Posted: 11/5/2008
Title: THE BALTIC 'FREEDOM' ROAD TO OLD VILNIUS

Blog:                                                                                                                         

     It was 24th June 1988 on the eve of the UEFA Championship Final at Munich's Olympiastadion. USSR v Holland. We were at a garden party given by the Mayor of Munich and my biggest thrill was to shake hands with the most famous goalkeeper in the world, the legendary LEV YASHIN the only goalie to win the European Footballer of the Year Award.

     He was not very well, after having a leg amputated in 1986 and would die of complications in 1990. After the party I was driving to the apartment of my friend Mikael Magdolen, a coach at TSV 1860 Munchen and a music teacher. A guy in an old suit was waiting for a bus and we stopped and offered him a ride to his hotel. He was a famous sport writer in Vilnius, Soviet Socialist Republic of Lithuania. He thought Mikael must be the Mayor of Munich, as he sat in the comfort of the back seat of his luxurious BMW.

      We chatted, swopped notes, and he dreamed of going to America with his club Zalgiris, a famous club that was still in the Soviet League and was excited about the future independence of his small Baltic country.  I spoke with a leader of the Ukrainian-American community in Chicago and he promised to help. Well, Zalgiris made it to the promised land a year later, and carried their national flag for the first time, and the man in Chicago, VALDUS ADAMKUS, born in Kaunus the 2nd city, returned to his homeland, no longer under Soviet rule, after 49 years in Illinois, renounced his US citizenship and is now PRESIDENT OF LITHUANIA, an independent nation, for his second, non-consecutive terms after his recent predecessor was removed due to corruption.

    I took the express bus from Riga, Latvia to Vilnius the other day in about 3 1/2 hours. Unfortunately it was All-Saints Day, lots of public businesses were closed and I couldn't get hold of the president-probably at his country 'dasha'.  Anyway, I had always wanted to visit the stadium of Zalgiris on the other side of the Neris River. www.fkzalgiris.lt

      The river has grassy banks and flower arrangemets. One says in Lithuanian 'I LOVE YOU', while on the opposite bank the flower arrangement says 'I LOVE YOU,TOO'. To my right, high above the National Museum is the tower of the Castle of Grand Duke Gediminas,the founder of the city.  Between the cathedral and the Bell Tower is a 'magic' quarry tile. In 1989 the so called 'Baltic Road'-a live chain of people-stretched 598 km to Riga and Tallin, Estonia, in an attempt to initiate the battle for independence, which came within 12 months.

    The stadium is decaying rapidly. I spoke with the manager who told me that the National Team now plays in Kaunus, nearer the centre of the country with a new facility. The electronic scoreboard looks in poor shape and the red, gold, green coloured seating, the national flag colours, needed repair. It has been decided that about 26 km away is the geographical centre of Europe. However in the entrance hall were posters and photos of many famous matches and teams that had played in this historic stadium.

    I had plenty of time to stroll down Pilies Street and wander around one of Europe's largest Baroque old towns. Vilnius is the only capital of Europe situated on the boundary of two ancient civilizations-Latin and Byzantine. It has been on the UNESCO World Heritage list of cities since 1994. and in 2009 will be European Capital of Culture. I also visited the Gothic masterpiece, St. Anne's church, The Grand Courtyard of Vilnius University founded in 1579, and the Renaissance Royal Palace. There is also the Classical Town Hall and Vilnius Cathedral.  I had a Lithuanian beer, local pancakes and returned to Riga on the late bus.www.vilnius-tourism.lt

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