On our way out of Kaunas we stopped to visit the Ninth Fort museum, on the outskirts of the city.
At the end of the 19th century Kaunas, then part of the Russian Empire, was fortified to protect the empire’s western border. Nine forts were constructed, with the Ninth Fort being completed on the eve of WWI. From 1924 to the outbreak of WWII, the fort was used as the Kaunas city jail. Between 1940-1941, whilst under Soviet occupation, it was used by the NKVD (precursor to the KGB) to house political prisoners destined for the Gulag labour camps. When the Nazis invaded, the Ninth Fort became a place of mass murder when some 10,000 Jews from the Kaunas ghetto were transported to the Ninth Fort and killed by Nazis, in what became known as the Kaunas massacre. Altogether the Nazis murdered some 50,000 people there. The fort has now been turned into a museum, and there’s also a holocaust memorial there.
Before setting off on our travels I only had a (very) vague understanding of the recent history of eastern Europe. I’ve read quite a few history books – the best being Tony Judt’s Postwar, and Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain (see ‘our reading list’) – but there’s no substitute for visiting these museums and getting firsthand accounts of events, even though it does get rather depressing at times.
We’re now staying in the grounds of a hotel to the north of the city of Šiauliai, which has space for about a dozen motorhomes. Ours is the only van here, so we have the place to ourselves, with just a few deer for company.
Yesterday we drove all of 3 km to visit the Hill of Crosses. There are many different stories as to how it came into being, but it seems clear that this has been a religious place since medieval times, with people placing crucifixes on the hillside in the hope that their prayers would be answered.
The Hill of Crosses became prominent after WWII when, in an effort to stamp out Christianity, the Soviet authorities attempted to level the hill numerous times. During the 1960’s and 1970’s they bulldozed it, burned the wooden crosses and removed the metal and stone ones for scrap and construction. Those caught bringing crosses to the hill were fined and/or jailed. However the crosses on the mound just kept multiplying, left in the middle of the night as an act of defiance. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Hill of Crosses has become both a place of pilgrimage and a major tourist attraction. In 1993 Pope John Paul II visited and held mass next to the hill.
We arrived at the site at about 9:30 and the place was already getting busy, with a couple of tourist buses parked up. The tat stall in the car park was selling crosses starting from €1, so it was no surprise to find that there must be half a million crosses or more, turning the hill into a giant pin cushion. We spent about an hour mooching around, and by the time we left it was getting very busy, with eight tourist buses parked up.
As the site here has fast wi-fi, and our VPN has a dedicated BBC iPlayer configuration, we watched the Eurovision Song Contest last night. As we’re two hours ahead of the UK we didn’t stay up to watch the voting at the end, but it was good to watch some live TV (we even watched Celebrity Pointless as well!).
Our next stop will be Riga, the capital of Latvia. The camperstop there doesn’t open for the season until tomorrow, so we’ve stayed put today and will set off in the morning. The weather continues to be lovely and sunny, though midge season is in full swing here and we’ve both been bitten, despite spraying ourselves with citronella. We’ll have to get used to it though, as the midges will get a lot worse as we drive up through Finland.