Before we could leave Vilnius, we had to dump/fill the water tanks in our van. Thankfully the local caravan park allows non-guests to use their facilities – though this generosity isn’t for free, we had to pay €6. There isn’t the infrastructure that exists in the more motorhome friendly countries, like France/Italy and even Norway. It’s not impossible, but we have to work a little harder to ‘free camp’ on a long-term basis.
It was easy going for the first part of the drive from Vilnius. The multi-lane roads meant that we were spared the idiotic overtaking behaviour. It’s not unique to Lithuania, but it seems to have been worse here than the other two Baltic countries.
The drizzle and grim skies that we’d had on our drive from Vilnius cleared not too long after arriving in Trakai. It was amazing the difference a bit of sunshine made to the red-brick towers of the island castle. We were slightly disappointed at first, with the colourless grey skies on arrival, but by the time we’d departed, things had been flipped completely.
Even once the sun had started to shine as we were leaving, the region was still depressingly quiet. Let me rephrase that. There was a depressing amount of available space/facilities for tourists that were not being used. The space on footpaths and other public areas was wonderful, but seeing the local businesses without customers always puts a downer on my mood.
We crossed over the wooden footbridge to explore the castle. Because we’d left Vilnius late, we were short of time to see this castle. We weighed up our options, but ultimately didn’t feel it worth the price of entry to go inside the castle, instead we were happy to walk around the perimeter as well as take a sneaky peek inside.
It felt really unique to see such a large and beautiful castle surrounded by so much water. It was a really pretty lake, with dozens of other smaller uninhabited islands all around us. There was no shortage of ways to get out and explore the waters, either on tour boats, or in your own canoe/pedalo.
We had a quick walk around town, loving the colourful wooden ‘gingerbread’ homes – again, much like ones we’d seen in Russia.
We also sampled the local speciality, kibinai, which came out about from a bit of a cultural oddity. Back in the 14th century, a large number of soldiers from a Turkish speaking Jewish community in Russia were brought here as personal bodyguards. We didn’t take the time to learn too much about their culture, as unique as it sounds, so I can’t say much about them. It did sound like they were related to the people/culture from Kazan, which was also quite a cultural oddity within Russia. Anyway, regardless of the reason they are here, it was tasty – and very much reminding me of the food we’d had in Central Asia.
Grūtas Soviet Monument Museum
To really prove the point that we’re travelling like masochists, rather than call it a day, I pushed on to squeeze in the Soviet Monument Museum in Grūtas tonight. I saw that it was open until 10PM, so in my mind, we had loads of time – even if we didn’t arrive there until 7PM. There was time to stop to buy mushrooms from the roadside sellers, however.
A long time ago, I saw a picture of a scrap yard that was filled with ex-Soviet monuments, and I have been trying to find that ever since. We visited a similar sounding park in Moscow, but it wasn’t what I was looking for. I’ll save the suspense, this wasn’t it either.
This park is essentially the park founder’s personal collection. His father was sent to a Siberian gulag, and was fortunate enough to have survived the 10-gruelling years that he was imprisoned there. His son became a moderately successful businessman, and wanted to share some of the cold facts about the brutality of the Lenin/Stalin regime to avoid future generations romanticising about the past – and making the same mistakes again. He found some old statues in scrap parks after the collapse of the Soviet powers, and took it upon himself to purchase as many as he was able to.
With all that said, the first thing we saw when approaching the park was an emu, which to say it took us by surprise as it came running towards the fence would be a massive understatement. After we paid our entrance fee, and started on our journey through the park.
There were even more animals on display, with huge collections of other birds, as well as larger animals, like bison and bears. As always, it’s a little sad to see animals in cages, but at least the bears appeared to be playing in the bath.
There was also an enormous playground, with rides and equipment taken from parks from that era. Some of them looked quite extreme, and we made a plan to play in the area later, if we still had time.
While we had three hours until the park closed, we only had 90-minutes until the sun set. It sounded like a lot of time, and to be true, it’s probably enough to see the park. However, we were in a forest, and even though the sun was still up, it was dark here already.
We came across some small museums that housed all sorts of memorabilia from the era, with books, posters and film reel. There was far too much for us to take in, especially since we still had much we wanted to do before it got dark.
We were now on a loop through the forest to see the monuments of the former Soviet leaders. Here, in small openings, were sculptures of Lenin, Stalin, Marx, and others, whose names (and faces) I was less familiar with. There were English descriptions and biographies of each of the people, and for the first time I started to understand that Stalin wasn’t the only bad guy – and that Lenin too was quite the villain. Since our only real exposure to Soviet history prior to this was in Russia, our understanding had been somewhat biased. They also included, where possible, pictures of the monument prior to being taken down. There were also some former watchtowers, and their barbed/electric fencing surrounding the exhibit, for a little added experience.
The second loop took in other Soviet sculptures, including fighters and other stables of Soviet propaganda/ideals. It was quickly getting dark, and without any additional lighting, it was becoming difficult to see where to go, let alone make out the sculptures or their descriptions – forget about photographing them without my tripod.
Thankfully there were still a few other indoor exhibits that we could enjoy in the dark. We turned the lights on one dark building, disturbing the rest for the lady that was working there. It was a little lighter collection of memorabilia, including an enormous collection of the Moscow 1980 Olympic mascot, Mishka – whom Risa truly loves.
But, for me, I loved the artwork of the period. There is something so powerful about the style, and the effectiveness and power can’t be denied. Not all pieces were this way however – one portrayed Marx, Lenin and Stalin in very different, and utterly bizarre situations.
The final attraction was the period café, which had the interior of a very busy hunting lodge. We were served by a young waitress in an old official uniform – it looked like a Soviet Girl Scout uniform to me. Their menu aimed to be authentic, and featured ‘nostalgic’ options, as well as more enticing choices. I felt game, so I went for the nostalgic borscht, as well as the nostalgic pork chop – creatively named “Goodbye Youth”. The soup was actually quite good, though the period cutlery was quite jarring to use. It was all made from pressed metal, and had a rough finish that gave the feeling like fingernails on a chalkboard.
The ‘pork chop’ was anything but tasty – or a pork chop. It was like an amalgamation of breadcrumbs, with the hint of something meat flavoured. I heard a joke that it was mostly made of toilet paper – which I couldn’t categorically deny as being impossible.
We also tried the iridescent pink drink, called “Remberance”, though I couldn’t tell you what it tasted like, other than being sweet. I wanted to say it was like a lychee/peach flavour, but I think that way my mind trying to make sense of the colour.
We finally left around 9:45, and we were in complete darkness as we made our way through the park back to the entrance. The staff seemed non too happy that we’d kept them until closing time, with the few lights that were still on being switched off as we past. It was an option to spend a night in the car park (for a fee), but instead we returned to a small clearing on the side of the highway that I’d spotted earlier.