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Saturday, September 21, 2019

The cosmos and Lithuania

IN Lithuania, sightings of Filipinos are rare, said our guide, Andreas who, on the 250-kilometer drive to the Hill of Crosses, politely asked, “Why did you choose to come to Lithuania?”

“Because we’ve never been here before,” my sisters and I replied simply, our eyes glued to the thick roadside forest going on for so long that we estimated a million Filipinos could still put up houses behind it without attracting any attention. Lithuania is that sparsely populated.

Some 200,000 crosses stand on the Hill of Crosses, like creepy gravestones, except that this isn’t a cemetery or site of mass murder. It’s a pilgrimage site where those who want something from God (like healing, love, the winning six-number combination in the Lotto draw, and whatever else they can’t get on their own) write their petitions on crosses. I bought a cross, crammed as many petitions as I could on the little space, and pitched it firmly on the hill.

Andreas was a very sensitive tour guide, meaning he scrutinized our every facial expression for any sign of displeasure, which he always took personally, including our skepticism at his claim that the carbonated mineral water he offered us in his tour van would relieve us of all our ailments.

We had lunch at a chalet where Andreas strongly recommended Lithuanian cold beet soup with fried potatoes, a personal favorite of his, and grated dumplings with minced meat which he ensured that we would order—and eat—by sitting at our table.

Later, at the Narrow Gauge Railway Museum at the 19th century Anyksciai Railway Station, we got on a Black 1949 steam locomotive, then became the first Filipinos to sign our names in a guestbook at the train stationmaster’s office. Wearing stationmaster caps for a photo, we put on a solemn face as we imagined stationmasters did, only for Andreas to bark: “Smile! This is not North Korea.”

Anyksciai town also features The Horse Museum, set in a traditional Lithuanian farm where one side of the house has a place for pottery and a ladies’ place for weaving or cloth dyeing, and the other side has a man’s place where the man can work as a blacksmith, wood carver, or knife or wagon maker. We chanced upon a he-man making knives. If I could take his biceps home with me, I mused, I would never have to look for a man again to lift five-gallon bottles onto my water dispenser for me.

I banished these wild thoughts at St. Matthew’s Church, Lithuania’s tallest church with 79-meter-high spires.

In Anyksciai, nature is a recurring theme. We inspected the Puntukas Stone, Lithuania’s second largest boulder, weighing 265 tons; before getting on The Treetop Walking Path, a 300-meter-long canopy walkway 70 feet above ground, meaning those afraid of heights who get queasy may still not get good photos of the lush vegetation and the winding Sventoji River below, especially if they pass out at the prospect of climbing the 100-foot-high watchtower at the end of the path.

Andreas took us next to the Ethnocosmological Museum, driving like a madman for our afternoon booking, which museum staff had threatened to cancel because they wanted to go home early.

“This is very shameful. There are many like these (workers) in Lithuania,” he said apologetically.

At the museum, home to one of the biggest telescopes in northern Europe, we held a meteorite from 80,000 years ago, saw what looked like an extraterrestrial reading a newspaper, and learned about wheels, rulers and zodiac signs that ancient people used to determine not their romantic fate, but the right time to plant crops.

Lithuania has a provincial charm, meaning people there are still honest, so Andreas just left our van unlocked on the street when we stepped out to admire the Cathedral Square in Vilnius’s Old Town the next day. The square features the neoclassical Vilnius Cathedral and its 57-meter bell tower and, next to it, the Palace of The Grand Dukes of Lithuania, the former political and cultural center of the state that is now a museum and venue for public events.

Also in Old Town is a district that declared itself independent in 1997, the Republic of Uzupis.

“It has its own passport, president, an army of 11 men, a finance minister, one policeman and its own money, whose value is always equal to one pint of beer,” said Andreas. “It has 7,000 inhabitants, of whom 70 percent are artists and actors. Its Independence Day is April 1, April Fools’ Day.”

Next stop, Andreas said, was “one of the 10 most beautiful churches in the world,” the 17th century St. Peter and Paul Church.

When the church we drove up to was plain, its paint peeling off, he said, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” The church’s beauty refers to the 2,000 sculptures inside it made by Italian masters.

Lunch near the Trakai Island Castle, the 15th century castle of the Grand Duke of Lithuania Vytautas, was better than lunch of the day before since we got to choose our own food. We quickly ordered when Andreas wasn’t looking.

Andreas was an extraordinary tour guide. Without asking if we had any dietary restrictions, he bought us ice cream (which we had to eat; otherwise, it would melt in the car), offered to buy us coffee (which we declined), and sent us off at the airport with a gift, a doll that still reminds us of the rollicking time we had in Lithuania.
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