An hour or so later, at Frankfurt on the Oder (not to be confused with Frankfurt on the Main, the hallowed home of the Frankfurter) we crossed the Oder River and entered Poland. Border police came through and gave my passport a cursory glance but asked no questions. Poland just officially entered the European Union a month or two ago and technically there should not even be any passport checks (as they are none between western European countries) but apparently Poland is easing its way slowly into the Union The snack vendors on the train don’t yet accept Euros either and I had no Polish money.
So I sat back for the six hour snack-less, coffee-less ride to Warsaw. One immediate difference is that the train system still has the old-fashioned rails with their familiar clackety-clack sound every five seconds or so. The German and Austrian systems have the new seamless, silent rails. And the train was slower. Instead of whipping along at a hundred miles an hour as the ICE trains do in Germany we were lucky to be doing fifty. The terrain changed too. Instead of the rich black-soil farmlands of Germany, east of the Oder we quickly entered a belt of pine forests interspersed with increasingly smaller and smaller sandy fields of wheat, potatoes, and cabbages. The farms seemed less prosperous as we proceeded onward and the train stations and villages more ramshackle. The narrow country roads were badly paved, more and more of the vehicles were decrepit clunkers, and there were even some horse-drawn wagons.
The Warsaw train station, dating from the communist era, is a huge cavernous, quasi-bomb shelter reeking of decades of cigarette smoke and fried food and lined with dingy hole-in-the-wall shops. Quickly clearing this dungeon-like atmosphere, I was a bit disconcerted not find outside the row of cheap hotels usually found near train stations. At first glance I didn’t see any hotels at all. Rounding a corner a block away I finally came upon the glitzy plate-glass façade of a brand-new Radison hotel complete with a door man in a uniform apparently discarded by the last king of Ruraltania. This didn’t look promising but I entered the immense marble-floored lobby anyhow. The desk clerk, speaking perfect English, informed me that the rooms here were 69 euros a night. That’s 83 dollars, which was way beyond my daily budget. As I turned to leave however, I noticed on the counter a sign saying, “Free Unlimited High-Speed Broadband Internet.” Do all the rooms have free internet? I asked. No, only the rooms in the “Business Class Executive Level.” And these rooms were 99 Euros a night. The clerk added, “But since it is a week-end we can give you an executive suite for the price of a regular room.” What the heck, I thought, my niece in the USA charges 80 dollars a night for a bed and breakfast room in an obscure village frequented only by adulterous couples thinking no one will ever see them there and rabid deer and turkey hunters. So I sprang for the room on the executive level, which turned out to be the 38th and 39th floors of the hotel. To get access to these floors you had to use your room card in the elevator, a move designed to keep the hoi-polloi corralled on the lower floors. My room featured an immense bed with foot-thick down comforters and a bathroom the size of my last hotel room in Berlin. The view of Warsaw from out the huge plate glass window, even here on the 39th floor, was, however, uninspiring, unless you get off on construction sites bristling with building cranes. Much of Warsaw, it seems, is being rebuilt. But the broadband ripped, almost as fast as an M1 line. I spend three or four hours on the internet, uploading stuff to my website and blog, sending out a raft of email with huge attachments I normally would not have bothered with, downloading an eclectic assortment of ebooks, and even doing my federal and state income tax returns (only a few of months late), all of which would have taken twenty or more hours of internet time in Mongolia.
I finally mosied back down to earth level about midnight, thinking to stretch my legs. A sign in the lobby pointed to an establishment named “Champions.“ This turned out to be a near-perfect replica of an American sports bar, complete with both waiters and waitresses in basketball shorts and jerseys. There also seemed to be a number real live Americans present, all swilling huge liter glasses of beer and shouting at each over the sound of the 18 large screen TVs suspended from the ceiling, each showing a different sporting event from somewhere in the world. For a moment I thought they might have been flown in by the restaurant management to provide an authentic atmosphere, but on second thought this seemed unlikely. I didn’t even bother to sit down but instead beat a quick retreat back to my room.
Back in the train station at 6:30 the next morning I bought a ticket for the 7:21 to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. Unwisely I bought a second class ticket. The first class carriages, which in Poland are only a couple of dollars more, were empty, I quickly discovered, but the second class compartments were jammed. I finally squeezed onto a bench seat with four other people, a couple of whom seemed to be suffering from agonizing hangovers. Another one was peeling fresh cloves of garlilc and popping them into his mouth like cashews. Then the ticket puncher came along and after checking my ticket unleashed a flurry of Polish, the gist of which I gathered was that I was in the wrong car. The right car was somewhere towards to the front of the train. So I moved up four or five cars. Then another ticket puncher proceeding from the front of the train checked my ticket and in yet another blizzard of Polish intimated that I was still in the wrong car and that I should move back in the train three or four cars. After every stop the ticket punchers went through the train again and each time, with ever-creasing annoyance, motioned at me to move either backward or forward. I simply could not fathom what was going on or in what car I was supposed to be (there are nothing on my ticket), and although I made it clear I did not speak Polish neither the conductors nor any of the passengers made to slightest effort to show me the correct car. This went on for four or five hours, until the town of Suwaki.
Here everyone cleared out of my compartment, leaving me alone. For some reason we had a scheduled stop here of about half an hour and after twenty minutes or so an old woman with a shopping bag full of onions and carrots came into the compartment, plopped herself down right beside me, and began rattling off a non-stop stream of Polish. Now Polish people insist that Polish, while a Slavic language like Russian, is completely different from Russian, but when listened to people speak Polish I always hear a smattering of what sounds to me like Russian words. So I started speaking to the old woman in Russian and she seemed to understand what I was trying to say. Soon we had a rudimentary conservation going and I managed to convey that I was going to Vilnius. She motioned to see my printed- out train itinerary, and after giving it a quick glance bolted out of her seat and grabbing me by the arm pulled me out of the compartment, firing off a cannonade of Polish while motioning me to move to the car just ahead. So I moved up one more car and took a place in a near empty compartment, still without the slightest idea what was going on. Thirty seconds later the train left the station.
Soon afterward Lithuanian border police came through checking documents. They had hand-held scanners which automatically read passports like mine with data strips on them. On some computer somewhere the fact that I had just entered Lithuania was duly registered. Lithuania, like Poland, has now officially joined the European Union (both are also recently added members of NATO) but apparently they still like to keep track of who is coming and going.
The first stop within Lithuania was at Szestokal, where I had to switch trains. Stepping off onto the platform I was disconcerted to discover that the train which had some twenty cars upon leaving Warsaw now had only two. Apparently they had been dropping off cars at stops the whole way from Warsaw. I suddenly realized what everyone was trying to tell me. Only two of the cars actually went the whole way to the Lithuanian border. If the old woman in Suwaki had not gotten me into the right car I would have been at some point left behind in one of the dropped off cars. The old woman, I decided, must have been an emanation of White Tara, the Protectress of Travelers, who always appears at the crucial moment to help pilgrims on their way.
The small country train station was modern, newly painted, with sparklingly clean restrooms, snazzy card operated pay phones, and comfortable benches on the platforms. In short, it looked completely different from the numerous small town train stations we had just passed through in Poland. The train from here to Vilnius proved to have only three cars, but unlike on the dowdy Polish train the cars were brand-spanking new, immaculately clean, and had digital signboards and an automated voice announcing all the stops. Leaving the station we soon passed by a newly paved modern four lane highway buzzing with late model cars and big shiny semis. The houses also seemed in better repair and tidier. Even the people who got on the train at the next couple stops seemed better dressed than their counterparts in Poland. As a first time visitor to both countries I have no explanation for all this, but the overall difference was really startling.
Finally at 7:20, eleven hours after leaving Warsaw (taking into account a one hour time zone change) we pulled into the Vilnius train station. Just outside was a newly built MacDonalds with a big line at the drive up window. I took the street to the Old Town and along the way found a nice little hotel – the young woman at the desk spoke perfect English - for twenty Euros a night, cheap in what I had been warned was a tourist-oriented city full of hundred dollar a night hotels oriented toward the white shoe crowd. The room proved to be half the size of the bathroom of my room in Warsaw, but it was antiseptically clean and neatly equipped with hardwood bed, desk, and chair. I slept the sleep of the just.
The big attraction in Vilnius, however, is the Old Town, south of the Neris River, which contains, according to one source, “perhaps the most impressive concentration of Baroque architecture in Northern Europe.”
The Old Town is anchored on the north by Katedros Aikste, the main square. In the middle of the square is the Vilnius Cathedral, which admittedly looks more like a Greek Temple than a Christian Church.
The Cathedral with Belfrey to the right. On the roof are statues of, from left to right, St. Stanislaus, St Helena (with the cross) and St. Casimir, the patron saint of Lithuania.
The original church on this site was built on the site of a shrine to Perkanus, who as you students of Baltic Paganism know is the Pagan God Of Thunder. In the 13th century the legendary Lithuanian potentate Mindaugus, who converted to Christianity (at least nominally), built a small brick church on the site. Mindaugus was later murdered by Lithuanian nobles who preferred to remain faithful to their Pagan gods and resented their leader’s espousal of Christianity. Mindaugus’s original church fell into disrepair until 1387, after Vilnius had been captured by the Teutonic Knights and Lithuania was officially converted to Catholicism. Grand Duke of Lithuania Jogaila then built a new church on the site. This was added to over next four hundred years, with the cathedral taking its present form in the late 18th century. Supposedly deep in the catacombs under the present Cathedral remains of both the original shrine to the Pagan god Perkanus and Mindaugus’s original brick church can still be seen, but currently this area is not open to the public.
During the Communist area the cathedral was turned into a museum. It was reconsecrated in 1989, in the last days of the Soviet Union (of which Lithuania was then a part) and is now a functioning church. The interior of the church has been meticulously restored and is in splendid condition. The main attraction is the Chapel of St. Casimir, a Baroque extravaganza of black and salmon marble and silver plate which contains the casket of St. Casimir himself, the Patron Saint of Lithuania.
South of the main square are the St. Anne’s Church (left) and the Bernadine Church. St. Anne’s, Lithuania’s most spectacular Gothic church, so impressed Napoleon Bonaparte, who spent two weeks in Vilnius during his 1812 bed and breakfast tour of eastern Europe, that he wanted to take it back to Paris with him, “in the palm of my hand,” as he megalomaniacally put it.
Although we are all aware of the Crusades in the Mid-East from the storming of Jerusalem in 1099 and the eviction of the Moslems, who had held the city since 638 ad, to the Fall of Acre in 1291 (especially now that George “Hulagu” Bush has embarked on a new Millennial Crusade), we sometimes forget about the so-called Northern Crusades launched into Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia by the Teutonic Knights and other militant orders of monks in an effort to convert to Christianity the local peoples, who at the time, as noted above, worshipped Pagan gods like Perkunas,. In 1382 Vilnius was captured by the Teutonic Knights on just such a crusade. Most of the senior officers of the Teutonic Knights at that time were from the Wurzburg-Bad Mergentheim area, which as you have probably guessed by now is the real why I went there first, as interesting as the Wine Festival and the grave of Walther von der Vogelweide might have been.
While we are experiencing the latest Crusade at this moment, with constant updates from Fox News, it is of course easy to dismiss the First Crusades as ancient history. Oddly enough, however, just last week the International Herald Tribune had a photo of the Pope at the Vatican meeting with Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I in what was billed as an effort to improve relations between the Roman and Orthodox churches. The Pope expressed his “disgust and pain“ (his words) for the sacking of Constantinople by Catholic Christian Crusaders exactly 800 years before in 1204. (Hey, it’s never too late to say you’re sorry.) Constantinople was at that time Christian of course, but Orthodox Christian, and the Catholic Crusaders on the way to the Holy Lands did not hesitate to loot the city in what was basically a sideshow to the Holy War against the Moslems in the Mid-East. With no apparent irony the International Herald Tribune, in another front page story, showed a confident George “Hulagu” Bush strolling along the Bosporus in Istanbul - formerly known as Constantinople - while in town for a meeting of NATO to discuss the latest Crusade. Yet another story in the same edition of the International Herald Tribune, entitled “A Thorn for German Schools: Islam,” relates that in most of Germany religion classes are part of the regular school curriculum; in Berlin however, parents can decide on whether their children take religion classes, usually taught by teachers from various religion groups, in the past almost exclusively Christian. Muslims just recently won the right to hold religion classes in public schools after a twenty year court battle. Classes in Islam in Berlin are taught by members of the Islamic Federation, which some school officials claim espouses a fundamentalist, perhaps extremist, form of Islam. A textbook currently used in Islamic classes in Berlin, much to the consternation of school officials, states that “the Muslim people’s existence has been threatened by Jews and Christians since the Crusades, and it is the first duty of every Muslim to prepare to fight against these enemies.” Obviously the Crusades and what motivated them are not ancient history, they are the stuff of front page news.