I am en route to Ukraine and since it cost over $1000 to fly direct (from Norway – not ok) or a third of that (including accommodation) to separate the flights and stop somewhere, I am in Vilnius, Lithuania. Country number 29 (just in case you were trying to figure it out). I really felt like I didn’t have my head in the game for this one. I’ve been a bit cranky about leaving India and then being sick and then sulking over leaving Norway. Don’t get me wrong, I was enjoying every moment in both places (except maybe the cough attacks) but it put me in a slight state of denial/drained my energy to be planning some random sightseeing. I know myself though, and I knew I would dive in once I got here – so far I have proven myself correct. I arrived in Lithuania after 11 PM Thursday night. I pre-booked my room at the LEU Guest House or University Hotel type situation, I looked up how to deal with a taxi and knew I had 2.5 half days to do something in Lithuania. Other than that, planning was nil. Luckily my travels and arrival at the guest house went smoothly, it was late so I collected my wifi password and a few maps and headed to my room (a dorm style that I was able to book as a single). Before calling it a night, I looked at where I was located and the suggested highlights and made a tentative plan of where to start when I got up.
My accommodation is about 15-20 minutes walking from Old Town which is where I planned on stationing myself for Day 1. My map came with some nifty check points marked so I decided to follow along and enjoy anything else I stumbled across. I definitely covered all the “highlights” as well as wandering through plenty of side streets. I enjoyed the heat, some panoramas, and the many many churches of Vilnius. The Old Town is definitely where it’s at and I can see why it has become a UNESCO Site. The buildings are beautiful and the city is distinctly Eastern European. Turns out this little stop is the perfect transition to get me excited and mentally prepared for Ukraine. It still baffles me how I get baffled that there is a place in the world where my entire family makes sense. It makes me happy. And though I do not speak Lithuanian, it makes me super excited to pick out words and get ready to use some Ukie in a couple of days. I have also been highly entertained by people watching because I feel like there are so many things that only go in this region of the world. For example the guy who met up with the family next to me at breakfast and pulled some honey out of his bag (and by some I mean a giant jar – obviously a home brew) and then proceeded to place it in a laminating cover to act as plastic wrap for transport. Or the intense and vibrant whistling that accompanies traditional music being played in the street. Or that there are 500 brands of the kind of sweet more condensed cottage cheese looking cheese. Or the old Babas working at the hair salon working on their cross stitch while waiting for the next client. Or how old men wearing dress pants, nice belt, and a wife beater is a standard occurrence. Not to mention the aromas – good and bad. I’m not trying to be stereotypical or rude, there is just something about it all being put together that makes the little girl pouting about wearing a Hutsel outfit for St. Nicholas day very content. And well there is just something epic about an intense stare by kozak like features wearing a tshirt reading “Become The Hunter.” Enough of that though….
It also turns out July 5 was the night where the once a year Culture Night takes place. A night where hundreds of artistic and cultural things take place around the city for free. Everything from exhibits to concerts in the street at your disposal. I knew I wasn’t going to make it to the later showings of things but I caught enough to have my fill. I was particularly pleased at having encountered some traditional music and dancing in the town hall square. As a tourist I felt like it was neat to see a traditional performance rather than some jazz tune covers but hey that’s probably why I am a tourist. I loved the audience involvement singing and moving along, loud whistles and calls of encouragement throughout. The evening was apparently even more special because the city was celebrating the Lithuanian Presidency of the EU and July 6 being Statehood Day. Who knew?! Little planning can surprise you! It was fun to see the city come to life. I rounded out the day getting back to my room just before a major thunderstorm hit, seeing fireworks from my window and falling asleep to the later performances making their way to my room from around the city.
I was pretty beat by Saturday morning but had gotten (what I thought was) most of the walking and wandering out of the way on Friday. Turns out my plans to go to the Museum of Genocide Victims were delayed til Sunday due to Statehood Day, but it left me time to wander the “collectors club” in the park nearby. It was essentially a flea market atop a grassy hill but each vendor had a specific collection of things. I didn’t exactly see anything I wanted or needed aside from a chair which was definitely not going to fit in any of my allotted luggage so after taking it in I made a new plan for the morning. More wandering. I basically decided to hit all the outer lying buildings that I didn’t get to on Friday. I am glad I did because I got to see some beautiful churches and walk along the river. I was specifically unsure if I would get to St. Stephen & Paul’s Church outside the city center. The walk was do-able but I was debating whether I would be “over it” by the time I got there. Turns out, I am really glad I made it to the church gem of Vilnius. The inside of this church is late Baroque and outfitted with over 2,000 stucco moldings (statues?) on the interior. Although, it was a bit intense on a Saturday seeing a wedding just finishing, a christening underway, two more weddings waiting outside, tour buses lined up and the contrast of the beggars kneeling at the front of the church. Either way it was worth the visit, but perhaps not as relaxing as the river walk.
By the time I got back to the center it was time for a little massage at Azia Spa. I can’t say I would ever use them as a regular place, but it was good enough to get my back slightly mobile again and left me surprisingly rejuvenated! I graciously took in the new motivation to explore and stumble upon more back streets, churches, and views before picking up some groceries and calling it a day (I really should have taken a photo of the dairy section – wall to wall. Not to mention an entire aisle just for mayonnaise).
This is turning out to be a very lengthy description of a short weekend stop, but lucky for you I didn’t do so much on Sunday. Most significantly though, I finally made it to the Museum of the Genocide Victims (also referred to as the KGB Museum). I feel wrong saying that it was a “good” museum because the material is so horrific, but I can say that it was really well put together, informative but not rambling, and effective display. I got there right away so it was still quiet and I enjoyed taking the liberty of taking everything in on my own terms. The museum is actually housed in a building used as a headquarters/prison during the Soviet & Nazi regimes. I think the prison was the most intense part. It has changed in some ways, but the information was great at describing what time period a specific layout was from and how it had evolved after or previously. I’m glad I didn’t eat before I arrived. Some of the areas seriously wanted to make me throw up – particularly the water solitary confinement rooms in which prisoners were made to balance on a small pedestal in order to not fall into the water, or had to stand at length in freezing waters. I won’t go into more detail about the other parts of the prison in case you did just eat, but worth the visit to become better informed about the Soviet regime in Eastern Europe (specifically Lithuania in this case). It kind of makes me think I should go to Auschwitz after all when I stop in Krakow – but I am still undecided. The whole idea of arriving on a big bus with a bunch of tourists to see a place like that seems a bit much. Perhaps one day if I can drive in on my own during a quieter season it will be better. I don’t know – and now I am totally off topic.
Aside from some lunch and people watching before my departure, I found the Sunday flea market in town. I was hoping to find some old jewelry or something but this place mostly had clothes. If there was more room in my luggage, I may have been more tempted to look around but it was a short stop for me. All too quickly it was time to get sorted to head to the airport and finally make my journey to Ukraine! Overall, I am really glad I made the stop and enjoyed Vilnius. It’s not a must repeat city for me and perhaps I wouldn’t fly all the way to Europe just for this, but if you are doing a multi-city journey or already nearby and want a quick, fun weekend, definitely check it out!
So looking forward to my first day at the Dzherelo Rehabilitation Centre tomorrow and can’t wait to report! (I promise to update the post with photos soon!)