Sitting, sipping beer on the grass, in the evening sun, we learnt that we’d missed a few “hipster” trends in the almost year and half we’d been travelling. Firstly hot dogs with heaps of toppings were in, you were no one if you didn’t have a top knot and you weren’t in vogue unless you had a pet husky (in Lithuania anyways)! We had managed to find a very cool weekend food market, with lots of the best restaurants in town setting up a stand to sell take away delights to a cool Lithuanian crowd. There was even a DJ to soundtrack proceedings and don’t worry, he was of course supporting a top knot of his own. It was great to see a real side of Vilnius, and locals who were enjoying their city, we even managed to talk to a few of them… except they lived in St.Albans not Lithuania… Either way, the city gave a great first impression!
Vilnius is the capital of Lithuania, and like the Baltic capitals we had seen before was built around a beautiful old town riddled with old buildings and churches. So many churches in fact that when viewed from above, it apparently looks like a pin cushion due to all the spires. On the weekend we where there it appeared that every-single one of these churches had a wedding going on, with brides littering the streets and celebrating their “special day”, with a dozen others also celebrating theirs in the background of their photographs.
The old town itself is centred around Cathedral Square and the still being renovated Duchy Palace. Apparently when the Soviets were in power, not being huge fans of organised religion, they often turned churches into other things; they hoped to turn this cathedral into a car repair garage but met with such opposition it became a slightly less offensive art gallery. OK, you guessed it, I didn’t find out these stories by myself but in fact from a tour guide, on yet another free walking tour of a city. This one was especially good and informative, as well as the big sites our guide led us down alleys and through hidden courtyards…and of course gave me anecdotes to write on this blog later.
Across the river from the old town lies the republic of Uzupis, in a district which is a little different from your average suburb. This is a Republic of Artists, complete with its own constitution, ambassadors, passports and president! It was a once neglected are of the city, which was run down and full of crime, however after Lithuania gained its independence artists were lured to the area due to cheap accommodation (actually they squatted so it was free) and spaces in which they could be creative, a blank canvas if you will. After several years of filling the streets with artworks and cools bars, they declared the area a republic on April 1st 1997 (the date wasn’t a coincidence), and continued to regenerate the area to what it is today… a beautiful part of the city, full of bars, cafes, cool graffiti and other artworks.
We finished our time in the city with a trip up to Gediminas Tower, on top of a hill overlooking the city. The tower is all that remains of the Castle complex that once stood here, and now offers beautiful views across the entire city. From the top you can really appreciate how green the city is, as well as seeing all the church spires we mentioned before, and even the soviet bloc’s in the distance, to remind you of the city’s more recent past. There is even a funicular railway to enjoy, that will take you to the top of the hill if you’re feeling lazy…
On our last day in Lithuania we decided to head out of the city to the nearby town of Trakai to see it’s perfectly situated castle. The golden orange of the castle walls can been seen from afar, as the colour contrasts perfectly with the blue of the lake which surrounds it, and the sky above. The island castle itself is a reconstruction of the original medieval stronghold which fell into disrepair until the twentieth century when the ruins were rebuilt. We spent a while walking around the castle, admiring how well it had been rebuilt, before relaxing at the water’s edge to watch ducklings paddle by on the lake and tour groups of elderly germans walk past into the castle.
The town also has an interesting ethnic minority group called the Karaites, thought to have been brought by the Lithuanian Dutchy as body guards from Crimea centuries earlier. Though the groups heritage is unclear, the town loves their cuisine and of course, we had to try some. Karaites are famous for their pasties, traditionally with mutton, but now with a variety of fillings….kind of like a Cornish pasty. I am not ashamed to say we both had two each…you know to really experience the traditional food not because we’re greedy or anything.
And just like that it was time to leave, and catch an overnight bus to Poland…