Tag Archives: vilnius

The Great EU Quest: Lithuania – Vilnius Museums

Whilst I have always tried to pick up on some of the history of a country/city during a holiday I don’t think I have been as immersed in a country’s past as I have been in Lithuania. Maybe it is because today (June 15th) was another anniversary for them.

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It was because of this anniversary that the Museum of Genocide Victims (housed in the old KGB building) was free to enter. In Lithuania it appears that museums like this wave the entrance fee since it is a day that people should probably be educated on what happened on this day. I can’t imagine attractions like the Cabinet War Rooms of London doing something similar on the anniversary of the end of World War Two.

The anniversary in question was 76 years since Lithuania lost their independence to the Soviet Union and the process of integrating them as a Socialist State was begun. Walking through the museum and seeing all the faces of Lithuanians that had been executed firstly by the invading Nazi Germans and then the Stalinist forces was sobering.

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The museum is incredibly well put together and for the few Euros that is would normally cost you to enter it is well worth it. As interesting as the historical parts are it is the prison in the cellar that delivers the biggest punch. Especially the execution chamber as it is a plain room with bullet holes in the wall, a small drain for washing the blood from the floor and a small chute to deliver bodies up to ground level for disposing in a mass grave in the local forest.

Considering the number of citizens from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia that were deported to the arse end of the Soviet Union for slave labour (something I never knew happened until visiting this country) I really can understand why the Ukrainian entry won Eurovision this year. That song would strike a chord with any community that had to deal with forced deportation at the hand of the Soviet government (and this includes native Russians too).

We needed a bit of a lift after that museum (where it is quite easy to lose a few hours). So instead of heading straight to the next one we stopped off for come cake in one of the many coffee shops on Pilies Street. We had great cake (especially the chocolate royal) and for the first time we’ve been in Lithuania we met a rather surly waitress (reminded me of home).
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Once we left the coffee shop what did we see? Only a large procession of Hare Krishnas! Not exactly the first thing I would have expected to see in Vilnius, but this does appear to be a nation that wears their religion (and their hope) on their sleeves. From what we have seen this city is incredibly tolerant of their population whether they be Roman Catholic, Russian Orthodox, Jewish or even Hare Krishna. There was no laughing or pointing at this parade like there would be in London.

Another thing about Lithuania that really struck me was the amount and variation in their crafts. From what we later saw in the museum this is a nation of artisans. The majority of the crafts that appear to be going are the production of wooden crosses (which you will see pretty much everywhere in Lithuania whether you be walking along a road, through a forest or in a city).

However, there are so many other things like pottery, glassware, amber and wooden carvings of religious and non-religious imagery. If I had a way to transport all the things that I liked I would behave bought a lot of things, being practical I just bought a small mug with fish on for hub as a souvenir.

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After putting on a freshly bought Lithuania t-shirt in a pitch black bathroom (I couldn’t find the light switch) it was time to venture around their national museum.

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The first two rooms on the ground floor is a real mishmash of things which includes two items of Roman pottery and a random Egyptian sarcophagus. The best parts of this museum are the parts that focus on Lithuanian culture. Apparently you couldn’t find a decent portrait painter in 1700s Lithuania, but being a country of craftsmen you could find amazing toys like this wind-powered masterpiece.

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The section of the museum on local folk art (focused on religious iconography) was illuminating. We were laughing at some of the really bad items on display, but then watched a short film on the importance of cross making to Lithuanians. So important that people would be making loads of these during Soviet occupation under the cover of darkness. These wouldn’t all be professional craftsmen, most of these people were regular farmers who sought to protect their homestead.

Well, that shut us up. For a little while. Some were still incredibly odd.  Following this was another moving exhibition on the mass deportation of Lithuanians. Maybe if they want to win Eurovision next year they should enters a song called ‘1941’. For me the worst piece of information in this exhibit was that there were deportation quotas. That if the deportation officers couldn’t find the family of “political enemies” on the list then they would just seize a random family to make up numbers. Where are the reparations for this?

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It was still before five so we went into our third and final museum of the day: Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania. This is clearly one of the newer museums, or at least very recently renovated, since you can still smell how freshly cut the wooden doors are.

Whilst the other two museums taught about the more recent history here it was all about the history of early Lithuania. The curious story of the politically motivated canonisation of St Casimir (Lithuania’s patron saint), how Lithuania used to extend all the way down to present-day Ukraine through Belarus and just how many royal houses in Europe (including the British Stuarts) ended up with blood ties to the Lithuanian line.

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It would have been nice to spend more time here, but there was some presidential function going on so there was security on our tail to make sure we were out of the museum by 10 minutes before closing. Still, we got a potted history that I am going to try and follow up on when I get back to the UK.

For dinner it was Bunte Gans, a German restaurant near the Gate of Dawn. We reserved a table here on our first night in Vilnius and 4 nights later she was able to call us by name without checking the book. She was possibly the nicest waitress I have had in any restaurant anywhere and there was no way (other than a very large tip) for us to thank her on places like TripAdvisor.

List Item: Try half of the combined 1001 food booksFood item: Carp

For starters it was deep fried carp strips with a chilli sauce. I have never had carp before, but I swear you can almost taste the freshness of the water it was swimming in. It’s not too fishy and almost a generic white fish taste mixed in with generic flatfish. It’s very nice though and hope to try some fillet of carp in the future.

Progress: 904/933

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For the main it was weißwurst with sauerkraut and potatoes fried with onion and bacon. I could bring myself to eat these the proper way by sucking the meat from the skin. Doing something SO phallic in public made me feel a bit too self aware.

We worked out at the end of the meal that all our food, train and bus tickets, museum entries and opera tickets cost just under 150€ for five nights. That’s without being too careful of money. It’s insane when you think about it.

When we left the restaurant the waitress came up to and asked “same time tomorrow?” to which we mournfully replied that We were travelling back to England in the morning.

“See you next year then, yes?” I hope so. It would be wonderful to be back for the Christmas markets in 2017. I can not overstate how amazing this country has been and how hard it is to leave.

Thank you Lithuania. It’s been great.

The Great EU Quest: Lithuania – Vilnius Old Town

Since this is just how things work out when booking time off, today was the first of two full days that we spent in Vilnius itself. It has to be noted that if you mainly wish to explore the old town (which is rather large for an old town) and the immediate surroundings there is no need for public transport. I was very close to buying a Vilnius Card to try and remove the hassle from public transport… but there really is no need to do so.

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Despite the classical surroundings of churches and beautifully stuccoed buildings it is hard to escape the feeling that Vilnius is a very young city. When you are in the fringes you will see a lot of murals, some of which take up the whole wall of a building. Of course when I saw this picture of Putin and Trump sharing a disgustingly wet kiss I knew that I would have to post this online.

It is also difficult to deny that there is still an underlying cultural scuffle between the Vilnusians who have completely rejected anything Russian (minus religion) and those who are able to accept it, albeit in smaller doses.

Then again, this is a city that recently celebrated 1000 years since being founded and has been invaded and occupied on numerous occasions. Russians, Poles, Napoleon, Germans and Swedes have all taken turns in making this city their own. It is therefore completely understandable that this country has a tremendous sense of national pride for their, still newly found, independence.

Also, the volume of EU flags that you see being displayed the town centre is almost akin to what I saw in Luxembourg. Their inclusion in the European Union and NATO within early 2004 (after just over adecade of independence) must have been the ultimate act of of recognition for this small Baltic nation, something that looks like is still deeply felt.

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We started our day of exploration at Vilnius Cathedral – one of those places that has borne the brunt of Soviet ire. Stalin had this Catholic cathedral turned into a garage for army vehicles. The three statues on top were torn down and destroyed (replaced by replicas in 1996). It is mainly thanks to the number of paintings inside and the unique neoclassical building style that this building was turned into an art gallery before being fully reinstated as a cathedral.

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When we first arrived there was a mass on (it was Sunday after all) so we had to make a return visit later in the day. It really did feel like an art gallery inside of a church with wealth of paintings on the walls. The real highlight was the baroque chapel of St Casimir. At the time it cost 0.5 millions gold pieces to produce! There are elaborate frescoes and marble work all over the chapel… to this Saint who devoted his (25 years of) life to charity work.

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In the cathedral square itself (which is huge) there is a slab known as a miracle stone. Here you turn 360 degrees and make a wish… but it won’t come true if you tell people the exact location (so hard cheese readers, I want my wish). The stone marks the end of a chain of people 2 million long that stretched from Vilnius to Tallinn via Riga in the late 1980s as an act of Baltic solidarity. Yet another poignant reminder of the recent past.

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After the cathedral we moseyed on up to the Gendimo Tower. It stands on a hill looking overlooking all of the old town and is a great place to snag some pictures. It is also one of those places that you can see from most locations in the Old Town, the Lithuanian flag proudly flying in the cold June breeze. The walk up isn’t too steep, but very cobbly. This is why we opted to pay the 1€ for the funicular railway down. Also, that was fun.

It was lunchtime and instead of opting for something too heavy we sought out some coffee and cake. Unfortunately a lot of people had the same idea, so a lot of places were full. We managed to get a table in Soprano and, yes, I had ice cream for lunch. It was basically a deconstructed banana split and it was gorgeous.

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A brief rainstorm later and we did some more church hopping. The first was the gothic St Anne’s church. The outside is a feels compact and yet imposing with its deep red brickwork. The arrangement of the bricks really make this church stand out – to the point that when I first saw this from the tower I really wanted to find out what this structure was.

The inside of St Anne’s was equally beautiful, just in a very different way. Ornate carvings depicting the stations of the cross and the incredibly detailed altar called to mind the Neumunster church in Luxembourg.

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The final Catholic Church we visited on the day was St Casimir’s, a church dedicated to Lithuania’s patron saint (conveniently located opposite our hotel). It’s massive on the outside with a large crown donning one of the spires. Inside it is a masterpiece of marble. I know I have been to visit enough churches that I should no longer be stunned, but the variety of marbles and the quantity of it that must have been used to construct the columns… well it boggles the mind.

On our old town walk I was able to get my first glimpse at the inside of some Russian Orthodox churches. In all three of them I was presented with the same question: where do worshippers go during a service? As far as I could see there were no seats, meaning that it’s either a standing or a sit on the floor affair.

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Also, the sheer number of pictures (or should I say icons) felt incredibly oppressive; something that is the complete opposite of the lovely outsides. The weirdest thing I saw on this day came in the Russian Orthodox St Nicholas church. For whatever reason they had placed colour changing LED crosses above three of the more prominent icons. It was like visiting that one person on the street who goes a bit too far with their Christmas decorations,

With opera tickets for 7 o’clock we needed to get in an early dinner. I had already clocked the TripAdvisor recommended restaurant Forto Dvaras during our earlier walk so that’s where we headed. Now, seeing how Lithuanians tend not to be clock watchers when it comes to food, but eat when they are hungry (oh wise people of Lithuania) we were presented with a restaurant that had massive fluctuations between 5 and 6:30. It weren’t from packed to nearly empty to people having to be turned away.

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Once at the Forto Dvaras it was actually hard to pick what to have, so I went for another variation of the Zeppelin dumplings. This time they were fried and presented with a sour cream and crackling sauce. I was in heaven. I had a try of the Gypsy Steak meal too, which was a pork steak baked in the oven with pickles and sauces. Have I found my culinary homeland? Only a family tree will prove otherwise!

List Item: Try half of the combined 1001 food booksIMG_3361Food item: Baumkuchen

I came to Lithuania with one piece of food to find: and here it is in all its glory. The waitress was kind enough to let us know that one portion was big enough for two… and by gum she was right. It was a lot harder than I expected, having the consistency of a harder and less buttery shortbread. Having watched videos of how this was made (because in the week leading up to this trip to Lithuania I became mildly obsessed with the concept of tree cake) I was definitely not disappointed. Maybe one day I’ll learn how to make this.

Oh and the whole meal came to less than 20€. What is this pricing here!

Progress: 900/933

It was opera time. So we made a flying visit to the famous statues of the three muses outside the national drama theatre before heading straight to the opera house.

List Item: Listen to half of the 1001 Classical Works You Must Hear Before You Die
Progress: 4/501Title: Manon
Composer: Jules Massenet
Nationality: French
Year:
 1884

Manon is actually my second opera, but when I went to see La Traviata it was with school and in English. Therefore, I think it is fair to say that, 10 years later, this was my first real trip to the opera.

For 18€ apiece we had seats in the fourth row of the stalls, slightly left from centre. As in, nearly perfect seats with a complete view. The staggering of the rows helps with this, but we also only had older women in front of us so there was nothing we couldn’t see.

Whilst this opera was in the original French there were subtitles above the stage in both Lithuanian and English. Not Russian, not Polish, but English. Thank you again Vilnius for being so accommodating.

As for the opera itself, well it was 4 hours that just flew by. We were prepared to duck out at an intermission and just head back to the hotel. Nope. Utterly transfixed.

Everything in this production felt world class and like something that would have £100 of shown in the UK. The slightly modern stage production, which at one stage had Manon being lowered whilst clasping a bunch of balloons, worked brilliantly. Some of the more modern costume choices for the background women felt a little jarring at first, but in the world of opera you can get away with a lot before it feels out of place.

Despite being a famous opera of its genre all of the music was new to me. It was a fantastic score though and brought to life by two stunning leads as Manon and Chevalier. The woman playing Manon was particularly fantastic having to go from manic pixie dream girl to desperation in a heartbeat.

Where I liked Swan Lake I loved Manon. I honestly wonder if this trip to the  Vilnius Opera House has started something.

List item: See an opera
Status: Completed

The Great EU Quest: Lithuania – Arrival

List Item: Visit all EU countries
Progress: 14/28

I am in Lithuania. I don’t know why this is so hard for me to digest on this first night, but the idea of being in Lithuania is odd. When I stuck the “visit all EU countries” into my bucket list I would be lying if I said that I knew that Lithuania would I’ve crossed off before the likes of Spain, Greece, Ireland or Sweden.

Country: Lithuania
Year first visited: 2016

As I sit in this gorgeous hotel situated on a Vilnius town square (a hotel that has had guests such as Bob Dylan, Prince Charles and the Emperor of Japan, seriously how do I end up in these places) I can only be glad that my journey here is long over.

There is no way to sugar coat the fact that London Luton airport is a stress-laden craphole which lives up to the One Foot in the Grave episode title of ‘In Luton Airport No one Can Hear You Scream’. All trains getting there were either heavily delayed or cancelled and the number of people in the post bag scanning area add it feel like a game of sardines got wildly out of hand.

This is nothing compared to the flight. I have nothing against W!zz airlines as they were great. For a budget airline they had impressive legroom and I look forward to using them on future journeys to the likes of Slovakia, Macedonia and Latvia. However, as with all flights, we ended up in a child sandwich. The one sitting behind us was a Loud screaming child who kicked the seat for the vast majority of the 2 14 hour flight; the one sitting in front was jumping up and down, constantly playing with the tray table and the blinds.

We both got off the flight feeling highly stressed and in need of aspirin only to be faced with passport control. Three windows (one of which seemed to involved with the same couple for half an hour due to a documentation issue) and we got in at the same time as a flight from Minsk. You can guess how long the queues were.

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Still, once we arrived at our hotel it all melted away. I am always in Radisson Blu hotels for my work meetings, but this is the first time that I have actually stayed at one. The view from our window has St Casimir’s Church to the right and the Town Hall (with the accompanying square) to the left. Looking at it right now, all I can is that Vilnius is a beautiful place.

Obviously we arrived absolutely starving so we ventured around the local area to find a restaurant.

List Item: Try half of the combined 1001 food booksIMG_3352Food item: Wędzonka Krotoszyńska

One thing I have learned from doing this food list is that a lot of these Eastern European dishes are widespread and just known by different names. The case in point is this smoked pork loin meat. It has this name in Poland after the town of Krotoszyn, but we had the Lithuanian version of it as part of this platter. It went really well with the sweet dark rye bread.

Progress: 899/933

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Any chance at desserts (which would have been honey cake) was utterly destroyed by the main course. We had not banked on the very large portion size of either meal… especially those large zeppelin shaped potato dumplings stuffed with meat. Maybe I’ll be able to grab a food list dessert tomorrow in the form of either honey cake or baumkuchen.

If the few hours we have so far had here say anything, I cannot wait to explore this country over the next four days. If only we had longer here.