Lithuania: the last pagans
Fierce national pride and a love of all things folk are among the ingredients that make up a country literally at the centre of Europe, finds Simon Busch
Witch puppet on sale in Vilnius old town
As I gnawed on a pig's ear, I reflected on the paradox of Lithuania. Here was a country literally at the centre of Europe – a few years ago a clutch of eminent geographers declared the midpoint of the continent to be precisely 26 miles north of the capital, Vilnius – and yet in terms of awareness still hopping about on the periphery. I was chewing on the ear, among other Lithuanian delicacies, at an old kolkhoz, a Soviet collective farm, near the village of Kernave. Its new owner hoped to turn it into a kind of living museum of Lithuanian history: visitors would be able to ride around on horses, sacking and marauding like the Lithuanian knights of old, as well as pack into a tractor-trailer to go and joyfully till the state-owned fields.
Here was a link to another kind of Lithuanian distinction. No, not the pig's ear. (Other people eat pigs' ears – the Chinese, Appalachians in the American south – and anyway they taste like something that really should be left where they are on the pig.) I mean the tilling of the state-owned fields. Many Lithuanians would have preferred to till their own, so much so that, in 1991, the country became the first to break away from the Soviet Union. Thirteen Lithuanians who died defending the TV tower in Vilnius from Communist troops are well on their way to achieving saint-like status in the new nation.
That early rebellion against the Soviets seems like just the latest upsurge of a fierce national stubbornness. The Lithuanians were, to take another example, the last country in Europe to be Christianised. When the Czech missionary St Adalbert was sent to deliver them from paganism in 997 he and his crew ended up being murdered for sleeping on a sacred grave. The Lithuanian language remains ancient, probably the closest living relative to the original Indo-European tongue.
The Lithuanians' love of folk costume appears universal
The pagan habit of committing suicide en masse as a sure path to glory appears to have, ahem, died out but otherwise that more traditional way of being lives on, for example, in Lithuanians' incredibly widespread love of folk dancing and singing. I could go on about Lithuania's other rare attractions: the sprawling old town in Vilnius, for instance, the largest in eastern Europe and lined with stalls selling trinkets made from the chunks of gorgeous amber that wash up on the Baltic coast.Or I could delve into the extraordinary Hill of Crosses: 50,000 crucifixes and counting stuck into a hillock near the industrial city of Siauliai that has become the country's most potent symbol of resistance to almost constant foreign rule. The Soviets, no fans of religion (they turned one of the churches in Vilnius into a museum of atheism) levelled the hill three times, but still the hedgehog-like crosses came back; now the site is a big tourist attraction.
Or I could give you an extended tour of the Devils' Museum in the fading city of Kaunas, a 2,000-strong collection of Luciferian figurines engaged in what often looks like wicked fun. I could, even at this point, introduce Midaus Balzamas Zalgirlis. Somebody may well introduce you to it, after a meal, if you visit Lithuania. Named after a vicious but victorious 15th century battle against the Germans, it is, at 75% alcohol by volume, probably the strongest mead in the world.
I could expand upon these things that stick in the mind after a trip to Lithuania (in the case of the strong mead, by the way, drink it early in case it erases all the other memories) but what really impressed itself upon me was the love in the country of all things folk. Lithuania's economy depends upon making such boring commodities as machine tools, TV sets and fertiliser, but could there be another, secret reason for the country's relative economic strength since breaking away from the Soviets? I refer to the manufacture of national costumes.
Man in medieval dress at the village of Kernave
Everybody seemed to be in one while I was there knickerbockered menfolk, grannies in gay peasant skirts, beribboned blonde little girls. My smock-and-petticoat-based explanation of the Lithuanian economy, however, proved false. I had, instead, landed in the middle of the World Lithuanian Song and Dance Festival. Never mind whether you actually like folk-singing or dancing, the festival, occurring only once every four years, is such an extravaganza you should visit nonetheless.
We were treated first to the dance performance Trail of Time, at the Zalgirio Stadium in Vilnius. The evening reminded me a little of the kind of theatrical-cum-PE productions we were forced into at school, only much, much bigger and slicker. Thousands of teenage girls dressed as angels wafted out from all four corners of the stadium to begin pirouetting collectively about the grounds. Then a whole harvest – if that's the right word – of peasants trooped on to the field, linked arms and began kicking joyously at the air. Next the twirling girls were back, some of them holding aloft, for some reason, transparent cubes that they gracefully tilted this way and that in time with the music.
The arrangements of girls and peasants only became more crowded and complex until, shortly after little boys were being thrown up into the air (and caught), the evening reached its climax with what looked like a whole province or two of the country grinning and dancing in union before the stadium crowd.
Young woman in Vilnius
Yet the dance evening felt like a mere support act for a huge singalong the next evening at Vingio Park. They like their theatrical build-ups, the Lithuanians. At the Thousand Dawn Songs to Lithuania more and more singers gathered on the podium until even the unashamedly retro pom pom dancers were forced off. There weren't quite 1,000 songs, thankfully, but they did all seem to be about Lithuania, as the mass chanting of "Li-to-va" (the name for the country in Lithuanian) showed. There was undoubtedly something naff about the display, as well as possibly something a little North Korean. But like the mass dancing of the evening before, the singers - 30,000 of them at the end, apparently, on that great stage - were also incredibly moving.
Simon travelled to Lithuania with the Lithuania National Tourism Office. For more information how to travel to the country, see Lithuania Tourism.