The Times We Had :)

August 28, 2011

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Amsterdam (23.08.11 – 30.08.11) and for Luke (23.08.11 – 06.08.11)

August 28, 2011

 

We’re finally back in Amsterdam and so glad that we were able to make this our last stop together before Luke continues on to London on his way back to Brisbane, and I travel to The States to travel with Gemma for a month before returning home.

 
We’ve said it all before, but we love this place. Despite the almost constantly grey skies the vibe is infectious and has injected us with renewed enthusiasm for life. Actually, we were getting ready to return home until we landed back here, but it sort of feels as if we have already come home being here, and now we’re not so sure we want to leave again! But alas, our visas are up and our flights are booked, and thus we’ll both be home within the next month. It all flew by so fast! We can’t believe the places we’ve been and the things we’ve seen… but of course, it has only added to our enthusiasm for travel and spurred us to want to see more of the world.

 

Everyone’s been asking us how we managed to see so much in the first place. We’ve become good little budgeters, writing down every single thing we’ve spent for the past 8 months has been frustrating but worth it. And we’ve learnt a lot about dealing with all the nonsense that non-stop travel brings with it and become better at dodging with it. We’ve been side by side almost every minute of the day for the past eight months so you’d think we’d be ready for some space but we’re already sad thinking about the next 3 weeks apart. It will be strange without our sidekicks!

 

Heaps of people have also asked us where our favourite places have been. Luke loved North Africa, and can’t wait to do more travel there. The weather, the culture and the traditions really spoke to him. Maybe he’ll write a bit more on that later. For me it was Thailand. I love that country and the people are my favourite I’ve met in the world. I will never forget hopping on the Bangkok metro at the airport after two weeks in Morocco and being shocked by the smiling, happy, waving people in that carriage. Their happiness with very little is infectious, and I really learnt a thing or two from those kids at Baan Dada. What a different way of living! In Europe we’ve loved Romania for the beautiful landscapes and gritty bustling capital, Bosnia for its moving history and still vibrant culture, Italy (especially Sicily) for its passion & character & last but not least Amsterdam… it has really stolen our hearts. We’ll never forget the feeling of cycling over those lit up bridges in the cool Dutch air, past windmills & over tram tracks. The Netherlands will always be a sort of home to us, and the friends we’ve made here mean something special to us too.

 

In fact, even mother nature wants to keep us here, throwing hurricane Irene (the first to hit New York in almost a century) my way on the very day I was booked to leave for the city. But even mother nature is no match for the Dutch Immigration System, and thus we will go home sooner than later. When I phoned the insurance company to inquire about what my next move should be the advice of the operator was ‘enjoy Amsterdam while you can’. And we are! This week we’ve been to Utrecht to see Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zero’s play at the Tivoli, we’ve hit the central streets of Amsterdam, taken a walk through the countryside in North Amsterdam & met up with our friends that we’ve missed so much.

 

So this is our last post for a while. I’ll be blogging about the States when I return (I wouldn’t dare carry the heavy computer all that way in MY backpack), but until then, farewell!

Things we WILL and WON’T miss about backpacking

August 28, 2011

As our travels draw to a close here are a few things (of the many) that will will miss about backpacking… and more that we’ll be happy to be free from!

WILL MISS

– Beautiful foreign words such as ‘Grazi’, ‘bonjour’ and ‘bella’
– Interesting foreign beers
– The appreciation for the smaller things in life
– New, exciting places to see and experience every day.
– Learning about history and culture through doing and being.
– Hema sausages & vlaamse frites. (And new food discoveries)
– Our new friends & meeting new people
– The minimalism of owning little
– Being inspired by new and different things
– Affordable fashion
– Having nothing to tie us down to anywhere (except for our families who we missed every day)

WONT MISS

– People stealing our delicious 2 pack sour cherry yoghurts from communal hostel kitchens.
– Thinking we bought butter, waking up the next morning and smearing our toast with lard.
– Similarly, looking forward to a glass of milk and instead getting a glass of yoghurt.
– Bed bugs.
– Wearing thongs in the shower.
– Tiny travel soaps.
– Washing our underwear in the shower.
– Americans, Germans, fellow Australians!
– Bunk beds.
– Getting stared at by rich people in airports for eating our packed lunches on the floor.
– Tall Dutchies in front of us at concerts!
– Always having our guard up & not knowing who we can trust (our bunk-mate, the taxi driver, that person who offered to take our photo, even the cops!)
– The goodbyes. Not knowing if we’ll ever get to see the incredible people we’ve met along the way again.
– Long days doing nothing but travelling, and being stuck with the only English language book you could find to keep you occupied!
– Going to sleep hugging our valuables to safeguard them from all those people we’re not sure we can trust.
– Fixing broken things (it will be nice to buy a new backpack if it breaks, rather than put it back together with superglue!
– Trying desperately to avoid travel scams.

Helsinki, Finland (21.08.11 – 23.08.11)

August 28, 2011

 

When we sat down to book our accommodation for Helsinki months in advance we were hit with a sad fact… it was going to be a very expensive visit! Most hostels were already sold out, and the remaining places had such exuberant rates that we decided to stay an extra night in Tallinn and cut a night off Helsinki, therefore having only two nights in the city.

 

We were disappointed at the time but in the end we managed to squish everything we wanted to see and more into a jam-packed day of sightseeing and had a brilliant time in the city.

 

I guess you could say our time in Finland really began when we disembarked the ferry which we had taken from Tallinn and made our way to the bus stop as indicated in our hostels ‘How to get here from the ferry terminals’ directions. We were shocked to find hundreds of people already in ‘line’ for the bus, and, needing to arrive at our accommodation before 9pm, we began sliding up the line the best we could until we finally boarded the bus. What followed was 45 minutes of standing in a cramped bus which was trapped in an airport-like traffic jam, going absolutely nowhere. We were shocked when at the end of the 200m road which led from the ferry terminal the bus finally pulled over to a stop and we realised it matched the name of the one we needed. We could have walked! We apprehensively boarded our connecting tram which thankfully was a little more useful and took us within 600m of our hostel, which was actually within the main Olympic Stadium built for the 1952 Olympics. Now largely abandoned (or so it seemed) the Olympic Stadium arena was probably one of the most unique places we can say that we’ve slept throughout our travels. With much glee, we began to make what would be our second-last hostel-kitchen meal together (no more distrusting every single fork, spoon, bowl or pan!) and soon after hit the bed.

 

As I said, the next day (our only full day in the city) was a busy one! Armed with a 24hr tram pass we made our way around the city, stopping at:

 

– The Rock Church / Temppeliaukio Church, a Lutheran church in the Toolo neighbourhood. The spot for the church, which is built into a large rocky hill, was selected in the 1930’s… but due to World War 2 was only finished and open in 1969. The interior was excavated and the church built into the rock, which is bathed in natural light entering through the glazed done which is topped with an impressive giant copper spiral.

 

– The Helsinki Cathedral, a HUGE Evangelical Lutheran Church in the central city district. Built atop an elevated platform reachable by stairs its beautiful white columns and big green domes completely tower over Senate Square below. Built in neoclassical style in 1830-1852 as a tribute to the Grand Duke Nicholas I (the Tsar of Russia) the church was originally called St Nicholas’ Church until Finland’s independence in 1917. When we stepped inside we were blown away by the sheer size of the place, and of course, by the number of Asian tourists posing with the hands together in fake-prayer while their partners took photos of them for the memory bank. Weird!

 

– Helsinki’s Historic City Center, which dates back to the 1600s, with neat, beautiful street planning but more brown than we could handle!

 

– Suomenlinna Fortress, spread across 6 islands 15 minutes from the central Helsinki port. A World Heritage Site and supposedly a hit among most tourists, though we found it extremely boring and couldn’t wait to get off and back to the mainland. Built in 1748 to protect against Russian expansionism, it wasn’t so successful, and in 1808 was surrendered to the Russians in prelude to the occupation of Finland.

 

– Uspenski Cathedral, A classical onion-domed Russian church near Market Square… the largest Orthodox church in Western Europe.

 

– Hakaniemi Market Hall & Open-air market, selling fruits, meats, crafts & alike, where we picked up a trendy skull-shaped cookie-cutter.

 

– Market Square, an open-air market facing the sea where you take the ferry to Suomenlinna Fortress… selling fresh fish and local produce (plus the standard souvenirs) from all over Finland.
– Helsinki’s Design District… with beautiful buildings and shop after shop of vintage items and cute boutique stores (plus one delicious frozen yoghurt shop!)

 

And finally, just before the heavens opened…
– The Sibelius Monument, a work of art dedicated to composer Jean Sibelius. Welded together from 600 pipes and weighing over 24 metric tonnes… resembling organ pipes.

 

And that was Helsinki! The next day we ventured out to the less-frequented North Eastern (Kallio) district of town, a rough-around-the-edges local area that gave us a good insight into Helsinki outside the central tourist district. We went for a stroll along the waterfront and back to the hostel, then on to the airport for our first flight in months… back to Amsterdam!

Tallinn, Estonia (18.08.11 – 21.08.11)

August 27, 2011

 

Attractive, alluring, gorgeous Tallinn easily takes the cake as the star of the Baltics. It’s effortless. Once a member of the Hansiatic league and blessed with the prosperity that came with it, it experienced a wealthy building boom during the 13th – 17th century, resulting in a picturesque and well-planned old town at its heart. When the league fell apart, Tallinn (the terrible saver that it had been) was left without enough money to update the buildings, and therefore they were left in their original 14th/15th century style. When the Olympics came to land-locked Moscow in 1980,Tallinn was chosen as the destination for the sailing regatta event. As a result, a decent amount of money was spent restoring the old town, and the area became the pretty, polished, picturesque spot it is today. (Though, as a fun fact, the Olympics were largely boycotted in protest against the Soviet entrance into Afghanistan in 1979 and Tallin saw a relatively low level of tourists)

 

And it is gorgeous! Split in two, with the higher level once home to the rich and the lower dedicated to the poor, the Old Town area is quite sizable in comparison to most European cities. In fact, the Old Town centre was more than enough to keep up entertained for our 3 day stay, though we did venture beyond its borders a few times. Among its highlights are a giant, pristine Russian Orthodox church, a pharmacy dating from the 14th century, and an elegant old town square dominated by a huge town hall building. In the very centre of the square is a circular stone from which point you can see all 5 spires of the most important buildings scattered around Tallinn (though one is only visible thanks to a handy hole cut in the roof of a tall central building for this purpose only!) On top of the Town Hall Spire, a statue of a man stands tall overlooking the city. The man, though an exceptional archer, was a peasant, and therefore forbidden from fighting in the army. It was thought that his exceptional vision should be put to use overlooking the town from the top of the central hall. He became a much loved figure among the town’s children, watching their activities from above and rewarding good behaviour with small gifts. When he died the statue was put their in his honor, and to encourage the children to continue the good behaviour. On the corner of the Town Hall, tucked in a tiny little cave-like space, was one of our favourite discoveries – a restaurant selling the local specialty, Elk Soup (with complimentary pickle-fishing from a wooden barrel) for 1euro. Between the Elk Soup and another super culinary discovery, sugared almonds (bathed in a brown sugar, cinnamon, clove & ginger) we pretty much ate ourselves silly in Tallinn. Luckily, thanks to the crowning of the city as 2011’s European capital of culture a pleasantly serene walking route had been constructed down by the seaside which allowed us to even things out.

 

While down by the seaside we stumbled across an overwhelmingly large concrete structure which stopped us in our tracks. We knew immediately that it had to be a left-over building from soviet times, and we were so intrigued by the out-of-place construction that we had to get a closer look. Up close the construction basically looked like a huge set of steps with large open platforms on top and staircases leading to what was likely once space for small shop fronts or ticket counters. Completely vandalised and covered in Graffiti, with overgrown grass and barred windows, it was immediately obvious that the structure had long been abandoned. Following the steps to the concrete space up top and over the other side of the structure we found ourselves at a small ferry terminal that seemed largely abandoned by all by one company. At the time we had no idea what the thing was supposed to be, only later learning that it was indeed a soviet creation, once a Ferry Terminal building (also used as a concert space). In the coming years it is to be converted into a casino. At the moment it seems to be a popular hangout for the local youth who flock to the spot at sunset to down a few beers before heading out for the night. We saw this in action during our visit.

 

Outside the city in this industrial port area we also visited a very local Russian market, stocking tonnes of fresh fruit and vegetables alongside old Nazi medallions and soviet army caps. Approximately 40% of the Estonian population is actually Russian (this percentage is even higher in Latvia). There is quite a lot of divide between these immigrants and the locals in some parts, and tourists are advised not to speak Russian if possible (luckily for us this wasn’t a problem).

 

One the other side of town, in the new town square (once called Victory square, but later re-named Freedom Square by the newly independent Estonians) the vibe was completely different. Towering above the square is a relatively new monument, erected in 2009, which the locals haven’t taken too fondly to. The huge monument, which ironically looks remarkably similar to the Nazi style cross, is ugly, to put it kindly… and cost a whopping 6 million dollars that the locals wish had gone to something more practical… or at least more attractive. Plus, built by the Czechs (who put in the lowest bid for its construction) it’s not an incredibly sound structure. 6 days after its installation it turned pink “oops, we didn’t take your climate into account” and shortly after problems with the lighting began to pop up (it’s supposed to light up at night). Those damn Czechs!

 

In the end, though it’s true that Tallinn is a city completely overwhelmed by tourism, we understood why, and fell head over heels for it along with the hundreds of others visiting during our stay. It’s a bustling, energetic and beautiful place clearly flowering under Estonia’s relatively new independence. The name Tallinn may have originally been derived from the words “Danish city” and have long been occupied by others… but it’s now all theirs and they’re proud of it.

Tartu, Estonia (17.08.11 – 18.08.11)

August 27, 2011

 

Just a quick little blog about Tartu, a short overnight stop on route from Riga to Tallin. We always try to see at least one other city besides a country’s capital, and Tartu was location number two for Estonia.

 

A student town, Tartu is a tiny place which moulds itself around its largely student population. Even the fountain in its central square represents its young residents, with the central statue depicting two students kissing under an umbrella.

 

During our short stay we saw most of the city, which is extremely walkable. We visited a few nice churches and the river-side stretch with its quaint little bridge (folklore states that to be accepted as a student at the university you must walk over its arch, though technically illegal). We admired the central square and the sweet pastel buildings and cafes which circle it. We took a walk through the leafy green gardens which sit behind the glorious university building… sat on the swinging park benches and walked up to ‘lovers hill’ where Russian newlyweds are said to attach a lock sealing their new marriage.

 

And then, in stark contrast to all the pleasant things we’d seen that morning, we visited the Anatomical Museum… one of the only places in the world where glass jars of diseased body parts and deformed foetuses are on display to the public for the tiny fee of 2 euros. The place was eerily quiet during our visit, and smelt like a deserted school Biology lab… not good! Though it was interesting, we were left grateful that we didn’t understand most of the freakish infected body parts that were on display. The baby room was particularly disturbing, and we were easily brainwashed by the receptionist who, upon seeing our distress, took the opportunity to warn us of the dangers of smoking and drug taking while pregnant. Upon the tiny figures in the jars was one that looked like an elf with large pointy ears and a squished face and another Cyclops with a penis over the eye on its forehead. It was disturbing stuff and we were told by the enthusiastic receptionist that we were lucky to see it, as most of the ‘specimens’ are from the 30’s and these days prohibited from being collected and displayed. Still, we were freaked out by the things we saw and will be forever changed by the collections, which included a 9kg testicular tumour caused by elephantitis.

 

Eagerly trying to forget what we’d seen, we headed for the bus station and on to Tallinn that afternoon.

Riga, Latvia (13.08.11 – 17.08.11)

August 27, 2011

We checked into our hostel in Riga in a laidback fashion, knowing that we had a full four and a half days to see the city and surrounding area and quite confident in the knowledge that that was probably going to be more than enough time to do so. It was! We’re not hating on Riga, we had quite a good time exploring the Latvian capital and thought it had quite a lot of charm. But the poor city, trapped between two gorgeous capitals (Vilnius in Lithuania, and Tallinn in Estonia), is easily lost on the Baltic’s highlights list.

We’re not even sure why. Yes, it’s clearly grittier than its polished neighbours… possibly dirtier, definitely more hectic. But that’s not reason enough. Could it come down to the fact that it’s the only currency we can think of (besides the snobby pound) that’s worth more than the Euro? (At a conversion rate of 0.7Lats = 1 euro). That definitely didn’t help! But overall, though the city (especially the old town) was quite pretty and pleasant to stroll, it was probably the vibe of the city which let us down and left us wanting more. All the cool cats seem to have long fled the town. At least that’s the impression we got.

But I’m being too hard on poor Riga. Though it wasn’t the star of the Baltic’s there were plenty of great things to see/do/experience.

Firstly, the old town. In addition to the standard cute centre it had a few exceptional buildings, such as the Blackheads House, whose intricately decorated façade ironically sits right next to the only remaining soviet bunker building in the city (now an ‘occupation’ museum).

Secondly, the collection of food outlets in town…
– The ridiculously cheap ‘Pelmeni XL’ chain which sells multiple varieties of the country’s delicious traditional dish, Pelmeni (filled Russian-style dumplings) , covered in sour cream and tomato sauce.

– The local Hare Krishna joint, which dishes out incredible vegetarian food on tacky metal plates.

– The ‘Steiku Haoss’ (or, so we assume, Steak House) with an adorable cow logo that looks so depressed by his fate that the misery is contagious.

– The local food hall down by the station which (clutching for a record of any sort) is the biggest undercover market made from a zeppelin airport hanger in the world… surprise!

Thirdly, the delightful grassy patch which lines the old moat which runs around the city. And the old industrial port area which is being slowly converted into a creative space with markets, galleries and alike.

Finally, the small but stunning Art Nouveau district, with rows of impressively designed and elaborately detailed buildings.

Outside the city we also found a place to love, a tiny holiday town right on the beach, Jurmula. It was a perfect day trip from central Riga, situated as little as half an hour away by train. In the town the streets look like pictures from a holiday brochure, lined with tall shady trees and imperial wooden houses. During our visit the weather was perfect, and we walked along the beach in the heavenly sun for hours before making our way back to the station and to Riga. We’re always mesmerised by how calm the water is on European beaches. During our visit, Jurmala beach was perfectly still, and though we didn’t go in the water we noticed those who did were still knee deep 50 meters out from the shore. Another striking difference between European and Australian beaches is the amount of business permitted to take place on the beach. Though it’s not to the extent you might find in Asia (where street sellers approach you every two minutes), the prime sand real estate is heavily occupied by restaurants, bars, port-a-loos and recliner proprietors. We’re hopeful that the trend never makes it to Australia.

And that was Riga! Next stop Tartu!

Liepaja, Latvia (11.08.11 – 13.08.11)

August 27, 2011

 

Ah, Liepaja…

 

Once majestic wooden houses, 19th century canal side factories and warehouses, and the usual odd soviet structures greeted us on our 2km walk to our hotel. Our first impression was that Liepaja was like a small town on the central NSW’s coast – the only reason you could be there is if you’re hungry, tired, or stuck.

 

But despite this initial feeling, we found Liepaja to be quite quirky. Our first night was spent in a dodgy hotel, part of an accommodation and nightlife empire owned the legendary Latvian rocker Louie Fontaine, and we were quickly educated on Liepaja’s importance as the Rock Capital of the Baltics. Liepaja is even home to a Hollywood-inspired Liepaja Rock Legends walk of fame! At its start point is a giant metal guitar with a King Arthur style myth surrounding it… play a tune on the giant guitar and cement your place beside the gods of rock. How bad ass!

 

Having said that, rock music is not the only draw card in Liepaja. There is an amazing stretch of beach, which, although a little sea-weedy, looked very inviting. Without the sun, however, we were resigned to an early morning toe dipping, whilst navigating around sleeping locals, who had partied at the waterside nightclub a little too enthusiastically.

 

The beach of Liepaja has always been key to its success and economic survival. Many rich aristocrats from the 18th and 19th centuries holidayed here, and even built homes. This kind of resort and holiday based tourism continued into soviet times, and today the area is still overtaken by gorgeous regal houses and neat green areas. These days, the beach is still a popular spot for Lithuanians and even hosts windsurfing championships in the summer.

 

However, the city’s biggest earner was its port. As well as being the major import and export point for Latvian-Scandinavian trade, this port was also where nearly 6 million people, mostly Russian, set out for the United States at the turn of the 20th century. The route was in such popular demand, that at its peak, there were several boats a month departing direct for New York. After WWII, with the start of Soviet occupation, the port was closed, and was only re-opened after Latvia became independent in 1991.

 

Overall, Liepaja was not exactly a bustling place with heaps of things to do and see, but a our time there allowed us to scratch beneath the surface, and learn some interesting things (even if we don’t really need to know that the longest amber necklace in the world is 3.6m long and weighs 18kg’s).

Hill Of Crosses (Siuali) & Klaipeda, Lithuania (09.08.11 – 11.08.11)

August 26, 2011

As we approached closer to the base of the hill, we began to see that nearly every cross was piggy-backing at least 10 smaller crosses, rosary beads, or other religious icons, creating a very intensely populated landscape. We were soon weaving through the dozens of paths between the crosses, trying to digest the sheer magnitude of the area around us. Even the pine trees growing on the hill were covered in crosses, and some pathways led to dead ends, due to the sprawling piles of overlapping crosses.

 The history behind the Hill of Crosses stems from Soviet times. Around 60,000 people were sent from Lithuania to the Soviet Gulags, and the crosses were placed on this hill as a symbol of remembrance to those who were taken. The crosses would be put up at night, and torn down by soldiers during the day, and the Hill soon came to be a symbol of resistance and unity for Lithuanian people. A game of cat and mouse was born, and every night Lithuanians would sneak around the Soviet patrols and plant crosses in memory of their loved ones. Since Lithuania’s independence from the USSR, the Hill of Crosses has become a major pilgrimage sight, and John Paul II once gave a mass here to over 100,000 people.

 After an hour of walking amongst the seemingly infinite crosses, we headed back to the bus stop, having visited something that will remain with us for a long time. The Hill of Crosses is truly a unique place!

 So, we made it by bus back to the centre of Siuali without any difficulty, and got our connecting train to Klaipeda without any worry. Fair enough to say, we kicked that itinerary’s butt!!

 We were met in Klaipeda with more rainy weather, and spent the evening with crossed fingers for better weather the next day. We hoped for some sun, so as to be able to explore the Curonian spit, which is off Klaipeda’s coast, by bicycle. It is the largest Spit in Europe, and is part of two countries – Lithuania and the Russian pocket, Kaliningrad. Unfortunately, we were unable to cycle the 75kms to the border, but we did manage to explore a large chunk of the island before the heavens opened up on us.

 The Curonian spit is crisscrossed by several bike paths that weave in and out of the dunes and sea side forests, and it was a very picturesque ride. After three hours of good weather, however, we found ourselves cycling back to the Klaipeda-bound ferry in an increasingly steady rain. Even though our day was rained out, we were very glad to have been able to see the Curonian Spit, and the Baltic sea which was particularly violent that day.

 We briefly cycled through the old town, which had a very Germanic look to it, and made our way home, and the next morning we boarded an early bus to Liepaja, Latvia!

Vilnius, Lithuania (06.08.11 – 09.08.11)

August 25, 2011

 

We had no idea what to expect from the Baltics and were pleasantly surprised when we arrived in our first stop, Vilnius. Beautiful, clean and classy, we found the city to be a stunning little jewel in Lithuania’s crown, and an interesting little city to explore.

 

The city centre, which blends a sweet little old town seamlessly with a neat, happening new town was easily walkable, and made for a nice stroll in the perfect weather that we were blessed with during our stay. Walking the streets we were not only charmed by the cute little alleyways that ran throughout the city but by the tonne of lovely street art, statues and cute little vintage boutiques that were scattered around the town. We lost ourselves for hours in one gorgeous little store with multiple levels stocking a bunch of vintage gems. Back outside we strolled slower than usual, constantly scanning for the arty bits and pieces which were scattered on walls, sidewalks or hanging from street-lamps. A few backstreets led us through less-polished areas, like one particularly narrow alley in an old Jewish district where some doors were still marked with text indicating the religion of the previous residents. When we passed, the current residents were cutting wood in their store rooms below, and we were reminded that in a few short months, when we’re back in the warmth of Australia, the place will be covered in snow.

 

Vilnius, the kind little capital that it is, actually shares its space with the Republic of Uzupis, a district which declared itself independent in 1997 (Ironically, on April fool‘s day). It’s all just a bit of a joke, and not taken too seriously by residents or governments alike, yet the area is a creative space full of artists, musicians and likeminded ‘hippies’. As suggested through its name (which roughly translates as ‘On the other side of the river’), the area is separated from the centre of Vilnius by a small shallow river, which runs around the district. The sign indicating your arrival in the Republic bears the four state symbols…
1. A smiley face. (Be as happy as possible!)
2. A 20km symbol. (Drive slowly or run fast)
3. A picture of the Mona Lisa (Be creative)
4. A picture of a car falling off a cliff into the river (Don’t drive in to the river).

 

Across the bridge, further into town, the nation’s constitution is mounted proudly on a wall… with 41 comical regulations including…
– Everyone has the right to live by the river Vilnele, and the river Vilnele has the right to flow by everyone.
– Everyone has the right to die, but this is not an obligation.
– Everyone has the right to be loved, but not necessarily.
– A dog has the right to be a dog.
– A cat is not obliged to love its owner, but must help in times of nee.
– Everyone has a right to celebrate or not celebrate their birthday.
– No one can share what they do not possess.
And the icing on the cake…
– Everyone has the right to have no rights.

 

In addition to these rules and regulations, (plus an army of 12 men) Uzipis has their own flag (A blue hand on a white background, with a whole in the centre of the hand, indicating honesty) and their own mascot, the mermaid, who sits on the banks of the river watching over all who cross into the district. Though the whole thing is (to most) just for fun, the concept has done its job in establishing a highly creative area full of interesting artwork, sculptures, businesses and people. It was a great place to wander!

 

We fell in love with many of the sculptures we came across in the area, particularly those scattered along the banks of the river just over the main bridge. Our favourites included the washing machine, the pledge-your-efforts-to-always-try-and-be-happy pole, and (best of all) the Jesus-with-rucksack sculpture (arguably the first backpacker on the planet?) Even the river itself had fallen victim to the creatives in the area. Along the stream stones were stacked in all sorts of artistic formations beneath multicultural artworks painted on its banks. While walking through the area we noticed more than a few overly fat cats, who, due to the constitution, (Everyone has the right to love and take care of the cat) were enjoying more than a few delicious meals each day! Tucked between a pipe and a wall near the president of Uzipis’ house was a pair of rugged, stuffed friends, a bunny and bear, who symbolised friendship between all, and up the road another statue showed an old drunk sharing his whisky with his cat… highlighting the same idea. It was all a lot of fun, but of course a bit ridiculous, and we eventually (after a climb to the top of a hill for a glance at the city from above) we crossed back over to the serious side of life!

 

Back over the bridge, the creativity continued. One street, the name of which translates as ‘literary street’ has been taken over with imaginative plaques inspired by and dedicated to literary and creative Lithuanian greats. On one wall we found a bunch of glued-on sperm happily swimming away around the corner. On another we located found a photocopied picture with different sized dots glued to a wall, with instructions for the public to take to the wall with their drills and create a piece of art with the guidance of the spots. We couldn’t believe it was permitted, let alone such a successful project!

 

Creativity aside, we found a bunch of stuff to do, see and love in Vilnius. Among them…

LOVE: The local Baltic drink, Kvass, a sweet, somewhat malt/barley favoured syrup. Yum!

SEE: The Trakai castle, an 28km west of Vilnius. A pretty castle on an island just off Trakai, which was inhabited by a King who brought across a bunch of ethnic Karites, (a religious sect from Baghdad) for use as his personal body guards in the late 14th century. To this day a small number of decedents reside in the town and have kept the local customs and delicacies alive.

 

DO: Shoot guns! Yes, in complete contrast to what we learnt in the Republic of Uzipis, one night during our stay we were tempted into the underground bunker of a local army officer who, together with two of his police officer friends, had started up a shooting range for tourists. Though I largely watched (with the exception of three very frightening but well-aimed pistol shots)… Luke, along with a handful of others, spent four hours shooting a range of scary-looking weapons. To name a few…
– Glock, Soviet pistol, magnum .357, tactical 12 gauge shotgun, AK-47, AK-74, WWII era US and German sub machine guns, Uzi, modern German and US weapons.

 

After a positive blog about a brilliant city, do I dare end with a dampener? Poor Luke, after kindly offering to take the top bunk when it was really my turn, woke up on our second day in Vilnius covered in bed bug bites. Poor thing – this is the second time he’s been struck!