Vilnius

In March 2011, I went to Lithuania. I went – of all stupid reasons – because I’d written the first draft of a silly spy novel (which never made it beyond the first draft) and set one scene there and now I wanted to see it for real.

Telling people you’re going to Baltic former Soviet state means you get a lot of people concerned for your well-being, people who think Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are stuck in the early-to-mid nineties when they first broke free. My boss went into great detail about how they would rescue me if I happened to get abducted and sold into human slavery, my other colleagues looked doubtfully at the photos of the hotel I’d booked on the comparison website and said it looked like a prison and even my mother was concerned. I see “even”, as if she doesn’t believe I’m going to get murdered every time I leave the house.

The thing that concerned me was that I couldn’t get a direct flight to Lithuania from London. I had to change at Brussels. It was the first time I’d ever had to do that and I didn’t trust Brussels Airlines to get my bags safely to Vilnius, so I went with hand luggage only. I dutifully put my liquids into my little GoToobs… and then I forgot to take them out of my bag when I put it through security and no one noticed, so there goes any trust I have in the security process. It was the first time I’d taken an internal flight within the Schengen area so my mind was blown when there was no passport control to go through when I arrived in Lithuania. I had never before arrived anywhere that hadn’t been on a flight from the UK, which is outside Schengen, so I had no idea what had happened or why it had been missed. Utterly alien.

I was supposed to get Bus 1 into town but there was a 2 waiting there and I figured it would go to much the same place, because I’m an idiot. It didn’t. We drove through Vilnius and were heading out the other side before I decided I’d better get off, cross the road, take the 2 back to the airport and start again. And when I started again, it was on a train because trains go exactly where they show on a bus and don’t deviate and I trust them more than I trust buses. When I’d bought my bus ticket, the driver didn’t have any change, so I’d ended up with two tickets and no idea that I needed to validate them but now, buying my train ticket, I had local coins and I bought directly from the conductor who validated it before handing it to me. So much easier!

So that was my traditional mess-up on the way into town.

I’d decided, as I often do, that the best thing would be to stay close to my arrival point. Bus 1 was supposed to come into the central station, just like the train I hadn’t planned to get, so I’d found the cheapest hotel I could within a ten minute walk from the station. This is a habit I really should grow out of. The station is often in a seedy area of town and cheap hotels are frequently grotty. Looking back, I can see why my colleagues were concerned.

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But trains and stations and hotels aside, Vilnius is lovely!

In the Old Town, there is a church for every 700 inhabitants. Twenty-eight altogether, of which twenty-one are Catholic and four are Russian Orthodox. I didn’t see all twenty-eight but I saw a few. The route into more central Vilnius was via the Old Town, and the Old Town was a destination in its own right, so I ambled through there twice a day every day.

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My route went through the Gate of Dawn, one of the few surviving gates in the old city walls and a tourist attraction in its own right. From the outside it’s a bulge in the wall; from the inside it looks more like the front of a church and it does have a chapel inside containing a brilliant gold icon of the Virgin Mary. Twice a day I passed through this gate and never did I fail to stop to look up at it as I went.

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The streets of the Old Town are cobbled and there was a Cockney-style pub just inside the gates, which seemed very out of place in this town.I know I didn’t actually see most of Vilnius but it definitely felt like a town rather than a city. Every other building was a church and in between the churches were tourist shops selling amber and Faberge eggs. I gave in to the pull of the amber but a lot of the jewellery looked like the sort an elderly lady might wear, so I made a point of choosing something very modern when I bought a necklace.

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There were two highlights of Vilnius, really. Outside the snowy-white cathedral was a statue of the legendary King Gediminas, standing in front of his horse with his arms outstretched like a zombie. This was another landmark I passed regularly and I never failed to murmur “Hello, Zombie King Gediminas” or “Good afternoon, Your Zombie Majesty” or some such greeting.

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The other highlight was Old Castle Hill. You can take the funicular railway up to Gediminas’ Tower, the last surviving remnant of the Upper Castle. It’s a squat round red tower on a hill with a spectacular view over Vilnius. There’s also a history museum inside, which is interesting enough but no museum has ever competed with a view, as far as I’m concerned. It’s right opposite the Hill of Three Crosses and I wish I’d bothered to climb up there. However, I took a photo of it and that’ll have to do. From the top, Vilnius looks a lot less medieval and a lot more like the sort of Eastern European modern capital like Prague and Budapest (neither of which I’ve actually been to, so I’m very much making assumptions here).

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It had been snowy not long before I arrived and the snow was melting and thawing in filthy muddy piles. The Old Town was pretty clear, thanks to footfall just washing it away but from up on Old Castle Hill, you could see thin patches of clean snow, particularly where the sun fell on it or the shadows from trees. It seems it was only ugly on my street – Google Maps tells me it’s much prettier in the sunshine, with a large elaborate pink building opposite. However, this was the southern end of the Vilnius Ghetto. I know very little about WWII but the impression I get is that this was one of the better ghettos – Jerusalem of the Ghettos for its intellectual, cultural and medical spirit. They even had a theatre in there, which put on 111 performances during the two years in which the ghetto existed. There’s no obvious evidence of any of this now but it’s still not one of the brightest and most cheerful areas of the city and a coating of muddy snow didn’t help.

One day I took the bus to Trakai, just for the sake of seeing something of Lithuania other than its capital, which I achieved by… going to its old capital. Trakai is a smallish town of wooden buildings set on what would be a long thin island in a lake if it wasn’t joined to the land by narrow strips at top and bottom. The bus drops you off at the bottom of Trakai and to get to the town’s big attraction, Trakai Island Castle, you have to walk the entire length of this island.

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While waiting for the bus in Vilnius, I’d been adopted by three retired Canadian teachers, one of whom was now living in Vilnius – Coral, Georgina and Suzanne. I’m glad they did because I’d never have made it to the castle on my own – and I’d have travelled on the wrong bus. I’d been told to get the 28 at 10.30 but that was the slow one and I should be getting the 29 and 10.40.  They frogmarched me through the town and we stopped at a cafe for coffee and kabinas, a sort of Lithuanian meat-filled pastry that are much tastier than they look – and they don’t look tasty because the meat is grey and oil oozes out through the pastry itself. Close your eyes and stuff it in your mouth.

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We were clearly there in low seasons. The photos of Trakai Island Castle on Wikipedia show crowds pushing their way across the bridge but there was virtually no one there. The lake was frozen solid. Not only were people making their way to the castle across the lake, they also had some ice boats out, skimming around at incredible speeds.

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Judging by the fact that the castle is made of red bricks, I thought it wasn’t that old but it dates back to the fourteenth century. Of course, there have been additions over the years and there was major restoration work in the last nineteenth and early twentieth centuries but the “Gothic red bricks” really do date back to the early days. It’s a very interesting castle, with turrets and towers and walkways, a proper keep in the middle and secret shortcuts joining various parts of it. It’s cosy and tough all at the same time, most of its towers filled with exhibits ranging from “an eminently missable history of pipe-smoking” to an ethnographic exhibition on the Karaim, a central Asian people who moved to Lithuania six hundred years ago to act as private bodyguards to the Grand Duke and displays of silver coins and silver goblets and what I assume is a replica of the Lithuanian equivalent of the Crown Jewels.

Getting back proved difficult. We walked down through the town to the bus station but the first bus that came along was full. The next two buses didn’t turn up and we had to squish in on the fourth bus – I spent the entire journey standing up in the steps at the back but it was reasonably comfortable because I had two seats to lean on, if I couldn’t sit in them.

That was about it for my Lithuanian odyssey. I didn’t get hit by any cars being driven badly, I didn’t get abducted, I didn’t even get stranded in Trakai. I saw lots of nice churches, I found lots of nice parks to sit in while I ate my lunch and I left feeling fond of this city so few people seemed to have heard of.