After a few days in the Latvian countryside, Kuldiga being of most interest, we hopped the bus taking us from Riga to Vilnius, the only Baltic republic we have yet to visit. It’s a four-hour drive in the cold gray weather through flat, unremarkable countryside. A few days later I had to make a return visit, having left my Italian passport on a pharmacist’s counter. It was waiting for me at the Italian embassy in the heart of the old town. It was just as uneventful.
The Baltic countries do not get much attention in US history classes but there is much of value and interest. We’ve been to the Ducal Palace, reconstructed on site and now offering a rather detailed story of the country, much more important up to the 1800’s than it is now. But the people here have Russia very looming on their borders, a Russia whose history of occupation dates to around 1700, with but a brief respite between the wars before the occupation resumed as the Nazis retreated. In their world view, the history of their relationship with Russia is not a side-show, of course, nor is the past respect shown them by other European nations. I expect to post more on this.
The University of Vilnius is just a few minutes from our plain vanilla apartment. I have posted some photos of the delightful, on the one hand, and strange art on the other hand, here University’s mural and fresco.
Not far from us as well is the Vytautas Kasiulis Art Museum, home of the paintings of Lithuania’s most famous painter, who came to light in Paris after escaping from his home country subsequent to the Soviet takeover. It is art worth seeing. His paintings are what I would term transitional, bridging the gap between the figurative and the abstract. Over time he increasingly removes references to the substance of the image until he gets to the essence, still figurative but just a tad away from abstraction. These photos are from the museum that bears his name, Vytautas Kasiulis
The old town section is, like that of Tallinn and Riga to the north, is a World Heritage site and the main attraction.
No visit to any of these countries would be complete without a visit to what the locals call “The Dark History,” referring to the Nazi and Soviet occupations. Here as in Riga you can visit the Gestapo/KGB head quarters for a look at this grim period. It does not seem that the extent of spying on its citizens compares with what happened in East Germany, but the torture, imprisonment and deportation to the sparsely populated areas of the Soviet Union are, and they’ve well documented in the museum. The museum visit includes the dank cellar with its torture, isolation and execution chambers.
I’ll have some notes on the more cherry subject of the hope-you-like-pork cuisine – and what other observations I might have about the culture, such as the dearth of beauty parlors. They have salons where you can get your hair combed out, though.