Sunday February 14th 2016
Arrival / Getting in and out / Settling in
Rolling up to Valentine’s Day. I’d like to say that the purpose of our trip to Vilnius was driven by my old romantic self. However, this would be me being economical with the truth. In reality, I only realised it was Valentine’s Day that afternoon, after passing a restaurant offering ‘Valentine’s Brunch’. I’m not sure what Bishop Valentine would have made of such an offering. However, clearly they were on my wave length. It doesn’t do to push the boat out, not without either a very good reason or a high degree of guilt.
However, to start at the beginning. The temptation of cheap flights, courtesy of Ryanair, and even better value accommodation, from Milda at Airbnb, was too good to miss for a February break. We’ve had such a wet winter; the promise of crisp snow and cold air was tempting us back to the Baltic. With a little luck and a not so fair breeze, the flight might be half an hour late and we could avoid Michael O’Leary’s fanfare that announces that “95% of all flights arrive on time”.
We were on time. It was cold. Blissfully so.
I’d been monitoring the weather for the previous three weeks on one of the many Vilnius webcams. That and Wunderground, alongside the BBC, convinced me that it was a winter in Lithuania like no other. Not a drop of snow. Not a flake. Sunshine every day and people enjoying a mild respite from the usual. I persuaded the memsahib to ditch the snow boots and, while I have to admit I didn’t go as far as recommending espadrilles, her face was a treat as she looked down from the plane on field after field of the white stuff. Piles of snow as tall as you like, all over the airport…it’s a good job the streets were cleared. It could be tricky for an unsuspecting tourist if it resorted to type.
Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, is a new experience for us. Tallinn was magical. Gently falling snow amid the town’s blue twinkling lights. Krakow was fascinating – Auschwitz is somewhere you feel you don’t need and then, once experienced, realise that everyone should see and experience ‘man’s inhumanity to man’. And so, ticking off the next stage in our gazetteer of the Baltic, we landed. Arrivals is straightforward and if you catch the tourist minibus (No.88) it’ll get you into the Old Town centre in a little over half an hour.
It’s always the same. You arrive in a new place and you’re disorientated and everything looks so very strange. The No. 88 is not far off the easiest and the cheapest way to get into the centre and the most straightforward even if you’re tired and it’s all rather new. Two euros gets you to the Town Hall (the Rotuse) and that’s pretty much as central as you need to be.
We stayed in an apartment that we’d found in Airbnb. Milda has a small one-bedroom apartment five minutes walk from the Town Hall, almost next to the Gates of Dawn. It’s in an old converted nunnery (https://www.airbnb.co.uk/rooms/3834725). Safe, clean, excellent WiFi and a comfy bed. What more could you want? It had the bonus of underfloor heating and a thermostat that could be successfully steered up past the 23 degree mark.
The Gates of Dawn mark the northern edge of the Old Town. Part gate, part church, it houses a statue of the Black Madonna. It’s not uncommon to see both young and old stop, genuflect and move on down Ausros Vartai gatve. Pope John Paul II prayed here back in the 90s as part of his pilgrimage of Lithuania and it is one of the ‘sights’ of Vilnius. Thankfully, religious fervor and weeping is done with discretion.
Vilnius isn’t a city you visit to ‘tick off’ major sights. It’s not Rome with its Colosseum, or Venice with its Bridge of Sighs. However, it does have charm, space, a surfeit of Baroque buildings and, most importantly, a river. Cities with rivers take on their own charm.
For us, the first day is usually a case of ‘getting bearings’. Just down the road from the apartment we came across the Portobello Pub. It’s the equivalent of the ubiquitous Irish Bar. Wherever you go, Irish bars are recognisable. If you’re lucky, the barman is from one of the southern counties. Usually, however, the staff are local and the place is decked out in job-lot road signs for Kilkenny, Roscommon and Bantry Bay. The Guinness is invariably good and the Caffreys is comforting.
The Portobello, on the other hand, is trying to be English. You enter through an old red telephone box…and why not? The bar is fitted out with anything and everything that might even have the most tenuous link to the old country. Her Majesty on the wall behind the bar keeps company with David Bowie and a set of epaulettes from the Prison Service. The Lithuanians favour dark ales and wheat beers – I’ve washed pots in water of a similar colour. It was good to see Badger’s Leaping Hare on draught and, of course, Guinness. (Why is draught Guinness always cheaper abroad than it is in the centre of Dublin!)
Monday February 15th 2016
Shopping / Sightseeing in the Old Town / The Artists’ Quarter
The homeless start early in Vilnius. There was a posse outside of the supermarket at 8 a.m. as I went for breakfast supplies. It’s hard to pass, armed with croissants and doughnuts, when they’re sitting drinking beer and trying to keep warm. As with most cities, their pet dogs always seem to be well-fed and happy enough to curl up and sleep the day away.
The centre of Vilnius is rather short on general stores….bakers, butchers, delicatessens and the like. There are plenty of coffee houses and restaurants if you want to eat out. For me, the joy of being abroad is to navigate the wonders of a supermarket. In Vilnius, it’s Ikky’s. They are more than adequate. The fresh morning bread, cakes, pastries and savouries are stacked next to the beer and the crisps. Where else would they be? You can buy everything you need and the cost of living is favourable compared to any major city in the UK. As would be expected, negotiating the till is always interesting. Young Lithuanian girls put us to shame. Their English is excellent but they are still slightly bemused when you say good morning ( labas rytas) or thank you (Ačiū – if you sneeze (Achoo) it sounds the same) in their own tongue.
The first full day is usually sightseeing. Climbing towers and castle ramparts helps you take in the panorama and get your bearings. Armed with the usual ‘Top 10’ guide, we trudged the streets ticking off sights as we went.
The main square has a suitable tower to climb to view the town and the castle has a similar edifice that provides a view of the newer part of Vilnius. Getting into attractions is probably the most expensive part of staying in Vilnius. Four or five euros doesn’t sound much, until you compare it with the cost of eating and drinking and then you realise that it’s a chance to claw income from the tourist without penalising the locals.
The old KGB building is formidable. The Lithuanians were under perpetual occupation from 1940 onwards. First the Nazis occupied the building and then, after the war, the Russian secret police and the KGB moved in. Even prior to Glasnost, the FSB had their headquarters in the same building and the outside walls are etched with the names of activists who lost their lives in the torture chambers and execution rooms down in the basements. It wasn’t until 1991 that Gorbachev granted independence to Lithuania that the building became a museum.
Vilnius university is the oldest establishment of higher learning in the Baltic States. It was term-time, but devoid of the to-ing and fro-ing of earnest students armed with books and striped scarves that one expects to see in national universities across Europe. Perhaps it was too cold? There were one or two lurking in corners have a quick cigarette between lectures or indulging in a cuddle in a doorway. You can tour the university buildings for less than two euros. The frescos are luxuriant and they’re well worth the effort and the trudge.
The new Europa shopping mall reminds me of those we saw in China. Prestige brands, shop assistants by the drove but barely a customer on whom to pounce. It’s been built on the far side of the River Neris, just a few minutes walk from the old town and across a new pedestrian bridge. It’s not salubrious on the outside, with more than its fair share of beggars and winos lurking in the shadows. However, inside it’s clean, warm and rather upmarket. The memsahib bought linen at a fraction of the price it would have been in the UK. Linen in the Baltic States is a must. The amber looks lovely but it’s rather garish and one of those tourist ‘buys’ that never look quite the same when you get home and view it under a grey home sky. With business not being what might be termed brisk, you’d have banked on a warmer welcome. Boredom has obviously taken its toll on the warmth and conviviality of Vilnan shop assistants.
However, there is clearly a section of the population of Vilnius with a considerable amount of disposable income. Ladies, of a certain age, out shopping and out for lunch abound, certainly in the Old Town. I suspect all the men are abroad earning the wherewithal to pay for the fur coats and the expensive Baltic amber jewellery.
On the way home, we stopped outside a somewhat plain building. There was a handful of soldiers going through their paces. The memsahib was accosted by a rather earnest young man who gave us an extended lecture on the rise of Lithuanian independence followed by a further interrogation on the demise of Celtic languages across Europe and, particularly, in Wales. Anyway, it turned out that February 16th is Independence Day, the day that Lithuanians celebrate the signing of their Independence charter at the House of the Signatories on Pilies Street. The building housed the room used to sign the way to freedom. I’m afraid I’d made my own bid for freedom and sought refuge in a hostelry across the street until the memsahib escaped and joined me.
The area of Uzupio Res Publika is a series of streets populated by artists who have declared their own independence from the rest of Vilnius. The City fathers have clearly seen the attraction in this as a tourist opportunity and actively promote their rebellion. It’s a rather run-down area, but I suspect that the property prices will encourage the affluent young to turn the rather bohemian quarter into something far more trendy and with it will go the somewhat quirky identity
Tuesday February 16th 2016
Back in the day, when Hugo Boss designed and produced the uniform for the SS and the Hitler Youth, you have to admit that he produced something well-tailored and, for the period, quite stylish. Probably welcomed by wearer and sympathizer alike, if abhorred and detested by everyone else. Today, being Independence Day in Lithuania, the soldiers are out helping to celebrate February 16th. They could do with a sponsor! Over what appears to be a rather untidy green fleece, they wear a white Sam Browne belt that looks more St. John’s Ambulance than Special Forces. Fortunately, they had time to pop back to the barracks to get changed into dress uniforms before the ceremony at the House of the Signatories in Pilies Street at two that afternoon…..
On an observational note, retailing must be doing well in a country that has only been independent for 25 years. All the top labels are here: Armani, Boss, D&G and even Marks and Spencer! People are well-dressed with excellent collections of fur-collared coats, as you might expect. One odd thing, though, is that every shoe shop, and there are many, only seem to sell black shoes or boots. Very occasionally, you’ll see a pair of brown at the back of the shop, but when you look at people’s feet on the streets…black shoes and black boots. Maybe the habits of a once-Soviet and somewhat uniform society are hard to break?
The other odd thing I’ve noticed is that nearly everyone still smokes. At under three euros a packet from every supermarket and pavement kiosk, it’s not surprising in itself but the health warnings of the West are clearly slow to arrive.
Later that day……
You’ll be pleased to read that ‘dress uniform’ for the military is as smart as it is anywhere. Certainly better tailored that it is in Vietnam and China.
Independence Day is a national holiday and an excuse for the roads to be jammed with traffic trying to get into the city. Everywhere you see, people carrying national flags, wearing stickers, badges and sporting pennants. Many older folk have returned to national dress. After all, if you’ve been under the pressure of occupation for most of your adult life, you have something to celebrate.
The main cathedral square was busy with people getting ready for the evening’s concert. There was a huge stage and the army had mobile kitchens set up, handing out what looked like cabbage soup to the long queues, which snaked around the edges of the square.
In Pilies Street, at 2 p.m, the Prime Minister spoke from the balcony of the House of Signatories to the huge crowd gathered below. In the same house, in 1991, the document of independence was signed, marking Vilnius’s full independence, at last.
The names of the martyrs were read out, each one followed by the mournful tolling of a near-by church bell. There was a considerable number of martyrs.
A 12-gun salute from the balcony above signalled the end of the formal proceedings, but the saddest of folk laments followed from a choir of exceptionally old Vilnians, all in national dress. Have your language, folk songs and culture suppressed and you have a nation in chains. It was very moving. The choir stayed on to sing to the crowd long after the formal events had finished. My God, I thought Lancastrians had dirges, but we have nothing to compare with the thiry-seven verses of Lithuanian songs of freedom.
Wednesday February 17th 2016
Today, we escaped the city.
Walking to the bus station, we found out that the number 2 goes to the airport for a single euro and leaves every half hour. It’s worth remembering if you’re staying at the north end of the city.
Instead, today we caught a bus to Trakei. Sometimes, I’m aware that travel programmes and friends from home seek the comfortable trappings of the familiar and the up-market sophistication of tourist resorts. I like nothing better, on the other hand, than sitting on a bus full of local people and wandering out into the suburbs to see where people live and work.
The tour operators will take you to Trakei for 70 euro. The bus will take you there and back in the same time for 3.60 euro. You do the maths! The only obstacle is the blonde with the sour face at Tourist Information who seems to find everyone with an enquiry something of a nuisance and an irritation.
The Trakei bus takes you out past factories and warehouses, past the odd Soviet Prospekts and wastelands. Eventually, you’re out in the country and on past mile on mile of woodland – predominantly Silver Birch.
If you’ve ever been to Wannasee, outside of Berlin, you’ll understand Trakei and it will feel familiar. The bus drops you at the top end of town. It’s a summer resort surrounding a beautiful lake with a series of lock-up-and-leave houses mixed with wooden-clad Alpine-style lodges for the locals. It’s not neatly polished, but it has a charm. In February, you wander down empty roads, past closed restaurants and cafes, past the supermarket and post office until you glimpse the lake.
It’s beautiful. A castle on an island. Re-built in the 90s in the same style as the original, albeit now in brick.
The lake was frozen. There were people venturing out onto the ice to skate or fish and the whole place was strangely magical.
The castle itself isn’t expansive and there’s not much to say about it. There is a museum and a grumpy ticket office attendant. It’s worth a visit. I’d imagine it’s splendid in the summer.
Trakei bus station has all the warmth and charm of a mortuary. It defines ‘functional’. They even manage to divert the melting snow down away from the edge of the shelters and into the actual seating area. I suspect it stops the homeless and the alcoholics from making it more than a very temporary home.
To the fair, there are a fair few beggars in Vilnius and the surrounds. Mainly drunks needing a few cents or the odd euro for another bottle, but also too many very old ladies, usually in decent coats but poor footwear, palms out for the odd coin. It’s good to see so many young people stopping to talk to them. Not as many people cross and pass by on the other side as one would suspect. No doubt the climate with the bitterly-cold winters have much to do with these kindnesses.
I love the Baltic. It’s welcoming and honest and it’s enjoying the freedom from years of repression. Vilnius seems to have escaped the endless miles of Soviet Prospekts, the grey stark housing estates that you find in what was once East Berlin or across Poland. It’s got more class than Tallinn, if not as pretty. There is certainly money here.
Would we return? Probably not. There is still much to see. It’s Easter soon and Milan beckons.