DINAH MO HUMMED ON BEAVER STEW IN KGB PRISON

The last stop on my recent tour of Baltic capitals was Vilnius, Lithuania. There was no reason other than geography for doing the tour in this manner. Vilnius was the last stop before flying back to Amsterdam. I was really looking forward to visiting Lithuania. I had read many great things about both the nation of Lithuania and the city of Vilnius.


 I went in expecting to have a great time. By reputation, Vilnius is a fine party town. It is also registered by UNESCO as a World Heritage site for the Baroque old town. There were certainly some flaws but for the most part, Vilnius did live up to advanced billing. I was pretty lucky because I had an advance reservation for a hostel about five minutes walking from the bus station. This made getting in a lot easier. The train station is right next to the bus station.


 The hostel was right on the outskirts of the old town. I merely had to walk down the street and go through an entranceway into the Old Town. There is certainly a lot to see once one wanders in. One can just saunter around and hope to stumble across interesting shops or bars. Most of the pubs and restaurants are in cellars. This was one of the interesting aspects of Vilnius. Several of the restaurants were in old buildings with very low passages. I can imagine quite a few noggins taking some floggings. I had to duck to get down into several of these places.


 There are also some impressive cathedrals and museums in Vilnius. The town is interesting in its blend of old and new. They have found a way to preserve or recapture much of their heritage. They are still working on it, too. One will want to visit the Katedros Aikste. This is a sacred place for Lithuanians. The cathedral still stands and it is a stunning piece of architecture. The castle was destroyed but they are undergoing a major construction project to recreate the Castle.


 One can still wander up the hill to check out the remains of the castle. This also grants a lovely view of the Old Town. You can glance across at the hill with the three crosses. Laziness negated the chances of going down the hill and then up another hill for a closer look. Of course there is a the Lower Castle Museum on the other side of the hill. They now have a lift that takes you to the top. The Upper Castle Museum closes at 5 PM so I was not able to go in and check it out. Had I known, I could have saved quite a hike and checked out both small museums.


 The recreated castle is scheduled for completion in 2009. It will include a coffee shop, restaurant and other tourist friendly rooms. This looks to be a very ambition project but I really hope to get back there when it is finished. They are also restoring the St Anne Cathedral. This is the cathedral that Napoleon wanted to take back to France. The outside is still beautiful and well preserved but the interior is worse for wear. They are working on fixing things up. This is a beautiful and historic cathedral so I am glad they are restoring it.


 Of course, I'm not a religious man. I didn't go to Vilnius to worship or say a prayer. I was very interested in trying local beers and enjoying the local culture. I was there for a couple days so I got in a pretty good tour of the pubs in the old town. There is a brewpub on Gedimino called Avilys. There were also countless pubs throughout the city.


 Vilnius is eccentric as far as cities go. They have a statue of Frank Zappa on the outskirts of the Old Town. This statue and mural were officially sanctioned by the city. Being unlikely to move to Montana and become a dental floss tycoon, I felt the need to make a pilgrimage to the statue. Zappa hasn't even been so honored in his native country but this mural and statue is nice to check out.


 Vilnius also has a small section called Uzupio. This is also outside the Old Town. The section has been taken over by artists and Bohemians. They have their own flag and currency and claim to be an autonomous nation called Uzipis. They even sell T-shirts with their own Constitutional Bill of Rights. It's interesting to note that the mayor of Vilnius likes to hang out at their main bar Uzupio Kavine. This bar has a riverside terrace and features sit down dining along with the bar. A lot of the homes along here fly the alternative flag. The people take to the streets to entertain and vend. It's a very enlightening little area.


 One will also want to check out the Genocide Museum aka KGB Museum. This museum sits in the basement of a federal building. It is a former KGB prison. They offer a tour and provide a history of the prison. This is a disturbing tour but one that is important. They want to make certain that the horrors of the Occupation are not repeated. You get to see the cells as well as an interrogation room. It's something you won't soon forget.


 There were lots of good places to eat. I had dinner at a restaurant called Lokys. The proprietor is an avid hunter who serves game. When I was there, I saw they had beaver stew on the menu. They also served an rye based alcohol drink called kvass. This was a really nice place. I almost banged my head getting down the steps to the basement but it was a great place. One of the national dishes is the Cepelinai or potato zeppelin. This is a stuffed potato shaped like a zeppelin. It can be filled with cheese or meat. One will not walk away hungry. I was impressed with a restaurant called Zemaiciai. They are alleged to have a home brew but were out when I was there.


 Like Tallinn and Riga, Vilnius is in the late night business. Bars and clubs often stay open till four or five in the morning. They have casinos and strip clubs. One enterprising strip club offered a free limo service. A limo will pick you up at your hotel and take you to the club. Another strip club one upped them and offers a limo ride around Old Town. You get a lap dance during the tour. This is a very enticing offer as there are many beautiful young women in Lithuania. I had to look twice on more than one occasion.


 It would appear that gambling and stripping are well accepted in the Baltics. I only went into one casino. It was actually to go into The Ring which is a sports bar. I watched a little soccer and European league basketball while enjoying a brew. The casino did not really seem all that crowded but they do offer 24 hour fun.


 Vilnius is very affordable. The Lithuanian litu is not setting the world market on fire. Lithuania was slightly cheaper than Riga or Tallinn. There was very little problem finding English speaking people. Most people in the service industry can speak English. The people are also very happy to help you out. I had a phrase book and did make some meager attempts at Lithuanian. The guide book was correct in suggesting that these efforts would be met with smiles. Most Lithuanians seemed rather amused when I tried.


 One thing I found interesting is that there wasn't really an overbearing presence of souvenir vendors or shops. In Tallinn, you can't take two steps without tripping over a souvenir shop. Riga was not as obvious but the market and Old Town were filled with places selling souvenirs. Vilnius didn't really have much in the way of souvenir shops. Even the small outdoor market in the old town had relatively few souvenir items. This was a pretty refreshing change of pace.


 I found Vilnius to be an amazing city. Some of the Old Town is worse for wear but there is also a lot of beauty. There are many cobblestone streets and alleys winding through the town. Part of the Old Town wall is still standing today. That was also pretty interesting to walk along the old wall. There is some construction going on but it was not as obtrusive as the construction in Riga. The Gediminas Castle had a display showing what the completed reconstructed castle will look like. It also includes a floor plan. This helped make the construction a little more palatable.


Vilnius is an amazing city with wonderful people. I am very sure that it will be on some future travel itineraries. You can have a blast and also appreciate history and architectural beauty there. I still have a few things I want to check out. I have no difficulty in recommending this city. It might be a bit out of the way but time spent there will be its own reward.

 

Author's Notes/Comments: 

this was a review on the city of Vilnius from a trip taken in 2005.  The review was written in 2006.