Thursday, August 05, 2010

X Marks The Spot

One of the most unique and fascinating sites I have come across so far on this trip was to be found in the rather unassuming Lithuanian countryside some 10km north of the sleepy (catatonic) town of Šiauliai. Kryžių kalnas means "Hill of Crosses" (less flat countries would probably use the word mound or bump) and it is exactly that: a hill with crosses. Even in pagan times the carving and planting of a cross to commemorate or give thanks was a deeply rooted tradition which six centuries of Christianity have only served to reinforce (Lithuanians are eager to share the fact that their country was the last in Europe to accept Christianity and are proud of the many pagan names and traditions that survive to this day). Travelling through the Lithuanian countryside you will soon notice these large crosses, some standing over 3m in height, standing isolated in private gardens or in small graveyard-communities. They are always adorned with intricate patterns with many layers of meaning and symbolism. The site at Šiauliai has been special since time immemorial, but during the Soviet occupation it became the focal point for peacefully protesting against the tyrannical regime. Over time the number of crosses grew and grew and the Soviet authorities, abhorring this challenge to their hegemony, razed the site in 1961 ... 1973 ... 1974 ... 1975. Each time they would spring up again like mushrooms after rain, each time more than before. In the dying days of the USSR there was a last ditch attempt to bulldoze the site and its, by that time, 55,000 crosses, but the writing was already on the wall. Since then placing crosses has not only become less risky, but it has also become something of a phenomenon, with people making pilgrimages from far and wide to place crosses or rosaries, both large and small, as votive offerings. It is estimated that there are now some 400,000 crosses on the site today with hundreds added each week.

"I left my cross here somewhere, has anyone seen it?"

Since 2000 there is also a monastery at the site, its aim to help pilgrims coming to the hill. I may not be a pilgrim, but I was in need of help: more specifically a spot to pitch my tent as it was getting late by the time I arrived. Monasteries are perfect for this as monks are generally friendly and charitable people (something of a prerequisite for the job I imagine). And so I walked up to the building where a jovial young monk, who looked as if he had probably eaten Friar Tuck and was now in search of the main course, was sitting and asked him in my halting Russian whether I could put up my tent somewhere (tent is one of the first words I learnt in Russian). He just smiled and said that it was all kharosho (good/no problem) and then led me inside for some kashe (porridge). The well-tended garden of the monastery was certainly a welcome change to the ant-attack of the previous night.

Apart from Kryžių kalnas there was another cross I was eager to see in Lithuania. Some French boffins at the French National Geographical Institute determined that the centre of Europe lies some 25km north of Vilnius, the capital. The claim is of course disputed by various pretenders to the throne due to the complexity of accurately defining where Europe's borders actually lie, but if it's good enough for the Guinness Book of Records then it's good enough for me (though, to be honest, I'm not sure what this little factoid is doing in there as being in the middle of something isn't exactly a record). My host, Simonas, suggested it would be nice to cycle there and I readily agreed. Conveniently the spot is located just off the main highway heading north out of town; inconveniently there isn't much in the way of provisions for cyclists. We got there without any problems though and found, to our surprise, Lithuania's premier golf club. It took a while, but we eventually found the sign indicating the site of the centre of Europe, squeezed between the 5th and 7th holes. Having been to Nordkapp I was surprised that apart from a small explanatory board and a monument there was little else there and it was free for anyone to access. Obviously the Lithuanians have a lot to learn from our Scandinavian friends.
At the very centre of Europe.

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