Scotland, Europe, the world

State of Independence

production line steams ahead From the wedding production lines to the sanatoriums, Lithuania is nothing if not unpredictable. Words: Susannah Thompson. Photography: Lucy Sacker

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on‘t believe the hype. it‘s not the new l’r'ague. Vilnius. capital city ol‘ Lithuania. has a charm all its own. l'nlike Prague. it is not yet over-run by tourists


searching for the new liuropean city break hotspot. and it is this uncharted. unsell'conscious quality which makes the place so unique. Vilnius has the air ol‘ a small. genteel university town with cobbled streets. pavement cal‘es and cral’t markets. The city‘s architecture highlights the

cultural diversity and troubled history of

Lithuania and is an assortment of painted chocolate~box Baroque architecture and onion domed ()rthodos churches. interposed by huge grey Soviet blocks.

Kaunas. Lithuania's second largest city. has a

reputation as the younger. hipper cousin of

Vilnius. A gentle rivalry exists between the two. much like the (ilasgow/l{dinburgh divide. The Merkurijus department store is a tourist attraction in itself. with piped 80s music. cheap (‘l)s and large qtrantities ol‘ ultra-kitsch Vodka \v'era. It was used as a lilm set during the Soviet years due to having the best-stocked shelves in the l7SSR. As well as the many museums and galleries to visit in Kaunas. an alternative Saturday morning spectator sport can be found at the church at Rotuses Aikste the ‘wedding production line’ sees between 20 and 50 couples get married in around three hours.

In Kaunas we stayed in the home ol‘ Jadvy'ga. Stasys. and their granddaughter lrma. The experience ol~ getting to know Lithuanians in their home environment was illuminating. The warm. humorous and hospitable welcome we received seemed a world apart from the stern public personae adopted by Lithuanians at work.

Only two hours by bus from either Kaunas or Vilnius lies a celebrated health resort tamed for the curative properties ol‘ its mineral springs - Druskininkai. the Royston Vasey ol‘ Lithuania. Drawn by guidebook promises ol‘ saunas. idyllic retreats and the rural l..ithuanian experience. l)ruskininkai turned out to be less l‘)th century spa town and more Twin Peaks a deserted. spooky. out-ol-season backwater. The Scandinavian-style saunas we had come in search of turned out to be huge l‘)(i()s Soviet/Brutalist- style sanatoriums. advertising treatments for radiation sickness and electric shock therapy. The emphasis. as my travelling companion put it. was

delinitely ‘more medical than leisur‘e.‘ In front of

a long row ol‘ boarded-up timber houses on Vilniaus aleja stands a concrete monster ol~ a sanatorium. built in the shape ol‘ a huge insect

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The emphasis, as my travelling companion put it, was definitely m the more ‘medical than Ieisure.’

with gigantic concrete ‘pincers‘ l‘or‘ming the three wings of the building. Trying to look on the bright side in a distinctly twilight /one. it became obvious why we tell unsettled and apprehensive —- l)r'trskininkai is like a deserted lilm set the perl‘ect location lor‘ a l‘)(r()s-style adventure series or a cult sci-ti movie.

L'nlike the promisingly titled '(‘ultural (‘erru'e~ (which boasted three video games and an unfriendly gang of tlisallectetl local youths) two museums dedicated to Dr'uskininkai‘s artistic heritage were well worth a visit. The celebrated Jewish sculptor Jacques l.ipchit/. born in Dmskininkai. is commemorated within a branch of the Lithuanian State Jewish .‘yltrseum on Sv

.lokubo l7. The museum

also serves as a rriemor‘ial

large Jewish community which was resident in l)r'uskininkai prior to \Vor‘ltl \Vat‘ ll. when Jews made up a third ol the population. :\ small group ol' tirrrber buildings near the lake lorrrr the gallery. museum and childhood house ol‘ late l‘)th century artist and composer .\l.K. ('iurlionio. where open-air classical concerts are held in summer.

Still in a state ol llus. l.itlruaniarrs are. at long last. beginning to be optimistic about their new- l'ound indelmrdence and are seeking to re-assert a national identity while struggling to come to terms with the events ol' the last century. l)espite what I had seen. I returned to the [K with my curiosity tmsatislied. but with a riew—l‘ound allection tor a strange land and a lew bottles ot'\'odka \era in my