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Sunday, November 19, 2017

O'er the bastions we watched...

Jumping for joy at the Artillery Bastion. In the background are the Church of the Ascension and the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus

We didn't leave Vilnius this weekend, and have no plans for any overnight trips until the Christmas holidays (when we'll be going to Japan for a couple of weeks). With the sun showing itself for the first time in several days on Saturday, and temperatures in the relatively balmy upper Thirties Fahrenheit, it would've been a shame to spend the afternoon indoors, so I was able to persuade my wife to leave the comfy confines of our living room to join my daughter (who doesn't have much of a choice in these matters anyway) and me for lunch at one of the three Gusto Blyninė pancake restaurants in Vilnius:



Afterward Shu-E returned home, but Amber and I made the short walk from the restaurant to check out one of the few remaining city defenses from the days when the Polish/Lithuanian confederation was constantly at war with Sweden or Russia. On the way there I reconstructed for my daughter the fall I took at that exact location on Subačiaus gatvė on Wednesday evening. The lack of streetlights combined with my lack of concentration (I was staring at Google Maps on my iPhone) resulted in a scraped elbow, a pair of banged-up knees and a pronounced limp that managed to work itself out by the end of the following day:


The Artillery Bastion (Artilerijos bastėja) was a fortification constructed as part of Vilnius' defenses in the 17th century, though by the end of the 18th century it'd already fallen into ruin. It was subsequently used as an orphanage, a trash dump, an ammunition storage facility for the German army in World War I and a vegetable storage bin during the early Soviet occupation period before opening as a museum in 1987. A restored section of the old city walls, the Subačiaus gate, is also part of the complex:




The top of the bastion provides good views of Old Town and Užupis:






In addition to the aforementioned armor and weapons, the interior also has recently-excavated archaeological artefacts on display, along with historical maps and drawings:



This rendering of a basilisk was housed in its own dimly-lit room, but there was no information provided as to how old (or new) this sculpture actually was:



The Artillery Bastion shouldn't be too high on anyone's Vilnius bucket list, but it does make for a pleasant diversion if you're in the neighborhood, especially if the weather is cooperative. Winter is a good time to visit as the lack of leaves in the nearby trees allows for better views of the surroundings:




Taking the leisurely route back home, Amber and I passed by the Presidential Palace. The "100" symbols on the exterior refer to next year's anniversaries of the three Baltic republics declarations of independence following the Russian Empire's defeat and subsequent collapse in the First World War, and the flags of Estonia and Latvia are flying alongside that of Lithuania...or would be, if there's more than the gentle breeze that was blowing on Saturday afternoon:


The weather deteriorated on Sunday, so the girls sensibly decided to stay indoors. Lacking sense, I went out for an afternoon walk in the cold drizzle. My feet eventually led me to the Catholic Church of the Ascension, its two towers situated on a hilltop overlooking Maironio gatvė and Užupis. The 1730 Baroque church has been closed for quite some time it seems (or so I thought), as has been the adjoining former monastery buildings, which according to Google were shuttered during large parts of the Tsarist and Soviet periods and have seen use as a war hospital, an institute for young women from noble families and an insane asylum:




Despite being closed, someone is apparently paying attention to the church as I took this photo from under a bank of spotlights pointed directly at the exterior from across the road:


Close by is another house of worship that is no longer functioning as such, the Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. I could find very little about this place on Google, other than it was built in 1765 and this website that includes an old photograph of the interior. I thought at first the church had been incorporated into the correctional facility that adjoins it, as is the case with the St. Nicholas Orthodox Church and Lukiškės Prison, but Google Maps shows they are separate properties:



With nothing but time on my hands, I descended from the hilltop and walked through Užupis and Bernardine Park before huffing and puffing up a long wooden staircase (I've let myself go) on the opposite bank of the Vilnia in Kalnų Park. At the top I looked back toward the two churches in the distances:


From there it was a short walk to the Three Crosses (see here, here and here), where I took in the view of Old Town below as dusk approached:



It was as I was leaving the Three Crosses that I noticed a light was on in one of the towers of the Church of the Ascension:


Apparently, it isn't as closed as it may appear. Vilnius has its secrets...



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):