In honour of the fact that I’m going to Estonia next week, it’s time to tell you about my first trip to the Baltics, back in March 2011.
It was one of those “dart in a map” things, technically (not a literal dart in a literal map but somewhere chosen randomly because it existed and wasn’t too far away, different enough but not too different. Too different for colleagues and family, though. Vilnius, capital of Lithuania, was cause for concern.
In the few weeks before I went, I was inundated with warnings and horror stories – I was going to be attacked, mugged, hit by buses, trafficked to Amsterdam and so on. My boss even went so far as to tell me “if anything happens, let us know and we’ll come and get you. It’s what we do.” Well, moving things around places without Western European infrastructure, yes, but we specialise in boxes and pallets, not people, and those places are in Africa, not Eastern Europe. I think people were just determined that I should be scared, if I was going to step off the typical tourist trail.
You see, these days Lithuania is a small country, which most people in the UK would struggle to identify on a map, which is only just coming into itself after Soviet occupation. But back in the fourteenth century, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was the largest country in Europe and probably one of the most powerful and colourful.
I flew on Brussels Airlines, via Brussels, and because I’d never changed flights before, I wasn’t convinced my luggage would arrive safely so I travelled on hand luggage only. It went fine. As usual, things went wrong when I tried to get into the city. I knew I had to get a bus and when I saw a bus, I got on it. But that bus wasn’t actually going to the railway station, which is where I was planning to go and where I was expecting the bus to take me. Wrong bus. This I realised once I’d sailed through the centre of Vilnius and was on my way out of the other side. I didn’t know what to do other than get the same bus in the other direction, go back to the airport and try again.
In March, Vilnius is colder than the UK. The streets were still snowy in places but it was melty snow, all slush and mud and dirt and not pretty at all. I was staying in what later transpired to be an area of the city better avoided by tourists, near the station – “later transpired” meaning I read it in a guidebook or on Wikitravel afterwards, rather than that anything happened. Pictures of my hotel – the cheapest in Vilnius, I think – had been another cause for concern amongst colleagues. It wasn’t so bad. Functional rather than luxurious. High ceilings.
I spent most of my days in Lithuania tramping around Vilnius, which appears to be a city of three parts. In the middle is the medieval Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site with much Jewish influence and a church around every corner. My little street in what used to be the ghetto was only two streets, a five minute walk, away from the Gate of Dawn, the only surviving gate in the remains of the city walls and pausing at the Gate every time I went through became an odd little ritual.
Once inside, there so many churches, mostly in pastel colours and all looking freshly washed. The Old Town is very pretty, streets mostly cobbled and packed with souvenir shops, mostly selling amber. I don’t know what there was more of, churches or amber.
Vilnius Old Town, by the way, possesses those cars you see on TV – the ones that chirp when you lock them. I’ve never seen this in real life before.
I ambled onwards and came to the Cathedral of St Stanislaus and St Vladislav, a big white gleaming building with a separate bell tower that looks much younger than its two hundred and something years.
Outside, there is also a statue that I immediately named “Zombie Gediminas”. I’m not even 100% certain it is Gediminas. It may be Casimir. But my brain latched onto Zombie Gediminas and there was probably a reason for that. Zombie Gediminas became a bit of a major landmark for me getting around the city.I spent the first day wandering around – I went up to the modern part of town, which looks and feels a lot more like the cities I’m accustomed to, where there are shopping centres (still being built) and combined Japanese-Chinese restaurants and even a financial district of gleaming glass towers – very different from the Old Town.
I visited one of Vilnius’s most peculiar monuments – the Frank Zappa statue. As far as he can tell, he had no particular connection to the city. I don’t know if he ever even went there.
I also sat on some half-frozen steps and watched a trolleybus driver try to deal with the problem of one his bus’s poles having fallen off the wire, I walked to what was supposed to be a really nice park that turned out to be a really long way away and felt scarily isolated, I bought lots of ducks and I went up to Gediminas Tower.
Gediminas Tower is pretty much all that remains of the Upper Castle. If you walk through the National Museum, there’s a little funi – more a lift than a vertical train, which takes you up the hill to the Upper Castle. Gediminas Tower is a squat little red tower, housing a museum.
I’m not really a museum person but it’s nice to go up the hill, to escape the city and to take in the views.
I enjoyed my trip up the hill. But by the time I’d spent two days wandering around Vilnius, I was starting to get bored. I don’t remember how I came up with Trakai but I did and I went off to the bus station, bought a ticket and went to find my bus.
While waiting for the bus, I was adopted. This sometimes happens when you travel alone. In this case, it was by three retired teachers from Canada – Coral, Suzanne and Georgina. Two were living and teaching in Lithuania now and the other one was visiting them. Between them, they knew a lot more about Lithuania than I did so they got me on the right bus (the direct one that left ten minutes after the slow one I was planning to get on) and when we reached Trakai, they took me through the town to the castle.
Trakai is actually quite a big town – it was an important place in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, sometimes its capital. Nowadays it’s an old-fashioned town with a large Karaim ethnic minority – historically a Jewish people from the Crimea but now Turkic practitioners of a Mosaic religion to the best of my understanding. They have a lot of influence in and around Trakai, I think.
The bus drops you off at the south of the town and the point of interest, Trakai Island Castle is at the north end – this town being sprawled across a peninsula that sticks out into a lake, which in March, is frozen solid.
In fact, the lake is so frozen that you can sail on it. Oh, not in the traditional way. This is ice-yachting, where the boats have runners and they glide over the ice at an incredible speed. I would assume that ice-yachting has a big advantage over traditional sailing – I can’t see that you can capsize these things at all and if by some miracle you manage to, you’ll get cold but you won’t get wet.
But I get ahead of myself. Before we went in the castle, the ladies wanted to stop at a cafe where we had tea and hot chocolate and kibinas (at least, that’s how it was spelled in the menu; the internet spells it kabinas) – described in my guidebook as “a crescent-shaped pastry filled with grey meat that unleashes a deadly drip of hot fat after a few bites”. They were pretty from the outside and the pastry was apparently wonderful but you don’t want to look at the inside as you eat then. It’s really not pretty. These ones poured out liquid and were very oniony.
When the traditional Lithuanian food had been eaten, it was castle time. We took the conventional route over the bridge rather than over the lake.
I don’t have a lot to say about the castle. Let the pictures speak instead.
To round this off, I would like to point out that never once did I feel like any of those horror stories I was given before I left would come true. Never once did I feel threatened or scared of anyone or anything in Lithuania.
One final thing I want to show you. I found this photo of a marble pillar in my photos and for a moment wondered why I’d taken it, before I spotted exactly why. So have an entertaining marble pillar for final.