Lithuania has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. When I was growing up my grandparents lived with or near us and all spoke Lithuanian. They talked about our roots in the old country. We hosted Tamburitzan dancers. We ate Lithuanian food at home. And our surname was derived from the great Lithuanian Grand Duke Gediminas who established Vilnius as his capital. So now we were heading there in our rental car.
On the way from Kaunas we stopped at Kernave, a site of ancient settlements, hilltop forts, and an early Lithuanian capital. It’s a UNESCO world heritage site and simply spectacular. Set on the Neris River, there are steps up the hilltops with beautiful views of the valley and river below. There’s a recreated medieval village. The site is well maintained and great for just wandering around, maybe having a picnic.
We arrived in Vilnius and drove to our Airbnb. Our host Vitas met us and helped Kathy haul our luggage up the four flights of steps while I returned the car to the airport. Not surprisingly the drop off location at the airport wasn’t well marked and I ended up in the wrong lot (after a few wrong turns) but got it eventually. I had no problem with the bus ride into town and Google Maps to get me back to the apartment. The apartment entrance is a little scary. The gateway into the courtyard is dark and dingy with graffiti and an old mattress. Once through the gate it opens onto an enclosed courtyard with a green space in the middle and parking along the sides. It seems like a holdover from the former Communist times. But the apartment is nothing like the building. It’s on the top floor of the building, warm and welcoming, very tastefully appointed and large with our hosts on the upper floor and us on the bottom floor. We have a bedroom and WC and access to the kitchen and living room on our floor. There’s a view of the city from our bedroom.
Our hosts are wonderful. Sigita is a psychologist and professor at Vilnius University and Vitas is a semi-retired TV camera crew director. Sigita’s English is excellent so we have many interesting conversations. Besides providing tips on what to do and eat in Vilnius, they tell us about growing up in the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic and eventually participating (with their children) in the movement to restore the Republic of Lithuania. Their first hand experiences and recollections are fascinating. They’re proud and fiercely independent. We feel very fortunate and honored to spend time with them.
We do some tourist things and wander around Vilnius during our five days there. Vilnius feels more metropolitan but the historic center is great for walking and sightseeing. The old town is a bit busier than Kaunas but not bad for a capital city. We hike up the Hill of Three Crosses on the other side of the river for a nice view. The Hill is a microcosm of Lithuanian religious history. Legend has it that seven proselytizing Franciscan friars were beheaded on this hill in the 14th century for badmouthing the local pagan gods. Eventually Lithuania embraced Christianity so crosses were erected on the hill to memorialize the martyred friars. However the communists tore down them down in 1950 only to have them rebuilt when the Republic was re-established. Currently Catholicism is the predominant religion (like 77% of the populace) which probably explains my family’s Catholic roots. It’s also reflected in crosses everywhere, especially wooden ones, which are recognized as national monuments. They’re scattered all over the countryside, some simple, some elaborately carved. The National Museum has an interesting cross display. We didn’t get to the famous Hill of Crosses at Siauliai (too far out of the way) which is an impressive testament to perseverance and resilience. Next time.
We visited the Palace of the Grand Dukes with audio guides. It’s a great exhibit packing in a lot of Lithuanian history. I found the early history really interesting (up to and just after Gediminas) and listened to every audio description in the beginning. But when we got to the 16th century and later I was a lot more selective about what I clicked on. All in all it’s well laid out and worth a visit. Unfortunately Gedminas Castle on the hill above the Palace was closed for renovation so we didn’t get in there. We got some good views from the top floor of the Palace and street but we’ll have to return to get inside. The National Museum is next to the Palace so we visited that as well. It’s small and manageable offering another good history lesson. There was a group of singers and musicians in costume rehearsing for something in one of the rooms so we got to watch that for a while. The square that holds the Palace, Cathedral, and National Museum is worth just hanging out in and people (and busker) watching.
We took a bus out to Trakai to visit the island castle there. The weather started out cold, windy, and rainy but cleared after we left the castle and turned out to be a nice day. The walk from the bus station to the castle is a bit of a hike (a couple of kilometers) but worth it. The approach to the castle is spectacular. We booked an English-speaking guide for the castle tour so we had to be at the entrance at a specific time. The guide was good but we felt a little rushed through the castle (always a challenge when you’re not on your own). The courtyard has cool things like stocks and cages that you can climb into for photos. We had the local specialty, kibinas (baked pastry stuffed with meat, vegetables, cheese, etc brought to the area by the Tartars way back when they allied with the Lithuanian dukes) at Kybynlar Restaurant. We were able to dine alfresco since the weather had improved by then. It was good and filling, especially with salad and dark beer. The bus ride back to Vilnius was interesting. We sat towards the rear of the bus. Once underway a disheveled (read: grungy) young man in the seat across the aisle from me asked if he could use my phone to call ‘Mama’. He seemed a little out of it and of course I said no. He bugged me for a few minutes then gave up. He approached a Lithuanian man sitting a couple of rows ahead of us and asked him. After a couple of denials, the man’s wife lit into the guy. He gave her a little lip then slunk back to his seat. A few minutes later he got up and headed forward, aggressively bumping into the guy ahead of us. The guy ripped out his ear buds, jumped out of his seat, and went forward to punch and tackle the ‘assailant’. He held him down in the seats right behind the bus driver and I’m pretty sure I heard him mutter ‘Russia’ a couple of times. I got the impression he was telling him to go back there. The bus driver pulled over and made the bad guy get off. He tried to shake hands with the guy who beat him up but his extended hand was refused. When we mentioned the incident to our Airbnb hosts they confirmed there’s no great love or respect for some of the Russians left in Lithuania. That was the only time we had any negative experience during our time there. Overall it was great. The people were welcoming; English was prevalent; things were not expensive; the history and culture are interesting; and the food and drink were delicious.
Some other interesting things we did in Vilnius were visit Writers Lane, a twisting road with plaques on the walls recognizing writers with a Lithuanian connection. There are a couple of markers that describe the plaques so you can tell what you’re looking at. The other unusual site we took in was the occupation museum in the former Nazi/KGB building. The former cells have exhibits that describe the Nazi and Soviet times. Those were depressing times for Lithuania but learning about the activities and atrocities where they were planned or actually occurred was eye-opening. It’s also a testament to the populace that threw off those yokes to become the vibrant country they are now. [On a side note, we came across a few KGB buildings in the former Soviet republics that are now museums and worth seeking out]. We had a flight to Warsaw from Vilnius. Our Airbnb host Vitas gave us a ride to the airport even though it was early and inconvenient for him. Huge thanks to him and Sigita for a memorable stay. Next stop Warsaw.