Monday, November 23, 2015

Snippets from Vilnius, Lithuania

Amparo and I fell in love with Lithuania. But first we have to leave the Soviet Bloc. 
At the Lithuanian border crossing, we surrendered our Russian Transit documents which were good for both Russia and Belarus. Then one goes through Lithuanian immigration as they are part of the European Union. Put away a few leftover Rubles and dig out the Euros.

What a quaint beautiful country Lithuania. Vilnius, the capital is small and compact with a population of only 540,000. The people are warmer and friendlier than the last two countries, still not a lot of smiles though. If you greet them on the street, they will at least acknowledge your greeting.

Downtown Vilnius is modern yet they preserved its old Old Town which lies directly across the river to the left of the white church. We stayed in the old town with its numerous narrow cobblestone streets heading off is all directions. Pick one and walk. Promise what you see and find will be gratifying.

The 13th century Gediminas Castle on the hill overlooking old and new Vilnius is now a museum,  . 

Gediminas Castle and the Church of the Holy Mother of God rise high 
above the old town neighborhoods.

Our hotel, the Radisson Blu Astoria fronted the old cobblestone Rotusesaikste plaza.
 From our warm room, we could watch townspeople scurry home crossing the open plaza holding their collars up tight against the cold night wind.

Last night's frost greets the morning sun. Fall has arrived with winter around the corner. 

Some of the old town cobblestone streets was actually wide enough for a car, 
which makes them a newer "old" street. Old old streets are only cart width.

The Vilnus Roman Catholic Cathedral and belfry. In the 13th century, the belfry was part of a defensive wall surrounding the city. When the wall came down, the tower was converted to a bell tower for the church.

St. Nicolas' Church was a Catholic church until the 18th century when a Russian General ordered it confiscated and converted to a Russian Orthodox church. 

Enough of the churches, let's explore some narrow side streets.

Here is an interesting little street. Where will it lead? 
Some might answer that with "a mugging?" No,  people still reside on these streets. Schools, shops and churches populate these areas too. They don't want crime in their neighborhoods any more than you and I want it in ours. Never once did we feel threatened or uncomfortable while wandering these little side streets. Not here in Vilnius nor in any of the countries we visited. 

A local art gallery was promoting their latest exhibit high on the walls.

Amparo stopped to admire a large street drawing on an underpass.

These little stands were throughout the city, where I could find my daily Diet Coke; 80¢ for the 20 oz bottle. The clerk inside stayed nice and warm while customers with collars flipped high bought their latte and smokes. Smoking is still quite popular across most of Europe. 

This is the third person we saw sweeping leaves.
By the looks of the tree, his work is not done.

Make that fourth... Doesn't anyone have a rake? 
What was nice? Not hearing the sound of gas powered leaf blowers.

Fashionable lady studying the latest entertainment announcements.

Just outside the old town, Vilnius has many quaint tranquil residential streets in and around the city. 
Love the fall colors, very calming.

A modern corner grocery store advertises in BIG BOLD COLORFUL IMAGES.

Like school children lined up for a class photo, all the flowers came out to soak up 
the sun before winter arrives. 

In a cafe window... can only offer a poor translation: "Big pot of boiled potatoes???"

We wanted to experience a typical Lithuanian dinner complete with folk music and games. 

To make the atmosphere feel more authentic, it was set in a cellar with vaulted brick wall/ceiling. Maybe an old wine cellar?

Some of the folk musicians were young, but they played with heart and soul.

There were two games where Kojak John from Australia and I were pitted against each other.

First,  we were each given a hammer and a nail. The contest was to see who was the fastest to drive their nail all the way into a wooden stump. Sounds simple enough. The hidden challenge arose when we started hammering. The stump was uneven on the bottom, causing it to rocked from side to side with each blow. The nail heads bobbled and flopped side to side. After many many thumps on the stump, I finally won without bending my nail.

On to the second Challenge. 
Which of us can chug a large mug of beer the fastest. Sound easy, right? 
But try it while blindfolded, AND... 
with each contestant hoisting the other guy's mug.
Good thing they draped extra large bibs over our fronts. 

While John poured beer into my mouth I did the same to him, at least... 
I think it was him, being blindfolded and all.

John beat me hands down on that one.  Or should I say, beat me bottoms up?

And now for some dancing... Lithuanian style.

Back out in the streets, rental bikes but no one using them. 
Seeing how the people in the background are bundled up, yes it was quite cool. 

Amparo haggling prices with a street vendor whose hair matched the rental bicycles. 

In many parts of Europe there is an old custom of young newlyweds placing a lock on a public fence and throwing away the key to symbolize their commitment to each other. The key is suppose to be thrown where it cannot be found... ever.  Fences near a deep river are the popular place for being 'locked'.

After the cold dehumanized feeling we felt in previous countries, Lithuania was such a joy to experience. The scale is small, the narrow streets interesting and the people are friendly. 
Highly recommend Vilnius to all. 

 We drive to Warsaw tomorrow, the last country of the tour Poland.


Sunday, November 22, 2015

Snippets from Minsk, Belarus

Crossing over the border from Russia into Belarus (after paying a US$73 VISA Fee to Belarus), noticed that the farms were not overgrown with weeds like they were in Russia. Did not actually see anyone working but the land is being tilled.

The guide told us Belarus is still run by a socialist President who believes in communal farms. When I asked about the lack of active farming in Russia, the answer was...  the land there wasn't very good.  Hmmm, more government BS.

What difference does a border make? Fallow ground becomes fertile by crossing a political line?
Not likely! Will keep pressing the question...

Though we have read and heard about Minsk many times in history, had no idea what to expect.
We were very disappointed.

Arriving in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, we see huge red and green signs and billboards everywhere. All promoting October 11th as the national election day. Since voting is mandatory of all citizens, a big turn-out is expected.  Although, everyone seems to already knows who will win... again, the current supreme ruler President Alexander Lukashenko. Who has won every election for the last twenty plus years. No term limits here...

Afterwards I read that 87% of the population voted to reelect Lukashenko.
Another article stated 85% of the population turned out to vote. 
Hmmmm... Guess he is so popular some voters were moved 
to give him an extra vote of confidence. 

Central government buildings here are cold, impersonal, uninspired monoliths.  
Maybe they should leave the election posters up to hide the boring facade, at least it would give a festive christmas feeling with the bold red and green. 

Eight thirty in the morning, a huge empty plaza in front of a huge government building. Where are all the people? Anybody....?

Amparo poses in front of another hero statue in an empty plaza.
Do their architects only have square and rectangular models to work with? To go from the overly ornate 'wedding cake' buildings of Moscow to the stark LegoLand looking buildings of Minsk is a huge shift in architectural philosophy for two countries that were both part of the Soviet Union at one time.

Another over the top monument to... something. Clean, neat, manicured landscaping,
 but void of any people.

Bold city park entry gate for at least one person. No families, no strollers, no joggers.

Finally found some people outdoors in Minsk, a grounds crew.  
In the early morning chill,  mowing and cleaning to keep the plaza spotless.

Belarusian delivery trucks on a clean streets  Orderly drivers, no loud horns, no racing or swerving from one lane to another. Not many people out either... perhaps all home studying the candidate slate, deciding for whom to vote?

On a street corner in downtown Minsk, a more modern glass topped subway entrance/exit. 

The only thing in Minsk that stopped me in my tracks, made my jaw drop,
this brass plaque above the entrance to the Roman Catholic church.
Founded in 1067. 1067..... think about it.

Nine hundred and forty-eight years ago...
To Americans anything over a hundred years old is an antique,
 over two hundred years is ancient, over five hundred is prehistoric.

The oldest Roman Catholic Church in Minsk has a slaying of a dragon statue rather than a crucifix out front. The friendly Priest personally came out to welcome us inside.

Our local guide said the Russian Orthodox Churches discourage visitors and could not get us into one?  Hmm, the Russian Orthodox Priests at the monastery in Russia didn't seems to mind visitors,
or was it because they charged us to come in and buy bottles of fountain of youth water?

Our hotel was of a Picasso inspired architectural design. Which made it stand out in stark contrast to the government's simplified geometric shapes.

The hotel may be one of a kind, but we hated our room.
There were huge spotlights outside our window to illuminate the building exterior at night,
which also illuminated our room all night.  We wore sleep masks.

Like the hotel structure itself, its desserts were over the top is design.
Overly elaborate on the outside but lacking substance or flavor on the inside.
Maybe pleasing to the eye but hard to stomach.  I know, this one I ate.

It's like socialism. Looks good, even appetizing. But really depressing
when you actually have to swallow it.

Minsk is very clean, organized yet strangely lacking of people. 
 Oddly disappointing and sad. The least inspiring country we have been in so far.

The only smile we received was from the Roman Catholic priest.

Next up, tomorrow we drive to Vilnus, Lithuania.


Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Snippets from Moscow, Part 2 - People, Puns and Putin

The early morning air is crisp and invigorating. Autumn has arrived in Russia. 
Today we travel out of Moscow to the Holy Trinity St. Sergius Lavra monastery where they say the Matryoshka or nesting dolls originated. The actual history of the Matryoshka dolls goes back so far in Russian culture and history, is the actual origin even known? 

When they said monastery, in my mind thought maybe a humble ancient religious structure with thick mud walls, large wooden gates, monks free of worldly possessions and pious priests. Maybe even a vow of silence???

Not to be, was an elaborate collection of gold domed churches, chapels, fountain of youth water well, with more gold inside a fortress of thick white walls than anything we have seen yet. 

Entry fee required!  In exchange was given a 'free' CD of Russian Orthodox Hymns.

Local Russian Orthodox priest leading his small flock to Sunday morning Mass along the outer monastery walls.

The green topped cupola in the back center covers the fountain of youth water well,  flowing healing waters where crowds line up for hours to fill their plastic bottles of the precious water. Forgot to bring your bottle? Don't worry, they will gladly sell you one.

If the line is too long, no problem. There is a lady selling pre-filled bottles in the next courtyard.

Amparo, watch out! Religion is sneaking up you. 

Next courtyard over, the water lady selling empty bottles and fountain of youth water. 
Doesn't she look happy.

The morning was cold and no one was buying... yet.

Still in prayer while leaving the cathedral. Eyes closed, does he ever trip like the Pope?

Small stall with authentic Matryoshka dolls, or nesting dolls. They are considered authentic if the craftsman who made them signs the bottom. 
Many of the dolls we saw in the Moscow souvenir shops had no signature. Maybe from China?

Little girl in the pink hat has her eye on that fresh roll still warm from the oven.
Another church run business inside the monastery walls.

Babuska (grandmother) carding the wool before spinning it while granddaughter knits another shawl to sell, outside the walls.

Every home we saw in the country had tall solid fences around them.  Was difficult to see the houses. 
Just open your gate and sell fruit, flowers or whatever to people in the street.

Bicycles are commonly used for purposes other than riding.
Here it's a two wheel pickup truck hauling lumber.

Or for decoration in the GUM department store with plastic fall flowers.

Downtown Moscow also has rental bicycles just like everywhere else in Europe. And like everywhere else, we never saw anyone actually using them. The people we saw riding had their own bicycles. 

Outside the Red Square were many souvenir stands offering typical Russian hats from soft warm fur to cold steel helmets and the Matryoshka dolls...  unsigned.

Young Russian family looking for Lenin's Tomb behind me. 

If you’re russian you’ll pass right by it 
and if you’re stalin you’ll never get there, 
but if you’re Putin enough effort 
you’ll see it in the end.

Cossacks are still in Russia. Now working as greeters at the 'authentic' restaurant 
and posing for photos with tourists for a few rubles.

Fashionable blonde teaching her son to ride his first bicycle on the Red Square cobblestones. 
Amparo noted that most of the women we saw were very fashion conscious.

Interestingly I spotted this painter working in the dark the night before. 
I wondered how can he see to paint in the dark? 

The next morning I see him still up there painting, on the same  spot ,on the same building,  second floor. Maybe those ear phones are not for music but is a KGB listening device?????????

Restng in the shadow of a big gun. 

Meeting the BIGGEST GUN in Russia,  Putin!
or is it a Putin lookalike? Are you Putin me on?

Says he LOVES Colombians, but Americans? Not so much. What a diplomat. 

This was the biggest smile I could coax from this cutie.

We really are in Red Square, MOSCOW!!!  
Never thought a Colombian small town girl and an Ohio small town boy would be here!
Pinch us both!  Another major highlight,  a RED letter day.

Could this be the Russian version of Rock, Scissors, Pigeon.  Pigeon wins.
Socialists get no respect, alive or dead!

Early morning in the hotel, Amparo is ready for a new day, but first breakfast. 
Doesn't she looks well rested and fresh? Must be the shots.

Typical all over Europe, breakfast is an offering of a large selection of luncheon meats, cheeses and pastries. Coffee so strong, even watered down I couldn't drink it. Stuck with the fresh fruit juices. 

Russian desserts are another matter. Not sure I want to eat anything so fancy. 
Like their "wedding cake" buildings, better to be admired from a distance than... 

The card say "Cake of the Day"....a baked fruit tort with a fancy sugar veil?

Country wildflowers losing the struggle against the cold October nights. 
Our time to leave Moscow is fast approaching.

Even a simple walkway can be attractive when created by someone with a good eye. 

Remember the movie "Red October" about a Russian nuclear attack submarine captain who wishes to defect to the West?  We found out Red October is actually the name of the most famous chocolate candy company in all of Russia. 

Our time in Moscow is over, on to Minsk in the morning.