I was with a friend in Rome trying to decide on where to head for the weekend. You know how the banter goes. “I’ve already been to Prague.” “It’s supposed to rain all weekend in Budapest.” I can be pretty random, so I looked over the map and said, “Why not Vilnius, Lithuania?” I had no idea what I was talking about, but I knew it was a place that you didn’t hear of people going. So to me, that makes traveling all the better. Fortunately I was with a friend who didn’t require too much persuasion.
We arrived late on a Friday night. Upon waking Saturday morning the skies were dark grey, completely overcast. “Photographically speaking, this trip could be a wash,” I thought to myself. I tried to convince myself that my life had not become driven by photography. I sounded like an alcoholic.
True, it would prove to be a photographic challenge, there was not once such a thing as dramatic light. I’d arranged logistics for a photographic trip in the Himalaya for a well known photographer a few years ago, and I still remember running across the desert after Bactrian camels and hearing the photographer yell to me, “It’s all about the light.” I lied to myself and said, “It’s just about being here, right?”
My friend quietly rejoiced. I figuratively took another swig from the bottle.
We made it out the door late Saturday morning and headed towards town hall, looking for some information on where to begin. Low and behold, in the town hall itself was a cultural event. Our countenances brightened, this was going to be a good trip after all.
This first photograph was made at the cultural event. It’s a photograph of Svetlana Chertkova. She was my first Lithuanian crush. The next photo was made from the steps of town hall, looking out over Vilnius, a city I would come to love.
Did you ever notice how the guidebooks like to persuade you to travel to a place because they’ve just recently refurbished all the ancient places, thereby ruining them in the process for people like me. What I want when I travel is authenticity! I want to see places as they are, or even as they were, not how they’d look if we built them today. So now you’re getting a hint as to why I’d come to love Vilnius. Because this time I was arrive 15 years early. And this is not being written to persuade you to go, I don’t think you should. I’m simply saying that in 15 years when they refurbish all the churches that the Soviet’s destroyed, this city is going to become another Prague, and I won’t want to go then. I’m just saying that I’m glad I went now. If you do go now, you’re going to see a Prague without the crowds. It’s an amazing city. I’m not trying to persuade you to go.
The following photograph is from the Church of the Holy Trinity. It’s in the old city. It still bears scars from when the Soviets destroyed so many of the churches, and it’s so beautiful in its current condition. I could just feel the history. What follows is a detail shot from one of the walls near the back of the church.
The Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches were living. People were actively praying, lighting candles, and in general being religious. It reminded me a bit of watching Buddhists in Asia. Here a woman was lighting candles in the Orthodox Church of the Holy Spirit.
Next we were to enter the grounds of the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The inside of this church had been thoroughly ravished, by both the Soviets and the general fighting of World War II. Yet the people still come and pray in the quiet stillness.
Of course I made a few photographs as we walked the streets and headed towards the railway station.
The history had gotten the best of us, and we wanted to know more. We headed towards the railway station and took a train to Paneriai, only about 7 miles out from the city center. I’d like to, at this point, give a shout out to the Eastern European Rail system. The trains were clean, they ran on time, and it was easy to travel on them. I’m usually comparing things to India, but I think this rail system would stand with the best of them anywhere on earth.
It’s about a 2km walk to the memorial site. It has a stark history. It was once a part of Poland. After the invasion of Poland in 1939 it fell to the Soviets. Between 1941 and 1944, Paneriai become the mass murder site of over 100,000 people, most of them Jews. I was reminded of the killing fields in Cambodia. We walked through the site in silence. The following image was one of many sites serving as a memorial.
It was a somber ride back to Vilnius. I am saddened even now by the fact that today in our world such evil could rise again. We rode past suburbs and back to the railway station.
You may at this point be wondering how on earth I could say I’d come to love this place. Arriving after 11:30 the first night, and knowing one word of Lithuanian, my friend and I received the kindest help from strangers who shared their taxi with us, saving us some money in the process, and made sure we got to our places without incident. It was that moment of bonding with a culture, with the people, that made me fall in love with Lithuania. (To be continued next week)