15th April, 20.23pm (BST +2)
Snekutis restaurant, Vilnius
The Baltics are meant to be prime stomping ground for stag parties, and I think I may have encountered my first one of the trip. They are sat at the table next to me, shouting at each other in accented English (Geordie? Scouse? Glaswegian? It’s too loud to tell) as I wait for my potato gratin and pork ear (interesting… and only €3.77).
I didn’t have any real expectations for Vilnius in advance, as it seemed the least touristy of the Baltic capitals and, to be honest, I only really came here as part of my shameless country counting mission. Consider me pleasantly surprised though, because Vilnius has charmed me. From seeing the huge forests surrounding the city as the plane was landing to the surprisingly modern airport – not at all the peeling, concrete Communist relic with crap toilets I’d expected (a la Belgrade or Sofia) – my first impressions were positive, and the pretty pastel buildings in the Old Town, slightly crumbling ones in the outskirts and variety of church styles and decorations have done little to dispel that since.
Possibly as a result of Vilnius being the European Capital of Culture in 2009, the infrastructure from airport to city is cheap (€1 to get a minibus from the airport to the bus station) and simple, and navigating the streets is similarly easy thanks to regular signs with maps on them, often found next to the Vilnian equivalent of Boris bikes. The bus station IS an ugly Communist relic, but all bus stations are hideous, so I’ll let them off. The main issue I found when walking to my hostel, Jimmy Jump’s House, was the uneven paving which can trip you up if you’re not paying attention.
After the usual courtesies upon arrival – rules, city map, tour of the hostel – I went to buy several days’ worth of sandwich-making ingredients from the mini supermarket opposite the Town Hall. Being something of a cider connoisseur, I obviously had to check the alcohol section to see if the Baltics were as barren a wasteland for cider as the Balkans had been. Imagine my joy when alongside the dreaded Somersby (SYNTHETIC SUGARY CRAP) there were bottles of apple flavoured Sherwood cider. While I’d never tried it before, each bottle was a mere 77 cents. Converted to sterling, that’s 55p. 55 FRICKIN’ PENCE FOR A BOTTLE OF CIDER!
However my bliss was short-lived, as at the till I was told I could not buy this elixir of life. Did I look too young? Did I look drunk? Are Lithuanians just perversely sadistic? The latter was the answer: you can’t buy alcohol after 10pm in the supermarket. It was 10.02. Bummer. In my grief, I accidentally broke into the guard room, where the store guard keeps watch to make sure no-one shoplifts, on my way out.
My only full day in Vilnius – today – kicked off with the free walking tour following a fitful night’s sleep on the paper-thin pillows. Walking tours are great; where available they should always be your first port of call in a city or country you’re unfamiliar with, as they inundate you with context, history, culture and fun facts. Straight off the bat our Aryan local guide gave us a history of Lithuania, making sure not to gloss over the part where it was the largest country in Europe, stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea, although admitting this was short lived and that most of its history had involved occupations by other nations (Poland, Russia and Germany to name a few).
However it declared independence in 1990 and has officially been so since 1991. In light of this, there is a plaque on the Town Hall immortalising the words of George Dubya Bush when he said that “Anyone who would have Lithuania as an enemy is an enemy of the United States”, which had amused me when I’d seen it on my walk from the bus station. Our tour guide informed us that he had then gone to Romania, Bulgaria and so on, repeating these words each time but changing the name of the country. Oh GWB, you kidder.
WE INTERRUPT THIS BLOG TO GIVE YOU AN IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT. I have just tried the pig’s ear and, uh, it’s a bit grim. Buried under a thick, heavy albeit flavoursome gratin, you’ve got several thin, flaccid strips of ear meat with a similarly thin white cartilagey bit at the back. Not very appetising. And now the #lads are doing karaoke. I’m outta here. To be continued…
We went through the Old Town, past a sad ruined church (while much of the Old Town has been repaired post-WW2, or rejuvenated post-Soviet, there isn’t money to restore them all 😦 ), learning that the Russians during occupation had turned one church into a basketball court, and another into an atheism museum. But just as quickly as ‘visit atheism museum inside former church’ went on my Bucket List, it had to be repealed, because it turns out that independent Lithuanians made it a church again.
Next stop was Užupis, the art district that has declared independence from Lithuania, with its own PM, President and constitution written out in a dozen languages on one of the walls, among them Gaelic. There is weird, unexpected art everywhere. A statue of Jesus as a backpacker. A zebra rocking horse. A duck holding a sign. There are 4 different flags, one for each season. On its independence day, 1st April, for one hour there is free beer flowing from the water pump – but they don’t announce which hour it will be. People will wait and queue all day. At first it reminded me of the Beijing art district (also full of bizarre installations), but the more weird stuff we heard about its independence, the more I felt like I was on another planet. Sabrina, the French girl I got chatting to, said there was a district in Copenhagen that was similarly unhinged – I’ll be able to compare it soon.
Down the literature road we went – a road with walls covered in small art tributes to Lithuanian writers, writers with Lithuanian connections, or just writers who’ve mentioned Lithuania in their works – and past the church Napoleon reputedly wanted to steal and take to France, and is opposite several trees wearing knitted treewarmers, towards the Presidential Palace and finally the Cathedral Square. Much as I liked Vilnius, I was yet to see a building that amazed me – until the cathedral. It resembles a Greek temple more than a Christian cathedral, pure white with giant pillars and statues. In front of it is a white watchtower, and they’re surrounded by a huge white square. It was the final destination, and rightly – I doubt there’s anything more impressive in Vilnius.
Quickly nipping to the hostel for a healthy and nutritious lunch* (*may be a lie) of cheese and ham sandwiches, I returned back that way but this time was headed for the slightly less godly KGB Museum. It was a mere €2 for entry (slightly less than 3 ciders) and was packed with info about the Nazi and Soviet occupations, the Lithuanian independence movement and, of course, the KGB, cheerfully rounded off with a trip through the bleak old prison and, even more depressingly, the execution chamber, bullet marks preserved in the wall.
That pretty much brings us up to date – except that I finally bought the 77 cent cider, and intend to drink it later while ‘accidentally’ streaming Masterchef. Who needs to party?!