a unique perspective on this crazy world

Posts tagged ‘lithuania’

bye bye USSR…

If you think of Eastern Europe as a drab Soviet era anti-paradise, you will be shocked.  Back when I visited Prague in the late 90s, you could still see communism in action but these days you are more likely to wonder if you are in a parallel universe where you could be in New York City, London, Sydney – or Vilnius!  In some ways I find it disturbing – the globalization of culture… but you have to be careful to check your western privilege.

There is definitely an unconscious bias for prosperous citizens of developed countries to want to find cute cultures that allow them to be nostalgic or surprised.  Culture is a very complex subject and I am definitely not a fan of the homogenized American propaganda marketing machine but I am a fan of development and prosperity.

In an ideal world, different cultures will adopt new technologies but in a way that makes them special and true to the region.  It’s a tough ask and one needs to be open minded.

Some of my greatest travel experiences have been in luxe safari lodges in Africa where the companies seem to be making responsible decisions about the environment, the wildlife and the local population, appreciating it’s an ecosystem and behaving honorably will create the best results for all involved.  The US seems to have gone bonkers and corrupted capitalism but it wasn’t always that way.  Some of the early American entrepreneurs actually cared about their employees and their communities.  There are pockets of a return to that vision that should be embraced by consumers.

I really hope that kind of capitalism can see a broad resurgence in the country that defines itself by that moniker but I have been more enthused by capitalism in developing economies.

I’m pretty good at research and seem to have a nose for finding cool things so, once I had seen the Old Town, I looked for 21st century Vilnius.  It’s the capital city so I really saw only a tiny acreage of its possibilities but you can wander just a few metres from the storybook Old Town and wonder if you have wandered into Brooklyn…

It will be cooler than Brooklyn, though, as there will still be cobblestone streets and old houses… but there will also be cocktails, tapas and live music.

extra entertainment

The great part is that if you have only one night, it can all happen on one street and environs.  You can eat there too but I found it a little hit and miss on the service front so you are likely better advised to follow my lead from my first night in Vilnius.  Zuvine in the Old Town showcases the seafood of the Baltics.  There is even a scientific chart!  I am a huge seafood fan and one of the really cool elements of that is that seafood is a regional thing so you can eat it all over the world but you should try the local delicacies rather than sticking to stuff you already know.

When I lived in Germany, one of my favourite fish was Zanderfilet.  What I loved even more was that there wasn’t a precise English translation.  It was just awesome fish from pristine German fresh water lakes.  That’s really all you needed to know.  At Zuvine you can also sit outside and dine across from a fabulous church and you might get lucky and see hot air balloons as you munch on your fish.

Once you have a full belly, you can head to Vilniaus and start your bar crawl.  I started at Distilerija and had the Smoked Manhattan – the showcase cocktail.  It was fine.  I am very spoiled when it comes to cocktails so you might think it better than fine. It’s worth checking out just to people watch.  It’s definitely young happening Vilnius.  I tried to order salmon tartare but it was going to take about an hour so I gave up.

Considered The Bubbles, a spot specializing in all things sparkling, and Alchemikas,

rum sublime

supposedly a very serious cocktail bar, but they were too quiet, so chose the Rhum Room instead.  It was mostly a large boisterous birthday party but they gave it a lively vibe.  According to my lovely server, it opened in November 2015.  She carefully constructed an excellent mojito and was very pleased when I told her it was better than the ones I’d had in Cuba.

I also managed to get some food.  The menu was limited but the jerk chicken lollipops and sweet potato fries were excellent.

plein air tunes

I also caught a band at Vasaros Tersasa.  It’s only open in summer months but there is a big, boisterous courtyard and the cover was only two euros.  It felt like you were in real Vilnius rather than Vilnius aspiring to be Brooklyn or London.  I ended the night by popping into a crowded pub on the way back to the hotel for a beer since I was in Eastern Europe and you really should drink the local beer.  It was the most authentic (and cheapest) experience of the evening, proving there are options at different price points.

So, check out aspiring hipster Vilinius (sans most of the curated facial hair) or revel in authentic Vilnius.  Or sample both.  Just make sure you go before it’s as packed with tour buses as Prague!

 

 

 

 

 

once you’re in riga…

What is cool about Eastern Europe is that you get local recommendations to places not much discussed in the west.  In Soviet times, it was a lot easier to visit other communist countries and these days it’s affordable for locals in a way the west is not.  During my conversation with a young Pole in an empty club because in Eastern Europe voting is exciting (there was a televised debate that night), I enthused about how much I loved Krakow and he told me that I should go to Vilnius.

If Riga and Latvia are off most people’s radar, Vilnius and Lithuania don’t even register…

So far, every local recommendation has been golden so the original plan was a few nights in expensive London with a side trip to affordable Vilnius… but then I discovered you had to go through Riga to get to Vilnius… and I had read about Riga and wanted to go – so why not do both?  Who needs to sleep??? 😉

You can follow my craziness and do it all in five days or you can spend more time in both.  Both countries are gorgeous.  If you are coming from London (or most of Western Europe), the forests and fresh air will be a welcome tonic for your lungs.  I just did the capitals because I live in Canada where forests and fresh air are abundant but for those from other locales, the countryside is definitely worth a visit.

I could have flown to Vilnius but it isn’t that far from Riga so I decided to gamble on Lux Express, a bus service that covers most of the region.  How often do you get to hang out at a bus station where Minsk is an option? 🙂

Something went wrong so I didn’t get the upgraded bus but the regular Lux Express is luxe enough.  There is also a non-luxe option if you are on a tight budget.  Given my insane schedule, I slept pretty much the entire four hours each way so I can’t tell you much about the countryside but it looked like forests and fresh air on my small glimpses 🙂

I stayed at the Comfort Hotel LT Rock n’ Roll.  It was close enough to the bus station I could walk.  It’s a quirky modern hotel at an amazing price.  You can stay closer to the Old Town but it’s an easy walk if you want to save a few bucks and like quirky accommodation.

a great lookout

Since I was rested and had only a small amount of time in Vilnius, I dropped my bags and headed for the Old Town and ambitiously climbed to the top of the hill for a fantastic view over the city on a blue sky day.  I never had time to check out the newer parts of the city but I did see them from a distance and I am sure it would be worthwhile if you spend more time in the city.

What is essential though is a trip to the baroque splendor of the Old Town cobblestones.  If you have the time, it’s good to explore all three Baltic cities as each has a different history.  Riga spans a huge swath of history, Vilnius celebrates the Baroque and Tallinn (Estonia) is a medieval gem.  Once you’re in Tallinn, Helsinki is a ferry ride away and St Petersburg is not far (a future trip!)

You could go blitzkrieg and see it all in a single day but I had two and that set a nice pace.  I could hit a few highlights the first day and then come back on the second and revisit and explore some side streets.

There is lots of noteworthy architecture but there are a few highlights that definitely shouldn’t be missed.  The first is Gediminas Hill.  It is in a prime location above the junction of the Neris and Vilnia Rivers, which is why it was where Vilnius was founded in the days before satellites and airplanes.  These days you don’t need those locations for the military advantage but they are pretty places for tourists to hang out and enjoy the view.

Once you climb down from the hill, there are some buildings to check out.  The first is the Gates of Dawn and the Chapel of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Mercy, the only surviving gateway of the city’s ancient defence.  If you get lucky, you will see mass in progress.  There are several other noteworthy

the ancient way to enter the city

one of many spectacular houses of worship

houses of worship.  The Church of St Casimir is the city’s oldest Baroque church built by the Jesuits between 1604 and 1615.

Vilnius Cathedral is officially known as the Cathedral of St Stanislav and St Vladislav on a spot originally used for the worship of Perkunas, the Lithuanian thunder god.  St Anne’s Church history begins in 1394 when a wooden house of worship was erected in honour of Ona, wife of Vytautas the Great.  It was later turned into a Gothic masterpiece.  Peter and Paul’s Church is believed to be built on a site of worship to Milda, the pagan goddess of love.  The Baroque masterpiece you will see today was commissioned to celebrate victory over the Russians in 1668.

There are even more places to explore covering several centuries of history.  The area is quite compact and there are lots of

spectacular amber

options to relax and take a break.  You can also go shopping for amber, one of the area’s main tourist souvenirs.  I checked out the Amber Gallery, which has a small museum to fill you in on the production process and showcase some stunning pieces.  There are both stunning (and expensive) pieces and more ordinary options for purchase.

In the evening, look out for hot air balloons rising above the Baroque splendour.  I don’t know if it’s normal but I was treated to three.

My Polish friend was not wrong.  I DID enjoy Vilnius.

 

 

Tag Cloud