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Published: July 17th 2010
Not the one in Christchurch.
On the flight over to Vilnius, I got chatting to the pretty, blonde-haired, blue-eyed Lithuanian girl sitting next to me. My subtle flirting with her was in vain unfortunately as her command of English meant she never really grasped the subtleties behind the words I was saying. Either that, or I'm just a really crap flirt.
My attempt was not in vain however - during our conversation about what I was getting up to in Vilnius, she recommended catching a train to see a fantastical island castle on a lake I had never heard of just outside of Vilnius. It was apparently the most beautiful castle in Lithuania and much more impressive than the Gediminas Castle we were planning to see in Vilnius.
When the plane landed in Vilnius, the most curious event took place when the overwhelming majority of passengers on board - mostly Lithuanians - started cheering and broke into rapturous applause. I didn't think the landing was that
good. I asked the Lithuanian girl why they did this and she said it was traditional upon arriving home. I then jokingly suggested that it might be because we had arrived in Lithuania alive - let's just say that she
Approaching The Castle
The castle is a majestic sight as you cross the bridge towards it.
didn't really see the funny side.
When Davies, Stephen Sangster (Sags) and I were finally let through immigration (but not before I was once again complimented on my shiny brand-new black New Zealand passport), we decided to get a cab to our hostel as I had read it would only cost 20 Lithuanian Litas (LTL) where £1 = 4LTL. You do the math.
However, the longer the taxi-ride went on, the more and more nervous I started getting as the fare on the meter kept going up at a furious rate of knots. The fare ended up being 70LTL. So maybe Lonely Planet got it wrong.
Although we had reservations at the Old Town Hostel, it was full, so we were lead to their prison-looking "spillover" hostel complete with metal spikes atop an impenetrable metal fence (impenetrable even when armed with the key) just down the road.
When Davies asked our very sweet and helpful hostel worker Margarita how much a taxi fare from the airport would've cost, she told us, "about 20 LTL". Godammit. I knew we should've trusted Lonely Planet. No biggie though, we only got ripped off about £3.50 each...
The hostel was quite nice and
St Teresa's Church
One of many churches in Vilnius.
well-setup. Nothing flashy, but it had everything you needed in terms of location and cleanliness.
We hadn't eaten since lunchtime and with a two-hour time-difference it was now approaching midnight after a not-so-long but intense day at work. Before we went into town for a feed we got talking to a Swiss girl and her Spanish friends who were going to hit the town later - it was Friday night after all. Mingling with our fellow hostel guests and seeing people out on a Friday night in an unexplored town famous for it's vivacious nightlife actually got us in the mood for a night out despite our fatigue.
Our first initial exploration of the town reminded me a lot of Bratislava, with it's many pastel-coloured neo-classical and baroque buildings and small cobblestoned alleys. I was hoping that it would be a little more exciting than Bratislava
The only place doing food at this hour close by was a kebab shop doing good business. There were even a group of pretty girls dancing to the jukebox in the middle of it. You have to try the kebabs in every country you go to and we were not disappointed
Lunch By The Lake
I've had worse lunchtime views.
with the Lithuanian version whose fries came with chicken salt! Oh how I've missed NZ KFC fries. The kebab itself was very similar to the very good German version with a toasted, pita-like bun.
The food kind of killed off any thoughts we had about heading out though and we settled in for an (relatively) early night.
We started off pretty late the next day and went for a self-guided tour of the city. Passing under the 16th-century Gates of Dawn, we arrived in Vilnius's old town. Passing two of Vilnius's many, many peach baroque churches we got to a square where old locals in traditional costume were dancing on a stage, watched by a large crowd of people. Behind the crowd was what looked like a local arts and crafts market where lots of artists set up stalls selling their wares.
We then walked through more ancient streets due east to Uzupis, Vilnius's version of Copenhagen's Christiania
, but much less hippie. It is in fact a an official, unofficial breakaway state. We passed a couple having wedding snaps in the area - they would no doubt leave a padlock on Uzupis Bridge later, a tradition that has seen hundreds
The main church in town.
of padlocks locked to the bridge by lovers in the past. Euck.
We then made our way to Vilnius's main sight, Vilnius Cathedral and the very large Cathedral Square.
Passing yet another church (made of brick this time) and the national museum, we then came across what looked like an unauthorised breach into the museum compound. Turns out that it was more than legal and was in fact the entrance to the funicular that took you up to the Gediminas Castle, the main attraction in Vilnius, nestled proudly atop a Gediminas Hill. I haven't been on a funicular since the last time I was in Wellington.
There isn't really much up there - just a large crumbling brick building and a old refurbished tower where we got some fabulous views of the city from the top. Inside the tower was a museum where we learnt about the "Baltic Way" a human chain of two million people formed in 1989 that stretched from Vilnius all the way to Tallinn, cutting through Riga along the way, thus physically linking the capitals of the three Baltic states as a pro-independence protest against the then-USSR. There was also a video highlighting the recent simultaneous
View Over Vilnius
Taken from atop Gediminas Hill.
singing of the Lithuanian national anthem in hundreds of countries around the world by Lithuanians to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the name "Lithuania" (Lietuva in Lithuanian). Very interesting and extraordinary events indeed.
Coming back down the hill we passed a group of old ladies dressed in traditional attire singing old folk songs. There must be some sort of cultural festival going on this weekend. We always seem lucky to arrive in European cities during cultural festivities like we also did in Krakow
So what better way to celebrate Lithuanian culture than to try some of the local grub. The fare we had a go at was an array of cepelinai
, stuffed potato dumplings. To be completely honest, none of us really thought they were that great - the Lithuanian-style BBQ venison was slightly better - the dumplings seemed to have more gluten than potato in them. It's always worth a try. And it wasn't expensive either - drinks included, I think we only paid the equivalent of £10 for a hearty meal.
I have to say that everything here is cheap. You can buy a lot for a pound here - this could actually be the cheapest
Local stuffed potato dumplings although these were more gluten than potato.
place in Europe that I have been to. I think we were only paying about £8 a night for our hostel.
Walking down the lovely main cobblestoned street of Pilies Gatve, we pass loads
of amber shops. It seems like the jewellery stone of choice here in Lithuania.
We continued our walking tour past the Presidential Palace and the rather quirky Frank Zappa monument (in honour of the musician) and the just as quirky Egg Statue.
Walking tends to tire you out, so a siesta was taken back at the hostel before preparing for a night out on the tiles.
While getting warmed up for the night ahead, we joined the Swiss girl and her Spaniards watching the Eurovision song contest. They were a cool bunch and interesting to talk to as I recalled the experiences that I had had in Spain. A couple of them were from Valencia, a couple were from Madrid and a couple were from Galicia - La Coruna and Vigo - which brought back some good memories. As much fun as it was watching the Eurovision results roll in - Germany won - we were anxious to hit town. Spaniards being Spaniards were going
The Egg Statue
One of Vilnius' rather quirky attractions.
to take their time before going out but for us the time was now.
We had read up on a few places to go to and had also got some tips from a couple of locals so we tried the nearest place recommended to us near the Gates of Dawn. It was a grungy rock bar/pub that resembled a saloon and it was pretty empty so we downed a shot of Jaeger before a local recommended checking out Mojito Naktys, and underground cocktail bar just around the corner.
It looked pretty posh and there were some scantily-clad girls going in, but we thought we'd give it a go.
And boy were we glad we did.
Walking down the stairs, the sight that greeted was a typical, cavernous, Eastern European bar underneath old brick foundations - filled up completely with a mosh pit of hot girls. It was another Copenhagen
moment. Forcing our way to the bar took ages as we had to wade through all the gorgeous women in the way. You gotta hate it when that happens.
After ordering our drinks, a girl then decides to get up onto the bar to have a dance with the bartender. They
Gates Of Dawn
Last remaining old town gate that has a chapel inside it. If you look closely, you can see that there is actually a mass going down.
were pretty much having sex up there, as much as you can have sex without shedding any clothes anyway. Before the bartender ripped his shirt off that is.
Got talking to a lovely blonde called Neringa. She sure was a keen dancer and was happy to find someone who could keep up with her. She told me that she hated how guys would come over from England to try to pick up Lithuanian girls. I agree, I wouldn't dream
of doing that.
As a gentleman (or simply due to memory loss), I will not reveal what happened next except that when I stumbled out of the club, it was 6am and broad daylight. A good night out then.
The next day unsurprisingly got underway pretty late as we made our way out by bus to the town of Trakai, location of the Trakai Island Castle recommended by the girl on the plane. Arriving at the bus station it was a bit of a walk through town to the castle so we bought some lunch and had a lovely picnic of sorts on a jetty looking out onto one of the many idyllic lakes in the area.
Trakai is Lithuania's
Trakai Island Castle
Like something out of a fairy tale.
ancient capital where the king used to reside and is also the home of a rare Middle Eastern sect called the Karaites. In 1392, Vytautas the Great brought 380 Karaite families over from Crimea mainly as bodyguards, and they have been here ever since. Their influence can be seen in the town from the cute traditional three-windowed Karaim houses and "kibinai" (or "kibin"), the Cornish-pasty like meat pastries served up in several stalls and restaurants in the town.
The girl on the plane wasn't kidding when she said that the Island Castle was awesome. Built on a small island in the middle of Lake Galve, this restored red-bricked castle is picture perfect. Walking across two long bridges we pass under the main entrance of the castle into a huge courtyard. Inside all of the rooms in the castle are various exhibits of items that belonged to the king, including paintings and china among other things, as well as many other informational exhibits detailing the history of the castle and the ancient kingdom of Lithuania.
The coolest thing that they had inside the castle grounds however, was an archery range!
I've never tried it, and at 10LTL for 5 arrows, I
Davies taking aim.
thought why not. The instructor was even dressed in medieval attire. It was good fun, and although I missed the target completely with my first two shots, I was the only one to hit the yellow bullseye, so on that basis, I will say that I won. Haha.
It was such a warm, beautiful day and with so many people on the lake, I thought it would be a bit of a shame not to join them. So after picking up a few cans of beer we rented a blue, two-dolphin-pronged pedalo for an excursion on the calm lake waters. Providing enough exercise for a decent workout but not so much that it wasn't relaxing, it was lovely out on the water and the perfect way to wind down.
Ducking in and out of the many little islands on the lake, we accidentally bumped into a naked couple ducking behind their dinghy.
"Hey, how's it going!", shouted Sags.
"Great!", replied the guy as he emerged from behind the dinghy, showing us his thingy.
"Can't believe that guy just showed us his cock", said Sags.
They were obviously just about to have a shag, so we continued on our way to
Much of the castle has been recently restored.
let them at it in peace.
Our pedalo excursion took us all the way to the other side of the lake where the Tyszkiewicz Palace stood, before we made our way back to the shore, to enjoy a tagine at a restaurant on the water.
Just about everybody on the whole carriage fell asleep on the train back to Vilnius, so suffice to say, none of us were really in the mood to go out on our last night in Vilnius.
The last thing we were to do in Lithuania was to do another tour of the city...this time by Segway! They move quite intuitively - lean forward to go forward, lean back to reverse, push the handlebars in the direction you want to turn. It took about five minutes to get the hang of, to be able to command the Segway at a reasonable speed. However, it took some of us a bit longer to master the Segway as I vividly recall the look of horror on our tour guide's face as Davies swivelled out of control while going down a hill before crashing his Segway with a loud whack into the kerb and leaping off the machine
Posing on our Segways in front of the old communist statues.
onto the footpath, much to the raucous laughter of Sags and I.
The tour guide led us through the really swanky "new town" whose Parisian-like buildings and expensive shops showed us a whole other side of the city. It was very nice.
Passing the very neat Lukiškės Square, we then made it to the River Neris where we then followed a river past the financial skyscrapers of Vilnius to the Green Bridge, adorned with communist statues from Lithuania's time as part of the USSR. While going across the Green Bridge, Davies says, "have you guys tried the emergency brake?". There is suddenly a screech behind me as Davies goes tumbling out of his Segway, again to the raucous laughter of Sags and myself. The tour guide shakes her head and sighs. Not impressed. We drive ourselves through a park - where Sags takes his turn to nearly fall off his Segway - en route back to Uzupis, where we had been two days ago. The reason we had returned, was because we had missed The Angel of Uzupis, a statue of an angel with a horn atop a white column. This was where the Egg Statue used to be located
The Angel Of Uzupis
What the previous egg statue"hatched".
before "hatching" the angel in 2002.
A Segway's top speed is apparently around 28km/h, however our tour guide tells us that our Segways had been capped at 12km/h - probably a good thing for some. As we speed our Segways through puddles on the way back to the tour office, the tour guide gives us one last look of disapproval. Boys will be boys.
None of us really knew exactly what to expect from our trip to Vilnius, but we can happily report that it was not like Bratislava
. There is a history, lot to see, a lot to do, great nightlife and it's cheap. Not a lot more you could ask of city break - perfect for a bank holiday weekend. I would definitely recommend a visit. Ironically, this was Sags' first trip to the continent, ever. He mentioned that he never thought that the first place he would see in Europe would be Lithuania, which was quite funny, but I don't think he had any complaints.
It has been awhile since the last blog entry as the places I have been since the last entry have been places I have been before. But there will plenty
Couples traditionally place locks on this bridge to symbolise their love for each other.
of entries to come as I look forward to a exciting summer ahead. Next stop: Belgrade. See you then.
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