You can tell when spring arrives in the Baltics because on that day, everyone turns into reptiles.
At tram stops, bus stops, in parks and standing at their front doors, everyone tilts their heads to the heavens, closes their eyes against the almost unbearable brightness of the sun and smiles serenely as they consider what a difference a ray makes.
Spring took a couple of days to travel to Riga from Vilnius, where it launched the annual Kaziuko or St Kasimir’s fair. I had wanted to attend Kaziuko for several years. Fulfilling the wish at last, I was not disappointed.
Around 1200 stalls ran all the way from the banks of the Neris next to the Seimas along the entire arrow-straight length of Gedimino before branching into numerous tributaries in the Old Town. Stalls sold traditional goodies: hot honey beer (not exactly mead, and surprisingly tasty), honey cakes, dried flowers, woden toys, crafts, old prints of Vilnius, cabbage graters, sauna essentials and myriad other items.
Proving that Lithuanians really can organize things when they set their minds to it, traffic was kept at bay and the atmosphere was genuinely festive. The first day, Saturday seemed still to belong to Winter but by Sunday, Spring had wrenched Kaziuko from its cold embrace. Under blue skies and warm sunshine, Vilnius gave Spring a fitting and enthusiastic welcome.
I found my own spirits rising, and not just because of the weather, the hot beer or even the excellent array of hat stalls to choose from (see blogs passim). The fact that such an array of excellent, largely home-produced goods could be assembled in one place served better than any sterile trade fair to show that the Baltic states do actually produce high-quality, characterful items that are worth buying.
I say ‘Baltic states’ rather than ‘Lithuania’ because ther was a sprinkling of Latvian and even Estonian stall holders mixed in, along with a fair few from Belarus and Poland. These stalls represented hundreds of different small-scale businesses. Some were traders but many were manufacturers as well. It showed that the ‘Maxima-isation’ of the Baltics is neither inevitable nor actually desirable.
The cakes from the stalls tasted better than anything in a plastic tub bought in Maxima, Rimi or Selver. The felt, leather and linen goods were cheaper than Stockmann or Apranga, more individual and perhaps most importantly of all, not made in China or third world sweat shops.
I’ve written previously about the surprising lack of an open-air market culture in the Baltics, where the climate (for half the year) and the cult of centralisation has tended to herd market stalls into covered markets. Some of them are good – great even in the case of Riga’s Central and Agenskalns markets – but seeing traders bagging and selling their wares among the cobbles and baroque spires of Vilnius provided compelling evidence not only of Lithuania’s curiously Mediterranean atmosphere when the sun shines but also of the huge homegrown potential in the Baltics.