The Baltics Are Waking Up: Vilnius, Lithuania

The Baltics Are Waking Up: Vilnius, Lithuania

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Friday 9th September Cont…
I mostly napped on the long drive with a bit of writing for this blog thrown in just so I could try to convince myself I hadn’t totally wasted the long drive. The journey was however nicely broken up and with proper tourist sites to keep it interesting and not just stops at service stations as provided by some tour companies on their “long drive days”.

Our first stop was the ‘Hill of Crosses’, and El explained it was a Busabout tradition to leave a cross on the hill. The site has become symbolic of the endurance of Catholicism in Lithuania, especially as a way of peaceful resistance during Soviet Occupation and Pope John Paul II visited shortly after the country regained independence. It is difficult to describe the scale of the site and stating that there are approximately 100,000 crosses on the hill just doesn’t do the place justice. The site had a powerful feel about it, especially once on the hill and surrounded by crosses on all sides of different sizes.

Our second stop was at Trakai which is most famous for Trakai Castle Island. We had lunch at Kybynlar where I had fried bread with cheese and a cold cucumber soup both of which were nice. The fried bread in particular was very moorish especially with a Svyturys beer however I’m not so sure it was good for my arteries. There was a “Head in the Hole” cardboard cutout which meant Christine and I were able to get a particularly funny picture.

Christine and I decided to hire a peddle boat whilst Matt and El hired a row boat however negotiating a price with “The Captain” proved more humorous than expected. He seemed to get quite irate and I honestly thought he was going to push El in to the lake. We started having a race towards the castle which Christine and I decided we comfortably won because it appeared the other two had ended up stuck on a bank. We navigated our way around the outside of the island where we saw Jayde and Giulia before we returned the hire boats no doubt to the relief of the captain.

We arrived in Vilnius and outside the hostel a large group of bikers appeared to be taking part in a religious ceremony. We could hear the ceremony up in our room as it was incredibly loud and so I was unable to nap any further. Eventually there was a huge roar from the engines and they all sped off. Later on El explained that these had been the Gates of Dawn which contains an icon of “The Blessed Virgin Mary Mother of Mercy” which has become a shrine as it is said to have miraculous powers and the bikers were probably wishing someone a safe journey.

Our Orientation walk walk started outside the Gates of Dawn where the bikers had been when we’d arrived. We then made our way in to the main square where on the Town Hall there was a plaque unveiled by George Bush (Junior) which stated that the USA was a friend of Lithuania and that if they were attacked, the attacker would become the enemy of the USA (which has recently been re-affirmed). We saw other sites including a couple of churches before we saw a piece of artwork called Writers Wall which had an object representing various famous Lithuanians.

El said she had a surprise for us, and after making our way down a road which was being relaid we arrived at a bridge which had a sign
Republic of Užupis. The border sign also contained 4 symbols underneath including a Smiling face and a picture of the Mona Lisa. El told us that the residents of the area declared independence on 1st April and therefore it is unclear if it is a joke however the republic does have it’s own constitution which is displayed in most languages.

After the walk we made our way to a restaurant called where I had a Lithuanian pancake and then we continued to a England themed pub called Portobello. I convinced Matt to try a pint of England’s finest ale, Fullers London Pride. Alas it hadn’t traveled well and not only that it was served chilled like a lager. There were quite a bits of English memorabilia including a Red phone box and a Mini which we used for photos.

Saturday 10th September
The following morning I had no option but to get out of bed because there was a commotion outside the hostel due to a large group singing outside the gate. Jayde, Christine, Matt and I had arranged to explore the old town together and after eating some of the basic breakfast provisions made our way outside.

Jayde and I had planned to get a bagel from the market for breakfast but we were told to try Holy Doughnut instead. In addition to bagels they sold an incredible selection of doughnuts, one of which had maple cured bacon on the top. Whilst from a novelty perspective I was tempted I eventually opted for one that was covered in chocolate cornflakes.

We walked to the Cathedral via the President House and the Courtyard of Vilnius University and when we arrived in Cathedral Square it was evident that a marathon was being organised. Opposite the Cathedral and a short distance away, was the tall Cathedral’s bell tower which may once have been one of the towers of the old medieval castle. We had a quick look inside the Cathedral which had various art works hung on the walls and after leaving saw the Stebuklas Tile (Miracle Stone) marking the start of the Baltic Way the human chain from Vilnius to Riga and Tallinn that El had previously mentioned in Tallinn and Riga.

We continued to the Gediminas Tower. Those that have followed my recent travels know I seem to love nothing more than tiring myself by climbing a tall tower to get a view and so I paid the small price whilst the others waited for me below. As usual, I needed oxygen when I reached the top and other than a lovely panoramic view of the city there was a small display on the Baltic Way, where I finally saw some pictures of the event. It’s incredible feat really sunk in and it was awe inspiring to appreciate, how in an age before social media, the National Fronts could organise for two million people to join their hands in a peaceful demonstration for a distance of 675.5 kilometres (across the three Baltic states without a single gap.

After leaving the Cathedral we walked back past the President House but couldn’t find the alley leading to the Alumnatas Courtyard public garden. Instead we continued to the Barbakanas Bastian, a remaining piece of the old 16th Century city wall which also provided a nice view of the city in the distance. Jayde and I then said goodbye to Christine who needed to get her flight home and to Matt who had to check in to his next accommodation though we agreed to meet up for a drink that evening.

We were staying with the same hostel but at a different address and the room wasn’t ready so we walked to the Hale Markets which were located in a building which looked more like a train station from the outside. We had a quick look around and I had a bagel from Hales Bistro though in truth the markets hadn’t been as impressive as we had expected. Jayde had planned to go to the cinema, whilst I had planned to go to another KGB Headquaters, now called the ‘Museum of Genocide Victims’. The cinema in the Old Town didn’t have anything showing in English, or even with English subtitles, so she decided to come with me.

The walk we took wasn’t the most direct route however eventually we arrived at the grand looking building which from the outside, like in Riga, appeared perfectly innocent. We made our way around the different displays on the top two floors which focused on the impact that events during the Soviet Occupation had on the day to day lives. There was a lot to take in, some of the displays focused on the resistance of the local population whilst another more harrowing display focused on the victims.

We made our way downstairs in to the basement and saw the remains of the prison and the execution room. Some of the cells represented how prisoners would have been treated and displayed items such as straight jackets whilst objects that had been found in various mass graves were displayed in glass cases located under the floor of the execution room.

We returned back to the main hostel and then continued on to our new room which was a short walk away. Our new accommodation was more in the style of an apartment block however it was a rather odd set up with a downstairs communal kitchen next door to our room and further more, whilst we hadn’t necessarily expected en-suite we were disappointed to discover that there were only two showers in the whole building.

I’d been growing a beard for a month having been challenged to do so my my housemates Jess and Orla. I had asked if there were any recommendations on where I could get it trimmed because I wanted to return to work looking less scruffy, I thought it would be memorable to have my first beard trimming experience abroad and ultimately I thought it would be cheaper than London. I was given two recommendations and as the first was fully booked I ended up at Herr Katts €7 which was in Užupi. I felt a bit nervous and vulnerable as I sat down, wondering if I’d end up in a Sweeney Todd/Mrs. Lovett, meat pie.

As I walked back through the town I had a quick glance at the football scores and saw Watford were losing 2.0 though I was determined not to let the score affect my mood. By the time I got back to the room it was 2.1 but I didn’t anything more as it was half time so I went up for a shower. By the time I returned it was 3.2 and amazingly the final score was Watford 4 West Ham 2. Whilst I wouldn’t have let defeat upset me, victory had me practically doing cartwheels.

That evening Jayde and I went to a Restaurant close to the accommodation called Forest where we enjoyed a final evening dinner including a starter of more fried bread with cheese. After we’d finished we walked a short way to a bar called the “King and Mouse” which was one of the oldest and popular during the time of Napoleon. It really only sold whiskey which neither of us fancied drinking so we continued to a bar El had pointed out the day before called “Who Hit John?”

Matt joined us for a small beer having randomly bumped in to a friend from another tour before we said a final goodbye to him and returned home. Due to the time difference Match of the Day was still playing and I managed to catch the Watford highlights which was a bit of a bonus.

Sunday 11th September
Jayde and I had quite a lazy start because our flight was quite late in the day and we had explored quite a bit of the old town but didn’t have the appetite to explore other parts of the city. It had been quite an intense trip as I thought it would be visiting 5 capital cities in such a short period of time. We were quite hungry by the time we were ready to leave but first we had to drop our bags out at the old hostel.

After a very lazy start we walked to a Chaika a Soviet styled coffee shop however unfortunately they didn’t really have any breakfast or lunch options. Fortunately we were fairly need a main street so we soon found another restaurant and we then continued on to Doughnut Lab however by then I had no space in my stomach so I resisted the temptation.

We then spent a bit of time looking around souvenir shops and at a local market before we made our way back to Holy Doughnut where we took a seat and watched the marathon whilst I ate a doughnut as I was feeling peckish again. There was at least one runner that looked longingly at me as they ran by and I admit I felt rather cruel. We returned back to the hotel, picked up our bags and made our way to the train station and arriving at the airport.

After 5 capital cities in 10 days our Scandi-Baltic adventure was finally over and whilst it had been an intense trip which meant both of us were tired by the time we arrived back at Gatwick we were already planning where to go next so watch this space…

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