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Published: October 10th 2006
Lithuania has burst forth from under the yoke of several decades of Soviet oppression, to become a hot travel destination on the Eastern European backpacker trail. Formerly one of the three Baltic states in the Soviet Union, Lithuania joined the European Union in 2004 leading to a new dawn for this small country. The people are friendly, the food is good though somewhat artery clogging, and the capital Vilnius is a very attractive and clean city, having undergone a major transformation since independence was gained in 1991.
The last journal left off in Krakow, dear reader, from where I took a four hour train ride north to the Polish capital Warsaw. I'd arranged an overnight bus trip from Warsaw to Vilnius on a service that does not run every day, but is by far the fastest and most efficient way to take this commute. Some of the train trips have up to five changes and can take seventeen hours. I met a kiwi lad while waiting for the bus, we shared travel stories and after arriving in Vilnius the next morning, we walked together to a small hostel that had been recommended to him in the heart of the old
The only island castle in Eastern Europe and an excellent example of Gothic architecture.
town. Vilnius immediately creates a positive impression on a traveller; the city feels young, vibrant and ready to embrace their future in the EU, with tourist sights to keep you occupied for several days.
Unfortunately my first day was taken up with trying to get emergency funds on my visa, because access to my savings account in Australia had been blocked. I was unable to get a cash advance anywhere in Vilnius, although I didn't have any problems in Havana earlier this year, and was forced to wait out the weekend before things could be sorted out with my bank on monday. In my pocket I had the grand total of twenty litas which is 10 bucks, and the hostel did not accept credit cards, so my thanks to the manager of Vilnius backpackers for setting up a tab. You feel an overwhelming sense of disempowerment without money on the road, as we all need to make our way in life including an independent traveller. Anyways, in the evening an Aussie ambo from Melbourne took pity on a temporarily penniless backpacker, and she invited me out to dinner to cheer me up. At least I was able to pay
for the restaurant meals on visa, so I then had a glorious forty litas in my pocket. With such extraordinary riches it felt like Christmas! We arranged to go out the next morning in a group of four for an excellent day seeing the sites. Our day started at the Museum of genocide victims in the heart of town. The museum pays tribute to Lithuanians imprisoned and often executed by the KGB, during the decades of occupation during and since World War ll. It was a sombre mood in the building, featuring underground cells for the torture and execution of prisoners. The names of over 700 victims are carved into the stone blocks on the outside of the building.
We then caught a bus to Trakai Castle, the only island castle in Eastern Europe. It's set on an island in the middle of a beautiful lake, and the castles on the water makes the perfect backdrop. Both castles feature museum exhibitions, and you can spend a half day wandering around the castles and taking in the various collections. Taking the bus to Trakai is only one hour from Vilnius, but feels like you are being taken back to an
earlier time. I highly recommend this destination as a day trip. We then caught the early evening bus back into Vilnius, and backed up at the same restaurant for more excellent local cuisine. I think it's difficult not to put on weight in Eastern Europe as the food has loads of fat, but at least using visa again for our meals ensured I had some more money!
My final day started with an early rise to catch a local bus to Siauliai, from where it's a further brief bus trip to the hill of crosses, the most famous tourist attraction in Lithuania. There are thousands of crosses on this small hill in all shapes and sizes, in a tradition stretching back several centuries that even survived Soviet occupation. The location is very peaceful and serene out in the Lithuanian countryside, and provides a great opportunity to get away from the tourist crowds that bedevil European travel. I enjoyed an afternoon in the country exploring the multitude of crosses on the hill, while listening to the birds singing in the surrounding trees. Lithuania features a beautiful and clean capital with great tourist attractions, and the superb Trakai island castle less
than an hour away. Of course there's also the unique hill of crosses where you can get off the tourist trail for a day and enjoy the Lithuanian countryside on the highway to Latvia. When I think about all the attractions Lithuania has to offer, basically all of you should be here now!
You can't help getting older, but you don't have to get old." George Burns
As I continue my travels, until next time it's signing off for now
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