Vilnius and Trakai Castle

Saturday 17 May

The sun is shining and the people are singing.  Literally.  I’ve managed to stumble onto a day of festivity in the Lithuanian capital, as everywhere you turn people are performing on the streets.  It seems as the whole city has come to life for a traditional “day of music”, when bands and artists of all different genres (and abilities) rock out in the old town.  It’s wonderful when a city becomes vibrant with such displays of life.  It’s a pleasure to walk through the happy throngs of locals and tourists alike.  Everything is alright with the world on days like this.

Vilnius is definitely the nicest of the Baltic capitals.  It’s got a real medieval charm, which is helped not in small part by the hundreds of ancient buildings in the old town.  The architecture is beautiful, with plenty of green space and booming cafe culture.  Of course it’s aided by the glorious weather (everywhere is crap in the rain) but the people are out to play and play hard.  If I didn’t decide to move quicker, I would be happy to dwell longer in this heady hive of culture.

I have a companion to guide me too, a Lithuanian girl I met in Estonia.  She’s very kindly offered to show me Trakai Castle, which sits some 40 minutes by train outside the capital in gorgeous countryside.  Local knowledge always beats the guide-book (and my own attempts to navigate to such places) so I’m more than happy to be given the grand tour.

Trakai Castle is a stunning 14th Century stronghold that sits on an island in Lake Galve.  It’s a beautiful spot, and well worth a visit if you’re in this neck of the extensive woods.  The lake is popular for boating, with an abundance of those peddle craft you can romantically splash about in, and there are also numerous bride and grooms having a wedding off; with happy couples jostling for prime picture opportunities.  A million schoolkids threaten to mar my experience, but as they clear out and the sky clears up, the peacefulness and tranquillity of the location really shines through.  It’s a joy to sip a cold beer by the water’s edge, and watch the world and it’s boats drift by.  I shall be looking to replace messy city party nights with more experiences like this.

 

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Hitchhike to India leg 25: Šiauliai to Vilnius

Thursday 15 May

I’m up at 5am.  That’s FIVE AM PEOPLE.  Actually I’ve been awake for most of the night.  Going cold turkey on years of drinking isn’t really a good idea; you need to taper off.  As a result I’m experiencing my usual bout of nightmares, anxiety, panic attacks and sleep paralysis.  Added to this a genuine fear my heart is going to explode, that the woman I love is having a three-way right now, money worries, dying in a plane crash and wondering if I left the gas on; and you’ve got a recipe for insomnia.  The alarm hardly comes as a surprise.

Nevertheless I put my best foot forward in my hardly used running trainers, and in glorious early sunshine I take to the streets.  I’m knackered inside a few minutes, but it’s all about small steps, and there is a certain smugness I obtain from a trio of all-night drunks slurring abuse at me.  I can already see the benefits of this new lifestyle.

After a set of reps in my hostel room, a freezing cold shower and a banana, I’m hiking the 4K to my hitching spot.  I could opt for the bus, but I’m in the zone here.  The calories are coming off.  I’m getting an abortion for my booze baby.

Less than 20 minutes later I’m in a garlic van with a crazy Spaniard.  He’s delivering a stack of the things to a caterer in Vilnius, and as it’s illegal to hitch in Spain for the most part, he’s keen to pick me up.  As in let me ride with him.  As in…oh you know what I mean.  Anyway it’s not long before he’s tearing up the roads in the clapped out old truck, offering me smokes (which I refuse) and chewing the ear off me about girls and such.  He’s a pleasant sort, but it’s certainly another fly by the seat of my pants rides.  He actually gets more mental upon entering the city; heavy on the gas and breaking so hard it’s a wonder we don’t get showered in garlic.  As he’s done me a favour, he asks me to do him one too.  I’m slightly concerned as to what’s on offer, but soon relieved that it’s only helping him unload the smelly contents of the van.  Throwing boxes of garlic at a Spaniard surrounded by large hairy Lithuanian types was a new experience.

We shake hands and part company in the old town.  I shuffle off to find a hostel, have a quick tour of the city and collapse in my bunk by 2pm.  I’ve now got to force myself to stay awake until a suitable sleeping hour and achieve a body clock balance, and it’s taking every ounce of my flagging will power to not smash back beers and smokes in the afternoon sun.  Still, this is where you’ll find me dear readers, post push-up reps, a cup of water and a broccoli omelette, lying on my bed thinking of painless ways to kill myself.  This healthy shit gets better right?

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Hitchhike to India leg 24: Riga to Siauliai and The Hill of Crosses

Wednesday 14 May

Now I’m not in any way a religious man.  Each to their own, but I don’t have a believing bone in my body.  Strange then, that I’m drawn to a rather interesting spiritual and cultural object located in Northern Lithuania.  Just outside the town of Siauliai (I don’t know how to pronounce it either) is The Hill of Crosses.  200,000 of them, not to be exact, all shapes and sizes, deposited on something similar to a burial mound.  After a glance at some google images, I altered my route to take in this interesting locale.

I wake with the usual sluggishness and drag myself out of this pit of despair.  It’s not been the highlight of my trip.  After misreading the hitchwiki directions, I’m in completely the wrong place.  After about two hours of marching around, packs in tow, I manage to locate the spot significantly behind my planned schedule.  Still, it’s in keeping with my new “get healthy” mantra, so I must’ve burned a few beers worth of calories.  I resist the urge to munch a burger in the fast food joint tantalisingly over the road.

After a shaky start and no confidence in my location, I’m amazed to be picked up inside 10 minutes.  One of the fastest ever results, the guy can take me all the way to Siauliai.  Any immediate joy is short-lived however, as he doesn’t speak English, is pushing 70, and clearly has Parkinson’s in his right hand.  He waits until the last second to overtake slower traffic (literally if they break then we’re mush) and then takes an eon to pull back onto the right side.  Southern Latvia doesn’t have the best roads either, so it’s a relief when we cross the border and he drops me safe and sound at my destination.  We didn’t say a word to each other for 2 hours.

Nonetheless here I am marching to find a hostel.  I’d originally decided to push on to Vilnius, but only if I could see the hill on the way down.  As it stands I need to take the bus back up there, and as I’m in no rush and the accommodation is cheap, I opt to stay the night.  Half an hour later and I’m deposited at the roadside, and walking the two kilometres to see this religious wonder.

First mentioned around 1850, the hill has come to symbolise hope, faith, suffering and sacrifice.  It’s stood the test of time against Soviet oppression, and was blessed by no less than the Pope in 1993.  The sheer number of crosses is astounding and fascinating, as is the multitude of shapes and sizes.  It’s like they’re just sprouting from the earth, fingering up at the sky.  For someone of little (AKA: no) faith, it was still a humbling experience.  Many people make the pilgrimage here to find solace and hope, so who am I to argue if it works for them?  I turn a quiet corner and take a moment.

Now I’m not saying I was speaking to HIM.  I specifically said “I’m not speaking to you, because you’re not there”.  However I did have a sought of “word out loud.”  A few words out loud.  I’ve lost my way of late and I needed all the help I can muster to get it back.

After a lovely conversation back at base with two of my own personal angels – via the holy medium of Skype – I’m feeling a lot better.  I have a new direction, and a plan in place to help me get there.  It’s not going to be easy, but I’m more focussed and upbeat than I have been for some time.  My own seven-point program to become that guy I lost somewhere along the way.  Who knows; maybe somebody was listening after all?

 

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