Low-budget vacation offers pastoral charm

  • 2000-08-03
  • Darius James Ross
Lithuania's newspapers abound with advertise ments offering package vacation deals for Cyprus, Turkey, Spain, Egypt and Croatia. These often run as low as $300 for a one-week stay and include airfare and meals - pretty low budget by Western standards, but in Lithuania these are only accessible for the new generation of young bureaucrats and executives successfully making the transition from a command to a mixed market economy. Lithuania's beautiful coastal areas, including the dunes and beaches of Nida on the Curonian Spit, are becoming a haven for German tourists. The area is crowded with, in Lithuanian terms, expensive hotels catering to foreigners.

Thousands of Lithuanian laborers and pensioners are left looking for alternative ways of escaping the city smog in favor of a restorative and relaxing environment. Not a simple task when it involves stretching a budget of, say, 200 litas to 300 litas ($50 to $75).

Yet, just as there is a 'shadow economy' for work and goods in Lithuania, there is also a kind of 'shadow vacation network' that operates entirely by word-of-mouth.

Brone Misiuniene chooses to spend her vacations in the tiny hamlet of Sniuras by the lake of the same name. Misiuniene is a retired choir director with a monthly pension of around 500 litas. For 15 years she and a few friends have been spending several weeks each year at the home of Mrs. Stefanija, to whom she lovingly refers to as 'Babce' (a Polish term of endearment meaning Grandma that is still used by some Lithuanians).

Misiuniene has been coming to Sniuras for 15 years and stays on the second floor of Babce's turn-of-the-century farmhouse.

"At first, I used to pay a nominal price to rent the rooms. But Stefanija is so old now, somewhere in her 80s, although she's unsure of her exact age, that she lets me stay for free. In exchange I bring her a few items like soap and bread, and I help her clean her house and milk the cows. I enjoy the work. It's great excercise," said Brone.

Stefanija lives as peasants have lived in Lithuania for hundreds of years. She has a field for growing potatoes and hay, a vegetable garden, a yappy guard dog, three cows, a pig and some chickens that range freely around the property.

"I used to have more chickens, but a fitch visited us a few nights ago and killed six of them," she said. Fitches, also known as polecats, are nocturnal weasel-like creatures that have an inexplicable tendency to kill chickens by throttling them to death without bothering to eat them.

Life in Sniuras is very simple with seasonal cycles and horticulture being the main topics of discussion.

"Look at all the dill. I planted just a little bit of dill last year and now it's growing everywhere. I can't seem to get rid of it. Please, take all you want. It's choking out my other plants," said Stefanija.

Her farmstead has almost no modern facilities. Water is drawn from a well; there is a sauna for washing up and an outdoor privy. In winter, a huge fireplace provides the only heat. The only concessions to technology are a tin roof, a gas range and a power line that provides electricity for light and a radio. The nearby lake is clean and blissfully quiet. Lithuanians in this part of the country cannot afford motorized boats. On a given day one sees a half-dozen rowboats on the lake with locals fishing for pike and tench (a bony carp-like fish that tastes best pickled). At dusk the lake is dotted with campfires and reverberates with the sounds of folk songs about love, war and the harvest cycles sung by the locals and their visiting relatives.

For Misiuniene, staying with Stefanija has other advantages. The surrounding woodlands are public property, and every morning she disappears with a couple of baskets in search of wild mushrooms and berries. Depending on the time of year, she gathers currants and raspberries, which she then uses to make preserves for the winter.

Sniuras also abounds with boletus and birch mushrooms. Brone preserves these in brine for later use in meat dishes.

"Mushroom gathering is tricky. Wild mushrooms spring up fastest after a rainfall, but they also spoil quickly. When it's dry, they don't grow as quickly, but they are less prone to being eaten by worms. Right now the moon is in its waning crescent phase, which is not good for mushrooms. This is simple folk wisdom, and there's no scientific explanation, but I can tell you from personal experience that it's true," said Misiuniene.

She also chuckles when she occasionally runs across foreigners out gathering mushrooms. "I've seen foreigners gathering the most worm-eaten specimens with huge smiles on their faces. They look for size, not quality," she said.

Medicinal herbs are another reason Misiuniene comes to Sniuras whereStefanija's fields are full of wild herbs.

"I gather and dry them for the winter. There is such an abundance of them that I can take all I want. Babce says there's more than enough for everybody.

Drying the herbs under the sun destroys their medicinal properties.

"Best is to find a breezy place in the shade and let the wind do the job," said Misiuniene.

She gathers wild thyme for coughs and lung ailments. St. John's wart is a naturally mild anti-depressant that is all the rage among natural health practitioners in the West these days but is not a fashionable novelty in these parts. Misiuniene also gathers wormwood - an incredibly bitter herb for treating indigestion and stomach ailments.

Wormwood is actually illegal inmost Western countries, as it contains a supposedly psychotropic drug that leads to madness. The herb is the primary component of the liqueur called Absinthe that was all the rage in Paris cafes in the days of Oscar Wilde. Absinthe is experiencing something of a revival in our day, and many are questioning whether it was the wormwood or simply the imbibing of large quantities of alcohol that caused the madness. Sniuras is not on any road map, and there are no signs pointing the way or even any phone numbers to call. Getting there involves a half-hour drive through dense forests over narrow dirt roads. It is the closest thing to time travel that a Western tourist can experience in Europe.