Day 39, Kaunas, February 17th 2012

Tea 39: More Hot Chocolate instead of tea!, Chocolaterie, Kaunas Old Town

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!

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Day 38, Kaunas, February 16th 2012

Tea 38:  Green Mint tea, Lina’s Apartment, Kaunas

My hosts have made me so welcome it’s really great. Lina and her husband Anglis (this is probably spelt awfully wrong, but will check tomorrow…) made me a great breakfast of traditional porridge like stuff, but this one was made with barley grits, there was also bread and cheese and yoghurt.  Lovely.  We then headed out into the town centre.  Today, luckily enough, is one of Lithuania‘s Independence Days.  This one commemorates the first independence of 1918.  There was a parade with flag-bearers and little brass bands, and then a in the centre of town there was a big stage set up with traditional songs being sung, the national anthem, flags everywhere and people dressed in military uniform or traditional Lithuanian dress.  Some of the material pattern of the skirts is quite similar in design to that of the Scottish Tartans, and this Scottish link seemed to be a theme of the day today.  Anglis is currently thinking about applying to study a Masters at Glasgow School of Art, where I studied.  People were often buried in mounds much like the Scottish ones, and even sometimes with cairns or structures built on top.  There is a type of Bull, now extinct that makes up part of the Kaunas Flag, which, it would seem may be similar to the Highland Cattle in some ways, though this is just a presumption.  Even tonight we ended up playing cards with some pack advertising a Scottish Whisky!

Anyway, during the events of the morning we popped into the war museum, which although free today, is mostly shut as they are currently renovating / restoring many of the exhibits, it won’t be fully open again until the summer.  We then went towards the Kaunas Picture Gallery, which houses various works, but what I am most interested in seeing is the Jurgis Mačiūnas FLUXUS cabinet.  Alas this was also shut until the afternoon, partly due to the festivities, but also because today the award for artist of 2011 was being presented.  I will try to go back tomorrow and check it out properly.

A few days ago it was Lina’s Birthday and so today many of her family were coming to celebrate and get together over food and drink.  We popped into the supermarket, bought some stuff then headed back to the flat to prepare some food.  I made sandwiches, nice and traditional Salmon and Cucumber triangle classics!  whilst they others tidied the flat up for the arrival of the parents.  They all soon started to arrive and we began to gather around the table, a buffet style spread was set up and everyone helped themselves.  The atmosphere was lovely, the sun was shining through the beautiful wide SW facing windows and everyone was having lots of laughs.  We ate, and drank for, basically, hours!  We then started to play a board game called DIXIT.  For her birthday Lina’s mum had made her the game, which looked to have taken a lot of work as there are many cards involved and lots of little elements.  I won’t try to explain the game as it will probably take ages and not make any sense, but it was good fun, and I think my team came second out of six, so not a bad result!  We then had some tea and coffee, Anglis’s Dad had brought some of his home mixed tea, a good home grown mint, mixed with a little Green tea. It was lovely, delicate mint flavour, and the perfect after dinner drink, especially with the extreme gluttony that had just taken place!

By around 7 or 8 people started to leave.  We tidied up a bit then headed to a bar called Kultura, part of the same gallery I mentioned before, and therefore somewhat obviously or maybe ironically named!  We sat over a beer for a while, listening to an ‘interesting’ choice of music selected by the DJ, and apparantly one of the best Architects in Kaunas / Lithuania.  Though apparently traditional, yet modern songs, the choices were not quite right for the bar, with lots of very mellow, not depressing, but relaxing tracks.  But we kind of wanted to dance a little, even if just on our seats.  We spent a while there, I drank a nice, unfiltered Vilnius Beer, which was golden, slightly cloudy and smelt strongly of honey.  Very tasty!  We came home and relaxed for a while, a couple of games of cards, and now I’m in bed…