As the last European nation to abandon paganism – the Christianization of Lithuania took place only in 1387 – it’s not surprising to find that Lithuanians are great lovers of nature.
With over one-third of the country covered by forest, more than 6,000 natural lakes and only three million people in a territory around three times the size of Israel, Lithuania is certainly a land where nature comes to the forefront and time, occasionally, comes to a stop. And nowhere more so than at the traditional Lithuanian bath house – pirtis in Lithuanian.
Our group of five Israeli journalists visited the Angelu Malunas cabin (http://www.angelu-malunas.lt), situated on the edge of the Varniai Regional Park in the western part of the country. Built on the edge of a river, an old water mill has been turned into a bath house (don’t use the word “sauna” or you’ll really upset Richard, the owner), with a dining room above and some simple rooms for an overnight stay.
The pirtis here is no quick schwitz. Locals come for a whole day and our treatment started with a short walk to the nearby forest, led by Richard (an Anglicized version of his name), intended to bring us closer to nature. After a few false moves we successfully negotiated a stone labyrinth, before moving deeper into the forest, touching the different types of trees, looking for mushrooms, and making a wish inside the base of a large oak tree. Once Richard was confident enough that we were beginning to commune with the natural surroundings, it was time for the bath.
A pirtis is a steam bath, inside a wooden structure, and here different branches of leaves hung from the roof to give the room an incredibly earthy smell. Not surprisingly, given the whole ritualistic approach at this pirtis, there were seven stages to our bath.
• Step 1: Enter the bath, with the oldest person in the group entering first and choosing his/her preferred location inside the steam room, which is big enough for a group of 10. The dress code is simple: in our case bathing suits and a smurf-like woolen hat which, somehow, protects your head from the heat and prevents dizzy spells.
Once everybody is in, you just sit, experiencing the heat produced by the hot stones, and begin to relax and adjust your breathing to the new situation. After a few minutes (there’s no clock in the pirtis and all movements are coordinated by the host), it’s time to go out and sip herbal tea or water. This happens at the end of every stage.
• Step 2: Back into the steam room, having first been perfumed by Richard with a variety of plant-based scents over the face and top of the chest. Then it was time to make a wish out loud, while dipping one’s hands inside a large spoon filled with water handed around by Richard. Once everybody had made their wish, Richard poured the water onto the stones, immediately setting off a plume of steam. This, explained Richard, made our wishes more powerful.
So far, it has to be said, world peace is yet to break out (although the Gaza war does seem to be over, for now).
After this stage, it’s time for a warmish shower outside the steam room before the herbal tea.
• Step 3: Moving on from perfume, it’s now time for salt. Back in the steam room, Richard hands round a bucket of damp salt into which you place your hands and, with the salt sticking to your hands, you rub it all over your body, with everybody rubbing everyone else’s back to ensure the whole body is covered with salt. At this point, inside an increasingly hotter steam room, it was hard to avoid feeling like a chicken in the oven. Once this stage was over, it was time for a cooler shower to wash the salt off, leaving one’s skin feeling amazingly soft, a feeling that lasted for days after the pirtis.
• Step 4: It now begins to get serious.
Before re-entering the steam bath, we each first have to choose the branch of leaves with which we’ll be whisking ourselves later. Richard encourages us to really feel the leaves, tied up the form of a bouquet, smell them and put them on our chest to discover if they’re really the leaves we want. I choose Lithuanian maple, on the basis that they’re the first leaves I pick up.
Once back inside the steam room, the heat is really beginning to rise, so much so that when you put your arm straight up above your head, the heat you feel at the top of your fingertips almost burns. It’s now time to use these bouquets of leaves to waft hot air around you.
On leaving the steam room, Richard takes us for a short walk outside. It’s early evening, with a slight drizzle, and the feel of damp grass on one’s bare feet is sheer bliss.
• Step 5: After first massaging shoulder, elbow, wrist, knee and ankle joints with the bouquet, it was time for whisking. Not hard, but a steady tattoo of leave-flicking all over the body, and then Richard came round to beat people on their backs with his leaves, taking me back to my school days. It didn’t really hurt, but you certainly felt it. And then it was time for a freezing cold shower outside, three times. So as to avoid a total shock, you first put your legs into the shower one by one before fully stepping under the shower. After that, it was a quick herbal tea to warm up again.
• Step 6: More of the same. Whisking and wafting. And then the highlight: after stepping outside the bath, it’s time to go into the river by the mill. I had always told myself there was no way I would ever have a sauna and then go into a freezing pool and yet here I was, almost happily going into the river. Once in, Richard instructed us to fully immerse ourselves in the river three times (this might sound familiar to regular mikve-goers) and then it was time for a quick, still extremely cold shower.
• Step 7: Taking our hot tea with us into the pirtis, it was time to relax. With no more steam generating heat, we just sat and, for the first time, even talked quietly among ourselves, before taking final leave of the bath house.
The whole process took around three hours, but during it we lost all sense of time. It wasn’t a spiritual, out-of-body experience, but it certainly felt cleansing, both physically and mentally, and we all felt better for having tried it. Afterwards we had traditional regional Samagotian cuisine, including cold herring-and-onion soup (not a great success) and hot potatoes with kastinys – sour cream with salt, onions and garlic, enhanced with cannabis hemp.
Lithuanian vodka rituals
But rituals are not just the preserve of nature lovers. In our first night in the country, at a traditional Lithuanian restaurant (Aline Leiciai) in the capital city of Vilnius, we were introduced to how to drink vodka.
Thanks to our knowledgeable host for the evening, Lithuania’s former ambassador to Israel Darius Degutis, we quickly dispensed with commercial brands and moved on to moonshine (home-made) vodka, or semané, as it’s known in Lithuania. The ritual here is very simple and similar in many ways to drinking tequila: take a slice of rye bread (has to be traditional Lithuanian rye) and pour lots of salt on it; smell the salt on the bread; knock back the shot of vodka; eat a small pickled cucumber, and then the bread and salt. This was a ritual I was quick to embrace.
Traditional Lithuanian food (excepting pig ears, etc.) is, of course, very familiar to those of us from an Eastern European heritage, and you can even find gefilte fish displayed in supermarkets as if Seder night was fast approaching. At the Aline Lieiciai, we had cepelinai, or zeppilins – grated potatoes, rolled into the shape of a zeppelin and filled with minced meat. Delicious. Vegetarians can ask for zeppelins with mushroom or vegetable filling.
Vilnius, Jerusalem of the North
It was Napoleon who first called Vilnius the Jerusalem of the North, and for many centuries Lithuania was the center for Torah studies, an era which ended with the Shoah and the almost total destruction of the Lithuanian Jewish community. Today, there is a very small Jewish community of around 4,000 people, just one functioning synagogue in Vilnius, and very little to remind the casual visitor of the city’s rich Jewish tradition.
There is a bust of the Vilna Gaon, Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman Kremer, who lived in Vilnius in the 18th century, near the site of the Great Synagogue which was destroyed during the Second World War and never rebuilt. Some artifacts from the synagogue can be found at the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum, but those looking for a “roots tour” of Vilnius or Lithuania as a whole are likely to be disappointed by the lack of sites to visit.
Vilnius itself is a city well worth visiting.
With its beautiful baroque cathedral, Gothic St. Anne’s Church and medieval Gediminas Tower, alongside café-filled, curving narrow streets, the Old Town is deservedly included on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. Compared to other European capitals, Vilnius is certainly cheap, and with the establishment of direct flights between Vilnius and Tel Aviv with Hungarian low-cost airline Wizz Air, Vilnius is definitely an attractive destination for a long weekend.
For those wanting a luxury stay just outside the city, for prices of around only 200 euros a night for room and breakfast, there’s the IDW Esperanza Resort (http:// www.idwesperanzaresort.com/en), a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World group, and owned by Israel’s honorary consul to Lithuania, Mikhail Rositsan. An eco-friendly resort with its own spa, swimming pool, tennis and basketball courts, the resort also functions as a club for Lithuania’s elite, who come to dine at its topclass restaurant, perhaps the only one of its kind in Lithuania which doesn’t have pig produce on its menu due to its Jewish owner.
Nearby is the old Trakai Castle, the site of Lithuania’s capital during the Middle Ages, built in the middle of Lake Galve and restored to its 15th-century splendor. The city of Trakai is also home to 60 Karaites, whose ancestors came to the region from Crimea in the late 14th century. Their wooden houses can be recognized by their three windows facing the street, one for God, one for Vytautas the Great, the Lithuanian leader who brought them to the country, and the third for the people of the house.
Hill of Crosses
Another UNESCO World Heritage site is the Hill of Crosses, a few hours’ drive away from Vilnius, where over 200,000 crucifixes have been placed on the Mound of Jurgaiciai, first as a sign of piety and later as symbol of rebellion against the Tsar’s regime and later the Soviet era. A place of pilgrimage in this very Roman Catholic country, John Paul II held an open-air mass here when he visited Lithuania in 1993 but it’s not a place I can wholeheartedly recommend Jerusalem Post readers visit.
Instead, if you’re spending more than just a couple of days in the country (Vilnius doesn’t really need more), then it’s worth driving west across the country (just some 350 or so kilometers) to Lithuania Minor and the Curonian Spit, a narrow peninsula with the Baltic Sea on one side and the Curonian Lagoon on the other. Alongside quaint fishing villages such as Nida and Juodkrante, where there’s plenty of smoked fish to be tasted, and the large Parnidis sand dune, there’s also the busier seaside resort town of Palanga to the north, with numerous restaurants, pubs and casinos.
In a fish restaurant in Palanga, we had one of the more bizarre experiences of the trip. Noticing we were clearly not locals, the restaurant’s singer asked where we were from. The minute we answered “Israel,” the singer’s accompanist on the keyboard immediately launched into a note-perfect rendition of “Hatikva.”
Lithuania is probably the only European Union country where such a pro-Israel gesture would be made during the bitter summer days of Operation Protective Edge.
According to one diplomatic source we met, Lithuania’s support for Israel is 100 percent, not because of guilt over the Holocaust years, but because modern-day Lithuania sees itself as totally aligned with the United States (and most of the young people we met in hotels, restaurants and shops had very good English). With Putin’s Russia to its north-east, and the Russian-owned Kalingrad enclave in the south-east, Lithuania sees its independence as guaranteed by its ties with Washington and so, if the United States supports Israel, then so will Lithuania.
The writer visited Lithuania as a guest of the Lithuanian Embassy in Tel Aviv.