Short ride to the Hill of Crosses and a night at the cinema
13.06.2011 - 13.06.2011 23 °C
Šiauliai, Lithuania – Riga, Latvia
The Hill of Crosses (Kryžių Kalnas) is one of the key tourist attractions in Lithuania – a two-hump hillock blanketed by thousands of crosses. Each and every cross represents the amazing spirit, soulfulness and quietly rebellious nature of the Lithuanian people.
Legend says the tradition of planting crosses began in the 14th-century. The crosses were bulldozed by the Soviets, but each night people crept past soldiers and barbed wire to plant yet more, risking their lives or freedom to express their national and spiritual fervor. Today, the hill is a site of national pilgrimage, the holiest Catholic site in Lithuania.
From Šiauliai we opted to rent mountain bikes for the 15 mile round trip out to the Hill. After an undulating ride the site of over 200,000 crosses rising from the relatively low hillock was impressive. With a gentle breeze rosaries and smaller crosses could be heard tinkling across the area.
In the early morning sun we enjoyed a quiet trip to this key tourist site, avoiding the tourist hordes that descend throughout the day. Returning to Šiauliai we prepared to depart for Riga. With every bus to the Latvian capital full we had little option but to negotiate a ‘sensible’ rate for a taxi to take us the two hours north. Successful, we were soon en route to Riga and our second Baltic country.
Arriving in Riga at lunchtime we soon found ourselves wandering through yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site. The heart of the city – Old Town – is a fairytale kingdom of winding wobbly lanes and gingerbread trim that beats to the sound of a bumpin’ discotheque. Deliberately wondering without a map we soon got a feel for ‘The Paris of the North’, ‘The Second City that Never Sleeps’. Photogenic views, interesting museums and bustling bars abound at every corner.
With good luck, rather than planning we found an excellent pancake house, serving these savory treats at very reasonable prices. Prices here appear very cheap as Latvia has one of the few currencies in the world that exchange to a smaller numerical value the USD, EUR or GBP. Indeed, against the USD prices are numerically half…which one has to be careful of as those apparently ‘cheap’ prices may very well not be!
After enjoyable gaining our bearings in the Old Town we take a rest at the local cinema. With all films screened in their original language but with Latvian and Russian subtitles we thought we were safe with X-Men: The First Class. However, unbeknown to us some sections of this film are in Russian. Presumably, English subtitles are utilized at this point in English speaking nations. However, with a largely Russian speaking audience the Russian soundtrack is left with just Latvian subtitles. Whilst we were able to understand the vast majority of the film, this slight cinematic anomaly, emphasized the continued importance of Russian in Latvia. Unlike, every other once conquered now independent country, we have visited, the language and culture of the Soviet invader is still strong here. Most locals speak Latvian and Russian with many signs, menus and books using the Cyrillic alphabet.
There is also a clear preponderance of women in Latvia. In fact, women outnumber men 3:1. This is evident not only as we walk around but as we pass shop windows. Electronic stores emphasize hairdryers and curling irons in their shop windows, clothing and cosmetic shops are plentiful and a significant number of women walk around with no wedding ring on their finger. With plentiful bars and an abundance of nightclubs it is easy to see why Riga is fast becoming a go to destination for Stag nights and boisterous parties.