The Indpendent Republic of Užupis

Before we left Kaunas we had one last thing to see – the ‘Devil’s Musium’ – and since it was a Sunday morning when we should really have been going to church, we felt we could legitimately put this activity into the ‘know your enemy’ category, following the centuries old wisdom of Sun Tzu.  It was a bit of a damp squib to be honest – around 260 little wood/clay/metal models of devils and imps had been put in display cases and the whole thing was stretched out over three floors of an old building.

Still, there was an impressive array of museum souvenirs on sale at the end, so we left clutching several postcards with depictions of Satan that we could send off to our nearest and dearest (as you do).  Kate marshalled her Russian language skills at the cash desk and demanded three carrots to stick on our postcards.  We ended up with stamps, needless to say, but we’d like to think the cash desk people are still talking about it.

On the way to Vlinius we passed several odd things, so for the sake of completeness here are some photos of them.

Gloomy street graffiti in Kaunas, inspired perhaps by Seneca and ‘Apocalypse Now’ respectively:

Outstanding sand sculptures :

And another knitted bicycle cover, again in Kaunas.  What is it with the Balts and the unique and extraordinary way they unite their twin passions for knitting and cycling?

Time to move on ,and having earlier deduced that we should be heading south in order to avoid autumn and keep up as far as possible with the back end of summer, we disregarded our own sage advice and headed east instead, to have a look at Vilnius.  The campsite we’d chosen turned out to be the car park of a backpackers’ hostel just on the southern borders of Užupis on the edge of a wonderfully derelict looking bit of town.  This was the ‘road’ in to where we were going to be staying.  Note Kate’s expression, which can best be described as ‘guarded’…

The weather forecast promised us a totally cloud free day on the Monday. As it was going to be Kate’s birthday the next day, when the forecast predicted rain and clouds, we decided to bring the celebrations forward by a day. Not only that but in a spirit of carefree spendtrhiftiness (is that actually a word?) we opted to remain at the Downtown Forest campsite in Vilnius city centre for a second night and hang the expense.  Sunday night passed quietly as we caught up with all the cleaning, laundry and other admin tasks that had amassed since the last time we’d been in a proper campsite with electricity and the rest of it.   Monday dawned sunny and warm so we spent the day wandering around Vilnius with the dog, admiring stuff and pausing for coffee/tea/beer/wine as necessary.

This proved to be a thoroughly wise decision. Vilnius itself, particularly the Old Town, is 80% unspoilt – the developers are moving in like a pack of wolves equipped with JCBs and huge yellow cranes, to put in swanky top-of-the-range apartments and penthouses, but meanwhile the rest of the town persists in remaining much as it has been for a few centuries.

Not only that, but there’s an area called Užupis that declared itself to be an independent republic on 1st April 1997, some twenty years after our own home town of Hay-on-Wye did the same thing. It’s now grown up a bit from the hippy squat that it started off as, but it’s still a remarkably enjoyable place. Urban art is a thing, of course, and so is more traditional art; seemingly one in seven of the inhabitants is an artist of some kind. Kate, as you can imagine, was totally captivated by this place – and so was I, to be fair.

You just have to admire an independently minded community that has written its own constitution – and displayed it, etched on thirty-one stainless steel panels in the town centre in thirty-one different languages. And the articles of that constitution are spectacular. Number 12, for instance, states that “A dog has the right to be a dog”, while number 27 rules that “Everyone shall remember their name”. In case these rules get too overbearing, there’s a get out clause in number 37, which says “Everyone has the right to have no rights”. You can see the whole document here: Constitution.

What a great day, and what better way to mark Kate’s premature birthday than by going out for a typical Lithuanian supper and a few drinks in one of the Old Town’s restaurants?  A brief recce led us to an authentically Lithuaninan place.  We asked for the typical Lithuanian slap up scoff that we’d promised ourselves and sat back to see what the waiter brought out.  Well.  It would appear that your average local sustains life largely by means of potato with  the help of a small sprinkling of pig products and a large dousing of grease.  The chef had lovingly prepared potato pancakces and several halves of potato – all deep fried in fat at a reassuringly moderate temperature that allowed the grease to permeate the stuff it was meant to be cooking – with a backing group of soured cream and finely diced bacon.  At least, we think it was bacon.  And once we’d finished we had absolutely no desire to eat anything else for some considerable time to come, so it was on to a nearby bar for a restorative whisky.  Reviewing the day it was clear that not everything had been perfect, but all in all I felt that I’d given Mrs H an entirely memorable day – Happy Birthday, Kate!