not ours) on the outskirts of Plungė, admiring the hail on the ground outside while warming ourselves with Lithuanian comfort food:

There isn't much to do in Plungė (we had dinner at the same Charlie Pizza on Friday and Saturday nights), but one sight worth checking out is the 19th-century Oginski Palace:

The palace is home to the Žemaitija Art Museum (Žemaičių dailės muziejus), showcasing modern art from the Samogitia region of Lithuania. While the displays themselves vary in quality, the museum gives the visitor the opportunity to check out the interior of the magnificent house. Amber also enjoyed the special black light exhibition in the basement:

We also took a walk around the grounds, which include among its tenants the local library:

The temperature was barely above freezing as darkness descended:

As we made our way back to our car, an audience was sitting down inside the palace to a performance of music written by Lithuania's most famous composer (and painter) M.K. Čiurlionis:

Sunrise on Sunday morning was at around half past seven:

The exterior of  Žemsodis, where we stayed for two nights this past weekend:

What a difference a day makes. Sunday was sunny (though still chilly) as we drove almost twenty kilometers along a straight highway in the middle of a Lithuanian nowhere:

Like a desert oasis, the Orvydas Garden arose out of the surrounding fields and pastures. The gardens are the work of father-and-son stonemasons Kazys and Vilius Orvydas, whose carvings were forced to move from their original village cemetery home to the family homestead during a Soviet crackdown on religious objects in the 1960's (the authorities at one time blocked visitors from contacting the Orvydas family). The gardens today are a fascinating collection of busts, carvings and statues, many with Christian and/or pagan themes, though the moss-covered trees and weather-battered stones give the place the feel of a Japanese Buddhist cemetery at times. There are also a few oddities, such as the tank that greets visitors in the parking lot:

The dragon that St. George is slaying symbolizes both Communism and Nazism:

"She's a sex bomb, my baby yeah!":

The sunshine didn't last for the duration of the drive back to Vilnius:

My wife took these shots while we were passing through the small city of Rietuvas (population 4000)...:

...while my daughter snapped this pic of a huge rainstorm in the distance from the backseat of the car:

Lunch at a highway rest stop before the final 2½-hour drive to Vilnius and the end of the Veterans Day weekend (the beer was Shu-E's as I was driving, though I admit to having a few sips):