Search for Baltic roots

Angie Schiavone finds a family story in the turbulent history of mittel-Europe.

It's easy to feel optimistic about a trip that begins with a round of applause as the plane touches down. As we arrive in Kaunas, Lithuania's second-largest city, our fellow passengers cheer and clap with enough enthusiasm to suggest smooth landings are a rare occurrence. But really, they're just glad to be home - back in the geographic centre of Europe. And despite our Australian passports, we feel the same in a way. We're here to research the heritage of my husband, Clive, whose grandparents were Lithuanian.

The feeling of belonging, though, lasts only a short time. The locals, many with a penchant for large, fluoro pink suitcases, are gone in a flash and we're left with just a few stragglers waiting for an airport bus, without much idea where it will take us. No more than an hour later we find the town's hub and a room in the Hotel Metropolis, built in 1899.

We explore Kaunas by foot, past dilapidated buildings, a beautiful promenade lined with trees and marigolds, statues and more statues, one man's collection of more than 2000 devils and a cafe with free Wi-Fi and biscuits from, of all places, the Byron Bay Cookie Company.

On a day trip we visit the nearby towns of Pusalotas and Moletai, the respective birthplaces of Clive's grandmother and grandfather. Our guide, Chaim Bargman, who once wrote software for Russian tanks in machine code, is one of relatively few Litvak, or Lithuanian Jews, left in the country. The Holocaust annihilated its large Jewish population, though many, including Clive's ancestors, migrated before the devastation.

Our tour with Bargman is sombre. We visit Jewish cemeteries, finding few headstones that are legible, and learn that many more were removed for use in construction during the impoverished Soviet era. We visit more than one mass grave and see an old synagogue, now a memorial for the Jews who once lived in the area.

Yellow houses dot the green countryside. Why yellow? Bargman shrugs: "In Soviet time, we have two colour: yellow and brown." He leaves it at that.

He tells us, too, about the nation's more inspiring moments: the 1989 Baltic Chain, in which 2 million joined a human chain crossing the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to protest against Soviet rule. Within six months, Lithuania was declared an independent republic. Twenty years later, Lithuania has one of the fastest-growing economies in the European Union, though the prosperity appears to be spread unevenly, most noticeable in tourist towns such as Vilnius and Druskininkai.

From Kaunas we head south by bus to Druskininkai. Regarded as a "wellness springs resort", Druskininkai is more like a fairytale town, with lakes surrounded by cycling paths and tall pines. The town's natural mineral springs and abundance of spas are the drawcards.

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We hire bicycles and spin around town to Lake Druskonis. On one side of the lake is a tiny beach and swimming area but we return our bikes and swim instead at the Druskininkai Aqua Park, a massive cavern with vast swimming pools, waterfalls, a wave pool and clothing-optional Roman baths and saunas.

The saunas are more challenging - one is heated to 90 degrees, making your eyeballs feel as if they're boiling. I'm not game to enter the 110-degree sauna with triple furnace.

Famished, we search for food. Lithuanian cuisine seems to fall into two categories: traditional (most likely heavy and containing pork, potatoes and sour cream) and pizza. But not always minimalist pizza - try boiled egg, tuna, ham, mayo, garlic sauce and cheese on top. Another digestive challenge is Lithuania's national dish, the zeppelin, a mixture of raw and cooked potato shaped like the airship (hence the name), stuffed, usually with minced pork, and served with sour cream.

Five minutes away from the town centre is Grutas Park, with its astounding collection of Soviet-era art. Most notably, there are 86 imposing sculptures of Soviet leaders, all commissioned during Soviet rule and previously on display throughout Lithuania. With a backdrop of lush green pine forest, the privately funded exhibition aims to give Lithuanian people and tourists the chance to "see the naked Soviet ideology which suppressed and hurt the spirit of our nation for many decades".

We could have easily whiled away a week in Druskininkai, rather than just one night, but the capital is calling. Although Vilnius was last year's European Capital of Culture, we're bracing ourselves for a city dominated by churches, strip-joints and Englishmen on buck's nights. We find all of the above but they fade quickly into the background as we wander the cobbled streets of the old town, enjoy top-notch Lithuanian beer at outdoor bars and shop for Baltic amber.

Vilnius is a lively, cosmopolitan city with beautiful gothic and baroque architecture, galleries and theatres, terrific restaurants and cafes and a good selection of lodgings.

On the outskirts is one of the more unusual sites. The Republic of Uzupis, once a post-war Soviet ghetto populated by artists and colourful characters, declared its independence from Lithuania in 1997.

It now has its own president, flag and constitution - all rather tongue-in-cheek, including the likes of "a dog has a right to be a dog".

There is one more stop for us, at the Lithuanian centre of archives. We find an English-speaking staff member, who helps us unearth and translate documents pertaining to Clive's family, including letters and ship tickets for the family's migration to South Africa. Perhaps a little part of us does belong to Lithuania, after all.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Lufthansa flies to Vilnius for about $2370, on Singapore Airlines to Singapore (7½ hours), then Lufthansa to Frankfurt (about 13 hours) and Vilnius (two hours). Fare is non-seasonal return from Melbourne and Sydney including tax.

Staying there

The 1889 Hotel Metropolis, Kaunas, is affordable and central. There are 74 rooms, some newly renovated, from 110 litas ($49), see metropolishotel.lt.

In the spa town of Druskininkai, Credo Hotel is centrally located with 19 spacious rooms. Prices start at 150 litas, see credo-hotel.lt.

Vilnius has accommodation from five-star to camping. Top-end options include the 40-room Mabre Residence, rooms from 408 litas, see mabre.lt. Comfort Vilnius has 57 rooms from 298 litas, see comfort.lt.

Eating there

Sample the brilliant brew from Busi Trecias microbrewery in Vilnius, see busitrecias.lt.

Blusyne Bar-Restaurant, Vilnius, has a good wine list, eclectic menu and sweet courtyard, see blusyne.lt.