Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Why does a diplomat go to Varena? To pick mushrooms, of course!

Have you ever ventured deep into a forest in search of mushrooms? For that matter, can you even differentiate an edible mushroom from a poisonous one? The people of Varėna can, and they’re more than happy to show how it’s done. Each year, on the last weekend of September, the small Lithuanian town plays host to a Mushroom Festival, where the Lithuanian people celebrate their culture, their country’s natural beauty, and of course, their mushrooms.

The Varėna district municipality, situated in Lithuania’s southernmost region, is quite possibly the country’s best kept secret. An important center of rail-and-motorways, forestry and tourism, Varėna is first and foremost a preservation area for Lithuania’s unique nature and cultural heritage. Many jointers, carpenters, weavers, and ceramicists practice their crafts here. Traditions of wild-hive beekeeping are preserved. Likely for this reason, the Varėna region is developing itself into a popular tourist destination. Thousands of tourists, both Lithuanian and foreign, visit the area each year.  Famous for its history, old villages, folkloric traditions, and well-developed infrastructure, the provisions of Varėna’s tourism industry range from exciting hikes and water activities to more leisurely strolls through charming meadows.

Varėna district is also the largest and most forested region of Lithuania. The town of Varėna, founded as a
small settlement in 1862, yielded lower harvests due to infertile soil, and began supplementing its economy by collecting berries and mushrooms. Following industrialization in the 1970s, the town grew rapidly, and mushroom picking in particular became a staple of the economy. And thus the idea for an annual Mushroom Festival began. . .

Festival activities begin early in the morning with a mushroom collecting competition, held in Dainava, one of Lithuania’s oldest forests. The competition consists of a varying number of teams with four participants on each. Together the teams, accompanied by musicians performing traditional Lithuanian songs, make their way into Dainava and begin the mushroom collection process. Three hours later, the competitors submit their baskets for weighing; the team that produces the largest supply of edible mushrooms wins! Following the contest, celebrations take place in Varėna City Park.

My Mushroom Festival experience, however, included no personal mushroom picking. At 8:30 am, I climbed aboard the Mushroom Train and took the two-hour journey from Vilnius to Varėna. Even the train ride, I learned, is part of the affair. Men and women dressed in cultural costumes escorted us to our compartment, where a small band performed a string of cultural tunes. Throughout the trip, we were served delightful culinary treats (many including mushrooms, of course), treated to a series of wine tastings, and even personally serenaded by the Mushroom Train Choir. It was a memorable ride, to say the least.

DCM Robert Silberstein participating in the festivities
The festival itself was very much a continuation of my train adventure.Mushrooms, red and yellow autumn leaves, and various squash types ornamented the park. Folk artists proudly displayed their hand-crafted souvenirs, intricate weavings, and unique pottery designs. Costumed men and women sat behind small tables, superfluous with baked goods, vegetables, mushroom, and potato dishes. On stage, children sang and danced. Offstage, they participated in old traditional games and sporting activities. Adults, meanwhile, partook in the multitudinous beer and wine tastings. Throngs formed around the woodcarving exhibition, where people could purchase original creations made from the local artists. Others still watched as the local townspeople demonstrated their crafts: spinning and weaving and woodworking. Robert Silberstein, the U.S. Embassy's Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM), even gave a short speech and was honored with a basket of Varėna's famous mushrooms!

It was an affair to remember, certainly a festive inauguration of the autumn season. So, if you ever find yourself in search of a fall excursion, keep Varėna in mind. Hop on the Mushroom Train, help yourself to a bowl of cream of mushroom soup, and experience an authentic blend of the medieval and the modern!