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New Europe

Day Ninety-one: Palanga to Vilnius

Palanga, Lithuania 
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The Baltic shore from the back of Communist leader Brezhnev's villa at Palanga, Lithuania.
Michael Palin - New EuropeAs we assemble for breakfast it turns out that all of us were told we had Brezhnev's room last night. It's like the scene from Spartacus.

'I had Brezhnev's room.'

'No! I had Brezhnev's room!'

The man himself may be long gone, but the Villa, now Hotel, Auska is a testament to misguided grandiosity. The rooms are big for the sake of bigness. Huge doors open onto acres of thickly carpeted empty space. Ceilings are moulded and decorated, colossal fireplaces sit below elaborately stuccoed walls. Armchairs and sofas await vast bottoms. But it's hard to find a hook on the wall and the water emerges from the tap in a trickle.

After breakfast I find my way out of the back of the villa and across a garden with sentry towers rising from the bushes, to a heavy barbed-wire steel door. Pulling it open I find myself in deep, soft sand and a few yards further on I'm looking out over dunes to a wide sandy beach. On the edge of the Baltic an elderly couple, dressed rather oddly, are doing slow but strenuous exercises. I realise after a moment or two that both are stark naked, and what looked like some sort of padded exercise gear is in fact their own bodies.

Lithuania is the largest of the Baltic republics and to drive across the country from the coast to the capital one senses a scale absent from its cosier neighbours to the north. It's not only the size of territory that makes Lithuania different. Her history is bigger too. Neither Latvia nor Estonia has known anything to rival the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, a trading empire which stretched as far as Moscow and the Black Sea and was the last pagan state in medieval Europe. In 1569 the Grand Duchy joined with Poland to create the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, one of the most tolerant, civilised and secure of European power blocs, strong enough to inflict defeats on the Teutonic Knights from the west and Ivan the Terrible's army from the east, before succumbing to the relentless growth of a Russian state two centuries later.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Ninety-one: Palanga to Vilnius
  • Country/sea: Lithuania
  • Place: Palanga
  • Book page no: 217

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