hidden europe 56

Lithuanian Enigma: A Visit to Druskininkai

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: Druskininkai is a watery place. The decorative fountain here is a good deal nicer than the noisy musical fountain in the spa park (photo © hidden europe).


Lithuanians are firmly asserting a confident national identity which transcends history and occupation. A key asset in the new Lithuanian narrative is the artist and composer Mikalojus Ciurlionis, who spent his childhood years in the small town of Druskininkai. It is, we discover, an appealing place with winsome wooden villas and some oddball Baltic modernist buildings.

This is not Barcelona. The sound of Freddie Mercury’s Barcelona reverberates over the park.

“Way too loud,” says a woman who happens to be passing by.

The repertoire of the musical fountain in Druskininkai sweeps from Annie Lennox to Whitney Houston, from Enya to Tchaikovsky. And it’s noisy, a poorly synchronised medley of sounds, coloured lights and water jets. Those who live within earshot naturally have mixed feelings about the installation in the town’s spa park.

Lithuania is a watery country, and the success of Druskininkai is based largely on the curative properties of the local water. Strolling through the neat park from the fountain, it is just a few minutes walk to the little footbridge which leads over a fast flowing brook. The River Ratnyčia, which runs below the bridge, joining the slow-flowing River Neman just a few metres downstream, has a pungent whiff of sewage, but that evidently didn’t deter dozens of couples as they affixed a symbolic padlock to the bridge, promising eternal love to each other.

Away in the distance, Freddie Mercury is fading. “Barcelona. Such a beautiful horizon… If God is willing, friends until the end.” It is a sentiment echoed in the inscriptions on the padlocks. Undying love in many languages — but especially in English.

Just up from the bridge is a memorial recalling the Ottoman massacre of Armenians in 1915 and 1916. Lithuanians often find common cause with Armenians on the matter of genocide. “We commemorate the suffering of Armenians because our own history is so similar,” explains an elderly gentleman who pauses to talk with us by the memorial.

Memory is a sensitive subject in Lithuania, where the term genocide is used frequently to refer to the suffering of the Lithuanian people during a half-century of Soviet rule. Those decades were surely not easy, but it’s questionable — as Lithuanian intellectuals and western diplomats have repeatedly pointed out — whether the Soviet treatment of Lithuanians really amounted to systematic genocide. In the capital Vilnius, the Museum of Genocide Victims, just renamed this year to Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights and housed in the impressive former KGB headquarters, hardly devotes any attention to the Holocaust when, during a three-year period from 1941, more than 95 per cent of the country’s Jews were ruthlessly murdered.

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