A little Baltic journey: Lithuania and Latvia. Part 1: Lithuania

I’ve been always confusing the names of these two countries: Lithuania and Latvia. In Russian language they sound indeed very similar: Литва – Латвия. As soon as I got an opportunity and a couple days of vacation, I decided to feel and learn the difference once and for all. What it the best way to learn something? To try it! Therefore, on my way back from Kazan to Berlin I decided to make a little Baltic journey. I’ve already been to Estonia before, so only Lithuania and Latvia left unvisited. Two days were planned for Lithuania and three days for Latvia. Four cities were in my list: Vilnius, Trakai, Riga and Jurmala. I managed to see them all. The only thing I was completely pity about and was blaming myself the whole trip: I decided to travel without my camera. Never again! Silly me, I thought, a smartphone would be enough… Thence, please excuse me for the mediocre photos. Certainly, a very bitter feeling to see an awe-inspiring view and not be able to capture it on a photo properly. Next trip, even the shortest one, is only with a camera!

Lithuania

Lietuva

The first city of destination was Vilnius. Probably, two days are not enough to explore the city properly. But this time is enough to feel the city, to make the first impression, and to decide, if I would like to come back. I definitely would! Therefore, this entry is dedicated to my personal impressions and revelation of the city. I share my “local” experience and guide you through the things you have to give a try when you are travelling in Lithuania.

Flying from Moscow took couple of hours, tickets were around 70 Euro. Probably, this destination is not exceedingly popular – the plane was one of the smallest I have flown so far. Vilnius airport (in Lithuanian Vilniaus oro uostas) is quite small, if you are travelling with a hand luggage, you don’t have to follow endless labyrinths to find you way out: you just go straight forward to the exit. Unfortunately, I couldn’t connect to the free Wi-Fi. So you should think about checking the way to your place of accommodation in advance. A nice detail – the airport is very close to the city, it takes about 15 minutes to reach the central bus station (Stotis) or railway station (Vilniaus geležinkelio stotis) with a bus (Nr. 1 and 2) and the tickets cost 1 Euro. The timetable could be found on the site of Vilnius public transportation: http://www.vilniustransport.lt/autobusai.html. All public transport in Vilnius (buses, trolleybuses) cost 1 Euro (for EU students – 50 cents). The tickets are purchased from the driver by entering through the front door.

When I was walking in the city, I was actively using a special city map “like a local”, made by people living in the city, adoring it and willing to share their very best experiences with the tourists. All hints and tips in the map were useful and helpful, in particular in terms of bars, pubs and cafes. Many hostels have this map as a handout on their reception. An app is available as well: it could be downloaded from the page Vilnius.likealocal.co. There were almost no problems with finding this or that location: the map was enough detailed and there is plenty of open Wi-Fi connections in the city.

The city is very cozy, safe and small (or seems small), though this is the second biggest city in Baltics – about 540 000 people are living in the city. I was lucky to find a hostel in the very beginning of the old city and still very close to the central station. The hostel’s name is Hostelgate (Aušros Vartų g. 17, Vilnius 01304), it has a 24-hours reception, great facilities (a fully equipped kitchen, a meeting room under the roof with super-cozy bag-chairs, a soccer and a strong Wi-Fi channel). I booked in advance, so the accommodation was more than affordable. Site of the hostel: http://www.hostelgate.lt/index.html

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Every morning I woke up at about 9 o’clock when a melodic singing of the congregation was starting in the nearby church. It didn’t bother me at all, in the opposite, it was very lovely to get out from the sleep with a help of soulful music… In Vilnius you can find more than 40 churches and this is only in the old city. Lithuania was the last country in Europe converted to the western Christianity. After Christianization, during many centuries the country was conquered by various nations. The Germans had built their churches, as had the Polish and the Russians. Lithuania has gained its independency only in 1991. The biggest church is without doubts the Vilnius Cathedral. It is truly enormous (that is tiny me hugging one of the columns)!

Cathedral

Vilnius Cathedral

Next to the Cathedral, separated from it by a park, resides the imposing Gediminas Tower. The symbol of Vilnius and one of the city most prominent landmarks is situated on a hill that is easy to climb: there are two ways up – a steep one and a sloping one. To ascend the easy one takes about 10 minutes maximum. Besides, on the other side you can find a funicular, it works from 10 to 17, and a ticket (both ways) costs around 1,5 Euro. The Gediminas hill is open to the visitors from 7 to 23 and is free of charge. The entrance to the Gediminas Tower costs 2 Euro. The view from both locations is beautiful. Definitely worth a visit!

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A view to the new part of the city

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A view to the old part of the city

Another nice location to take o panoramic look at the city is the Hill of Three Crosses. You can see in from the Gediminas Tower and many points in the city.

Meal and drink is a separate story in Vilnius. They are tasty and more than affordable here. Even in the city center you can get a lunch or a snack for a good price. I decided to follow the recommendations of the “like a local” map and went to three out four pubs. Šnekutis has three locations in Vilnius. The ambiance is authentically pastoral: here you are surrounded by dusty windmill wheels, peasant household items and sacks dangling from the ceiling. Here so called “rural food” is served: nourishing, often oily, local. For a second dish you will pay about 2-3 Euro. You should try zeppelins (Cepelinai), potato dumplings stuffed with minced meat, but take only one piece – the portions are huge. The same price (2 Euro) you will pay for the snacks such as garlic rye bread with a cheese sauce or Lithuanian beans with pork. The beer costs 2 Euro 0,5 Liter and 3,5 Euro 1 Liter. I tried Senovinis (6%): not bad, but the taste is not as deep as I expected. The bar is open from mid-morning till 2 am.

Another interesting and more exquisite place with a distinct flair of Britain is Portobello. “British mood” starts from the entrance: you get in the bar through the red telephone cabin. Here an “Admiral’s Pint” (0,66 Liter) is served and costs 2,7-3 Euro. Everyone will find the beer that he likes from about 32 kinds. The cuisine promises to be delicious: unfortunately, we couldn’t try it as we came there completely stuffed after Šnekutis. The bar is open from 4 pm to 4 am.

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Portobello

The third place is called Deveti and has two advantages: a very hospitable and communicative waiter and delicious locally brewed beer. I tried three sorts of beer from Dundulis brewery: the dark Gutstautas (5,2%), the red Kurko and the pale Humulupu IPA (5,5%) (it has a mango nuance in its taste and smell). Besides, I tried apple cider Strong bow (very pleasant taste) and local kvass Gira (0,05%) that tasted like damson – deliciously indeed (considering that I’m not a fan of kvass). Beer costs around 2,5 Euro 0,5 Liter and cider 4 Euro for the same volume. Deveti is open from 4-5 in the afternoon and the guests decide till when.

I didn’t go to the sea cost of Lithuania, it takes about 3-4 hours to reach the Baltic sea (Klaipeda) and I didn’t have enough time. Instead, I went to Trakai – a historic city and a lake resort. To go to Trakai from Vilnius you can take either a bus (from central bus station Stotis) or a train (from central railway station). A bus drive takes about 30 minutes and lasts 30 minutes. A ride costs 1,80 Euro independently from the size of the bus (there are smaller and bigger ones). The trains go significantly rarer. Trakai is incredibly cozy and beautiful: little old wooden houses, a riverside, authentically handmade souvenirs and handicraft from amber and wood… The most charming view is the one to the island castle (takes about 20 minutes from the bus station to walk there). To see the castle from the close proximity or even go inside you can take a walk over the bridge or rent a boat or a catamaran for about 6 Euro an hour.

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Trakai island castle

The most fascinating area of the city that you can’t give a miss is without any doubts Užupis. The Lithuanians call the Republic of Užupis a country within a country. It was founded by artists and painters couple of decades ago. They even have their own constitution that one can find definitely amusing and from any other existing constitution. It was translated into 23 languages, written on giant plates and affixed to a wall on Paupio street in the neighborhood. Among the articles are very unexpected and liberal ones: “Everyone has the right to make mistakes”, “Everyone has the right to understand nothing”, “Everyone has the right to cry”, “A dog has the right to be a dog”, etc. The full text of the Užupis constitution could be found on the site of Užupis: http://uzupis.uchplus.org/2013/10/14/constitution-republic-of-uzupis/.

Visiting Vilnius courtyards is another must do in the city. Getting lost in the city center is easy and rewarding: small clean patios are full of flowers, colorful plants and private household items. The one-two store houses are joyfully colored and inviting. Strolling along the streets in the center, I frequently noticed construction work ongoing. When rebuilding or renovating buildings, a small spot of the wall is usually left untouched to show how the building looked before the reconstruction.

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Vilnius courtyards

If you are in the city and the sun is going down, you should stroll to the Subačiaus street: the sunsets on this hill are absolutely delightful. There is a little seasonal café on the hill where you can buy hot drinks and snacks. Don’t forget to take something to sit on and a good company. Exactly at that time I was blaming myself even worse for not taking a good camera with me. The silhouette of the city with the pinkish-orange colored sky in the background was awe-inspiring.

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A view from the Subačiaus street

My last day in Vilnius was on the 1st of September. I went to the IKI shop inside the bus station (that is open 7 to 22) and wanted to buy a local cider for a long bus ride to Riga, but was rejected – this day is officially named a day without alcohol. Shops don’t sell alcohol at all and so do several bars. In that way the Lithuanians try to limit the drunkenness among the youth celebrating the beginning of the new school year. I hope, this approach works.

(to be continued with the Part 2: Latvia)

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