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Sunday, May 20, 2018

A last hurrah

Family portrait atop Ladakalnis

One of the greatest conceits among hipsters/travelers is that, along with ensuring "authentic" dining experiences, the only way to see a country is to visit its "real" parts. I was reminded of this recently by a post on Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree forum in which someone mentioned that they would be "traveling true Japan" for about a month. When I queried where exactly was meant by "true Japan", another person chimed in to say "not so tourist orientated Japan", only for the original poster to completely undermine their supporter by listing all the places he/she intended to visit on their trip - Tōkyō 東京, Kanazawa 金沢, Takayama 高山, Kyōto 京都, Kōya-san 高野山, Miyajima 宮島 etc. Far from being off the tourist route, OP intends to damn the torpedoes and jump right in with the sightseers! And when you think about it, they're right - only 9% of the Japanese population still lives in those idyllic rural backwaters that we often consider to be the "real" side of virtually every country. So if you want to see the "true" Japan, spend your time in the cities, and then go out and rub shoulders with "real" Japanese tourists in all the famous sightseeing spots. 

Speaking of Thorn Tree, I'm reminded of another poster, an Australian woman, who wrote long ago to say how happy she was to be going to that "undiscovered gem" known as Taiwan. "Rachel" (I seem to recall that being her name, but even if memory fails me, that's her name from now on) didn't appreciate it when I responded by pointing out Taiwan has a very robust domestic tourism industry, reinforced with thousands of annual visitors from neighboring Asian countries such as Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore etc. (and, of course, China). She, in turn, replied by writing that even if all the places she intended to visit were packed with tour buses and tourists, she wouldn't mind as long as she would be the only Westerner there. In her mind, Taiwan hadn't yet been sullied by Western influences, and I only wish I could've been there to have seen her reaction when she came to face-to-face with all the 7-Elevens and McDonald's upon setting foot for the first time on Formosa.

Back on the subject of Japan, a friend from college days currently visiting the country posted on Facebook that while the U.S. is suffering from yet another school shooting spree, in Japan bicycles are left unlocked. I understand (and completely agree with) the point he was trying to make, but I couldn't help but remember the weekday morning I went out into my neighborhood in Komae 狛江 to do some shopping, only to return a short while later to find my (now ex-)wife's bike had been stolen from in front of our apartment. Bicycle theft is not uncommon in Japan, and drawing conclusions by looking at unlocked bikes in Kyoto is like Michael Moore checking Canadian front doors to see if they had been secured (see Bowling for Columbine). Senseless, violent blood baths do occur from time to time even in a place like Japan (I recalled these three - here, here and here - right away, and let's not forget the sarin gas attacks in Matsumoto 松本 and Tokyo), but (thankfully) they happen far less frequently than (sadly) in the United States, and as a result of sensible gun laws, rarely involve firearms. But I'm always bemused when people get annoyed at having their rose-tinted illusions about Japan (or Taiwan - see Rachel above) punctured by my real-life examples. I could go on by mentioning the Canadian colleague of mine in Taichung 台中 who was upset after my having encouraged him to read Alex Kerr's Dogs and Demons, but enough about Asia...

...this post is about Lithuania and what was possibly the last weekend getaway of our two-year stay here. According to Lonely PlanetAukštaitija National Park is a:

"...natural paradise of deep, whispering forests and blue lakes (that) bewitched this once-pagan country."

And LP's hyperbole isn't far off the mark. We rolled into Ignalina mid-afternoon on Saturday and checked into Žuvėdra, a small hotel on the shores of Lake Paplovinis (see photo above). While my wife relaxed in the room, my daughter and I drove around four kilometers to Lake Lūšiai, one of the 126 lakes that dot the national park:

Once there, we embarked on a nature-themed walking trail:

Amber took this critter pic:

This particular wooden viewing area was in danger of sinking into the water:

Back at the hotel. According to Wikipedia, the city of Ignalina's name is derived from two lovers named Ignas and Lina:

Dinner time. The Žuvėdra's restaurant is popular with locals and visitors alike - I had the house pizza, washed down with an Utenos beer:

"Žuvėdra" means "gull" in Lithuanian - my daughter caught this visitor to the restaurant's sun deck:

After dinner, we took a walk. The girls crossed the small bridge to the other side of Lake Paplovinis and then turned back, but I continued around the water on my way back to our room :

A graceful swan rests on the surface:

A couple of fishing boats in the early evening hours:

As breakfast service didn't begin until 0900 on Sunday, I took another walk around the lake in the morning soon after waking up:

With a population of only 5300, it wasn't surprising the center of Ignalina was empty at around 8:30 on a Sunday morning:

Breakfast time, finally:

After checking out, we returned to Lake Lūšiai so Shu-E could have a look...:

...then stopped in Palūšė to have a gander at Lithuania's oldest wooden church, built in 1750 without any nails:

A service was being held at the time we arrived, but ended soon after, allowing us to have a look inside:

This massive abandoned building was once the Palūšė tourist center:

The drive going in and out of Aukštaitija National Park passes through some beautiful forest, meadow and lakeside scenery, but attempts at taking photos from the car weren't very successful at conveying that beauty:

Stopping off at a picnic area:

The highlight on Sunday was the short walk up Ladakalnis Hill, once a pagan site for sacrifices to the Goddess Lada, the Grand Mother who gave birth to the world (whether those sacrifices involved human victims, the signboard didn't say). A total of six lakes can be seen from its lofty summit 176 meters (577 feet) above sea level:

My wife thought the flowers were worth letting family and friends back in Taiwan know about:

A middle-aged biker couple pause under the stately tree on the top of the hill:

On the way back to Vilnius we came across a stork tending to its nest:

And so endeth what was in all likelihood our last weekend getaway here. Lithuania is a beautiful country and I'm glad we could see as much of it as we have in the relatively short time we've been here. Do yourself a favor and pay a visit to the Balkans. Just do me a favor and don't blather on about getting out of Vilnius and seeing the "real" Lithuania.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Mother's Day(s)

The modern side of Vilnius

It was Mother's Day last Sunday (May 6) in Lithuania, but being Americans (officially, at least, in our host country) we waited until today to celebrate Motherhood. It was a low-key affair, with lunch at Saigon, one of the few Vietnamese eateries in central Vilnius. The beef pho was pretty good, and surprisingly filling, meaning that I'm going to have to make an effort to squeeze in another visit to try their desserts and Vietnamese coffee in the few weeks remaining here:

The woman of the hour. It isn't easy getting her out of the apartment these days for reasons known only to herself (she's wearing her Mother's Day gift around her neck):

It's been pretty quiet here the past couple of weeks. My daughter and I went into Old Town last weekend to do some Mother's Day shopping, and stopped by the Open Market for a snack and a drink:

As we walked past the Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Consolation, I was surprised to see the usually-closed building apparently open to the public. The occasion turned out to be an exhibition called Dark Drawn:

It was a day for exhibitionists as the Vilnius Town Hall was hosting Lithuanian Press Photography 2018, featuring photos both political...:

Politicians gathered at the Lithuanian Radio and Television building in Vilnius to make speeches in memory of the victims of the January Events of 1991

The First Lady being eyed suspiciously by a World War II vet during President Trump's visit to Warsaw in July 2017

American soldiers in the Suwalki Gap during the 2017 Iron Wolf military exercises

...and non-political:

 We've all had days like this

 My favorite: a car approaching a main road at night

The destruction of the Lietuva Cinema (1965) in February 2017, sadly taking out one of the better examples of local graffiti in the process. In the theater's place will rise the Modern Art Center

Spring is the best time of year to be in Vilnius:

Amber adds her artistic contribution to the sidewalk in front of Vincas Kudirka Square:

On Lithuania's Mother's Day I wandered down to the Presidential Palace at noon to watch a military honor guard change the flags of the European Union, the national and state flags of Lithuania and NATO:

Following the ceremony, guards in medieval uniform stand at attention in front of the palace for an hour, providing families with some photo ops (in case you're wondering, we had ours taken in December 2016):

Later that afternoon I dragged my daughter away from her laptop for a bike ride through Old Town. We stopped for milkshakes and some fried tofu at a place claiming to sell "Asian street food", followed by an ice cream on Pilies gatvė:

We then crossed the river to check out the ghastly Vilnius Palace of Concerts and Sports:

An appropriate critique of Communist Modernism

Yesterday, Amber and I drove out to Lake Balsys (within the Vilnius city limits) and were surprised to find it busy with sunbathers and swimmers. Lithuanians don't waste time taking advantage of the sunshine once the snow has melted away:

Later we stopped first at Dr. Waffle for beef and chicken waffle burgers (plus a dessert for my daughter, on the house), before walking over to Gedimino prospektas for a hot dog-and-beer nightcap (the waffle burger wasn't enough for me!) during the Europe Day celebration:

And, finally, on yet another glorious spring afternoon, I went for a short bike ride after our Mother's Day lunch, taking in the views along the Neris (it isn't all 19th-century architecture, you know):

Happy Mother's Day!

A plaque on the ground in Lukiškių aikštė, possibly on the spot where a statue of Vladimir Lenin once stood - "Memory and Respect" (for those who fought and died over the centuries for the freedom of Lithuanians)

Getting ready to enjoy a gift from Belgium