Riga’s spectacular art nouveau Alberta Street is crammed with clumps of senior tourists, trailing behind leaders who hold aloft ping pong bats with numbers… 15, 9 and 27. Every morning monster cruise ships dock in the harbour, and each disgorges tour groups for a quick whip around Riga’s main attractions.
I’ve often regarded such tourists with patronizing pity – those poor old people (or foolish young ones) who are too lazy or ignorant to organize their own travel. But now I’m one of those poor old people myself, having joined a 20-day Odyssey Travel bus tour , ‘The Emergence of the Baltic States’. It’s been an eye-opener, with my fellow travellers and the trip’s organization challenging my preconceptions.
I always assumed that package tourists got only sanitized, superficial experiences. They gawked at architecture, but didn’t understand it. They met few local people, had no interest in local culture and they preferred McDonald’s and Starbucks because of the familiar food and clean toilets. In short, their travel didn’t teach them much about the world. Continue reading
The faithful, the curious, the believers and the photographers flock to an extraordinary site 12km outside the town of Siauliai in northern Lithuania, where a small hill is covered with crosses. There are over 100,000 of them. Some say 500,000, some claim it’s closer to a million. I didn’t attempt to count them. This is not a cemetery, but it commemorates the departed. It also commemorates Lithuania’s struggle for political and religious freedom under the Soviet yoke.
The exact origin of the tradition of visitors placing crosses here is disputed, but the first ones seem to have appeared after the November uprising against the Russian Empire in 1831.
Its symbolic importance grew when the Soviets tried to stamp out religious icons, bulldozing the hill in 1963 and 1973. But under cover of darkness, the crosses always reappeared, a peaceful protest against the oppressors.
After Lithuania gained independence, a visit from Pope John Paul II in 1993 confirmed the Hill of Crosses as a place of pilgrimage not only for Lithuania’s Catholics, but also for tourists from around the world. I was impressed to find a Jewish monument between all these Christian symbols.
Anybody can add a cross to the collection, and naturally you can buy one in the gift shop if you forgot to bring your own.
The writer was the guest of Odyssey Travel.
Odyssey Travel runs guided tours of the Baltic States, including a visit to the Hill of Crosses. See odysseytravel.com.au