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Monday, April 2, 2018

Let's Easter!

High on a bluff overlooking the Neris River

It's Easter weekend. And that's about it. When I was a kid, I was happy to hunt for Easter eggs and decapitate chocolate bunnies, but now there is little significance to the occasion, other than it was on Easter Sunday last year when my mother died. My daughter is off this week for her spring break, but we're not going anywhere, as my wife has sensibly (if annoyingly) pointed out that we've spent too many euros on travel in the short time we've been in Lithuania. So now we've gotten to see what Easter is like in this Catholic country.

Although we're staying in Vilnius, earlier in the week I ventured to Lithuania's fifth-largest city, Panevėžys, on a work-related trip. I was given a tour of the city hospital, served as a judge for an English-language spelling bee at a local high school and visited a school for hearing-impaired children that was partially constructed and furnished with assistance from the U.S. government. Lots of photos were taken of me, but the only pictures I took were of lunch (at Restoranas Čičinskas, named after a semi-notorious Polish-Lithuanian noble) ...:


...and this hand-stitched chart of Japanese Sign Language:


The weather has been very unpredictable in recent days. For every two steps forward (warmer temperatures, sunny skies), one step gets taken back, as when I awoke on Friday morning to find the ground outside covered in snow. Saturday was another glorious day (two steps forward again), so I took Amber out to the grounds of the Verkiai Palace (Verkių rūmai), located on a hilltop high above the Neris River (see the photo that kicks off this post) in the expansive Verkių Regional Park. Easter ornaments adorned a tree:


Patches of ice remained on the ground:


The "palace" was originally a Classical mansion built in the late 18th century as a summer retreat for the Bishop of Vilnius. The manor was erected on a site that had been granted by Grand Duke Jogaila to the new diocese of Vilnius, after his conversion to Christianity in the late 14th century. The palace, however, was damaged by the French army in 1812, and only two wings of the original structure survive to the present day. It's now occupied by the Institute of Botany and is closed on weekends (history lesson courtesy of the Eyewitness Travel Estonia, Latvia & Lithuania guidebook):




The park is home to giant mutant frogs...:


...and well-fed stray cats:


Great views of the surroundings from the top:



A staircase led down to the road below. On the way we passed this man-made storks nest:


The Neris at ground-level:


A signboard shows how the area looked in 1847:


One of the buildings depicted in the picture is Vandens Malūnas, a former watermill that's now a restaurant, and home to another contented feline:



Back up the stairs to the hilltop (and a reminder of just how out of shape I've let myself become). Opposite the palace stands another Classical building that also belongs to the botanists:


The snow cracking and crunching under my considerable bulk. At least there was solid ground beneath:


Instead of a rooster, a horse serves as a weather vane:


Later in the afternoon, my daughter and I stopped by Taste Map Coffee Roasters, where I prepped for our trip to Taiwan in summer while trying out an Ethiopian espresso:


Looking down on the city from Taurus Hill:


Easter Sunday was a big step back, as it rained throughout the day and the temperature when Amber and I ventured outside anyway was a chilly 3°C (37°F). The change in the weather didn't prevent my daughter from being pleased with her chocolate bunnies:


Sunday was a trifecta of special occasions. In addition to Easter, it was also April Fool's Day. And, most importantly, this April 1st was the 20th anniversary of the Proclamation of the Unpunished Republic of Užupis. On this day (according to Lonely Planet), "border guards" would stamp passports at the main bridge, the president of Užupis would speak in front of the Angel of Užupis and a series of activities would take place in Vilnius' bohemian neighborhood.

Or so we were told. While my wife sensibly stayed indoors (and she wasn't alone; Old Town was largely bereft of people on Sunday afternoon), my daughter and I ventured into Užupis to find...not a whole lot going on:


Small groups of people were milling around and a stage had been set up in the square where the angel stands, but there were no comically-outfitted guards to stamp the (expired) passports we had brought with us, and no activities of any kind going on that we could see. Blame it on the weather, I suppose:





The white-and-red flag on the right is that of the Belarusian People's Republic. The state may have had only a short life, but its Rada (council) is the world's oldest functioning government-in-exile. In the background is the Vilnius St. Bartholomew the Apostle Church, which holds Belarusian-language services:




Monday was a holiday in this Catholic country. The weather wasn't any better than the previous day (rainy; temperature 0°C/32°F, though the predicted snowfall never materialized), but we did go out to have a taste of Georgia for lunch at the aptly-named Tbilisi Restaurant:


Sipping a Georgian beer while studying a map of the country. I know, I know, Georgia is well-known for its wines, but I'm a philistine, after all:


Shu-E ordered some meat skewers while Amber had the New Zealand (!) lamb chops. I tucked into an Adjarian khachpuri, a traditional cheese-filled bread dish, in this case topped with a couple of eggs. It was very tasty, but so much for trying to lose some of this winter weight that has accumulated:


And that was pretty much our entire Easter three-day weekend. Time now to get my tax return completed...

Happy Easter!

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Sunday, March 25, 2018

Can't Buy Me Money, Money, Money

Spring is always welcome, but the soon-to-return foliage will hinder most of the winter views like this

Just when you think you've seen it all in Vilnius, you stumble upon something new. For my daughter and I on the weekend before Easter this meant visiting the Money Museum of the Bank of Lithuania, located on the corner of Totoriu gatvė and Gedimino prospektas. While we'd been aware of its existence for quite some time, we hadn't ventured inside until this moment:


A museum devoted to money may not sound very appealing to a non-numismatic, but the Pinigų Muziejus was a pleasant surprise, making it another surprise as to why it isn't included in the guide books. We began with the basement, in the History of Money Hall, presenting the development of cash from its primitive beginnings as grain, shells etc. to the electronic money of today:

 Ancient Chinese coins


My weight in gold, silver and platinum, as expressed in €, $ and ¥. In my defense, I was wearing several layers of clothing including a heavy jacket (the high that day was only 7°C/45°F), and I was carrying a backpack. Honest:


A side room in the basement has items from Lithuania's time as an independent state between the two world wars:



Amber poses in front of a pyramid made from one million litas coins, the currency of Lithuania until its replacement by the euro at the beginning of 2015. It's a certified Guinness World Record...for something:


On the main floor upstairs are displays on the history of banking and contemporary money. The coolest exhibit is a large video screen - select a country from a computer program, and the wall will present information on the selected state's political system, area, population and GDP, as well as give examples of its currency. We called up a number of countries, including Ethiopia (our next destination)...:


...and Taiwan, my daughter's birthplace and other country of nationality:



Though I'm aware of their existence, I've yet to come across any 100, 200 or 500 euro notes in daily life

In the Lithuanian Money Hall, visitors can examine examples of bills and coins starting from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and continuing up to the very recent past:


The Money Museum isn't very large, but there are plenty of interactive exhibits to keep visitors engaged. Oh, and there's no admission fee to get in. A free museum devoted to money? Now that's a bargain!

I've passed by this statue on numerous occasions during the time we've been here in Vilnius, but it was only a couple of days ago that I learned the person on the pedestal is a controversial figure in Lithuania. Petras Cvirka is honored for his literary work, but is also reviled by some for his support of Lithuania's forcible incorporation into the Soviet Union. I'd always assumed the statue had been erected after Lithuania resumed its independence in 1990, one of many local heroes taking the place of a despised Socialist monument, but it turns out it was the Soviets themselves who erected this in the late 1940's:


Lunch on a Sunday afternoon. What we took to be a new Chinese restaurant called Happy Panda turned out to be the same establishment as before - the menus still bear the Asia Tasty name, along with the same Czech beer. Even the same Chinese documentaries are still being shown on the wall-screen TV. The food isn't bad, actually:


The weather was close to perfect this afternoon, making it a shame to stay indoors after lunch. So while the girls retreated to their devices in the living room, I went out for a walk, eventually reaching the Cemetery of German Soldiers (Vokiečių karių kapinės), just outside of Vingis Park. It's a peaceful spot that was restored as a final resting place in 2001 after the Soviets had ripped up all the gravestones before turning the site into a playground and a public toilet (see here and here). A memorial to the heroes of the world war (according to Google Translate; not sure if it's I, II or both):


Local pride on display looking down Geležinio Vilko gatvė:


Back to the Money Museum - one of the interactive displays involved a quiz on the Lithuanian litas. If you answered 3 out of 4 questions correctly, you could choose a money-related video to watch - the choices included "Can't Buy Me Love' by the Beatles; ABBA's "Money, Money, Money"; and even "Money, Money" from Cabaret. Unfortunately, this wasn't one of the choices: