The Long Route to Kaunas

When I was making the reservations for our bicycles, I decided to include a GPS system as an afterthought.  Granted, a Garmin system once guided me through Los Angeles traffic without harm, and for that, I will forever be grateful. But come on – we’re on bicycles. It’s not like it’s hard to pull over when you’re lost. We have maps. We would have had a cycle computer. Did we really need to fork over an extra 25 euros per week for a handheld device that would tell us our precise location on the globe?

Answer: Yes. Yes we did. Peter has been doing most of the route navigation so far, and I think it’s safe to say that were it not for the GPS, we’d be stuck in a field somewhere outside Lake Trakai. Not because Peter is a poor navigator – far from it – but because our biking maps are, to put it mildly, fucking confusing.

I'm sorry . . . what?

Adding to the difficulty, Lithuanian roads are, well . . . let’s just say that the quality varies. We just finished cycling between the capital, Vilnius, and Lithuania’s second-largest city, Kaunas (it’s only 100 or so kilometers on the map, but our route was closer to 225), most of which was on pleasant, paved roads without too much traffic. After all, there aren’t many highways in Lithuania, and there are a ton of small roads. But if you look closer at a map of the country, you’ll notice that while some of the roads show up as red, many of them appear in shades of yellow. And if you look even closer, at the key that defines the meaning of these colors, you will see that yellow indicates an “unpaved surface.”

This is where the GPS comes in — there have been some roads on our route that have turned out to be gravel tracks through the woods, and there’s no way in hell I would have followed them had we not had confirmation that they were correct.

However, even with the best laid GPS plans, we still go astray. Take yesterday, for example. We were biking from the small spa town of Birstonas to the aforementioned Kaunas, a distance that I thought was supposed to be about 45 km. Not bad. (We’ve discovered that it sounds a lot tougher if you list distances in kilometers instead of miles, so I’m not going to include any conversions.) But problems quickly arose: first, Birstonas is on the bank of a river, which you have to cross if you want to get to Kaunas. We knew that there were ferries at 7:30, 8, 8:30 and 9, and so, when we left the hotel at 9:15, we weren’t particularly worried – surely there would be one at 9:30 as well. But there was not. The ferry – which was actually a blue dinghy that looked like it might have been sunk by the weight of our bikes alone – sat empty, bobbing up and down on the river’s slow-moving current. There wasn’t another one till noon. So we decided to take a bike path – lovely and forested – to a different point of the river and try to cross it via bridge. That was fine until the bike path merged with the main highway, a road frequented by logging trucks. We turned around. Took another bike path and managed to make it to the other side of the river. Wheeled our bikes through a construction site. After a brief stint on a relatively big road, turned off onto a smaller road – per our route’s instructions – which turned out to be incorrect, and allowed the GPS to guide us back to the correct path.

But there is a problem with our GPS: it, too, has difficulty calculating between pavement and sandy gravel, and led us onto another rough gravel track with pockets of sand deep enough to catch a bike tire. After several false starts, we eventually reached the road we were supposed to be on. This was about two and a half hours into our journey.

We’d probably gone a total of ten kilometers, but I, driven by the power of wishful thinking and a sign I’d seen on the main highway an hour and a half earlier that said that Kaunas was 28 kilometers away, decided we must be right on the outskirts of town. Untrue. We soon passed a sign announcing that Kaunas was actually 30 kilometers away (I nearly cried) and then, five minutes later, 33. Another 15 minutes and Kaunas had magically dropped to 10 kilometers away, then 9 – making me thrilled, ecstatic even, until a new intersection announcd its distance at 23. By this point, I decided, Lithuania was just fucking with me.

Oh, really?

So I kept my head down and kept biking, a seemingly endless distance through open fields and pine forests, all while wondering when I’d gotten so soft. Particularly unhelpful was the fact that we kept passing these magnificent storks, strolling through the fields or sitting perched atop their wide, flat nests (Lithuanians think the storks bring good luck, so they help them out by building nest supports on top of old telephone poles).  Why did these storks make me feel bad? Because they fly from Africa to summer in Lithuania. Seeing how difficult it was for me to pedal for four hours to get between two Lithuanian cities, I think it’s safe to say that I’m grateful I’m not a bird.

Note stork nest.

Eventually, finally, we reached Kaunas, a city whose main claims to fame include a Devil Museum (tons of devil figurines),  a zoological exhibit of thousands of stuffed animals, and the fact that, during World War II, the locals aided the Germans in exterminating the city’s 35,000-member-strong Jewish population (according to one Nazi leader, the availability of trained and willing locals made Kaunas “comparatively speaking, a shooter’s paradise”). I’ll admit that I was not enthralled by the city.

A church in Kaunas, transformed by the Soviets into a stained glass museum.

We did, however, stop for a snack at a restaurant that exemplified why – with the notable exception of cold beetroot soup – Lithuanian cuisine is not something I plan on bringing home. It was a place that featured homemade beer, and the menu  had a snack called “fried bread with cheese.” That sounded to us – as it probably does to you – like a food that must be both artery-clogging and amazingly good. Fried bread? With cheese? How can you go wrong?

Here is how: take sticks of stale bread, fry them in oil, and let them cool to room temperature (making sure that the bread loses its crisp). Dip the end of the breadstick in slightly sweet ranch dressing. Using the dressing as adhesive, roll the now sticky breadsticks in flavorless grated cheese, creating a Snowball-esque savory snack food that manages to be fatty, salty, and completely disgusting, all at the same time.

Potato pancakes, on the other hand, are delicious.

No, really. Take a good look.

Beetroot soup. Pink and delicious.

Complaints aside, the route was beautiful.

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