Spring has finally sprung in Vilnius. The temperature on Saturday reached a pleasant 18° C (64° F), though it was rainy in the morning and into the early afternoon; today (Sunday) was even nicer, with a high of 22° C (72° F), and barely a cloud in the sky. Tomorrow is a work day in Lithuania, but back in Taiwan it'll be Tomb Sweeping Day 清明節 , a national holiday marked by families making their once-a-year visit to the dreaded graveyard to clear away the brush from their ancestors' graves and inadvertently start a few out-of-control brush fires in the process. I never had the "opportunity" to take part in this custom, as my wife was no longer obligated to tend her ancestors' graves once she married into her husband's family, and I, of course, had no tombs in Taiwan that needed sweeping. However, today we decided to combine the fantastic weather with the Taiwanese festival by visiting Antakalnis Cemetery (Antakalnio kapinės), which Lonely Planet describes as "(o)ne of Eastern Europe's most beautiful graveyards".
The cemetery is located to the east of Old Town, and is a short drive from our apartment building. It's the largest public cemetery in Vilnius, and is a microcosm of the city's history, with crosses and tombstones inscribed in Lithuanian, Polish and Russian. One of the first things you notice as you walk along the main path from the entrance is the identical stone crosses dedicated to Polish soldiers who died fighting in the First World War:
The most moving memorial at the cemetery is the final resting places of those killed by Soviet special forces on January 13, 1991. Their graves are watched over by a statue of the Madonna and her son:
One of the more interesting sights at Antakalnis is the memorial honoring 2000 soldiers of Napoleon's Grande Armée who died in Vilnius of battle wounds and starvation during the disastrous retreat from Russia in 1812. Their remains were only discovered in 2002:
Leave it to Socialist Realism to mar what should be a moving memorial to Soviet soldiers killed fighting the Germans in World War II with these ghastly sculptures. The once-eternal flame that burned in front of these figures was extinguished when Lithuania broke free from the Soviet Union:
Tombstones come in a variety of designs, sizes and shapes, with many seemingly dedicated to artists and academics:
In honor of German and Russian soldiers who fell in battle in 1914 and 1915. The wreath at the base was left by the British Embassy in Vilnius:
The grave of Algirdas Brazauskas, Lithuania's first president after the country regained its independence as the USSR imploded:
The best time to visit Antakalnis Cemetery is All Saints' Day (November 1), when thousands of candles are lit, creating a magical nighttime scene, but even in the daylight the graveyard is a lovely place to visit.
For dinner this evening we went into Old Town and Markus ir Ko, home to "the best steak in Lithuania" (Lonely Planet again). It's located in an alley in the old Jewish quarter, and is recognizable for the beefy forearm giving the thumbs up sign above the door. Next door is the Belgian restaurant Rene, where we've eaten a couple of times:
Enjoying a local beer outdoors on a pleasant evening:
I'm not prepared to say it's the best steak in Lithuania, but it was the best I've had so far in this country:
Markus ir Ko is also the most expensive restaurant in Lithuania we've been to so far, with the final bill reaching Finnish heights, but it's worth it as a very occasional treat, thanks to the food, service and outdoor ambiance.
On Friday, my wife got to practice a little diplomacy as she joined a group of fellow Americans to have lunch at the residence of the Japanese Ambassador to Lithuania. The ambassador, Toyoei Shigeeda 重枝豊英 (on the far right in the photo below; his wife is in the center), joined Shu-E and her companions for lunch; afterward, the ambassador's wife demonstrated the tea ceremony 茶道, while the Americans donned kimono 着物:
And now for a rant (softened somewhat by the next four photos below, which were taken at daybreak one morning last week):