Europe | Lithuania | Klaipeda – Hill of Witches
On my first trip to Lithuania in 1996, I did many drawings atop the Hill of Witches. The wooded hill is home to wood carvings that depict pagan myths. One particular image stuck in my mind, and finally for my 40th birthday I planned to get the image tattooed on my arm. I had visions of myself returning to the Hill Witches and posing with my newly scarred arm in front of the statue.
There were 2 problems, though. First, I haven’t get the tattoo yet, for reasons involving mostly customs restrictions stopping my chosen tattooist from bringing all his equipment into the UK. The second thing was that I never found exactly what this image meant. What was the story? Why was the fish under the boat? And who was the woman in the boat? To me it represented travel, water and independence. But I wanted to know for sure, before I really committed myself.
Getting to Juodkrante, the village near the Hill of Witches, is no easy feat. It took us 2 taxis, 2 buses and a boat – each way. A journey arduous even for people without kids. First a cab from our hotel, then a mini-bus from Palanga to Klaipeda. For someone unknown and idiotic reason I assumed the harbour was near the bus station. The woman at the kiosk did give me a funny look when I asked directions and said we were walking. But my Lithuanian was not good enough to ask how far the harbour was.
An hour and a lot of grim, dull construction sites later, and we found water. Lucy failed to fall asleep in her buggy, and both adults were fed up. It turned out the boat only went once an hour, so we’d have missed it even if we’d taken a taxi.
To get to the Curonian Spit, the long thin strip of land along the Baltic coast, one must take a ferry from Klaipeda. Much fun for kids of all ages. On the other side we met a local bus which took us the remaining 20 or so k to Juodkrante.
Had Sexton and I been alone, I’d have stayed in Juodkrante rather than Palanga. It is quiet and peaceful, and there are no Russians playing crappy Eurotrash on cheap electric pianos. There is also not much for kids to do, other than walking on the Hill of Witches itself. And the beach is a drive away.
But rather than walk up the Hill, Lucy finally slept. We carefully manoeuvred over roots and rocks the ultra-light MacLaren buggy that was never made for any terrain more bumpy than Oxford Street. Once we came to the first long bench, Sexton and I joined Lucy for an afternoon slumber. Looking up at the trees, we dozed in a perfect rest, just soaking in the calming atmosphere of the hill. This was witches as in Pagan, healers, pre-Christians, not witches as in “BOO! Halloween”.
The hill was much busier than in 1996 or 98. Back then I recalled having the hill mostly to ourselves, when I’d been with Marius or my brother. Now entire tour groups speaking all kinds of languages appeared every 5 minutes. We didn’t care, and kept on snoozing as people strolled past.
One tour group in English caught my attention. The guide told a story about one of the carvings, that it was about the shortest night of the year, when couples go out to find a flowering fern. The sculpture showed 3 witches guarding the precious plant. In English! If I followed this tour to my tattoo stature, I would finally learn its meaning!
For the next hour or so, Sexton, Lucy (still sleeping) and I hovered just ahead or behind the tour group. We finally came to a cluster of half a dozen carvings. The guide stopped and told a story about the Lucky Fisherman, the stature right next to my fish-lady. I had my movie camera poised, ready to finally film the meaning behind that piece, behind the image I would embed permanently on my arm.
But then guide moved on. “What about this one?” I asked no one in particular. After all I was not on the tour, what right did I have to ask? An Australian woman heard me and spoke up on my behalf. The guide replied,
“There is no story for that one. Not all the carvings have stories.”
And that was it. My fish girl had no meaning at all.
I even bought a book afterwards, which they finally had in English now. But that carving was not in it.
Lucy later woke up, made a friend, and posed for pictures amongst witches playing poker with devils. We had dinner at the local yacht club. At first I thought this must be expensive, seeing “yachtus clubas” over the door. But in fact it was no different to any other place in Lithuania. The old row boats outside would hardly be called “yachts” anywhere else. Lucy ate pizza and played at hiding under her towel. Sexton and I drank beer and cocktails and enjoyed being near the water.
Bus, boat, taxi, mini-bus and taxi and we arrived back at our hotel, exhausted.
The last day in Lithuania, Lucy and I rented a bicycle. To show how things had changed, I once hired a bike 10 years ago, when mine was back in Vilnius and I was in Palanga. The bike was so old and rickety, the tyre wore clean through as I was on it. Now the bike we got was better than the one I have at home. And they didn’t even take my name or a deposit. I guess the MacLaren buggy we left behind was enough,
We cycled along the coast, under fir trees that grow in sand, a landscape I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere other than here. We stopped on the beach and in the nature reserve south of Palanga, where another couple’s buggy fell into a pond while the couple admired the scenery. Luckily their toddler was also outside his buggy when it fell in. But did I not envy them, picking their soaking wet shopping bags out of the pond.
Some general notes: Lithuania is very child friendly in that they like kids, and on the coast especially there are play areas for children everywhere. However, there are no cribs in hotels (we brought our own travel-cot), no high chairs (even in restaurants with play areas and kids’ menus) and no car seats. Most Lithuanians still don’t even wear seatbelts in the front seat. And most still drive like amateur racing drivers (of which my dad was one.)
Lithuania is still cheap. They have not adapted the 2-tier economy that Cuba and even the Czech Republic had 10 years ago. Everyone pays the same amount, tourists and locals alike. Lithuania is still relatively unvisited. We might have seen 2 back-packers the entire time, even travelling on pubic transport. Most foreign visitors are Russians visiting the coast for holidays, or Americans researching their roots.
On the trolley bus in Vilnius, Sexton and I felt strangely out of place in a we-are-rich way, with my faux-leather coat and his suit jacket. But on the coast, Lucy was under-dressed – all the kids on Palanga promenade seemed to be in Sunday best.
Sexton liked Lithuania a lot. He said there was none of the attitude there that you get in London. Lithuanians are very sedate to the point of being even unfriendly. Though we did meet quite a few people, I noticed that if I smiled at a mom with a baby, the smile was not always returned.
The really nice thing was not being hassled. In Romania or Cuba, we were always being approached by people who pretended to be friendly but were really out for a con. We saw a few beggars here, some very poor, like the woman who finished my lunch in Vilnius. But not once on this trip did we ever feel we had to watch our backs. And that made for a very pleasant journey.
So, add up good friends, not worrying about money or thieves, interesting sites, kid-friendly restaurants, Frank Zappa, fantastic churches, a relaxing but exciting train ride, cheap taxis, cheap food, cheap beer, a quiet place to sleep, sand, sea and cycling, and it comes out very good indeed.
(re: photos – note soil erosion from 1996 to 2006)