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Lietuvos Respublika, From Capital to Coast

Vilnius, Klaipeda, Smiltynes, Palanga

overcast 68 °F

I don't think I have enough fingers and toes to count how many times I was asked "What the heck are you doing in Lithuania?".. mostly from people who weren't even Lithuanian. So I answer as I usually do.. "Same reason you are, buddy!" But honestly, I almost had to ask myself the same question. In Vilnius, I only met one other American, which is pretty uncommon to find so few while backpacking.. and I met none in the other cities in Lithuania. Its so uncommon for the Westerner to travel this far over! But for me, meeting Americans.. its nice to talking to a little piece of home, but wouldn't I have just stayed in America if I wanted to meet new Americans every day? Precisely! So BAM, there we go. Lemme get some Lietuva peeps!

“I see my path, but I don’t know where it leads. Not knowing where I’m going is what inspires me to travel it.” — Rosalia de Castro

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I was supposed to couch surf in Vilnius, but judging by my previous experiences, I decided to sit this round out. I booked a hostel for a night a few hours before arrived there. My friend, Jelle from Krakow recommended Jimmy Jumps House Hostel in the Old Town Square.. which I will now extend the recommendation to you! It seemed like a very upbeat hostel.. unfortunately I didn't get too involved in the hostel shenanigans since my time in Vilnius was limited. I arrived early in the morning, just before Vilnius was beginning to wake up. I did a bit of wandering around, found me a quiet coffee shop and finally hunkered in one spot for a bit. I swear, the only time during this whole trip that I would sit still and 'relax' was on a stupid bus. It was so nice to have some down time for once, especially since I was going to catch a free walking tour at noon and we all know.. that's where the friends are made!

Let me tell you something about Vilnius. There are SO MANY CHURCHES. After you've done a bit of traveling, sure, you see some pretty ones.. but after a while you realize.. if you've seen one, you've seen them all. So needless to say, my tour group was very grateful that our guide took us off the beaten path to some really interesting sides of Vilnius. We went to a district that was like a country in itself. They even have their own "constitution" that has the most random units.. like "One must always love their cat, if they so choose to have a cat". If only our constitution were so simplistic! Anyways, the tour guide took us to an old [cement?] greenhouse in the woods of the outskirts of the city center. After a climb to the top of the old abandoned building, the view of Vilnius was beautiful.. see picture above!

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But the friends that I ended up sticking close to were a girl from California named Jen (I know what I said about Americans BUT.. shes been travelling for SEVEN MONTHS.. can you imagine?!) and two Belgian fellas named Antonie and Frederic. The four of us and one of the Aussies went to lunch at a highly recommended restaurant called Forto Dvaras. It an underground restaurant, like many of my favorite restaurants here in Prague! GO THERE. And get the cepeliinai. Its a Lithuania specialty.. a sort of happy medium between a thick pancake and dumpling stuffed with meat and cheese and/or veggies. It had a very interesting taste and texture.. worth a try! Sometimes just sitting around a table with people who are so different than you are some of the best memories during travel. I have never had much desire to visit Belgium in the past, until I met some very lovely new Belgian friends! Another perk of traveling: Meeting people that you can eventually stay with fo' free when you want to visit somewhere new! If you remember a year back, when I traveled to Paris.. I stayed with my Aussie friend Erica that I had met in Munich two years prior, who was a nanny in Paris. You never know how things will work out!

Later that evening, I met up with Jen for dinner past the Cathedral square. Its always so neat listening to other people's traveling experiences, especially when they've been to places you've never been before. Jen had traveled in Asia for three months before she began her European shenanigans. Trust me, I made notes of everything she had done! I was a bit bummed, however, when she told me about how amazing Tallinn, Estonia was.. sadly my budget wasn't going to be able to get me that far north.. which of course at this point, I had no idea Riga would be in the mix! After dinner, we wandered around the supposed 'night life' district and found a few busy bars in the area. We settled on a crowded Irish Pub, seemed to have a lot going on! Not five minutes went by when I was approached by a handsome blonde fellow, sounding as American as ever. The first thing has asks me is if I am Lithuanian.. interesting pick-up line, right? When I say no, he replies "Oh dang, I was wanting to meet some local girls". Haha, not really a good follow-up line either. Its the blonde hair, most of north eastern Europe is filled with blonde hair, blue eyed girls, a beautiful mixture of Russian, German and Polish heritage. Of course, the fact that I'm American didn't stop this new friend from spitting some serious game our way, which was more understandable once we found out that he was actually SWEDISH! My goodness, those Scandinavian men sure are smokin'! And apparently Lithuanian men are as well. Two Swedish guys were visiting their three Lituva friends, the latter being the most appealing to talk to. It was a very.. interesting evening with the Swedes, to say the least. Not only was I scrutinized for drinking whiskey at 22, I was also told that I'm not very good at acting 22. Haha. Nothing I haven't heard before I guess. Thankfully, at the Irish Pub, we happened to run into our two Belgian friends again! Absolute life savers. Very gentlemen-like guys. So they were our saving grace for the night.. and all four of us happened to be travelling to Klaipeda within the next couple days as well! Its always nice to see a familiar face in a foreign land. We'll get to that later.. twice actually!

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“The great difference between voyages rests not with the ships, but with the people you meet on them.” — Amelia E. Barr

On the road again. Five hour bus ride from Vilnius to Klaipeda! I met a nice Lithuanian guy named Otto who was my age, on his way to visit friends and go to a festival in Klaipeda. As a girl who is traveling alone, any time a guy doesn't leave you alone, you always think the worst. All guys seem like creeps at first when you're traveling. But turns out, most of the non-native English speakers just want to practice speaking. Its sort of cool, especially now that I'm an actual English teacher. It's excellent practice for me because I have to constantly be conscious of my speech and talking speed in order to have an efficient conversation with people. So for a majority of the bus ride, I had a nice conversation/teaching session with a foreigner! Pretty awesome. I also learned that he was a plane mechanic at the Vilnius airport. And if anyone knows me, I LOVE airplanes and it made me miss my Wilmington Int'l family so much!

My couch surfing host Nedas and a friend of his met me at the bus station. We grabbed some grub at apparently the best Lithuanian restaurant Klaipeda had to offer. Standard eastern European cuisine.. meat, potatoes, random variety of chopped up veggies. But they were so keen on getting me to the Old Town of Klaipeda to see some sights! We met up with about six more of Nedas's friends and they were kind enough to take me on a little Klaipeda tour by night! It was a quaint little port town. There wasn't very much going on for a Friday night, I got the vibe that it probably only gets really crowded when a cruise ship is docked.. which I later learned is very true! As we were walking along the canal, we stopped at a bench on the water, looked down, and saw a girl sitting on an anchored sail boat, all bundled up, reading a book. She was a Polish girl who had been traveling with six other friends through the Baltic Sea from the coast to Klaipeda. She said they faced stormy weather and shallow waters along the coast.. I can't even imagine! She couldn't have been much older than me and that's her idea of a weekend adventure? Sailing from one country to the next through the Baltic Sea? That is indescribably awesome.

Turns out, my host didn't even live in Klaipeda at all! This actually turned out to be a little bit more annoyed than I would have expected because it meant that I had to solely rely on him to get back into town. We drove the 15 minutes to his residence in Palanga, another coastal village. It actually turned out to have more of a night life in the downtown area compared to Klaipeda and I now wish I would have been able to spend more time there! Next time, next time. Anyways, we made our way back to his house, which is actually his PARENTS house. Very strange, never imagined a couch surfing host to live with his parents.. I feel like that would be a very weird arrangement.. but oh well. It was a very nice house and they had a precious little dog that would hardly ever leave my side. Unfortunately, of course, it didn't speak a bit of English but I guess dogs love you no matter the language you speak! The other somewhat strange part about the house, however, was the pictures of Jesus EVERYWHERE. Apparently, Lithuanians are extremely religious, most Catholic, and they publicly display it throughout their house proudly. Not that I have any problem with this whatsoever.. I just had a little giggle when I went to go brush my teeth and there was a crucifix right next to the mirror, as well as next to every single plug in my bedroom! Oh, culture differences.

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So. Word got out that there are PENGUINS in Klaipeda. Again, if you know me, you'll also know that I have a weird obsession with penguins (Not to the extremity of Jessica Alba in "Good Luck Chuck" but pretty close). So there is really no surprise when I say that the next day I made my way to the Lithuanian Sea Museum and Aquarium to hang out with some cute, furry friends! Going back to my previous statement, downtown Klaipeda was packed because at the end of the canal, there was a huge cruise ship docked! It was a really gorgeous sight.. then as I got closer to it, I realized it was the same cruise line as the one that bellied up off the Italian coast! Haha, oh dear. Anyways, as I'm walking down the main strip towards the ferry port, who do I pass none other than my awesome Belgian friends! Ah, the smallness of the world. Sadly they were on their way to catch a bus to Riga, so I had to bid them farewell.. until I actually went to Riga.. next blog!

I made my way onto the pedestrian ferry for the five minute ride to Smiltynes, an island off the actual Klaipeda coast that separated it from the Baltic. It really could not have been a more perfect Saturday, the weather was absolutely amazing. I just walked everywhere.. went to the aquarium and saw my favorite classy animals, learned a little bit about Lithuanian maritime history and walked down a few paths to see different accesses to the Baltic Sea! I literally felt like I was back at home, just standing on the crosswalk looking at the ocean. Now, when I look at maps of where I was, its such a strange feeling! From land I was looking NORTH. I've never looked straight out at a massive body of water and was looking north.. while being so far up north! Very strange indeed. That night, we moseyed on over to Palanga before heading back home. Travel tip for the coastal cities: Skip Klaipeda and go to Palanga! Its just as close to the sea with a ton more things to do and see. The main boardwalk was absolutely packed full of restaurants, bars, carnival games, souvenir shops, etc. It was a very cool atmosphere. We walked onto a very long pier, which at the end had a giant canvas where people have signed their name and homeland. Naturally, proudly, I carved my name in dark, bold letters right in the center! Courtney USA! When we arrived back at the house, we all enjoyed a nice campfire along with some Lithuanian wine and produce, exchanging stories of our every day lives and our hopes and dreams for the future. Perfect conversations with people you don't know because 1. They'll never know if you actually follow through with them or now and 2. the conversation is endless. You can never learn enough about someone's culture and lifestyle and what the possibilities to become of them are. Apparently, in Lithuania, when you graduate university, if you don't immediately get a job, you must join the military. It makes sense to keep the employment rate down and to keep the standard of their society at top notch but.. still, very strange. As an American, all I see of that is lack of freedom of choice to do what you want with your own life, but.. I guess it keeps you on the path of doing whats best for you rather than sitting on your lazy butt after graduation!

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“Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.” — Andre Gide

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Lithuania was the most culturally exquisite country I have ever been to. All of Nedas's friends also asked me why on earth I would travel all the way to little bitty Klaipeda.. but why not? It was a new adventure and I experienced a completely different culture than what I was immune to, not only in the U.S. but also in Prague as well. It was nice to have some down time in my constant go-go-go adventures. I was able to witness the post-communistic environment of the Baltic states, the Russian language still just as common as Lithuanian. Lithuania truly is a beautiful country and would certainly recommend it for someone who isn't solely looking for a place to get into shenanigans.. but for someone who is sincerely interested in learning about Cold War and post-Soviet culture.

And in a last minute decision.. I booked a bus to Riga, Latvia! Stay tuned for the last leg of my Baltic adventures.. thanks for reading!

Posted by Courtster 07:39 Archived in Lithuania Tagged bus ferry baltic_sea penguins aquarium vilnius baltics klaipeda palanga Comments (0)

"The Soul of Poland is Indestructible"

Krakow, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Warsaw

rain 65 °F

Poland was the greatest surprise for me. The start of the journey was an absolute nightmare, first by missing my 6:30am bus. Add this to your reminders for individual travel: DON'T BOOK EARLY DEPARTURES. EVER. Or if you do, be responsible and go to bed early! But I must admit, in this case, it not only worked out in my favor, it made this trip become one of the most memorable throughout my two weeks.

‎”If at some point you don’t ask yourself, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ then you’re not doing it right.” — Roland Gau

The above quote could never be more appropriate. $100 more to get on a 11 hour train ride from Budapest to Krakow. Awful circumstances, right? Well.. yes, that's right. UNTIL that whole new friends thing happens. For no apparent reason, the stewardess lady on the train did not take a liking to me, no idea why. I'm wandering through this narrow train corridor trying to figure out where my seat is, or at least which car I'm supposed to be in.. maybe she was just offended by my lack of Hungarian. I have no idea. Regardless, the sound of the heavens to a lonesome American traveler's ears is fluent English. So imagine my joy when some British folk come up behind me so naturally I ask "Where the hell am I supposed to go?!" Ah, the nice people of the world. God bless you, Amie, Franky and Lee! They happened to have one seat open in their carriage so I joined them for the remainder of the journey.

None of us could say anything about positive as we rolled into Poland. I don't know if it was the darkness or the gloomy weather or the fact that we had been on a train for umpteen hours. We couldn't stop talking about how we would be in hog heaven for some greasy KFC and free wifi and behold.. there appeared to be civilization is this dreadful place! The bus station connected to a huge mall, fully equipped with some life support in the form of.. you got it, KFC and wifi. The original game plan was for me to detach from the group and couch surf with a host who was supposed to leave his key with a security officer at his complex. 'New friends save my life round two'.. walking me to my host's complex.. where, no surprise here, there's no key left with the officer (later write my host of this misfortune, who is more than sorry that it was lost somehow, but no matter anymore..) Long story short, the couch surfing ordeal bellied up and 'new friends save my life round three' commences and they openly invite me to stay with them at their hostel in the center square, which ended up being PERFECT. All in the same room, dorm room with 14 rooms (and a total of three plugs and three showers/toilets, mind you.. gotta love hostels!) Regardless of the mishaps earlier in the evening, we were settled, awake, and ready to hit the ground running in this wonderful, upbeat city.

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We met two Dutch fellows in our hostel, whom we stuck close to during our three-day stay in Krakow. The first night we bounced around the center of Krakow, taking in the more-than-surprising hype of the city. But, on this first full day of being out of birthday mode with my additional year of wisdom, us girls turned in early, mentally and physically preparing for the underestimated dreadfulness and insight of reality that was to come the following day.

This is also when my trip dropped about 25 degrees. I don't think there's ever been a time in my life when I've had to wear a sweatshirt and jeans in AUGUST. We woke up to a dreary, rainy Krakow, which only seemed appropriate since we were planning on going to Auschwitz-Birkenau all day. Our new Dutch friends just so happened to be literally roadtripping throughout Europe, so they offered us a lift to the hour journey to the concentration camp. It was quite an interesting ride, four people packed into the back seat of Rens's little Lexis and 6'5 Jelle squeezed into the passenger seat! At least we had a nice laugh before the inevitable ambiance came about..

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"We are all different; because of that, each of us has something different and special to offer and each and every one of us can make a difference by not being indifferent." -- Henry Friedman, Chairman of the Holocaust Education Centre, Washington D.C.

For most of us outsiders, being those who especially don't have much connection or relation to the Holocaust in general, Auschwitz is typically one of the first things that comes to mind. It has the reputation as one of the most horrific and devastating camps of World War II, which is true. Most websites claim that Auschwitz was built solely for the purpose of becoming a labor camp, which I learned is entirely false. The whole Auschwitz complex is located in Oswiecim, a southern town located about an hour west from Krakow. Hitler annexed this town to start the conversion into the death camp. The entirety of the complex was broken up into three parts: Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II and Birkenau. I was lucky enough to visit the first and the latter. Oswiecim was most appealing because it was actually already built. The history of present "Auschwitz I" is a Polish Army barracks, which shows the incredulous irony in history. So in 1940, the town of Oswiecim watched the accommodations for their country's army become one of the most tragic pieces of 20th century history. Also, at the start of Auschwitz, Jews were not yet the target. Most of the inmates in Auschwitz I were Polish politicians, Soviet POWs, gypsies. It wasn't until 1941 when all of the Jews from Oswiecim were forced out and the construction of Birkenau begun in 1942. My purpose wasn't to give you a history lesson, I know you're reading this to discover my personal experiences and reactions to the death camps. But after my guided tour, I realized how misconstrued history books can be. I feel like, that by actually visiting the camp and being open-minded and receptive to what the place had to say, I learned so much more than in all my years prior.

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Take it from me: Spend the money to do the guided tour throughout these concentration camps. They are free to walk through, but I'd imagine you would not get nearly the same effect you would with a guide. Our tour guide was Polish.. so while she was talking about these events, she would say "my people" and "my country". I have been on many tours in my life, even that of the Third Reich tour in Munich; however, I have never experienced stories of such despair on the very grounds of which I was walking on. At the end of the Auschwitz I tour, we had a little bit of down time before we took a bus to Birkenau for the second part of the guided tour. Another tidbit of advice: You might not want to do this tour alone. Like anything else that one might struggle with, its always a bit easier to be able to talk it out with others, especially when it comes to things we don't entirely understand. We were bombarded with so much disastrous information, we all seemed rather dumbfounded and empty during our break. It was strange, there were several other tourists walking around with children, smiling like it was just an everyday, normal tour. We didn't understand. Some of the things we saw and heard throughout the tour were enough to completely immerse yourself in your own thoughts, at the very least putting anyone out of any sort of good mood. To stand in front of a gas chamber and crematorium.. the words aren't there. There are literally no words to describe the feeling you have in your gut, knowing that where you stood, inhumanity was merely an understatement, a concept irrelevant to the the Nazi's lives.

Birkenau. In my experience learning about the Holocaust, Birkenau was never the first thought when talking about the death camps, for reasons I now do not understand. If you have ever seen the movie Boy in the Striped Pajamas, that is Birkenau. Birkenau was a MASSIVE concentration camp, with two large gas chambers in the end of the railway. Every picture you see, like above, of the bricked entrance with the railroad going through the center.. as seen in every picture we've ever seen growing up learning about the Holocaust.. I can't even begin to explain how strange it was to just stand in its presence. I've never seen a place so eerie.. so eerily quiet. It is true when they say that the birds don't even sing over Birkenau. Well, I saw birds and I never heard a thing. In the early 1940s, there were hundreds of huts in Birkenau, many of which were bombed down during the liberation. All that was left of them was their brick chimneys. However, there were still several huts standing on both the men and women's side. The male huts were made of wood and the women's were mostly brick. Many of the barrack beds were still standing, several decorated with flowers and stones from visitors. We walked along the railroad towards the back of the camp, where the rail carts finalized their journey and the prisoners where pointed in the direction of either the gas chambers or the barracks. The gas chambers are completely destroyed, all that is left is the ruins left from the bombing. The shape of the building is still very noticeable, the mere sight of it makes you sick to your stomach.

There is a beautiful memorial at the end of the railroad in between the two gas chambers. At least twenty plaques like the two below, all written in a different language, line the memorial. This was truly one of the most eye-opening experiences in my life. There are still so many questions circling my mind, I don't think the concept of the Holocaust will ever be fathomable.

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“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.” -- Jawaharal Nehru

We all passed out asleep on the ride back to Krakow. Not only was it completely mentally exhausting, I think we all had been lacking sleep for a long time.. backpacking can take its toll on you! And after an emotional day like we just had, some good old fashion shenanigans seemed to be all kinds of necessary! Obviously a tourist trap, yet very popular for a Sunday night, we moseyed to a club near our hostel. Oh my and were the creepers out that night! Very thankful for friends telling giant Brazilian men who follow me to the bathroom that I'm not interested and other friends pretending to be my boyfriend so midget Indian men will stop asking me to dance.. all in all, it was a pretty fun and eventful night to say the least!

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It was a sad day saying goodbye to Krakow. It definitely made a jump to my top five list of favorite cities in Europe.. another visit will have to be in order soon! Ah, I love that.. going somewhere new with absolutely no prior knowledge of what you're getting yourself into. Then again, the ones you travel with and/or meet during your journey makes all the difference in the world. To my new British and Dutch friends, thank you for everything you did to make Krakow a wonderful experience for me! You are always so welcome to pay a visit to Praha anytime!

Bus maintenance to Warsaw. Not exactly the best news to hear when I was already bummed about leaving Krakow.. but finally on our way in the a.m. hours. A five hour bus ride easily turns into seven when you factor in downpours the entire way and bumper to bumper traffic once reaching civilization on the outskirts of Warsaw. Thankfully I was only in Warsaw for about 36 hours, it was literally factored into my itinerary for the sole purpose to get to Vilnius later.. I can say though, that while I was in Warsaw, I had a legitimate Polish meal, consisting of meat and cheese stuffed dumplings and grilled chicken and gravy! Might have been one of the best meals of my entire trip.. AND I DIDN'T EVEN GET A PICTURE OF IT. I don't know what I was thinking!

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Another neat experience I had while being in the capital of Poland was the celebration of Polish Army Day. It was both to my benefit and not, since almost everything in Warsaw was closed. However, while I walking throughout Old Town and in the central district, there were TONS of people walking around carrying Polish flags and singing folk songs. I may or may not have even seen an albino gangster Polish kid rapping in the middle of a square wearing a Braves fitted hat! Haha.. It was so exciting! Polish army men and women were everywhere.. they had stands lining the main streets with old army jeeps and vehicles, planes, guns, supplies, etc. People were able to get in the vehicles and hold the guns to take pictures and what not (I'm pretty sure if this were to happen in America, you'd have to get some sort of permit and file some paperwork in order to get near these massive weapons..)

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“Our happiest moments as tourists always seem to come when we stumble upon one thing while in pursuit of something else.” — Lawrence Block

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Time to say goodbye to Poland. Such a variety of adventures, emotions, experiences, food, friends, and so much more to speak of, its rather difficult to put it all down on this blog. I feel like I'd covered a lot of ground there, most of it being on a train or bus, going through the country this way and also going back through in the opposite direction the next week on my way back to Prague. The plethora of history on Polish soil is mindbogglingly deep and enthralling. Although not usually at the top of most Westerners' travel lists, I would highly advise going to Krakow and Oswiecim. You will not regret it!

Keep checking back for the next post.. for the next leg of the adventure.. we're making our way up to the Baltic region!

Thanks for reading ya'll!

-----> SIDE NOTE. After I went to Auschwitz-Birkenau, I bought a book called "Alone in Berlin". Its tells the story of a working man in Berlin who is a part of the Party, until his only son is killed on the front lines.. then he turns against Hitler. Its really good so far, if you're looking for an interesting read!

Posted by Courtster 01:12 Archived in Poland Tagged bus train warsaw auschwitz concentration_camp krakow roadtrip birkenau Comments (0)

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