Wednesday 25 April 2018

Lithuania: A tale of two quirky cities

Trakai's 14th Century island castle.
Trakai's 14th Century island castle.
Vilnius is billed as the 'Prague of the Baltics'


The most common questions you get asked when you tell people you are going to Lithuania are: is it in Europe? Do they use the euro? And, why Lithuania? To which the answers are, respectively: yes, no and why not?

Why not indeed?

Lithuania is a quirky destination with a history that will appeal to most Irish hearts and minds.

Oppressed for hundreds of years, Lithuanians endured iron-fist rule, Soviet and Nazi occupation, and fought invaders more times than you've had hot dinners, before finally gaining independence in 1990. Lithuanians are a feisty bunch.

Lithuania is the largest of the three Baltic states. Most tourism comes from neighbours such as Poland, but Lithuania's capital Vilnius -- billed as the 'Prague of the Baltics' -- is worth considering as a city break destination, with lots of little oddities to discover along the way.

Vilnius feels more like a large town than a city, so sightseeing by foot is a good way to go. For a lazier option, bus tours run daily with pick-up at the Town Hall and cost about 75 Litas (€22).

We started off at the Cathedral Basilica, one of the 717 Roman Catholic churches in Lithuania. Strangely enough for the last pagan country in Europe to accept Christianity, 80 per cent of the population is now Roman Catholic. Personally, I think churches are a bit like Jennifer Aniston movies -- if you've seen one, you've seen them all -- but St Anne's and St Peter and Paul's Church are two of the most popular for sightseers.

Pretty much everywhere you walk in Vilnius, you can look up and see the symbolic Gediminas Castle Tower, which can be reached by foot if you fancy exercising your calves and glutes.

If not, you can ride in a funicular, a cliff-side railcar, to the top. If you do go by foot, make sure you get back down the hill before closing time or you could be left stranded in 'hill territory'.

After an afternoon exploring the old town with its Baroque architecture and narrow cobblestone streets, we came to The Jewish Quarter, where Jews were ring-fenced during the Nazi occupation in 1941. During that time almost all of Lithuania's Jewish population (between 135,000 and 300,000 people) were wiped out.

To get a sense of the history it is worth visiting the Museum of Genocide Victims, known locally as the KGB museum. It's a sobering place and an unnerving reminder of the half a million Lithuanians who died during the Second World War.

Being from the People's Republic of Cork myself, the best part of the trip for me was a visit to the independent Republic of Uzupis, just over the bridge of the river Vilnele. It's a genuinely bohemian, quirky, self-declared republic, with its own seal (a golden angel), passports and constitution (which includes the rights of dogs and cats to behave as they wish). Uzupis is arty, interesting and does shabby chic better than anywhere else.

Amber is a big part of Lithuanian heritage, a national asset, and the tiny Amber Museum Gallery should definitely be on the itinerary too, if only to ogle at the Jurassic Park-style pieces of amber with mosquitoes, shells and spiders preserved inside them for 50 million years.

An amber massage is also highly recommended. A top-class full-body massage using amber powder costs €40 and, whatever you believe about the healing properties of the stone itself, you'll leave feeling like a new person.

Another thing Vilnius has in its favour is the cost of living. The average taxi fare is rarely more than a few euro, a beer in the capital will set you back about 5-7 Litas (€1.50-€2) and eating out is very reasonable.

The local food is good (they love their spuds) and Lithuanians brew more than 200 beers, so you won't be stuck for choice.

For a late-night option, Absento Fejos (Absent Fairies) is one of the best clubs in Vilnius. It's a hotspot for the see-and-be-seen crowd and the doormen operate a pretty distasteful 'face policy', so dress to impress or you'll be turned away.

Don't despair if you are though, there are tons of cosy, wine bars in which to take refuge, and Notre Vie in the city centre deserves notable mention for a great wine list and hammocks to recline in.

It is probably a good idea to learn a handful of Lithuanian phrases to help when eating out, even though most of the population speak English, Russian and Polish. Aciu is worth remembering regardless, not only because it's useful (it means 'thank you'), but because it is pronounced 'ach-oo', like a sneeze.

Lithuania's oddities don't end in Vilnius. A few hours' drive away is Trakai and its 14th-century island castle, a scenic spot, perfect for some medieval fun. After a stroll around the castle grounds and museum, a boat ride on the tranquil lake and a meal of traditional Karaim cuisine (including kybyns, similar to a Cornish pasty), you can get some target practice in for just a few litas on the castle grounds. Choose a crossbow, rifle, or, as I did, make like Maid Marian with the traditional bow and arrow.

Alternatively, you could get an aerial view of the place. Hot-air ballooning is popular, with a balloon to person ratio of 1:1,000.

Or, if you prefer something a little more grass roots, you can accompany some locals on a mushrooming excursion. That's picking mushrooms, not to be confused with the mushroom activities you may have enjoyed in Amsterdam.

National parks are also plentiful in Lithuania but Grutas Park is a strange one. From 1989-91, many of the monuments of Stalin and Lenin from the Soviet years were taken down and collected here instead of being destroyed. It's like Disney World for despots. Even more odd, the park's restaurant serves a 'nostalgia' menu of Soviet fare from the old days with borscht and -- you guessed it -- mushrooms. Europas Park is a more contemporary choice for some outdoor sculpture; an open-air museum with works from all over the world.

Having spent most of the trip in the capital, I came to the conclusion that there are two sides to Vilnius. One feels traditional, and still has traces of the Soviet years; the other is vibrant, creative, and delightfully odd.

It's a tale of two cities, but I know which one I like best.


Ryanair flies direct from Dublin to Vilnius and direct flights from Cork will commence in November. Aer Lingus also flies direct to Vilnius, departing from Dublin Airport every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Flight time from Dublin averages three hours. See and for details.

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