Lithuania... Hidden arts of Vilnius
Just over three hours away by plane from Dublin, and then a paltry 20 minutes from the airport once you land, Vilnius, without any fuss, serves up the pomp of Paris, the style of Milan and the cultural oomph of Berlin or Madrid, all with a more friendly price tag.
The grey austerity of the Soviet era that you imagine will be lurching overhead all the while doesn't materialise. There is only freshness, pride, soft lines and warm atmospheres.
This is practically the law in the marvellous Old Town. This Unesco World Heritage site (it is classed as one of the largest preserved historic centres in Europe) appears to have compiled the best features of a generic European city (arts, heritage, commerce, layout, ambience) with impeccable architectural credentials (Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical), all meeting at an enigmatic junction of East and West.
Let's take a wander.
With your back to Cathedral Square and the Palace of the Grand Dukes, you saunter up Pilies Street, one of the oldest thoroughfares in the city that leads you up a gentle incline to the contained resplendence of Didzioji Square.
Perhaps the first thing you notice along the way is that all the streets in the quarter are spotlessly clean, a common feature of the best cities in the world.
Interspersed with crumbling antiquity and red rooftops, you encounter a cafe culture as refined and aromatic as anywhere, while a gentle stream of chic locals, happy families and loping students pass along its cobbled surfaces.
Here, an open-air art gallery. Over there, a kiosk bar serving cold beer and sparkling wine at the centre of a cluster of bean bags (why did no one think of this sooner?). Boutique shops and excellent gastronomy temples in amidst traditional bakeries and knick-knack markets selling all manner of curiosities and relics from Soviet times.
At the top of the street is the square, where we find Hotel Pacai tucked away off to the side in what was once a city palace (and indeed, one of the last places Napoleon and his army decamped at on their ill-fated march east). This five-star instalment of the international Design Hotel brand (the first in the Baltics) is a silken embrace, where the Baroque features (whole frescoes have been restored) and wonderfully high ceilings have been trained to duet with sleek elegant minimalism. From check-in to check-out, it is a flawless experience which we greatly appreciate given we are travelling with an infant. It also places us right in the thick of the Old Town.
Back out on the street, we are looking up the beautiful square of Didzioji. Smiling back from the top end is the portico of the city's town hall, the Vilnius Rotuse. In the triangular expanse between, cafes and eateries arrange seating for clients to soak up the balmy sunset with gin and tonics and kepta duona, fried bread sticks that are the gods' idea of a beer snack. Comely Vilnians step out of high-end shops intent on making you feel shabby.
The day is done, the moon goes up, and suddenly the square's period facades and robust fountains are illuminated by floodlights, as is the majestic Rotuse.
In the morning, we descend one side of the old town towards the Vilnia River. We are faced with a decision here. We can cross over and explore the arty quarter of Uzupis (or "the Republic of Uzupis", if you want to embrace local decree). Or we can go downstream to the next bridge and find the recently renovated Bernardine Gardens we have read about. We have the day to kill until our appointment at the storied Sweet Root restaurant, so we begin with the latter, entering a gate by the Vilnia that takes us into Bernardine Park.
In an ox-bow in the river, these gardens provide a stunning oasis for children to frolic near gossiping grandparents, and for a cascade of floral beauty and water features to touch the lives of city dwellers.
We troop over to Uzupis and decide it is probably a fine place to explore ahead of supper. This is the small, self-contained neighbourhood where artists and bohemians find a foothold with the help of "Art Incubators" (state-supplemented accommodation provided so creatives can have an affordable presence in the fabric of the capital city - imagine such a thing..).
Some remarkable installations sit in the flowing waters itself, while there is a general air of art being something that you can walk up and touch if you like.
Uzupis's republican status may have been enshrined on April Fools' Day 1997 but it is wielded with greater or lesser severity in the small barrio. On a wall by Uzupio Square, we find the Constitution of the Republic of Uzupis mounted on reflective steel panelling. There is also said to be an anthem and a cabinet. The exact declarations in the constitution range from the right to have faith, to the strict law that "a cat is not obliged to love its owner, but must help in time of need".
We exercise our right to eat multiple courses of exquisite seasonal locally foraged nosh at Sweet Root that evening.
They seem to have insider knowledge of my partner and I because the first course on their tasting dinner is sourdough and natural butter, the butter done as frozen shavings that have been liberally layered on the steaming bread. As far as we're concerned, it's the best thing we've had since landing and the standard doesn't dip over a night of world-class haute cuisine.
The next morning, we stroll (everything is "strollable") to the illustrious Halle food market to stock up on nibbles of varying calorific severity and horse down a brunch of cepelinai (meat-filled potato dumplings) and saltibarsciai (a cold, creamy and gorgeously seasoned beetroot soup served with hot potatoes).
Then it's a couple of hours' drive south into the vast pine forest region of southern Lithuania and the Nemunas river. The much-mythologised spa town of Druskininkai is nestled here, awaiting us as it has done for everyone from 17th Century monarchs to burnt-out stockbrokers. A combination of mineral rich waters and an air of pine-scented sanctity have made this retreat the place to go for revival, renewal and de-stressing.
A stay in the Flores Hotel is soundtracked by trickling water while every surface seems orthopaedic in texture. Our pulses slow to a crawl while we're under its roof, even without a visit to its Oriental spa.
We've decided to "go large", with our relaxation, seeing as the Flores is part of the multi-layered, if awkwardly titled, Druskininkai Recreation and Health Centre Aqua.
Along with a huge aquapark of slides and pools and splashing, there is an endless bathhouse. Every variation on the sauna and the steamroom that mankind has developed is found under one roof, each with different temperatures, interiors and scents depending on the types of wood used, from Russian to Japanese to Turkish.
There are complimentary treatments at the nearby Health Resort Druskininkai as part of our stay at the Flores that must be cashed in. A carbonic acid bath may not sound too wise but I'm assured this is excellent for heart, respiratory system and central nervous system disorders, so why not? It's very possible these things will be tested some stressful day in the distant future. Until then, I sit and soak and regress further into a puddle-like state of carefree detangling.
I'm left to it in the bath cubicle and find myself thinking about this land. It looks so far away when you're gazing at a map. All the way up there, on the chilly Baltic and in that general area that used to be known forbiddingly as the Iron Curtain, with Russia peering over its shoulder and the Scandinavian Peninsula not giving it a second glance.
How unassuming it all is - until you touch down and have your western belly tickled.
Take Two: Top attractions
Vilnius Old Town
Clean, chic, and dripping with history, the old quarter of Lithuania's capital performs that rare trick of being imperious and sophisticated while not taking itself too seriously. Eastern Europe's best kept secret.
Perched on the Nemunas River in Lithuania's deeply forested south, this wonderful spa town has been a mecca of wellness and mineral healing since the 17th Century. Ideal for families and couples alike.
There are flights three times per week from Dublin to Vilnius. It also serves the city of Kaunas, approximately an hour north-west of the Lithuanian capital.
Rooms at the Hotel Pacai in the Old Town of Vilnius start from €170 per night including taxes and fees, based on bed and breakfast for two adults sharing a standard bedroom.
To book, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.hotelpacai.com
Druskininkai is located just under two hours south-west from Vilnius by car.
Rooms at the Flores Hotel in Druskininkai start from €100 per night for two people sharing. Price includes breakfast, water park services and saunas, as well as one treatment from Druskininkai Health Resort.
To book, contact email@example.com or visit www.akvapark.lt/en www.lithuania.travel. This feature originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.
Sunday Indo Living