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Two Years & Twice Around the World...  

Lithuanian Flag LITHUANIA


September 4. VILNIUS "Visiting the Castle Town of Trakai"  Nearly every person we met that had visited Lithuania told us that we had to visit the castles of Trakai.  It was an easier day trip from Vilnius than our trip to Europas Parkas.  We caught an early morning bus which left promptly and we were in Trakai within a half an hour.  The sky was grey but the scenery was still worth the trip.  Unlike the forested ride we had to Europas Parkas the Trakai region was marked with green countryside and a colony of six lakes.  Trakai is a peninsula between two of the largest lakes and served as the capital from 1321, fortified over the following 100 years with two lakeside castles to fend of German knights. 

Our tour of Trakai started at the base of the peninsula at the bus station.  A walk up the narrow piece of land took us past the tourist information office where were acquired a map and proceed to find our way along the main street to the grounds of the old peninsula castle, built in 1362-82 and destroyed in the 17th century.  There was little left to suggest the area once held a castle but the land projected into the lake and provided some scenic views of the opposite shoreline and the island castle of Trakai (1400).  The water was like glass and a long narrow pontoon bridge connected the once castle to the opposite side of the lake.  A small arch in the bridge made way for the neighborhood rowboats.  A couple of old men were patiently fishing off of one side, making us very aware of the disruption our walking made to the stability of the bridge and their hopeful catch.  The length of the bridge allowed each step to compound the motion caused by the previous so we decided the best approach was to move swiftly across and at least reduce the time that we disrupted their fishing efforts.  There were hardly any tourists in Trakai that day and once we reached the opposite bank we were entirely alone.  A bright red coca cola stand stood chained up along a nearby fence, nestled up along side some flowers in retirement for the season.

We waited a respectable amount of time before we passed back across the bridge and disturbed the fishermen again.  Rob stopped alongside one of them to watch him fish with a tiny rod that he kept bouncing to attract the prey, undoubtedly a specialized piece of equipment.  From the old castle grounds we continued along the waterfront to the bridge that connected the island castle to the peninsula.  The small brick castle had been largely reconstructed but was convincingly done and the smooth lake gave us a perfect reflection of the red turrets, disrupted only by the occasional duck paddling through the water and turning the glass into ripples that slowly expanded and blurred the reflection.  Amber vendors lined the water front and accordion players competed for the attention of the few straggling tourists.  Across from the castle a cafe provided a perfect view of the castle while we ate some lunch. 

The castle tour was not as impressive as the view of its striking location on the lake but we enjoyed a leisurely visit of the various exhibits housed in the castle buildings.  The most memorable exhibit was of the hoards that had been discovered in the region, accidental discoveries of someone's life savings dug up from centuries ago.  In the castle basement there were many cases of small broken clay pots from which a flow of small coins poured out across the black display.  Each coin crudely pressed with the official insignia of its day. 

Returning down the peninsula we visited what I found to be the most interesting part of Trakai, a row of houses, a small museum, and Kenessa (house of worship) for the Karaites.  The Grand Duke Vutautas is believed to have brought the Karaites to Trakai from Crimea in 1397 after fighting the Golden Horde.  Of the 10,000 Karaites left in the world there are 200 in Lithuania, just twelve families in Trakai.  Similar to the Tartars the Karaites were brought to perform military service and serve as guardsmen in exchange for land.  Unlike the Islamic Tartars, the Karaites are a mixed Judaic and Hebrew sect.  They originated in Baghdad and adhere to the Torah instead of the rabbinic Talmud.  The remnants of today's Karaites community comprise a colorful row of wooden houses and their modest Kenessa. A small ethnographic museum gave us a slightly better look at this unique minority.  The photos revealed people with Middle Eastern features and sturdy statures, wearing clothing that gave some indication of their religious affiliation. 

As the afternoon grew darker and rain finally started we decided our day in Trakai was over.  The bus ride back was quick and entertaining with our drivers myriad of whimsical decorations around the windshield and across the dashboard.  From the window the roadway was lined with patches of mushroom sellers, foraging in the woods for the tasty morsels is a popular European pastime but also a means of added income to some people in Lithuania.        

We arrived back in Vilnius with plenty of time to spare before we met Kato-san.  We took a coffee break before staking out a place on the street level of our favorite tavern.  By the time Kato-san had arrived we felt lucky to have any spot at all in the restaurant.  Of course we had once again hoped for a table in one of the cozy rooms downstairs but the influx of a large conference group totally filled the place up.  We had ordered a plate of garlic bread and cheese while we waited for Kato-san and that alone might have been enough for dinner but we couldn't refuse some of the potato zeppelins swimming in cream sauce.  Kato-san continued his exploration of Lithuania cuisine by ordering a mammoth amount of food.  He shared some of his assortment of savory beans and his large serving of pigs ears with potatoes.  It was such an enormous amount of food that he ended of offering it to the table of three young French people next to us.  They had been to the restaurant three days in a row as well but when faced with the pigs ears their eyes opened and one politely commented that it was a "very special dish".  They tried it anyway and I have to say that the soft thin piece of meat wasn't entirely bad. 

After a long and over-filling meal and good conversation with our French neighbors we walked Kato-san back to his hotel before making our way to Uzupio. 

September 5. VILNIUS  It was our last day in Vilnius and the thought left us both a bit melancholy.  The place had grown on us quickly and while we could have packed more sights into our ten days in Lithuania we were entirely pleased with the time spent around Vilnius.  This charming and quiet city was our home away from home.  Drunk sightings were few and even the graffiti delivered happy messages.  Perhaps it sounds a bit sappy and dramatic but it was definitely one of our favorite spots. 

We utilized our last day of sporadic sun and rain to do our shopping for amber and collector coins, visit the Frank Zappa monument, the world's only memorial to the rock 'n' roll star, and take in "Terminator III" at the Coca Cola Plaza.   Movies in much of the world are only subtitled in the local language so we can easily watch the latest blockbusters.

LITHUANIA Vilnius Aug 30 Aug 31 Sept 1-2 Sept 3 Sept 4-5

ESTONIA Tallinn Sept 6-8

FINLAND Helsinki Sept 9

ESTONIA Tallinn Sept 10-11

LATVIA Riga Sept 12-13

LITHUANIA Vilnius Sept 14-15