Saturday, 25 February 2017

Of Devils and Darkness: Kaunas, Lithuania

[This is an anecdote from a trip I made with my son Keith in 2008 which took in Lithuania, Belarus and Poland.  I wrote it for a travel competition in 2014.  Keith described the experience in his 2016 book Baltic Lenin: A Journey into Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania's Soviet Past.  Unfortunately I didn’t think to photograph the church so have included a snap of Keith surveying the rooftops of Kaunas.]

We were headed to Belarus and only stopped in Kaunas, Lithuania’s second city, because the cheapest route involved going via Lithuania and that’s where the plane landed.  Potentially a drawback, but Kaunas turned out to be full of surprises.  We started with the Devil Museum, showcasing images of the horned one from around the world in their infinite variety; you wouldn’t want to fall foul of this little lot and have them poke you with their pitchforks.  The museum devoted to folk music and instruments seemed tame in comparison, welcoming as it was, and sadly time was too short to permit a visit to the museum of Lithuanian medicine and pharmacy.

Yet even devils could not compare with our oddest experience in Lithuania.  That wasn’t the lettuce accompanying our fried breakfast, or the loose-leaf tea without a strainer at the Devil Museum (diabolical!) but the crypt of the Garrison Church, dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel.  We had strolled in to look at the architecture and splendid decoration, but after a while our attention was attracted by an elderly chap standing near a door in the corner who gestured us over.  He pointed down a spiral staircase and urged us to descend into the darkness below.

His English was as bad as our Lithuanian so he was unable to explain the attraction of going into the bowels of the church with the lights off.  Having seen some of those horror films in which tourists find themselves minus vital organs in out-of-the-way places I hesitated.  Just for a moment though: ‘hell’ I thought (clearly the influence of those wicked devils), ‘Lithuania’s in the EU, what’s likely to happen in a city you can get to by budget airline?’  Two ladies had gone ahead of us and it seemed only right that we should show some of the old bulldog spirit and do the same.

So we descended, expecting to find some light, but instead remained plunged in musty-smelling pitch darkness.  We bumped into something, then something else.  There were all these things hanging down, and wherever you turned they were in your way.  I started thinking about those horror films again, the fear of the unknown.  What were they, what were they made of, and why were they here?  We became disoriented and claustrophobic.  With no idea where we were going, bemusement turned to mild irritation as we wondered how long it would take to find our way out.

Then my companion had a burst of inspiration and took out his mobile phone.  By its illumination we could see that the place was full of white dangling obstacles, like thin punch bags, foam-covered pillars and rubber kitchen gloves sticking out from the walls.  It was surreal, and grubby, but not threatening.  Attracted by the glow, we were shortly joined by the two ladies who had preceded us, equally glad to be able to see what was going on.  Together we found some stairs in the opposite corner to those by which we had entered, and were soon back in the welcome daylight, to the obvious annoyance of the custodian who knew we had cheated.

We were relieved to be out of the stygian gloom, but were left feeling baffled.  Only later did we realise we had been in the Museum of the Blind, an environment designed to show what it is like to be without sight and have to rely on the other senses (stretching the concept of the museum somewhat, we thought).  We had failed the challenge, though had we been aware of what the purpose was we might have met it with more confidence, rather than thinking we were having a trick played on us; in its eccentric fashion it certainly made us aware of the difficulties the blind face every day.  Belarus presented its own variety of strangeness, but nothing to compare with that peculiar crypt.