When Paul and I told people that we had decided to go to Lithuania on holiday most appeared baffled, but to me the slightly exotic appeal of Eastern Europe – particularly the former Soviet states – is undeniable in that it’s just so untouristy.
We decided to base ourselves in Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital city. This incredibly green city, with over 30% park and green spaces, is made up of two parts – a modern business district and a charming medieval old town, which is a UNESCO heritage site. We stayed on the newer side in the Vilnius Holiday Inn, a modern hotel with excellent facilities including spacious rooms and a relaxing bar.
Although our hotel was on the opposite side of the River Neris from the Old Town, it was a quick walk across the Green Bridge straight into the action. Vilnius is serviced by a somewhat confusing network of buses and trolley buses rather than a metro system but the city is very compact and easily explored by foot.
We were fortunate enough to have gorgeous weather throughout our stay, which gave us ample opportunity to take advantage of Vilnius’ café culture. From restaurants to bars and coffee shops, every venue spills out onto the wide sidewalks and cobbled streets, which makes it a great place to explore at a leisurely place with lots of pit stops for a cocktail or cappuccino.
The vast majority of Lithuanians are Roman Catholics and religion plays a big part in their culture. This is very evident in Vilnius, which boasts over fifty churches including the stunning Church of St Peter and St Paul with over 2000 statues inside it, and the Gothic Church of St Anne.
It’s worth jumping on the tour bus to get a grounding of the layout of the city along with some history and culture and to get an idea of what areas you want to investigate further. You can also explore the River Neris by taking a boat ride down the river. Because of all the trees it’s not the best vantage point for the major sites of the city but it is very relaxing and and if you’re lucky enough to arrive when there are no other people waiting to go on the tour, you could end up like we did – taking a romantic pontoon journey for two.
The KGB Museum
Also known as the Museum of Genocide Victims, this museum is housed in the former Vilnius KGB building. It comprises of two main exhibitions: one on the partisans who fought against the Soviet occupations and were exported in droves to the Siberian Gulags, and the other about the actions of the KGB during the occupation. The section on the “genocide” is an odd one. Although it is very tragic that Lithuanians lost their lives defending their freedom, it doesn’t seem fair to call it a genocide. The KGB section is quite something else. They have kept the cells, torture rooms and even the assassination room intact, complete with bullet holes in the walls. It’s a disturbing but interesting place to visit and again reminds you that these atrocities happening in living memory.
Alongside the Lithuanian National Museum, proudly overlooking Vilnius from the hill is Gediminas’ Tower, once the city’s defensive fort. You can reach the tower either by taking the funicular or by walking. I would strongly suggest using the funicular both up and down. The hill is steep and cobbled and a bit of a danger zone. Paul and I made the mistake of walking down and almost rolled down the hill on several occasions. There are some exhibits within the Tower but the real beauty is the incredible panoramic view of the city. It is quite breathtaking and on a clear day you can see for miles down both sides of The Neris.
About half an hour outside of Vilnius is the Island of Trakai, which sits on Lake Galve and is home to the fairy-tale like, Castle Trakai. It is an area of outstanding natural beauty and a popular holiday resort for locals. Although we could have caught a bus to Trakai really cheaply from the bus station, we decided to shell out for the guided tour. This was definitely the right idea. Our tour guide, Justyna, was amazing. Throughout the tour she shared an impressive array of facts about Lithuania in an engaging way. It also hit home to us just how recently the country gained its independence as she shared her own memories of the Singing Revolution.
The castle itself was mostly destroyed during the wars between Russia and Poland (which Lithuania was then part of) in seventeenth century. It was rebuilt between 1929 and the early nineties but unfortunately very few of the original fittings exist so the castle is now a museum of Lithuania and hosts artifacts from its rich history.
The Island is also interesting because it is the home of the Karaime people, who were relocated from the Crimea to Trakai by Grand Duke Vytautus in the late 1300’s to act as his body guards. The Karaimes live in cute little wooden houses with three windows at the front – one for god, one for the duke and one for family and friends – and follow a religion similar to Judaism but without the Talmud. They also have a delicious national dish called a kibinine, which is a little crescent shaped pie with filled a range of fillings, but most commonly lamb. We tried some out at a restaurant called Kybynlar and they were fab.
It’s also a pretty good place to buy souvenirs and Paul got this great Soviet soldier’s hat.
Another interesting day trip is to head to Grutas Park, which is near the town of Druskininkai, about two hours from Vilnius. Catching the bus from the central bus station in Vilnius is a bit of an adventure. Rather than being a coach, it’s more of a minibus with no shock absorbers that picks up and drops people off seemingly at random in the middle of the forest. On arrival in Druskininkai, you can catch a bus to Grutas Park but they are very infrequent and if you can find someone else who is heading to the park, it’s not too pricy to get a cab, as we did with the middle-aged Finnish couple we befriended.
Unsurprisingly while Lithuania was part of the Soviet Union it was packed with giant intimidating statues of Soviet “heroes” like Lenin and Stalin. Just as unsurprising is that these were all pulled down when the country became independent. What is surprising is that eccentric entrepreneur, Viliumas Malinauskas, gathered them all up and put them in the forest, creating what is probably the world’s most bizarre theme park. Not only can you stand in awe of these frankly terrifying relics, but you can also check out propaganda posters and an array of badges, uniforms, insignias and pretty much anything you can possibly imagine from the Soviet era. It is both creepy and fascinating. Take insect repellent. We got eaten alive.
On the opposite side of the River Vilna from Vilnius Old Town is the Republic of Užupis. Declared independent by its largely artist/musician population on All Fool’s Day (1 April) in 1997, it boasts it’s own constitution. The constitution includes some great clauses like “A dog has a right to be a dog” and “A cat is not obliged to love its owner but must help out in a time of need.”
One of the main features of Užupis is the Angel, which stands on a egg in the main square and represents the revival of artistic freedom in Eastern Europe.
On the day Paul and I visited Užupis, there was a street music festival going on throughout Vilnius, with a couple of mad (we think) Finnish musicians playing half English, half Finnish (?) songs on homemade instruments. Brilliant. There were also loads of people having their wedding photos taken in the main square and surrounds. We think it might have had to do with the bridges in the area since a groom is apparently supposed to carry his bride over no less than seven bridges on their wedding day!
Eating and drinking
Lithuanian food features a lot of potatoes, mushrooms and pork, with their specialties being potato pancakes and a kind of heavy, stuffed potato dumpling called a Zeppelin. They also love soups and cold beetroot and dill soup is a staple at every restaurant that must be tried. Paul and I visited two “authentic” restaurants during our visit.
The first was Lokys, which as a menu based on the Lithuanian tradition of hunting and serves things like venison, boar and er… beaver stew. The food was divine and our meal ended with complimentary shots. I have no idea what was in them but whatever it was I think my head briefly left my body.
On the more touristy side was Forto Dvaras, which serves meals certified by the Gastronomic Heritage Foundation, but was a little tacky for Paul and me.
The traditional food can get a bit heavy but Vilnius has an array of restaurants from all over the world so it’s easy to find a bit of salad once you’re all potatoed out. I would definitely recommend both the Rib Room, which was inside our hotel and Vynine Franki near Pillies Street.
Lithuanians are also very keen on beer with Svyturys being the most popular lager. Added to this we found the widest range of non-alcoholic beer we’ve ever seen. Most bars and restaurants have a special section on the menu for beer snacks, which normally includes pig’s ears and fried bread. Paul became quite a fan of the pig’s ears, which were tasty although of rather an odd texture.
If you want to combine a love of beer with a love of food, Aula, offers delicious food and an extensive beer menu, including beer cocktails.
It’s worth bearing in mind that while service is efficient, it tends to be slower to what you might be used to in Western Europe, so food and bills take a while to arrive. This is not necessarily a bad thing though. Once you get used to it, it means that meals become leisurely and relaxed. If you’re in a hurry just ask for the cheque as soon as you order.
Lithuanians have a powerful drive for freedom, which is evidenced through their tenacity of spirit throughout several occupations. They are also wonderfully quirky. Anyone who is working can come across as a bit surly, from waiters to cab drivers and hotel staff but the minute they leave work they are full of fun and energy and every place we went to buzzed. The quirkiness is further evidenced by their unwavering belief that nothing tops being Lithuanian. We were told that it is a running in-joke that all famous or important people must have some Lithuanian in them. There is a statue of Frank Zappa in Vilnius. He has no known connection to Lithuania but he is a bit of a national hero so it’s kind of assumed that he must be somehow Lithuanian… along with the queen of England.
From a tourist perspective, almost everyone speaks English, which makes it easy to get around and although you’re unlikely to get a smile from anyone serving you, the intention to help is there and people are essentially very welcoming.