Today was a long arduous travel day. I woke up fairly early and got myself packed up and ready to go. I said goodbye to Lina, my host, who was going to visit her sister in the morning. Then got myself a little breakfast and a cup of tea. Anglis and me chatted for a while about work, study and travel and by then it was time to go. We both walked to the bus station, but via this amazing lookout point from the top of the hill that Lina and Anglis live on. It looks out across the sprawling railway tracks and across to Napoleon’s cap, another mound of land that it is said Napoleon viewed his advancing army from. Down to the bus station and after getting a few bus snacks and chocolate I waited. The bus arrived about 10 minutes late, luckily the weather has been getting warmer so it wasn’t too bad to sit there. Getting on the bus anticipating it to be busy I was pleasantly surprised that it was actually mostly empty and quiet. This, however was to be short-lived.
The next stop brought with it a group of lads, the type that enjoy the sound of their own voices, and the sounds of their tinny mobile-phone speakers playing terrible Lithuanian disco… This trauma lasted the rest of my journey to Warsaw. I feel sorry for those who had to put up with that any longer. The bus was traveling to Paris, I hope for the sanity of the other passengers, that they were not.
Arriving into Warsaw, about 35 minutes late, due to immense thick fog and a lorry carrying cars falling off of the road, quite literally. The Zachodnia Bus Station is a little uninspiring, probably even more so at 9pm on a Saturday night. I waited a while for my host, who was running a little late and managed to miss the bus stop, but it wasn’t too bad, my late arrival mixed with hers made it all ok. We then hopped on another bus then a tram to get to her place. A nice small apartment in a newish building to the South of the city centre. Warm and comfortable, and a good selection of teas…
Today (yesterday) was a lovely day. Lithuania is definitely a place I will need to go come back to. Unfortunately my time here is almost up and tomorrow (today) I will be leaving for Poland. My day started with another great breakfast, bread and cheese and then banana pancakes and yoghurt.
After this great start to the day I left the house and walked down the huge staircase (210 steps) to the town centre. First stop was the bus ticket office where I bought my ticket to Warsaw for another bargain price of 29litas, about 8.5 Euro. The lady in the ticket office was very friendly and helpful with everything, printed me off my ticket and then I headed into the town centre. I wandered down the long main high street Laisvės alėja, lined with trees and that leads all the way to the old town. The old town starts after you have traveled beneath the main road and come up the other side. Immediately recognisable as an Eastern European / Baltic Old Town, with the building styles and layouts. The first street is still the main street and leads directly to the town square. There are lovely little shops, a tea shop (though not cafe), which I popped in to have a look and a smell, but didn’t buy anything. Then I went to a little glass fronted photography gallery just off the town square. A nice space with some good work on show, though I have totally forgotten by who, and their website isn’t up to date yet. In the town square there were workmen taking down a huge christmas tree made from recycled green plastic bottles. I imagine it must have looked quite cool at night time. Apparently the tree is only just being taken down because some wise fellow decided that the weather had been much too cold for people to work outside at such a job and so it had been left until now, when the weather is reasonably milder. A very good idea! I wandered around and then decided to take a seat next to a sculpture of Maironis, Lithuania’s most celebrated poet, who had studied during his high-school years in Kaunas. While I was sitting there in the peace and quiet a delivery lorry turned up and two young people were, rather unceremoniously left holding a mattress. After a few attempts to lift and carry the thing I decided that I would offer some help to the young couple. So I got up, went over, apologised for my lack of Lithuanian but offered help. We carried the mattress the few hundred yards to their front door, had a little chat about why I was in Lithuania and what they did (students, one studying Music Technology, the other Medicine), and then I went back to the town square.
I then walked a little while north and found myself at Kaunas Castle, an old, semi-ruined, semi-reconstructed (and therefore sort of ruined a little more), building that stands more or less at the point where the two rivers, the Nemunas and the Neris, meet. It also marks the start of a small area of parkland that is the true point of the land where the two rivers meet. The little park is only a few meters higher than the river level, the ice of one river was pretty much mostly frozen, but on the other, the Nemunas the ice was breaking up and shifting. Huge great chunks of glacial blue ice slowly floated down the river, creaking and bobbing about. It was quite an amazing sight.
After that I went back into the Old Town Square, I had spied a place to get a little treat. Chocolaterie, as it is simply named, is a sweet little chocolate and coffee cafe. It isn’t cheap, and especially not by Lithuanian standards, but as a small treat it is ok. I had the above hot chocolate, and espresso sized cup filled with glorious liquid chocolate, I also treated myself to a piece of cake, true gluttony as the chocolate by itself was much more than enough sweetness. But the cake was really good, chocolate, cherries, more chocolate, and not just sponge but a layer of solid chocolate in the middle too. Very, very bad for you, and therefore very, very good for your soul…
I sat there for a while, then wandered through some of the side streets of the Old Town. Taking my life in my hands down the icy narrow, cobbled streets until I reached the Nemunas River again, but this time further up stream, by a large bridge that leads into the heart of the old town. A huge sundial sits on the wall of one building, it’s smiling face greeting all those that arrive. I then met up with Lina’s brother and one of his friends who decided to take me to the Žalgiris Arena, the huge black basketball arena that sits on a small island in the New Town area of Kaunas. Basketball is actually Lithuania’s national sport, and they are very passionate and proud about it. In the arena a competition was on between a lot of Lithuanian schools (though I don’t know if it was just local schools or the whole country). The stadium is mostly black, outside and in, which is actually quite nice to sit in, the focus is really on the basketball court. We sat and watched for a while. Small three person competitions taking up the time between quarters of the main game of the day. Then a small challenge for a member of the audience to throw a basketball from the centre of the court into the basket, but, as if this wasn’t hard enough, they were blindfolded. When they inevitably missed the audience was told to scream and shout as if they had made the shot. The guy throwing was very almost convinced!
After a while I decided I would head back home, so, leaving Lina’s brother and friend I walked across the main bridge back to the mainland, walked past the huge empty unfinished Soviet era hotel. This is an almost solid block of concrete, about 12 stories high and probably the size of a few football pitches. The thing is built so solid that it is apparently near impossible to break it down, the reinforced concrete latticed with steel. No one knows what will happen to the thing, but everyone hopes something will happen to it. It is like a huge, grey, gloomy reminder of the past. Making it back home, through the little park, that was once a graveyard, then a sports arena (another Soviet influence) and now a park with reference to the previous graveyard, and back up the 210 steps, myself, Lina and Algis sat a chatted for a while. Then we ate some traditional Lithuanian dumplings, little parcels of pastry filled with meat or mushrooms which are boiled and served with sour cream and salad. Very satisfying food! Then a couple of Algis’s friends arrived and we sat with some wine and a few card games, and another round of Dixit (the game I failed to explain yesterday). Then by the time all that was over it was time for bed!
Today was a travel day, 1040 – 1645 on a bus. Riga to Kaunas in Lithuania. This bus was probably the nicest one so far, good leg room, good temperature, though a dubbed version of Fast and the Furious Five was maybe not the ideal ‘in coach entertainment’ choice!
I left the apartment in Riga earlier than I really needed to, but this was because I was determined to leave Riga on a high note. And, at long last it worked! I managed to track down the illusive Emil and the holy chocolate grail! This made me exceedingly happy. The perfect treat for 9:30am? A cup of the gorgeous hot liquid chocolate. This small but perfectly formed little cup provided me with a much needed and much appreciated chocolate high. This hot chocolate was literally just melted chocolate in a cup, even those little bits that are left in the cup you see began to turn back into solid chocolate. It was simply wonderful, only cost 1 lat and the lady that served me did so with a lovely smile and a warm bit of broken English conversation. It was a great ending to a strange few days in Riga. Thank goodness! The little shop is in the central train station, and there is even a tea shop too, I think I probably should have just hung out there the whole time I was in Riga!
I got to the bus station, waited a little while then hoped onto the bus, a double decker beast of a thing, but as I said, nice and comfy. The journey didn’t feel too long either, we made a small stop somewhere, then another short stop in Vilnius, which looked, from the bus window, a bit like Riga… Then I arrived at Kaunas. I went into the bus station to ask about buses for the next leg of my trip, received friendly and efficient service and then waited for my next host, Lina. She arrived a little after 5pm and after a quick pop to the supermarket we headed to her flat, which she shares with her husband. The flat is lovely, on the top of a hill only a few minutes from the bus station and it has the most wonderful view of the city, I will try to get a photo of it in the coming days. We sat and chatted, ate a little, drank a bit of brandy, which I actually enjoyed even though I didn’t think that it was my sort of drink. Then one of Lina’s friends arrived, we ate some dinner, a bit more chat and now it is time to sleep…