Storo Romo Sodyba in Druskininkai is a quirky, folk-style lodge in Lithuania focused on Lithuanian ethnographic heritage & the ancient art of tree carving including a master woodcarving indoor & outdoor sculpture museum. This fisherman & the bridge on the upper right were handcrafted.
A Native American seems a little out of place in Lithuania, but, damn, he's fine!
Inside, the lodging/museum was stuffed with different wood works & ancient pieces. Old Lithuanian wagon wheels & trenches to eat food appear on the far wall. In the front, a woodcarving of a man sculpting Jesus as well as two separate hand-carved horse heads placed haphazardly on either side.
Interesting items were crammed into other interesting items like this violin made completely out of handwoven wood jutting out of an ancient handwoven basket.
One of my favorite pieces was set-up on a old timey barrel in front of a fur hanging on the wall: A wind-up 1900s gramophone from His Master's Voice company with the company logo of the dog named Nipper listening to his master's voice on a wind-up gramophone. (Very meta.)
Wandering around a nearby park, we found this striking statue.
And then found this pretty church...that's older than America since it's built in 1387!
I took this looking up inside the Pyramid of Merkine, a geodesic dome with a pyramid & two crosses. Supposedly a "harmonic space which helps you gain positive energy & heal," it has become a place of pilgrimage.
Dispensers of "energy-positive" water created by the pyramid are offered at no cost though donations are accepted.
I'm not sure that I believe in energy-positive water or a pyramid that heals, but the water tasted deliciously pure & we all left with a sense of contentment & peace.
You can get a better sense of the Pyramid's size here. Wooden chairs were evenly space inside the dome's rim pointing towards the center. Everyone was quiet & contemplative. Meditating, my mom didn't even realize I was taking her photo.
This is one of 3 crosses at the entrance to the Pyramid of Merkine.
The area around these crosses is supposed to have a cleansing effect. Since visitors are urged to mediate letting their negative emotions & thoughts go thereby “grounding” them to the Earth, we all sat down & meditated.
Side note: I never realized how good cousin Patty's posture was until I began sifting through all of these pictures.
We all came to an unspoken agreement to sit down in the knoll spaced evenly apart.
Beautiful in the sunlight, the knoll was edged by a peaceful grove of birch trees that whispered in the wind.
(That's my brother gazing at the Pyramid.)
Driving through Dzukija National Park, I realized why I've always felt so at home in pine tree woods—my people are from this dreamy landscape.
In medieval times, Merkinės Piliakalnis (Mound of Merkine) once housed “one of the strongest castles in Eastern Europe” and “one of the strongest in Lithuanian land.”
Beautiful, but it was quite a climb to the top
My sister-in-law, Karyn (on the right) & I on top of the picturesque Mound of Merkine.
My smiley, happy Mom on top of the Mound of Merkine.
Here's why we were all so happy—a spectacular view of the confluence of the Nemunas & Merkys rivers.
My favorite picture of Karyn. I love how her body is tilted in line with the church & the angle she made as she shielded her eyes from the sun.
Founded in 1662, Pažaislio Vienuolynas ir Bažnyčia (Pažaislis Monastery & church) is the largest monastery in Lithuania & a beautiful example of Italian Baroque architecture. According to the literature in the church: "The monastery's church was damaged by the horses of Napoleon's army which was based in the complex. In 1832, the monastery was closed by Russian authority & later converted into an Orthodox church. The author of the Imperial Russian national anthem was interred there in 1870. In 1915-1918, a German war hospital was established in the monastery. After 1920, the ruined monastery returned to Roman Catholics & was restored by sisters of the Lithuanian convent of St. Casimir. After WWII, the Soviet authorities converted the church & monastery into an archive, a psychiatric hospital & then an art gallery in 1966. In the 1990s, the monastery was returned by the newly independent Lithuania to the nuns of the convent & fully reconstructed."
My new boyfriend, the monk. We make a cute couple, no?
(He was sitting in the museum of Pažaislis Monastery minding his own business, when I ran over to take this pic.)
Inside the Pažaislis Monastery museum, we walked down to the basement & were stunned to find this wall covered in the most brilliant rainbows of pure light we had ever seen.
We still have no idea how these were made as we didn't see any prisms. Our final guess was that somehow the light was refracted from a window high above.
Side note: A truly beautiful moment was made more so when Karyn shared that she believed that rainbows were a sign of comfort from her deceased father.
At the Žmuidzinavičius Museum aka the Devils' Museum.
One of my favorite devils was the painting on the lower right of an alien devil sipping tea in what seems to be the Matrix.
Background: The painter, Antanas Žmuidzinavičius began the collection in the early 1900s. A memorial museum was established in his house after his death & has grown to include more than 3,200 devils from all over the world.
The Devils' Museum is included in the list of the most unique museums in the world & has three floors:
1st: Lithuanian devils.
2nd: Devils found in nature such as twigs resembling the devil.
3rd: Foreign devils donated by guests from other countries.
This metallic alien-like devil greeted us at the top of the stairs of the Devils' Museum.
My 1st ride in a funicular. In this photo, we're inside one funicular going up the hill peering out the door to view the other funicular coming down the hill.
I kid you not, the entire ride we sang the only part of Funiculì funiculà that we knew, the chorus. To really get into the mood of this, I'd suggest that you watch this YouTube clip which begins with the famous chorus & includes the lyrics.
You're never too old to tease your sibling.
In the funicular, here is a view that I often saw in my childhood...my brother flashing me the finger while calmly looking at my mother. My mother never had any clue when we would do this to each other since from the front, it just looks like we're touching our faces.
But she'll know now. Busted, Doug!
Walking around Kaunas at the top of the hill where the funiciular dropped us off, we came across this bit of graffiti.
But why is it in English?
Can you believe this is street art?
Another piece of beautiful street art.
Look closely. This sculpture overhead contained objects like this ship composed entirely of keys.
Now this street art is just funny as hell.
Walking around town, we came upon an outdoor sculpture garden. Here are three of my favorites.
The top left looks happy & shy to me while the top right is proud. The bottom is just plain creepy.
Patty enmeshed with Eglė, the Queen of Serpents in the Palanga Botanical Garden. This statue represents one of the most archaic, best-known Lithuanian fairy tales.
According to local lore, a serpent thrust himself on Egle & forced her to marry him. When she did, he morphed into a charming prince. Egle's brothers then slaughtered her husband, & in despair, she turned herself into a tree.
I was stunned to stumble upon this bridge so reminiscent of a Monet painting.
Social butterflies that we are, Patty & I spoke to this guy curious about his bike which was pulling camping gear. Turns out his name is Tek Hou Kuam & he left Macau, China in March 2013 to cycle around the world.
I've been to many places around the world, but none with such interesting skies. Because I was curious, I did research & found that these are altocumulus clouds formed into a pattern called a mackerel sky (like fish scales), buttermilk sky (in reference to the clouds' curdled appearance), dappled sky, fleecy sky or little sheep.
These clouds are a sign of changeable weather & have sayings attributed to them like:
Mackerel sky, mackerel sky. Never long wet & never long dry.
A dappled sky, like a painted woman, soon changes its face.
Even on a cold day in Palanga on the Baltic coast, Patty looks cute.
Those are my fingers with a wee shell I found filled with minuscule pieces of amber.
The light was just beautiful.
Lithuania is a land of magic. We stumbled upon this old man carved into a tree beach-side.
In a rare pose for me by himself, Doug enjoyed a stroll on Palangos Tiltas, an L-shaped pier constructed in the late 1800s which juts out into the Baltic Sea.
One of the wackiest times of our trip:
Upper left: Stumbled upon a traditional yurt with wool-filled walls on the beach next to the Baltic Sea run as a banya by two Russian men.
Upper right: Patty, Doug, Karyn & I decided to partake in a steam & be beaten with birch leaves by one of the men to improve our circulation.
Lower left: The other man in an odd cap & a Speedo played songs on a mouth harp. First, he was standing next to us & then swayed above each of us straddling us with his legs on either side while sweat dripped from his brow onto our bodies. (I still do not know why we didn't object.)
Lower right: We ran into the cold Baltic Sea to cool off. (Doug on the left & one of the men on the right.)
Post-steam & dip into the sea. Patty (left) & I feel refreshed.
The glorious colors of the Lithuanian sunset reflected on the dark Baltic sea.
Standing atop Parnidis Dune which is over 170 ft high. Included in the book, 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, it's a breathtaking area of massive traveling dunes, the so-called "Lithuanian Sahara" which have consumed villages.
Imagine our happy surprise to see this guy paragliding over the dunes not 20 feet from us.
The summit of the dune is marked by one of the largest & most mathematically correct sundials in the world. Dotted with runes & pagan symbols, this 39 ft tall solar clock rises into the sky in the only Lithuanian location where you can observe both the sun rise & set.
Vidimantas (our genealogist) & his wife, Hilda can be seen on the lower left.
Colorful, hand carved weather vanes decorate the charming fishing village of Nida. According to local lore, these were originally fixed to the mast of fishing boats as proud crowns primarily used to identify the vessel & appeal to the forces of water, wind & sky for protection—a unique phenomenon in the world of folk art.
Light dances across the waves as a boat sails across the Baltic Sea in the distance.
Wandering onto church grounds, we found some beautiful carvings.
Vidimantas, our Lithuanian genealogist who accompanied us on our road trip.
The Grey Dunes at Naglių Gamtos Rezervate (Nagliai Natural Reserve). A dramatic landscape (& a UNESCO World Heritage Site) where the sky meets the sands.
Trudging through a river of sand with dunes built into cliffs on either side, our journey through the stunning landscape was difficult though rewarding.
My gorgeous mother believes she doesn't photograph well. I beg to differ.
She's also fun & quirky.
Oh no! We've wandered onto Raganų Kalnas (the Hill of Witches).
In 1979, this National Folk Art Sculpture Park was created to revive ancient stories & pagan traditions in the form of the Lithuanian art of tree carving. Now with 80+ tree carvings, the witch's mountain is divided into two parts: light & dark. The bright part of the trail is wide & filled with famous Lithuanian fairy-tale characters. On the second half, the path narrows & darkens which is where the devilish carvings begin.
It's just me hanging out with my good friend, the lizard man.
Doug looks way to happy as he & his now dead* wife are carried off by tree carvings come to life.**
*She's not really dead.
**The tree carvings didn't really come to life.
Patty, watch out! It's a pervy tree carving checking you out.
Behold! My mother, the queen in her wooden throne carved from a tree.
During a quiet moment with light filtering through the leaves above, Doug massages Karyn's shoulders next to a carving of the legendary giantess Neringa who created the area of Neringa & the Curonian Spit by scooping up sand in her apron to create a barrier against the open sea.
Occasionally, you just have to put up a photo of your mom & brother because you love them...& because it's odd that they are sitting so happily between two carved birds.
All the carvings are made from solid oak.
Aged by algae, this sculpture caught the light beautifully.
Witches' Hill is topped with cool, pine-scented woods.
A sweet, fairytale castle.
Such a quirky land. Those are headless sheep made of stones by the seaside.
While not a great pic since it was taken from a moving car, the location is an important one. This is where Hitler made his famous speech in Klaipėda in 1939, the day after Lithuania was forced to accept the Nazi ultimatum to surrender this region.
For Germany, it was the last pre-WII territorial acquisition.
For Europe, it was further escalation in pre-war tensions.
For Lithuania, it was a major downturn in economy & morale.
As a vegetarian, I had a tough time in Lithuania which was made more difficult by the bacon which seemed to turn up in the oddest places. Our genealogist said bacon was unusual in Lithuania & that I must be bacon-cursed. After biting into this bread randomly baked with chunks of bacon, I began to believe him.
The top floor of this museum contained a clutter of ancient, hand forged metal pieces like this weather vane.
Nothing to see here. Just a nude bird woman clutching a snake to her breast.
The museum also included scary masks for Užgavėnės which is celebrated during the seventh week before Easter (Ash Wednesday). It involves people dressing up in masks & dancing in public with strangers while children go door-to-door asking for candies.
The twin pinnacles of this holiday include:
The burning of Morė (an effigy of winter shown on the upper left) who is paraded through town & then burned at the stake to symbolize the death of winter & the birth of spring.
The fight between Lašininis, who represents meat-eaters & the male effigy of winter who is always defeated by the vegetarian Kanapinis, marking the beginning of Lent.
My mom (top) & I (bottom) rocking scary mask couture.
Some of the masks are the stuff of nightmares.
On the museum's top floor, an art exhibit by locals was showcased.
Yes, that is a pterodactyl walking across a wall while a t-rex or two look on behind a street lamp.
People wonder why I'm weird. It's because I come from people who make paintings like these.
The Cold War Museum was one of the creepiest places I've ever been. This was an active site in Soviet-occupied Lithuania as recently as the 90s.
Containing 4 missile silos including this one and a network of underground rooms, the site contains many intact systems & artifacts.
My friend says the Russian writing on this notes, "you need to protect this from hits."
Probably good advice...since it's a freakin missile!
Looking down a missile silo which had been pointed at the US gave me chills.
Pamphlets like these tinged the atmosphere with a dose of grim reality.
Patty (on the bottom) & I (on the top) playing Soviet-era dress-up.
Rusted corridor with a mannequin dressed in Soviet gear.
I wasn't scared.
Ok, I was totally skeeved out!
Leaving the museum, we were thrilled to be welcomed by fields of wildflowers under vast skies.
One of Lithuania's most awe-inspiring sights: The Hill of Crosses. The tradition of placing crosses began in the 14th century & likely arose as a symbol of defiance against foreign invaders. During the Soviet era, the pilgrimage to the Hill of Crosses served as a vital expression of Lithuanian nationalism. The Soviets repeatedly removed crosses placed on the hill by Lithuanians even going so far as to level the hill three times covering it in waste & sewage. Following each of these desecrations, local inhabitants & pilgrims from all over Lithuania rapidly replaced the crosses. In 1985, the Hill of Crosses was finally left in peace. The reputation of the sacred hill has since spread all over the world & is visited every year by thousands of pilgrims.
Even if you're not religious, this physical statement of defiance & devotion is astonishing.
The sound of hundreds of thousands of crosses tinkling in the breeze is wonderfully eerie.
Old & new crosses are lashed together everywhere.
In local lore, the all-seeing eye on the cross symbolizes the 'eye' of God, keeping watch on mankind.
In honor of my religious Grandmother whose memory inspired this trip, I added a small, intricately carved cross to the hill tied to another larger cross with a ribbon.
The decorative tops of crosses provide glorious perches for tiny birds like this little fella here.
As the sun began to set, the crosses darkened in silhouette & their juxtaposed shapes stood out.
Darkness & light.
Self portrait during Rasos, the summer solstice festival. The shortest night of the year, it's a magical night representing the sun’s victory against darkness. We celebrated at Kernavė, the historic capital of pagan Lithuania & a UNESCO World Heritage site. On the right, people wound their way through large hilly mounds which were settled by humans for 10 millennia!
The wreath crown I'm wearing is a traditional accessory for unmarried women made with different herbs & serves as a mystical charm to draw the attention of their true love. Later, all the unmarried women were escorted by torchlight to set the wreaths afloat on the river to reach their love.
One of the main rituals of the night is fire. Fires were lit atop all 5 of the high hilly mounds at dusk & kept burning all through the night until dawn. We joined in with traditional dancing around the fires.
Built in the 14th & 15th centuries, Trakų salos pilis (Trakai Island Castle) comes straight out of a fairy tale.
While visiting the castle, I took this photo of the Vytis (the Lithuanian war flag) flying above focusing on its heraldic image in the center. Recorded in 1410 at the Battle of Grunwald, it is one of the earliest known Lithuanian flags.
Below the medieval castle keep.
I'm a sucker for a richly-colored tapestry.
Hand-hewn thrones for the owners of the castle, the Grand Duke & Duchess of Lithuania. I enjoyed the odd little faces carved into each of the ends of the arm rests.
A hand forged metal knocker on one of the main castle doors.
The white on cream neoclassical ceiling of the Vilniaus Šv. Stanislovo ir Šv. Vladislovo arkikatedra bazilika (Vilnius Cathedral Basilica of St Stanislaus and St Ladislaus).
Inside the cathedral's crypts & catacombs are buried many famous people from Lithuanian & Polish history along with the heart of a Polish king.
One of the picturesque parts of Vilnius University is the Church of Sts. Johns & its bell tower built in the 14th & 15th centuries. The full name of the church is the Church of St. John the Baptist & St. John the Evangelist.
Look closely at the bell tower above. A sturdy elevator on the right goes up only one floor which is where the smart people in our group stopped. The risk takers continued up 220 feet of rickety stairs & ladders to one of the tallest points in the Old Town of Vilnius. Guess which group I was a part of.
Patty & I were the risk takers. Look at the crumbly stone & bare bones ladder we had to crawl up!
But the view from the bell tower was worth it especially since it also includes the Vilnius TV tower, a critical landmark.
Lithuania declared independence from the Soviet Union in March 1990. It was the first time that a republic declared independence from the dissolving Soviet Union. In the aftermath, the Soviet Union sent elite armed forces to take over critical buildings.
On January 13, 1991, Soviet tanks surrounded the TV tower to take it under Soviet control. Thousands of unarmed Lithuanians gathered in front trying to hold off the Soviet troops. 14 Lithuanian civilians died defending against the Soviet tanks & 700 were injured as the Soviets seized the tower.
But a small TV studio from nearby Kaunas came on the air calling for anyone who could help to broadcast to the world about the Soviet army killing unarmed people. Within an hour, the studio was filled with professors broadcasting in several languages before a Swedish news station saw the broadcast & told the world.
Although occupation & military raids continued for several months, there were no large open military encounters after January 13. Strong Western reactions to the attacks put the Soviet Union in an awkward position. This influenced future Lithuanian-Russian negotiations & resulted in the signing of a treaty on January 31.
Our favorite meal ended with a dessert with red currants (top) & shots served in glasses made of ice (bottom).
The photo is included purely because it represents the true purpose of our trip. Visiting family lands & the branch of the family my great-grandfather left behind..the woman on the left (Laima Janusonis), the one in the center (Aldona Janusonyte Peciukonis) & the boy on the top right (Laima's son, Vytautas). I share great-great-grandparents with them.
This is just one tiny portion of what came from the research & discussion. At the top, a photo that our newly met family shared with us. In the bottom background, the family tree our genealogist created. In the bottom foreground, who each of these relatives were.
These are half-sibling descendants of my great-grandfather & his second wife (the first wife died).
Patty & I joked that with her scarf up, she could easily fit in with the women in this picture. So we made the joke a reality. Patty's grim expression makes it a little too on the nose.
Imagine my shock when I found that some things hadn't changed since my great-grandfather left this farm around the turn of the century.
There is no internal plumbing in the house which means they still use this outhouse.
They actively use this large garden tending the family land as the generations before them have.
All her life, my grandmother pined for Peter, the father she never knew. My mother brought this picture of my long-deceased grandmother on our trip to show her Peter's people. This is the first time my grandmother (in the picture held by my mother) set eyes on the land from which Peter came. <eyes welling up>
The original house my great-grandfather lived in. No longer used, but still standing on the family land.
An awkward photo, but adored because it shows the two sides of our family reunited again.
The family cow. What's not pictured is the family horse my great-grandfather stole to pay for his trip to America.
My mother joked about this with our Lithuanian family.
They did not know this story until then. Awkward doesn't begin to describe the situation.
The family farm.
One of the best things about the trip was getting to know my cousin Patty & all her curious, chatty ways—a family trait.
They thought we should imbibe in a shot together to cement our families. Who were we to argue?
Then, it was onto St. Virgin Mary Church in nearby Silenai. An old, wooden church which my great-grandfather attended in a village which dates back 500 years.
Religious symbols abound.
Standing in the rain, I caught my brother sadly viewing one of the family graves.
Pranas (Frank) & Marijia Stankeviciai (Half sister of my great grandfather, Peter Gilles)
Stase Radziuniene (Daughter of Frank & Marijia)
Juozas Stankeviciai (Son of Frank & Marijia)
Across the street, I noticed a large bird & had to investigate. I had never seen a stork before. I was shocked by how big they are. No wonder there are stories about them carrying babies. It's wider than the chimney!
This property merged Lithuanian tree carving with Lithuanian religious iconography.
Just a wee Jesus up in a little house in a tree.
A large number of crosses were placed around the property.
It's not often you stumble upon a larger than life sculpture of Jesus carrying a cross.
This pink church became even more stunning with the storm clouds behind it.
Patty doing a little quirky dance on the church steps.
Hiking nearby, wefound a different view of the same church from afar.
Can't be a family trip without some family pics. My mom (left) & Patty (right).
Some people are proud of climbing up to the top. Patty (left) & my brother, Doug (right).
I thought this was going to end in disaster. They came close to keeling over, but surprised me with success. My brother, Doug & my sister-in-law, Karyn.
My mom at the end with Patty waving in the background.