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Lithuania Introduction Any country that gives pride of place to a memorial statue of singer Frank Zappa has got to be worth a visit. Lithuania is the most vibrant Baltic state, shown not only by its antiestablishment statues but more deeply by its daring and emotional drive for independence in 1990-91. Lithuania owes much to the rich cultural currents of central Europe: with neighbouring Poland it once shared an empire stretching from the Baltic Sea almost to the Black Sea. The Lithuanian people are regarded as much more outgoing and less organised than their Estonian and Latvian counterparts, and most still practice the Roman Catholicism which sets them apart from their Baltic neighbours. Although small and less than spectacular, Lithuania boasts attractions ranging from the intriguing Curonian Spit and the strange Hill of Crosses to the urban pleasures of Vilnius, the historic, lively capital. Full country name: Republic of Lithuania Area: 65,200 sq km (25,212 sq mi) Population: 3.7 million Capital city: Vilnius (pop 590,100) People: Lithuanian 80.6%, Russian 8.7%, Polish 7%, Byelorussian 1.6% Languages: Lithuanian, Polish, Russian Religion: Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Russian Orthodox, Protestant, evangelical Christian Baptist, Islam, Judaism Government: Parliamentary democracy President: Rolandas Paksas GDP: US$17.6 billion GDP per head: US$4900 Annual growth: 4.5% Inflation: 5.1% Major industries: petroleum refining, shipbuilding (small ships), furniture making, textiles, food processing, fertilizers, agricultural machinery, electronic components, agriculture Facts for the Traveler Visas: Lithuania requires visas from most nationalities except citizens of the Baltic states, Australia, Canada, Denmark, Ireland, Italy, Switzerland, the UK and the US. Health risks: None Time: GMT/UTC plus 1 hour Electricity: 220V, 50Hz Weights & measures: metric Tourism: 950,000 visitors a year When to Go Summer and spring (May through September) are far and away the best times of year to travel in Lithuania. The majority of foreign tourists come during July and August, when low- budget hotels and hostels can be fully booked. While there's usually a picturesque sprinkling of snow on the ground in winter (November through March), there's also only a few hours of daylight each day. Events The most emotive cultural event is the National Song Festival, held every five years (the next one will be in Vilnius in 2000). Over 100,000 people are expected to join in with the singing of several hundred choirs from the Baltic region. Midsummer celebrations are keenly celebrated in these latitudes: the night of 23 June, considered to have magical powers, is the climax of events. The Baltika folk festival rotates among the Baltic capitals - it's due in Lithuania in July 1999. Other popular cultural events include horse races on Lake Sartai in Dusetos, near Utena, on the first Saturday of February; St Casimir Day, Lithuania's patron saint's day, on 4 March; April's International Jazz Festival, which attracts top musicians from all over the world to Kaunas; and the Life Theatre Festival, a week-long theatre festival that features avant-garde productions in Vilnius in May. Also in Vilnius is a week-long Summer Music Festival of street theatre, dancing, masked parades and craft fairs in the Old Town in July; and Vilnius City Days, three days of musical and cultural events in theatres, concert halls and on the streets in mid-September. Velines (All Souls' Day) commemorates the dead with visits to cemeteries on 2 November. Money & Costs Currency: the Litas (plural form Litu) Relative Costs: Meals Budget: US$1-5 Mid-range: US$5-15 Top-end: US$15 and upwards Lodging Budget: US$2-25 Mid-range: US$25-75 Top-end: US$75 and upwards Travel in the Baltic States can still be bully for budgeters. Hostel accommodation is rarely more than US$10 and can go as low at US$2 for a bed in a shared room. This style of accommodation combined with eating in cheap canteens or cafeterias, or self-catering, and travelling in small bursts by bus or train can keep daily costs down to under US$10 per person. If you prefer homestays or mid-range hotel accommodation and eating in quality restaurants, daily costs may tick up to around US$40 to US$60 per person. Currency exchange isn't a problem in Lithuania, although cashing travellers' cheques is best done in large cities such as Vilnius, Kaunas, Siauliai and Klaipeda. Numerous ATMs give cash advances on Visa, MasterCard and Eurocard, while credit cards are common methods of payment in hotels and restaurants. Make sure whatever cash currency you bring in is in pristine condition. Marked, torn or simply very used notes will be refused. Lithuania has a value-added tax (VAT) of 18%, and it's automatically included in all accommodation and eating costs. Tipping isn't compulsory in Lithuania, but it's common to give waiters 5 or 10% by rounding up the bill. Some bargaining (but not a lot) goes on at flea markets. Attractions Vilnius Lithuania's capital city has an international flavour, partly due to the influence of the big Lithuanian diaspora and partly because it has always been exposed to influences from central Europe and beyond. In the 16th century, Vilnius was one of the biggest cities in eastern Europe; it played a part in Poland's 17th-century 'golden age' and became an important Jewish city in the 19th century. Germany, Poland and Russia have all played pass-the-parcel with Vilnius this century. Post-WWII, with the Poles and the Jews mostly gone, Vilnius developed into the chief focus of Lithuania's push for independence. Particularly dramatic and tragic events took place here in January 1991, when Soviet troops trying to destabilise the situation stormed the city's TV installations, killing 13 people and injuring many others. Vilnius lies 250km (155mi) inland from the Baltic Sea on the banks of the Neris river. It's in the southeast of Lithuania, just a stone's throw from the Belarus border. The centre of the city is on the southern side of the river, and its heart is Cathedral Square, an open square with the cathedral on its northern side and Gediminas Hill rising behind it. The Old Town, the largest in eastern Europe, stretches south from Cathedral Square. A church spire can be seen from every one of its winding streets, which, coupled with its countless hidden courtyards, make it intriguing to explore. Other landmarks include Vilnius University, the President's palace, an observatory and the old Jewish quarter and ghetto. Restaurants, pubs, nightclubs and cafés abound. Three Crosses Hill overlooks the Old Town and is a long-standing landmark. Crosses are said to have stood here since the 17th century in memory of three monks who were martyred by crucifixion on this spot. The New Town lies 2km (1mi) west of the Old Town and was mostly built in the 19th century. City hall is situated here, as is the Museum of the Genocide of the Lithuanian People, housed in the former Gestapo and KGB building. The guides here are all former inmates and will show you round the cells where they were tormented. South of the river there's a bronze bust memorial to American rock legend Frank Zappa. Vilnius' Soviet-era suburbs are north of the river. There are plenty of accommodation options in and around the Old Town; this is also the best place to nose out a good restaurant. Curonian Spit The typical Baltic coastal scent of mingled ozone and pine is at its headiest on the northern Lithuanian half of the Curonian Spit which dominates Lithuania's Baltic coast. This area is made up of four settlements - Juodkrante, Pervalka, Preila and Nida - none of which are more than a couple of kilometres from the coast. There's a magical air to this isolated 98km (60mi) thread of sand, which is composed of dunes and lush pine forests inhabited by elk, deer and wild boar. Savouring fish freshly smoked to an old Curonian recipe is a highlight of a visit here. In summer you can hire jet skis or paddle boats in Nida; ice fishing and drinking vodka are the principal winter pursuits. Check on the cleanliness of the waters of the lagoon and the spit before you dive in - they're often not fit for swimming. The dunes along the peninsula are delicate, and their continual steady erosion is of great concern to environmentalists. It's for this reason that you should only walk along marked tracks and should not pick flowers, since they help to stabilise the sand. Buses run along the spit from Smiltyné, at its northern tip. Ferries cross to Smiltyné from the mainland town of Klaipeda, which has bus and rail connections to Vilnius and other centres. Hill of Crosses This two-humped hillock is covered in a forest of thousands upon thousands of crosses - large and tiny, expensive and cheap, wooden and metal. Some are devotional, to accompany prayers, others are memorial. It's thought that the tradition of planting crosses here may have begun in the 14th century. In the Soviet era the crosses were bulldozed at least three times, only to spring up again. It's an eerie place, especially when the wind blows and the silence is broken by the rattling of crosses and rosaries. The Hill of Crosses is 10km (6mi) north of Siauliai, 2km (1mi) east off the road to Riga, the Latvian capital. Siauliai is 140km (87mi) north of Kaunas and has good rail and bus connections with both Kaunas and Vilnius. Druskininkai This resort's status stems from its mineral springs, which have been in demand for their curative powers since the 19th century. Druskininkai is also well known as the birthplace of modern Jewish sculptor Jacques Lipchitz and the home town of outstanding romantic painter and composer Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis, who is the subject of a large stylised statue and a memorial museum. In recent times, a new 'attraction' has hit the outskirts of town. Stalin World (officially the Soviet Sculpture Garden at Grutas Park) is described by the canned mushroom mogul behind its copnstruction as combining 'the charms of a Disneyland with the worst of the Soviet gulag prison camp'. Druskininkai is in southern Lithuania, on the Nemunas river, not far from the border with Belarus. The resort has direct bus and train connections with Vilnius. Palanga This small city is quiet in winter, but in summer it's transformed into Lithuania's premier seaside resort, and accommodation is at a premium. It features a long, sandy beach backed by pine-covered dunes; a large botanical park with a rose garden; a hill thought to have been the site of a pagan shrine; and an excellent Amber Museum. Palanga hosts a grand opening of the summer season on the first Saturday in June; the closing of the season, on the last Saturday in August, is marked by a massive street carnival, market, song festival and pop concert. Palanga is 30km (18mi) north of Klaipeda and 18km (11mi) south of the Latvian border. Kretinga, the nearest train station, is served by daily trains from Klaipeda and Vilnius. Bus services abound. Motorists have to pay a small entrance fee to drive into Palanga. Off the Beaten Track Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant Should you harbour an inexplicable urge to be the progenitor of generations of mutants, then a visit to the world's largest RMBK Chernobyl-style reactor plant may leave you with a warm inner (and outer) glow. The Visaginas town centre, 2km (1mi) west of the plant, features a Geiger counter that records daily radiation levels. The plant boasts two RMBK reactors, which are graphite cooled and have no containment system; if an accident occurs, radiation is immediately released into the open air. Visaginas is 120km (74mi) north-east of Vilnius. If you don't have private transport, trains connect Vilnius with the town of Ignalina, 50km (31mi) south of the plant, from where you can catch a local bus or taxi to Visaginas. Centre of Europe In 1989 the French National Geographical Institute named a spot on the road to Moletai, 25km (15mi) north of Vilnius, as the centre of Europe. It's marked by a small, granite sculpture that has been vandalised, but a new sculpture - a pyramid with all the European capitals and their distances from the centre marked on it - is planned for the site. To get there, turn right off the Vilnius-Moletai road at the 'Europas Centras' sign. Trakai This old Lithuanian capital is now a small, quiet town in an attractive country area of lakes and islands. Most of the town stands on a peninsula dotted with old wooden cottages, many of them built by the Karaites - a Judaist sect originating in Baghdad that adheres to the Law of Moses. The Karaites were brought to Trakai by Vytautas the Great around 1400 AD to serve as bodyguards, and about 150 of them still live here. Their numbers are dwindling rapidly, giving legitimacy to fears that Lithuania's smallest ethnic minority could die out. There's a small Karaites museum here and an early-19th-century Karaites prayer house, both of which were renovated in 1997. Trakai is just 28km (17mi) west of Vilnius, connected to the capital by both train and bus. Activities Cross-country skiing, ice skating and toboganning are all popular winter sports; Aukstaitija National Park, in eastern Lithuania, has the best cross-country skiing trails. The national park is also a good canoeing area - trips can be organised and equipment rented from the park's tourism and recreation centre. The west coast of the country attracts large numbers of bird-watchers, especially to the town of Vente, on the eastern side of the Curonian Lagoon, which is home to an ornithological preserve. The Fisherman's Club in Vilnius provides advice on all types of fishing and arranges fishing trips in Lithuania. In the depths of winter, ice fishing is popular on the frozen Curonian Lagoon. Skydiving and ballooning can be arranged in Vilnius. There are plenty of opportunities to rent bicycles and there are some fun (and mostly flat) cycling tours. History The ancestors of the modern Lithuanians were known as Balts and probably reached the area from the south-east around 2000 BC. By the 12th century the Balt peoples were split into tribal groups, all practising nature religions. The two main groups in Lithuania were the Samogitians in the west and the Aukstaitiai in the east. In what is now south-west Lithuania and in neighbouring parts of Poland were the Yotvingians, also a Balt people, later to be assimilated by the Lithuanians and Poles. In the mid-13th century Mindaugas, leader of the Aukstaitiai, unified the Lithuanian tribes for a short time under the Catholic mantle. Pagan princes fought back, then were subjugated by another Christian, Vytenis, who became grand duke in 1290. His brother Gediminas, grand duke from 1316 to 1341, took advantage of the decline of the early Russian state to push Lithuania's borders south and east. It was Gediminas' grandson, Jogaila, who converted to Catholicism and married the crown princess of Poland in 1386, thus forging a 400-year bond between the states. The Aukstaitiai were baptised in 1387 and the Samogitians in 1413, making Lithuania the last European country to accept Christianity. By the end of the 16th century Lithuania had sunk into a junior role in its partnership with Poland, especially after the formal union of the two states at the Treaty of Lublin in 1569. Lithuanian gentry adopted Polish culture and language, Lithuanian peasants became serfs, and the joint state became known as the Rzeczpospolita (Commonwealth). Poland-Lithuania began to cast interested eyes over Livonia (Latvia) and Estonia, as did Sweden and Russia's Ivan the Terrible. Ivan invaded first in 1558, initiating the 25-year Livonian War. It took Poland-Lithuania and then Sweden many years to expel Ivan and his Russian compatriots. After they managed this in 1592, Catholic Poland-Lithuania and Protestant Sweden settled down to fight each other in the Baltics. The Swedes won, securing Estonia and most of modern Latvia. Meanwhile, conflict continued between Poland- Lithuania and Russia, with the Russians eventually invading the Rzeczpospolita and annexing significant territory. A Prussian revival in the 17th century further weakened the Rzeczpospolita, which was eventually carved up by Russia, Austria and Prussia, with most of Lithuania going to the Russians. Lithuania was involved in two Polish rebellions against Russian rule in the 19th century, and its peasants weren't freed until 1861. The Russians persecuted Catholics and, from 1864, books could only be published in Lithuanian provided they used the Russian alphabet, and publications in Polish were banned altogether. During WWI Germany occupied Lithuania, but on 11 November 1918, the day Germany surrendered to the Allies, a Lithuanian republican government was set up. Matters were complicated by the re-emergence of an independent Poland. Polish troops took Vilnius in 1919 and retained it, apart from three months in 1920, until 1939. In 1920 Soviet Russia signed a peace treaty with Lithuania recognising its independence. Lithuania suffered a military coup in 1926 and from 1929 was ruled by Antanas Smetona along similar lines to Mussolini's Italy. But on 23 August 1939 Nazi Germany and the USSR signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact, which placed Lithuania under the Nazi sphere of influence. When Lithuania refused to join the Nazi attack on Poland, it was placed in the Soviet sphere. Lithuania regained Vilnius in October 1939, when the Red Army invaded eastern Poland; Germany invaded western Poland at the same time. By August 1940 Lithuania had been placed under Soviet military occupation, communists were in government and the nation had become a republic of the USSR. Hitler invaded Lithuania in 1941, and during the Nazi occupation nearly all of Lithuania's Jewish population was killed in camps or ghettos. The Red Army reconquered Lithuania by the end of 1944, and it took until the late 1980s for the nation to take its first steps towards regaining its sovereignty. A popular front, Sajudis (The Movement), formed as a direct result of Mikhail Gorbachev's policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring), and Lithuania led the Baltic push for independence from the USSR. Sajudis won 30 of the 42 Lithuanian seats in the March 1989 elections for the USSR Congress of People's Deputies and, in December, the Lithuanian Communist Party broke away from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. This pioneering act was a landmark in the break-up of the USSR and, equally daringly, Lithuania became the first Soviet republic to legalise non-communist parties. Sajudis won a majority in the elections to Lithuania's supreme soviet in February 1990, and on 11 March this assembly declared Lithuania an independent republic. In response, Moscow carried out weeks of intimidatory troop manoeuvres, then clamped an economic blockade on Lithuania. Sajudis leader Vytautas Landsbergis agreed to a 100-day moratorium on the independence declaration in return for independence talks between the respective Lithuanian and Soviet governments. However, Soviet hardliners gained the ascendancy in Moscow, and in January 1991 Soviet troops occupied strategic buildings in Vilnius, killing 13 people in the storming of the TV tower and TV centre. Everything changed with the 19 August 1991 coup attempt against Gorbachev in Moscow. The western world finally recognised Lithuanian independence and so too did the USSR on 6 September 1991. On 17 September 1991 Lithuania joined the United Nations and began to enjoy its rediscovered nationhood. In early 1998 the fruits of the Lithuania diaspora became apparent when Valdas Adamkus, who had spent most of his adult life in Chicago working as a senior policy expert for the US Environmental Protection Agency, was elected president. Culture Lithuania has the most ethnically homogenous population of the three Baltic states. Modern Lithuanians are descended from the Balt tribes, and the Lithuanian diaspora is by far the biggest of any of the peoples of the Baltic states, mainly due to emigration for political or economic reasons in the 19th and early 20th century and during WWII. Lithuanians are stereotypically gregarious, welcoming and emotional, placing greater emphasis on contacts and favours than method and calculation. Cooler Estonians and Latvians see Lithuanians as hot-headed and unpredictable. The independence campaign of the late 1980s and early '90s illustrated the contrast between Lithuanians and their Baltic neighbours. In Lithuania the struggle was romantic, daring, cliff-hanging and risky, with at least 20 deaths. In Estonia it was gradual, calculated and bloodless, leading to the unkind saying that 'Estonians would die for their freedom - to the last Lithuanian'. Lithuanian is one of only two surviving languages of the Baltic branch of the Indo-European language family. Low Lithuanian is spoken in the west and is a different dialect to High Lithuanian, which is spoken in the rest of the country. The Catholic Church is a conservative force in Lithuanian society, and its head is the Archbishop of Kaunas. Russian Orthodoxy is practised in the country, and there are also Old Believers, a sect of the Russian Orthodox church that has suffered intermittent persecution since the 17th century. There are also pagans in Lithuania, highlighted by the Romuva movement, which has congregations in Vilnius and Kaunas as well as among Lithuanian communities overseas. The movement works towards rekindling Lithuania's ancient spiritual and folklore traditions. The first major fiction in Lithuanian was the poem Metai (The Seasons), by Kristijonas Donelaitis, describing the life of serfs in the 18th century. Jonas Maciulis, known as Maironis, is regarded as the founder of modern Lithuanian literature thanks to the poetry he wrote around the beginning of the 20th century. Lithuania is also the birthplace of several major Polish writers, among them Czeslaw Milosz, winner of the 1980 Nobel prize for literature. An interesting Lithuanian folk-art tradition is the carving of large wooden crosses, suns, weathercocks or figures of saints on tall poles that are placed at crossroads, in cemeteries, village squares or at the sites of extraordinary events. In the Soviet period, such work was banned, but it survived to amazing effect at the Hill of Crosses near Siauliai. Dairy products and potatoes are mainstays of the Lithuanian diet, and pancakes are particularly popular. A traditional (and unforgettable) meal is cepelinai, a zeppelin-shaped parcel of a glutinous substance (allegedly potato dough), with a wad of cheese, meat or mushrooms in the centre. It comes topped with a sauce made from onions, butter, sour cream and bacon bits. Sakotis is a tall, Christmas-tree shaped cake generally served at weddings, while dinner on Christmas Eve consists of 12 different vegetarian dishes. Utenos and Kalnapilis are the best local brands of beer, perhaps preferable to midus (mead), which can be as much as 60% proof. Those who prefer to make their own decision about when to lie down should look out for stakliskes, a honey liqueur. Environment Lithuania is the biggest of the three Baltic states and covers an area roughly the same size as Ireland. It borders Latvia in the north, Belarus in the south-east, the Baltic Sea in the west and Poland and the truncated Kaliningrad Region of Russia in the south-west. It's a predominantly flat country, and its highest point, Juazapinés, measures only 294m (964ft). Lithuania's Baltic coast extends about 100km (62mi), half of which lies along the extraordinary Curonian Spit - a pencil-thin 98km (61mi) long sandbar that's up to 66m (216ft) high. Just over one quarter of Lithuania is forested, in particular the south-west of the country. Elk, deer, wild boar, wolf and lynx inhabit the forests, though you're unlikely to bump into any without some guidance. Lithuania also has about 2000 otters, and Lake Zuvintas, in the south, is an important breeding ground and migration halt for waterbirds. There are five national parks in Lithuania and a number of nature reserves, the highlight being the Kursiu Nerija National Park, a special environment of high dunes, pine forests, beaches, a lagoon and seacoasts. The Lithuanian climate is temperate. From May to September daytime highs vary from about 14°C to 22°C (57°F to 72°F), but between November and March it rarely gets above 4°C (39°F). July and August, the warmest months, are also wet, with days of persistent showers. May, June and September are more comfortable, while late June can be thundery. Slush under foot is something you have to cope with in autumn, when snow falls then melts, and in spring, when the winter snow thaws. Getting There & Away Frequent flights operate between Vilnius or Kaunas and most European capitals. There are no direct flights between Lithuania and North America, Australia and Asia. Vilnius airport is 5km (3mi) south of the city centre, in the suburb of Kirtimai, while Kaunas airport is 10km (6mi) north of the Old Town. Buses are the cheapest but least comfortable method of reaching Lithuania, with direct buses from Belarus, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Norway, Poland, Russia and Sweden. The buses between Poland and Belarus and Lithuania are notoriously subject to long delays: motorists have had to queue for as long as four days at the border between Ogrodniki, Poland and Lazdijai. Lithuanian border guards are pretty nonchalant nowadays. They don't bother stamping passports and have even been known to smile. The Berlin-St Petersburg train passes through Vilnius. If coming from Poland, you can take a direct train from Warsaw to Kaunas, then pick up one of the frequent connections to Vilnius. The direct train from Warsaw to Vilnius passes through Belarus - make sure you have a Belarus transit visa if you require one. The daily Baltic Express, which links Poland with Estonia, stops at three Lithuanian destinations. Ferries link the west coast port of Klaipeda with Århus, Fredericia and Copenhagen (Denmark), Kiel and Mukran (Germany), and Harwich (England). Getting Around Buses and trains are the best ways to get around, as they go just about everywhere. Although buses are quicker and slightly cheaper, train travel is far from dear: you can track 100km (62mi) on little more than small change in general seating class. Driving isn't a bad option since the main roads are good, traffic is light and distances are small. It's best to bring your own vehicle, because car rental is very expensive. Lithuanians drive on the right and a zero blood-alcohol level is strictly enforced. Cycle touring hasn't really taken off in Lithuania, but the country's flatness, small size and light traffic make it good pedalling territory.
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