18 days with no flying and started to get withdrawal symptoms lol – I was so excited I almost fell down the stairs at the airport twisting my ankle … and then the flight was delayed an hour!
Once on board it was then delayed by a further 1.5 hours – apparently there was a shortage of ground staff but the plane next to us managed to load and depart all the while we sat there ready to go! Every other single plane had gone and we still sat there! Travelling sucks sometimes, especially when you only have a short time in each place as you can’t just spend the morning sleeping no matter how much you want to, without missing out on something.
So, instead of getting to bed at 3am, it was more like 5am which was less than ideal! Thankfully I had managed to get a little sleep on the plane but sadly age is catching up with me and I am not a fully functioning human will less than 8 hours sleep a night.
Once again, I was thankful for Uber, which gave be a cheap and easy journey from the airport to the city. The driver spoke good English and was unexpectedly a big fan of cricket and rugby 🤔 – not sports I would have associated with Lithuania but it made for good conversation at 5am in the morning!
By the time I got to my hostel it was almost daylight but I did manage to get another couple of hours sleep. Sadly, I woke up to a throbbing ankle (remember that stair fall at the airport?)! Not great for the day of walking tours I had ahead of me🤦🏻♀️
As I left my hostel, the first requirement was coffee!! Thankfully there were a couple of cafes just a few doors down from the hostel so with my caffeine fix I was almost ready for walking (or should I say hobbling) tour number one – a tour of the Old Town.
Lithuania’s history is similar to that of its Baltic sister (or is it brother?) with centuries of occupations. It is the largest of the Baltic countries with a population of 2.8 m people, and in fact, it was once one of the biggest countries in Europe. In the era of the Grand Duchy, it was in union with Poland in the 16th century up until it was partioned in the 17th century.
The smaller country was part of the Russian Empire till 1918 when it gained independence for the first time. It maintained its independence until WWII, when it was invaded by the Soviets, then the Germans, then the Soviets again. It then remained part of the Soviet Union until 1991 when it finally regained independence for a second time.
In parallel with the country, the city of Vilnius itself has had an a complex history since it was first settled in the Stone Age. It has been the capital of Lithuania since it was the Grand Duchy and this continued when it was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It then changed hands between Imperial and Soviet Russia, Germany, Poland and Lithuania multiple times before officially becoming the capital of independent, modern-day Lithuania when the Soviet Union recognized the country’s independence in August 1991.
Poland has had a vast influence over Lithuania and in fact at one time, most noble people did not speak Lithuanian at all and the language was saved by the ‘simple’ people who spoke the language at that time.
As with most European countries, WWII was devasting for Lithuania. 70,000 Jews were killed in Vilnius and 200,000 in country in total. After the war the city was almost empty and 30% of the city was destroyed. Today, the Old Town is a Unesco World Heritage site but there are still large empty areas, now turned in to park areas and children playgrounds which once had buildings on before the war. In some places it was like walking into a different city.
Our guide told us that Lithuanians are always looking for claims to fame, one of those is that they are rather proud of the fact that they were the last pagans in Europe, up until the end of the 14th century. At that time, the Lithuanian Prince and Polish priests went around the country baptising people. Most people did not actually know what was going on but they got a wool shirt as a gift so some got baptised 2-3 times to get the gifts! Despite multiple baptisms, nothing really changed as they continued worshipping the pagan gods i.e. snakes, nature etc. and there are still some pagans in the city today.
Despite being from a Christian family, our guides name was Milda – the name of the pagan Goddess of Love.
There are 30 churches in the Old Town and at the times of the conversions, the Prince encouraged people to come to the city and build churches. Many rich people built their own churches to show how rich they were, mostly were Roman Catholics but a few Russian orthodox. The second religion is of the country is basketball and apparently the third is beer! These days, basketball and beer are far more important to young people than the church.
During the soviet time, most churches were converted to perform other functions as the communists did not support organised religion. Some were warehouses, others theatres, some as place to play basketball etc. One of the churches has mobile antennas on top of church tower – apparently the church do not mind, and the joke that they ‘get a direct connection to God’. 😂
We walked through the independent ‘country’ of Uzupio (I wonder if I can count that as another country??). Despite being in the middle of Vilnius, the ‘country’ has it owns president, parliament (or barliment as they like to say) and constitution etc. They claimed independence on April Fool’s day and all fools are invited to come and celebrate each year on Independence day. On this day, the water tap in the main square runs with beer for an hour or two so people flock there!
The country’s constitution is displayed in the centre of the ‘country’ translated in to 34 languages. Some of my favourite lines from the constitution are:
- Everyone has the right to die, but this is not an obligation.
- A cat is not obliged to love its owner but must help in time of nee.
- Everyone has the right to celebrate or not celebrate their birthday.
It once was a poor, run down area, but the evolution of Uzupio has turned the area in to a popular Bohemian one and the second most expensive part of the city to live in. It has great street art and quirky art installations lining the river e.g. the wooden pianos being given back to nature, as with the books nailed to a tree.
Next stop on the walking tour were the churches of St Francis and Bernadine, (which was once a monastery) and the famous church of St Anna. The church of St Anna dates back to the 16th century and is of the late gothic style. There are lots of myths and legends about the church as the architect is unknown – one of them is that Napoleon used to keep his horses in it!
We walked along the Street of Literature – a street lined with pictures and art works, each a tribute to an author, most Lithuanian, other with very tenuous links to the country … an example could be that they mentioned Lithuania in one of their books!! (I did mention previously the Lithuanians lust for fame – they will truly take anything they can!). Our guide seemed to enjoy telling us about the Lithuanian language which is similar to Latvian. The amusing part is that in a lot of instances, the Lithuanian for many English words just have ‘as’ put on the end e.g. Londonas, Donaldas Trumpas, Las Vegasas 😂
The Presidential palace, which now houses the parliament, used to be a nobleman’s residence and was built in the 14th century. It came the Presidency in 1997. The country’s flag dates back to the first Independence 101 years ago – yellow for the wheat fields (although some say the sun), green for the forests that once covered the country, and red is for patriotism and the blood lost over the years.
Just across from the Presidential palace is Vilnius University which was founded in the 16th century. As with Scandinavian countries, most young people can get a free education, even if they get lower grades, they just need to choose a less popular university or course! Many students leave university highly educated and with very high expectations but are faced with low salaries so often they are leaving the country in search of a better job. Of course, being part of the EU has made this much easier for them.
The heart of the city is the Cathedral Square, which encompasses Vilnius Cathedral, the Bell Tower and the Lower Castle. The neoclassical cathedral looks more like a Greek temple than a Christian cathedral. It was designed by the same person who designed the Town Hall and in my opinion the design is much better suited to that.
During the walking tour, the guide had recommended St John’s Bell Tower for a great view. Thankfully it had a lift as I would have struggled with my ankle on the narrow old stairs. The view was nice but it was impossible to get a nice photo through the bars and dirty glass! I made a mental note to try another viewpoint in the morning.
Somewhat revived by a brief nap, a red bull and some ibuprofen gel on my ankle, I headed out again in the afternoon for the 2nd tour of the day – this one was the ‘Alternative tour’, taking us in to what is know as the new town. Thankfully the clouds that had been looming all morning went away and the sun finally came out.
In this alternative tour, we visited more of the quirky sites of the city and learnt some of the quirkier stories about recent history:
In 2011, the Mayor of Vilnius, in an effort to encourage cycling in the city, ran over a car illegally parked in a cycle lane … in a tank! You can find a video of it on YouTube and it became a very popular symbol of the city.
The guide (who used to be a journalist) told us of the country’s struggle to market itself as a tourist destination for international visitors. They have tried numerous ad campaigns, the first campaign stumbled because it was discovered that the photos used in it were not actually of Lithuanian! The second and perhaps even more controversial was the ‘G-Spot city’ ads. The ad went ‘no one knows where it is, but once you find it, it is amazing!!’ As you can imagine there were a lot of complaints, but it was very effective lol.
2015 was the year of the Vilnius street art festival. Artists came from all over the world to paint murals around the city, each having something that symbolised Lithuania or Vilnius in them. Some take a little imagination to see what that is, others take a lot! The most infamous mural was that of Trump kissing Putin, but unfortunately it had been ‘removed’ just the week before. The guide believed that someone had defaced it, but no one really knows what happened. That same wall now displays the words ‘make empathy great again’!
Apparently, the first bagel appears in 17th century Lithuanian Poland – who knew!
We visited the nice, clean modern train station, with most things also in English. It looked like using trains locally would be very easy and efficient. Apparently, they are working on improving the train lines for high speed trains to run under Baltic Sea by 2026.
The actual reason for the visit to the station was to see the weird bar on train platform. The seating was made up of old train seats and deck chairs with a view of the train lines, but what was weirder was the large statue of Tony Soprano 🤔 (from the TV show ‘The Sopranos’) on the platform. Apparently, it was going to be a statue of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania but it was decided that no one would know who he was!
The final stop on the walking tour was at the ‘Open Gallery’, a project opened 2 years ago as a way to present alternative, creative projects and presentations. There are new murals going up in the industrial park all the time and is becoming a very popular tourist destination.
When my body and mind no longer had the will to go on 🤦🏻♀️ I got an Uber back to the hostel. It only cost Euro 2 but it was the crappiest uber I have ever been in – clearly there are no rules about age or quality of vehicle here! Still it got my very weary body back to the hostel for another rest before I headed out to sample the local cuisine and beverages.
I started at a place recommended by the guide on the walking tour which turned out to be just around the corner from my hostel, but unfortunately, despite it only being 7pm they had already run out of the famous Cepelinai (so called because they are shaped like the zeppelins) so I had potato pancakes instead. Thankfully they were tasty crispy potato goodness, stuffed with meat and covered in sour cream and a local beer. I only got a half
portion (which to be fair was more than enough) and hoped I could get to try the other things later tonight (or at least tomorrow). It seems others from the walking tour followed the same advice as I saw a few of them there too 👍🏻
Potato, sour cream and bacon definitely seem to be the way to go in Lithuania – even McDonald’s have jumped on the band wagon (see photo)!
The next stop was a wine bar recommended by a colleague – it was nice but it had no local wine or food so I had one drink, a complimentary plate of nibbles and moved on. Finally, after much roaming I found a bar the served the local berry wine – I had raspberry wine (FYI it was delicious) with what turned out to be a huge plate of traditional fried bread – so much garlicky crispy goodness I could not finish it!
Finally, it was almost dark so I had a quick walk around to see the city at night (always pretty) and up to the ‘Gates of Dawn’, the only remaining gate of the first five original gates in the city walls that were built between 1503 and 1522. You could actually see the famous painting of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Mercy through the upper window. Finally, I was done for the day and headed back to my hostel for a well-earned sleep!
I am normally up and out early exploring but the dull ache of my ankle on the Sunday morning (an improvement on Saturday) and the desire to keep sleeping meant I did not get out till almost 9.30am!! The horror of it all 😂 Thankfully the hostel staff had been kind enough to move me from a top to a bottom bunk so I could actually get in and out of bed on my bad ankle!
There were already a few people around, but to be honest I have been surprised by how quiet (comparatively) the city was. I had expected any old city in Europe to be overrun with tourists but this was not the case which was great … for me anyway.
I had wanted to go up to the tower of the Gediminas Tower of the Upper Castle (the one on the hill) and found out it had a funicular up which meant I did not have to hobble up the cobblestone hill (cobblestone are the worst with a bad ankle!!), so I set off on the walk to the base to be there when it opened at 10am.
Most of the castle today is a reconstruction of a structure originally built in 1409. Today it is part of the Luthuanian National Museum and had some great exhibitions about the history of the city – historic and more recent.
One of the exhibitions was about the ‘Baltic Chain’ (sometimes known as the ‘Baltic Way’) which I had also heard about in Latvia. It was a peaceful demonstration against Soviet rule that took place in 1989 in which people (approximately 2 million of them) formed a human chain across Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. It spanned 675.5 km started in Cathedral Square in Vilnius and finished in Riga (though Latvians would say it started there and finished in Lithuania).
After walking slowly around the exhibitions, I did have to walk up the narrow winding stairs to top of tower – thankfully it had good handrails for me to use. It was certainly worth it as the view was beautiful – I have to disagree with yesterday’s guide who said that the St. John’s church tower was the best view in her opinion. I think the castle tower was a much better (and unobstructed) view of all of the city – the old on one side and the new and shiny on the other.
I could see from the ‘Hill of Three crosses’, the unfinished stadium (which has sat abandoned since 2008 when Government funding dried up) and to the modern high rises across the river. It made me chuckle to myself as I had seen a picture on Instagram only the day before depicting ‘every European city’ (except for the unfinished stadium of course which is unique to Vilnius).
Thankfully the tower was just a few minutes away from the meeting point for my 11am pick up for my trip out of the city so my morning timings worked out perfectly. I was picked up right on time and headed out with a few others (Dutch and American) to head just 30 minutes from the city to the Trakai Island castle.
As we drove, our guide shared with us her experiences in newly independent Lithuania in the 90’s. The transition from communism to democracy was not an easy one and for many they thought that communism was better as they always had a place to live and money for food. Everything was privatised as quickly as possible not everything went smoothly.
Lithuania in general is a fairly mono-national country, with 85% of the population being Lithuanian. There are 5% Russians and some Tatars and Karaims (more about these shortly).
The countryside used to be covered in forest and as previous mentioned, paganism was key, the belief in the spirits of nature and it was these forests that helped with the protection of the country as with no roads, it was hard for the invaders to navigate the way. On one side they were fighting the crusaders, on the other side the Tartars and Mongols so thankfully they had extra assistance from the nature they worshipped!
It was in Trakai that I first heard of Karaims. The earliest Karaims were taken prisoners during battles in the Crimea in 1397. They were brought back to Trakai and served as royal guards. They have maintained their customs and traditions throughout the centuries and today they are a big part of the town. Apparently, their religion is based only on Old Testament of the Bible and some believe is an off shoot of Judaism.
Their cute, painted, wooden houses (with three windows at the front with the ) line the main road of the town and stalls selling the popular Kibben line the waterfront – fast food from the Middle Ages our guide called them. Something like empanadas (and delicious) – I have said it before and I will say it again, calories don’t count when the food is part of the cultural experience 😂👍🏻
There are 20 islands on lake in total and the castle is on one of the largest ones. Today the castle is accessed by a couple of bridges, but when built it would only have been accessible by boat.
The castle was once a formidable stronghold when it was built in the early 15th century. Sadly, it was destroyed by the Cossacks in 1655 and it laid in ruins for centuries and in the 1950s the Soviet authorities sanctioned the reconstruction as a “monument to Lithuania’s glorious past”. So, pretty much everything we see today, except for the basement (which is all that remains from the original castle) is recently rebuilt. That said, painstaking efforts were made to study the rubble and written histories and rebuild as close to the original castle as possible.
In its golden era in the 15th century, the nobles rooms had a central heating system and was the location for many grand visits by international guests. There were no hand rails on some stairs as the walls dated back to the 15ht and they cannot drill in to them. As I put my hands on the wall to make my way slowly down the stairs, I found myself wondering about the people who had touched that same piece of wall over the centuries.
Did you know there was actually a purpose to narrow winding staircases in castles??? I certainly didn’t but apparently they are added defences. The narrow steps which are wider on the outer side allows better traction for defence coming down the steps, whilst the very narrow step on the inside makes it very difficult for those trying to attack coming up the steps!
The guide on the tour was great and it was so interesting hearing her personal stories about the more recent occupations and the struggle for independence from Russia.
Back in the city and I had only a couple more things to tick off off my list. Firstly … a journey through the more recent history at the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights, also known as the KGB museum as it is housed in the old KGB headquarters.
Whilst the upper two floors houses the museum detailing the numerous occupations of the country during the 20th century, the basement has been left as a museum to the years of the KGB. The some of cells have been left as they were. One full of bags of shredded papers left behind when they fled in 1991. It is a vast underground complex, some of cells being sound proofed and padded, others with no room to lie down. It was a thought provoking display of such chilling times but an important dedication to those who fought of the independence of Lithuania and her people.
And my final stop (after various unsuccessful attempts to find some strapping for my ankle) was food related and I finally got my Cepelinai Though it was not visually appealing and the potato was quite glutinous and the whole dish a little oily, it tasted good! Again, that tried and tested combination of potato sour cream and pork 😂 for the win. But even the half portion defeated me and I had my curd filled pancakes to think about (another traditional dish). Not sweet in themselves but served this time with jam and …. you guessed it … sour cream 😂
So, I pretty much rolled out of that place feeling like a potato dough ball filled with sour cream and got another less than stellar Uber to the airport. Drivers are nice enough but clearly there are no vehicle requirements here! Still cheap and effiencent so I will get over it.
My ankle was about ready to seize up completely by this point – 2 days of walking with no compression ( that is my fault really as I did not think about getting something when I could and when I thought about it I could not get it – I did finally get one at the airport!) has made the swelling worse and I cannot wait till I can actually treat it properly, most importantly rest!
I had received an email saying be at the airport 2.5 hours before the flight as the airport would be very busy … as i must always follow the rules I did just that and there were no queues anywhere, for anything! It sure where all the people they were expecting were coming from but they certainly did not get the same email as me 😂😂😂
To ensure a quick turnaround, these budget airlines start boarding as soon as the plane lands … if you have paid for priority boarding you get to go through first but it just means you have to stand for 30 mins plus in a huddle by a door whilst everyone gets off the plane that has just landed and they clean it!! Not sure that this a priority or not lol