Arriving typically late at the Lithuanian border after failing to get our transit Visa for Kaliningrad, we were desperate to arrive at our campsite. When we finally got to Siliciai Camping, we were deflated as in the dark we had assumed that the place was closed. Luckily, as we turned around to move on, the winter caretaker came out and through a lot of gesturing, let us know that they were open, it was just that we were the only clients. We parked up for the night and with no knowledge of how beautiful our surroundings were and rested our weary heads.
Upon waking, the full beauty of the surrounding autumnal forest was revealed to us. We immediately decided to take the dog for an early morning walk and to our delight, with the morning dew still wet underfoot, found that we were but 200 meters from the most pristine, peaceful and secluded lake we have ever had the good fortune to visit.
With no real plans and as always, in no form of hurry, I decided that I would use the opportunity to spend the day fishing and writing on the shores of the lake. Returning to the campsite and trying to relay my plans to the caretaker, I was glad to find that this was not only fine, but that as the campsite was so quiet, he was happy to open the gates and allow us to park our van up by the waters edge. After a quick supply run into town to stock the fridge with beer and make the day complete, we did just that, and I spent the day fishing whist dictating stories to Dee.
The day was magical, and although I kept having my bait eaten by small perch who were not worthy of my table, the serenity of the place and the fact that we did not see or hear another person for the whole 24 hours allowed me to write a great deal and immediately endeared me to Lithuania and its beautiful landscape.
We awoke cold to the first frost of the trip and decided it best to pack up and move on quickly to warm up. Our next stop was to be the Lithuanian Spa town of Druskininkai. As we arrived in the small town, we were amazed as its clean, wide roads and forest lined cycle tracks reminded me more of suburban America than what I had expected from this small Baltic state. The further we drove through the town, the more I was amazed by it, writing this two days later, I am still convinced that it is the best kept small town I have ever visited.
Our first stop was just outside of the town; the outdoor Soviet sculpture museum of ‘Gruto Parkas’. Visiting Gruto Parkas for the first time is a surreal experience as it is part Gulag, part Red Square and part zoo. The forest is fenced in, with large barbed wire fences and mock guard posts and within, you can view 20ft statues of Stalin, against the backdrop of camels, ostriches and bears as all the while soviet anthems blast from the 1950s Tannoy system high in the trees.
The entrance is hemmed by the above Soviet train, one actually used to transport Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians across the vast expanse of Russia. They were packed in to the wooden crate for around 40 days as the train made its way to the Siberian Gulags. Past this, the forest is overlooked by a towering figure that we came to learn represents mother Russia herself.
Once inside, the forest is littered with statues of Motherland heroes as well as Stalin, Lenin and Marx. All of this interspersed with old soviet trucks, artillery and, of course, zebras.
As sobering as the experience and history was, I was unfortunately inclined to be more harrowed by the conditions that the animals were kept in. Why a museum dedicated to the Soviet occupation of the Baltic states needs to combine itself with a badly managed Zoo, I do not know. At first I was not complaining as it was two interesting activities rolled into one. Unfortunately, directly watching two lonely Brown Bears pace listlessly over the same 20 ft stretch of fence, however, marred the experience for me and somehow upset me more than the removed experience of reading about Soviet history.
Back to Druskininkai and as sun was setting we took a lovely walk from our camping spot into town for a bite to eat. If I had thought that the place was beautiful on our earlier drive, I was blown away now.
As we made our way up the main road, we were treate to the sun setting over one of the two town lakes.
As we walked from here, we were treated to wide cobbled streets, fountains and orthodox churches in this beautiful town:
The next day, despite being sad to leave, we were to head to the capital, Vilnius. One last stop to see the wooden carving monuments of Angel Hill.
Whilst here, I had the good fortune to meet a freindly group of students from the local technical college. Two of them were carpenters, viewing the statues as a form of study on their day off, but one was an architecture major, specialising in creating effigies for the various popular Lithuanian festivals. Amongst stories of thier homeland, they were good enough to share with me some great tips for finding reliable local mechanics and some insights on the best things to do and see in the local area that they were rightly very proud of.
Amazed by our introduction to Lithuania and its beautiful countryside we said our goodbyes and drove on to see what Vilnius has to offer.