Published: October 29th 2010September 10th 2010
I flew from Riga to Vilnius at 10 AM (had to miss hotel breakfast in order to catch taxi to airport - sigh). The €7 flight seemed like a great deal until I found out about the €20 extra fee to check baggage (coupled with a one-small-bag carry-on limit). Plus they charged for all
food and beverage on board, even water
. (It's annoying but survivable on a 55-minute flight; if it isn't already illegal to charge for water on longer flights it should be.)
I heard from CouchSurfers later that the Eurolines Lux Express
bus between the three Baltic capitals (Vilnius, Riga, Tallinn) is a much better deal than flying. You get a single captain's chair, power outlet, free wi-fi
, beverage and snack, all for €17. 4 hours per leg (Vilnius - Riga or Riga - Tallinn) is absolutely comparable to flying when you consider the 1-2 hours' early arrival for each flight and the drive time to the airport (the airports are outside of their cities, but the bus terminals/pickups are central). I had actually looked at the Lux Express when planning the trip, but I couldn't be sure it was really as comfortable and modern as the website
made it sound, so banked on airBaltic instead. The flights weren't bad, but if I had to do it again I'd definitely bus.
I arrived at Tarptautinis Vilniaus oro uostas (Vilnius International Airport) and was picked up by Aistis, the son of the owners of Bernardinų B&B House
. We hopped into his BMW and drove a picturesque route into the old town. I think all routes into Vilnius are picturesque. Along the way, he started what turned out to be very meaningful Lithuanian small talk:
"So... do you like basketball?"
I'm kinda dumb, and literal-minded, so I answered truthfully that I don't really follow basketball. Undeterred, Aistis went on to explain to me that the Lithuanian men's national basketball team
had, just the evening prior, totally unexpectedly defeated the much-favored Argentina team in the FIBA world basketball championships
and would therefore be going on to play in the semi-finals tomorrow night. I'm kinda dumb, so I smiled and nodded. "Congratulations."
We arrived at Bernardinų, and I was ushered into my palatial
"single" room. I've since checked back through my email and I see that when I made the reservation, I chose a "standard single" rather than
a.k.a. cepelinai (it's pronounced somewhat similarly): potato dumplings stuffed with meat and boiled, topped with cream and bacon.
a "lux single" which would have been "larger and more luxurious". Based on the size and amenities of the "standard single", I can only imagine that the "lux" would have involved taking possession of the entire house next door. With a butler. Up on the third floor, under the charmingly slanted roof with dormer windows and skylights, I had the equivalent of a four-room apartment to myself - larger than the apartment in Minsk - with private bath, kitchenette (teakettle, mini-fridge, dishes) and, across from the double bed, a huge seating area with a sofa, two chairs and a coffee table. Evening blogger heaven.
"Hey, what's the password for the wi-fi?"
"Um, about that. It's kind of broken right now? We called, they said they'll fix it in the morning."
Perseverance! It isn't evening blogger time yet anyway. It's time to see Vilnius! And I have a CouchSurfer!! Vaiva had arranged to meet me at my hotel, which after I'd had some time to settle in, she did, right on schedule.
"You've just arrived? You must be hungry. Let's get lunch first. How about some traditional Lithuanian food?"
I LOVE IT HERE.
Just down the picturesque lane from my B&B lay a pedestrian tourist shopping lane with sidewalk cafés. Vaiva pointed us efficiently to a nearby one with a wide selection of traditional dishes and a full-color photo menu, neatly avoiding my "dithering with phrasebook and menu" problem. How'd she know?
I find it fascinating that so many eastern European "traditional" dishes are based on the potato - a plant which was native to the Americas
and therefore didn't even exist in Europe before about 1500. Let's just say they've made up for lost time. In Lithuania, the manifestation of the potato is a dish nicknamed and shaped like "zeppelins". I don't know whether the ones swimming in the pool of heavy cream sauce and bacon are the most authentic, or not, and I don't care. Nom nom nom.
(wait for it)
"... do you like basketball?"
I'm beginning to get the sense that Lithuanians enjoy basketball.
(Did I mention that I learned in Gdańsk that the Pope is Catholic?)
After lunch, Vaiva and I walked a very short way from the lane where my hotel is located, to the main cathedral square,
and arrived inside the Šv. Stanislovo ir Šv. Vladislovo arkikatedra bazilika
just in time for the start of a wedding! I mean, these grand cathedrals are working churches, after all, not just tourist traps. I was grateful that the nave wasn't closed to the public during the ceremony, but I wondered what the couple and the family must be feeling about the various (not overly many) tourists milling around, taking pictures, during their sacred covenant! Is it intrusive? Or does the extra attention make it even better? Either way, I was grateful for the little bit of image stabilization my camera provides, which allows me to zoom a long way in low light, so I got great images without pestering the couple or the guests... much.
Vilnius has approximately one bazillion churches. Its main cathedral and many others shared an architectural feature I hadn't noticed anywhere before: instead of a bell tower on top of the church building, the belfries are freestanding to the side. It isn't the way I expect so many historic churches to look, and it gives the entire skyline a different, quite lovely, shape.
Behind the cathedral, something called the Royal Palace of Lithuania
is being rebuilt; Vaiva wasn't impressed by it, something about politicians grandstanding, and she felt it took away from the grandeur of the cathedral in the square.
A short walk away, we took a funicular to the top of Gediminas Hill, the historical site of Vilnius' Upper Castle. After the world wars, only the western Gediminas' Tower remains, overlooking the old town. In October 1988, in a key milestone in the progress toward independence from the USSR, the Lithuanian tricolor flag was raised on the Tower in place of the Soviet-era flag. Vaiva, who is about my age, is the first person I've met on the trip who both lived through those times and was eager to talk about her experiences. She was a worker inside the Supreme Council building (now the Seimas) when Soviet troops surrounded it in January 1991, but her most interesting story was about the 9-month period before that, during most of 1990 after the Supreme Council had declared Lithuania's independence but before the rest of the world recognized it. The USSR declared an economic blockade of Lithuania, which at that point was still almost totally surrounded by other Soviet territories. Scarcity of goods? Sure.
But the Soviets shut off natural gas pipelines to Lithuania, too: imagine going nearly a year with little heat and no hot water! Vivid.
After the Tower and several more lovely churches, Vaiva led me on a walk along the river and up a wooded hill into Užupis, the freedom-loving arts district in Vilnius. All along the way, she showed me crumbling old buildings covered in an artistic sort of graffiti, pathways lined with simple and complex art projects, and cheery welcoming images and messages. I tried to pretend the stairs and hill hadn't worn me completely out. We stopped at a wine bar at the top of the hill, which seemed like a relief until I discovered we were "only" there to take in the panoramic view from its patio. More walking. Užupis is becoming gentrified, and too expensive to live in for the artists who made it such a desirable place to live in the first place. Sounds familiar. At the bottom of the hill, on a deck over the river, we sat down for hot tea and shots of a local fruit liqueur. It's mid-September, and we're pretty far north, but dining al fresco
the thing to do, and restaurants provide wonderful corporate-sponsored fleece blankets to wrap up in to keep warm outdoors. A quirky, artsy wedding reception was taking place inside the restaurant, and quirky, artsy partygoers spilled out onto the deck nearby to smoke their cigarettes. (Oh, yes, indoor smoking is banned here as in most of the EU!) Užupis was fantastic, but from guidebook descriptions it just wouldn't have caught my attention, so I'm lucky Vaiva dragged me there!
Back in town, the University of Vilnius boasts beautiful historic buildings and is raved-about in guidebooks, but charges an admission fee just to walk onto the campus. Seriously. Wha?
Vaiva and I disagreed about whether the bride & groom taking portraits in front of the Presidential Palace were the same ones as we'd seen married in the Cathedral earlier. Since I'd photographed the Cathedral couple, I took some more photos of the Palace couple to see whether I could prove that I was right and they were the same.
As the evening wound down, we made our way to the middle of town to the Fluxus Ministerija
, site of tonight's Vilnius CouchSurfing monthly meetup! Fluxus is an avant-garde arts
I sveikata! ("Cheers!")
Vaiva & I enjoy hot tea and liqueur and fleece blankies.
space housed in the former Soviet-era Ministry of Health building on the city's main street, Gedimino prospektas, alongside boutiques and malls. On its ground floor, we found a bar, a jazz band, and a swingset. Not kidding. Real rope-and-board swings hanging in a line overlooking the jazz stage. I was tempted to try one, but strongly suspected they'd been engineered for European-sized persons, not Americans, so kept my distance. And the CouchSurfers! A line of, well, pretty much all the tables had been pushed together along one entire wall and marked "Rezervuotas". We were among the first to arrive, but a flood of others followed. This is one well-organized community!
One of the most entertaining things I discovered during the evening was that Lithuanian names are so
different from English or even other European names that, when pretty much any Lithuanian person tried to introduce himself or herself to me, my brain couldn't process any of the syllables or piece them together as recognizable sounds, much less names. (The loud jazz band didn't help, but I can usually recover somewhat by lipreading. Not here!) I literally had to reconstruct people's names later by searching the CouchSurfing website. "Oh, is
You be the judge...
... is this the same couple as in the Cathedral photo?
THAT what she was saying?!"
After not very much time had passed, and the long, long table was filling up and more CouchSurfers from all over the world were still trickling in, I was forced to accept that there was simply no way I'd be able to meet everyone. I focused on some good conversation happening at the early-arrivals end of the table, while Vaiva had made her way to a different group about halfway down. A Lithuanian young man honest-to-goodness earnestly asked the University student from Syria, "so, Ibrahim, how do you find our Lithuanian girls?" Ibrahim apparently indicated proper admiration of Lithuanian womanhood, as he got an approving nod. It was both awkward and charming. I couldn't tell whether the Lithuanian actual girls nearby had an opinion about the exchange.
But the real topic of conversation? Oh, go on, guess. Re-read the top of this post and guess again. NO, NOT FORMULA ONE RACING. Yes, indeed, everyone in Vilnius really is talking about basketball. And - jackpot! - I learned that a group of CouchSurfers had arranged to watch the game together in a local club tomorrow night, and they invited ME to join them!
Late in the evening, after a couple of ciders and lots of talking, I set off on a seemingly simple mission to follow the plentiful signs to the ladies' WC. Up a few flights of stairs, past defunct bureaucratic offices and some quirky artsy exhibits, I followed the many helpful hand-drawn arrows to a small room where...
O. M. G.
That can't be...
It's one of those
Nobody warned me they were going to have those here
I actually encountered my first one of these in Minsk, in the basement of the National Arts Museum of the Republic of Belarus, and yes it is true that Natalia actually did laugh out loud at me when I balked at using it there. Which I did.
Yes, in older buildings in the former Soviet republics, it is apparently not uncommon to find squat toilets
So this was a minor crisis. Oh, sure, I could make a plausible-sounding argument about my poor bad knee, which is probably true enough, but we all know that a fat, clumsy American unaccustomed to using a squat toilet is going to have several showstopping difficulties
Emergency bailout option
WC in a public park nearby, but I don't remember how near.
before a bad knee even comes into play. In my desperation I recalled visiting, earlier in the day, a regular public WC in a park along Gedimino prospektas, perhaps just a few blocks from the Fluxus Ministerija building, but I wasn't sure how far away. If I had to pack up and leave the building to find a toilet, I was pretty sure I wouldn't come back, and by then I was having a grand time and was in no hurry to leave. Fine. I was going to have to woman-up and figure out how to make this primitive device work. I'd seen quirky, artsy, hip young women breezing up to and down from the WC throughout the evening, with no sign of trauma or any unfortunate accidents. (Even the girls wearing skirts with tights
; I'm still at a loss on that.)
No, I'm not going to provide a play-by-play of how
I got it to work. No, it didn't involve sitting on the floor, and no, I didn't get anything on my clothing. What I did was, I persevered
and then returned to the CouchSurfing party, playing it cool, no big deal, another drink please bartender.
How 'bout that Lithuanian men's national basketball team, anyway?!