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Michael’s Travel Diary

Monday, 17 Mar 2008

Location: Vilnius, Lithuania

MapFirst impressions of any city are generally taken from the airport you land in, and in the case of Vilnius, they pretty much got it right – small! It is a tiny airport, but we got in and out quickly, without even a stamp in the passport to show for it, which was admittedly a little disappointing. Before Potter could even pull out some cash (I had some from what I had changed back in London, at a rather unfavourable rate in hindsight) we were on a bus, without paying for a ticket, and headed for Vilnius, or so we hoped. We did try to pay for tickets, but the bus driver didn’t seem to want to take our money, and grunted, rather than spoke in any discernable language, so we climbed about and took a seat. Somewhat disconcertingly, we were the only people on a bus leaving the airport, supposedly to the city centre, with any luggage.

A somewhat tense 15 minutes passed – well, tense for me, Potter kept his headphones in and figured I’d sort it all out, I was back in the ‘motherland’ after all – when we appeared to be driving through the city. We’d missed the Old Town completely, and were suddenly crossing the city’s main river, the Neris. I knew this to be a problem, as both the Old Town and the airport were south of the river, so figured we’d gone to far and signalled for us to get off. Thankfully, it didn’t take too long for us to get our bearings, and we were on a quick march towards the hostel, making a quick pit stop at Maccas on the way. The rest of the first night was briefly detailed in the previous entry… go back and check that one if you like. But in short we went straight out, stayed out meeting locals and listening to interesting mixes of music until about 6 am when we decided to call it a night… or day.

The following morning, Sunday the 16th March, we dragged ourselves out of the hostel around 11 am and quickly grabbed a burger from the local burger joint next to the hostel. It was soon to become an indication of the diet that would be maintained over the 10 day trip… large quantities of beer, massive and hearty home cooked style meals and burgers when on the run. After burgers we did what we do best – wander aimlessly… sometimes it is the best way to see a city, and in a city the size of Vilnius, why not.

The first major thing we noticed were the number of people walking around with elaborate bouquets or grasses and flowers tied to sticks. They were everywhere, though admittedly, mainly carried by women. As we wandered east along Vokiečių gatvė we arrived at the back of the Town Hall and turned south and headed uphill between St. Teresa’s church which was overflowing at the seams, and Holy Trinity Church on the right, set back amongst the buildings. I thought as we approached that the Sunday sermon taking place in St. Teresa’s was being broadcast on the loud speakers outside the church, but it was in fact the service taking place about the Gates of Dawn. Above the last remaining gate into the Old City of Vilnius, there stands the Chapel of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and all the people in the street were looking up into the service taking place there. After being spritzed with holy water, we continued under the gate and outside the old city walls, and suddenly could breathe a little easier with the thinning of the crowd. We never did find out why everyone was carrying these bouquets, but there were being sold in front of just about every church on this particular Sunday, so I am sure it had some religious connotation.

We wandered around the outside of the Old Town walls, across some dodgy potholed roads, and passed some more ruins that were being excavated of the old fortifications. With not too much to see, we headed away towards ‘Sight’ (that’s what the tourist sign said) and didn’t see all that much! A nice view over Užupis, a self defined republic with a constitution that includes one can feel like a dog if they wish… though, still there wasn’t much of a sight. With snow beginning to fall we wandered back through back roads towards the Old Town and, like gravity, were somehow drawn to the casino?

It was only 2 pm probably, and in order to continue my collecting of casino chips, we headed in and played for about 45 minutes – strictly black jack. I finished about even, with a chip in my pocket, and Potter up 30 or 40 quid worth. From there we headed to the nearby St. Casimir’s Church. The entire front façade was covered in scaffolding – made of wood! It was a very hit and miss looking attempt. We wandered inside, figuring it was safer inside rather than anywhere near the scaffolding, and wandered around yet another church… they do start to all look the same.

From here we headed north to Gediminas Hill. Gediminas Hill is topped with a number of sights, not to mention the best place to see the rest of Vilnius from. The Gediminas Castle and Gediminas Tower, and across the ridge the Three Crosses are all at the top. It also looks directly over Katedros aikšte (Cathedral Square), which houses the Vilnius Cathedral and Royal Palace. Quite an amazing place, especially on a Sunday afternoon with the sun the sky, snow scattered on the ground, and church goers everywhere.

So, in order to get up there you can walk the path or take the funicular… given we came to the path first, are young and (somewhat) agile, we figured we’d save the money and walk the path. Unfortunately, the gates were closed, but that didn’t seem to stop the locals who happily climbed through a small gap in the fence and stepped over the tape saying not to pass… when in Rome… so we followed the locals up the hill. Eventually it became clear, a tree had been uprooted and some dirt had slid across the path, but there was no real reason to shut the path down, probably just trying to get more money from people riding the funicular!

The view across the plaza below was beautiful, even if interrupted by trees, and the remains of the Castle and the Tower were pretty cool too. Having seen our eyeful, and deciding we didn’t want to ride the funicular, we wandered back down the bath and snuck back through the gap in the fence. Then we wandered along the river and back up the hill from the other side to Three Crosses.

Three Crosses, are three white crosses that were erected on the hill to the east of Gediminas Hill in honour of three crucified monks. During Soviet rule, Three Crosses were destroyed and now the remains lie on the ground near where the new Three Crosses were erected. This site offered some of the best views of Vilnius, and we could see all the way across to the TV Tower where 14 civilians were killed on the 13th January, 1991 as Soviet troops stormed the building in retaliation for Lithuania declaring it’s independence from the USSR.

From Three Crosses we headed back down the hill and into Cathedral Square again, for a quick look in the Vilnius Cathedral. Inside they had a string quartet playing, and the entire place was decked with marble floors and Corinthian columns, looking more like a palace than a cathedral. It was quite spectacular, and one sight I will remember for a while.

From there we headed back up Gedimino prospektas and wandering back toward the hostel. A while later, as it was getting late, we headed out for a feed and ended up at a local restaurant where I ordered the kugulis, a traditional Lithuanian meal with lots of potatoes, and this variation had cheese and meat, and was topped with an optional sour cream and bacon sauce… incredibly tasty. We also ordered the ‘bar snacks’ plate of various locals feeds, hoping to find the deep fried bread and cheese dip we’d had the night before. Sounds odd, looked worse, but we both enjoyed it the night before, and couldn’t decided if it was because we were drunk or because it tasted good. In any case, it wasn’t on the bar snack plate, so we’d have to wait. The only thing left of the dinner was a piece of herring… I’d mistakenly figured I’d give it another shot, and came to the same conclusion I came to in Sweden (never again) and Potter decided not to try it at all.

As we were planning on hiring a car the following day and drive out to the last known place that my family descended from, we decided to play it cool on the Sunday night and not get too drunk. Instead of heading out to a club or anything, we figured we’d head back to the casino for a little gamble, get ahead and then head to Club Eden in the same complex – a less seedy looking club… of the gentlemen’s club variety.

Well the plan worked a treat, at some point both Potter and I must have been close to doubling up our starting stakes, somewhere in the 50 pound region. That was about the end of the good news. We were having a blast ‘chatting’ with the locals. One dealer was changed out and the next dealer would state what the total of the cards were in Lithuanian, while Potter and I counted on our fingers until one of the other gamblers at the table were kind enough to explain that we spoke English. From then on, the dealer would seamlessly switch from counting in Lithuanian and English, quicker than I could in either language.

Plus the waitresses were fantastic eye candy, but not as good as those working during the day surprisingly. They also had a great habit of not bringing change for your beers. We learned the lesson when Potter bought the first round for 13 Litas with a 20 note and got nothing back. From that point on it was 15 Litas worth of chips for each round. We stopped drinking around midnight, and for some reason despite being pretty sure we were consistently loosing, Potter kept arguing that we were up. That didn’t explain the 3 trips to the ATM and the phone call to his folks to ask them to cancel his suddenly missing credit card! I just thought he was constantly going to the toilet as usual!

I myself made a couple trips to the ATM, and at one point believed Potters propaganda that there was no way we could loose! We were playing draw poker against the house, and the dealer kept making errors. Anything in our favour we dismissed and happily took the payout. Anything going against us, we’d argue and make it right. For some reason though, our chips stacks kept sinking and we kept loosing… I have not idea how it happened. In the end a ‘couple hours’ turned into a 6 hour grind in which we both lost and headed off to bed at 4 am, alarm set for 10 am to make the journey to Vilkaviškis.

Alarm clock on my phone sounded at 10am and I jumped out of bed, and jumped into the shower, waking Potter up on the way. We both just figured we’d slept through the alarm clock as everyone else in the dorm room had gotten up and left, and the alarm seemed a long time coming. In the shower, it all fell into place… whilst the alarm had gone off at 10 am, it was 10 am GMT, 2 hours behind Lithuania! Potter had figured it out in the mean time and crawled back into bed to figure out how he lost so much money the night before and ponder the conversation with his parents.

Potter: Hi Mum, can you ring up and cancel my UK credit card.
P Mum: Are you OK, is everything OK, cough twice if you can’t talk. Are you being robbed?
Potter: Yes, by the casino..
P Mum: What?
Potter: I’m fine Mum, just lost my card, can you cancel it.
P Mum: Have you thought about where you last saw it?
Potter: Yes Mum, at the ATM, before loosing at the casino.
P Mum: Have you gone back to look for it?
Potter: I’m still there, trying to get more money to give to the casino, out and have lost my card…. Just cancel it…
P Mum: Are you being careful, the Baltics can be dangerous.
Potter: Bye Mum.

Given it had snowed heavy overnight, and it would be after 1 before we were out of the city centre, meaning 3 (at least) before we hit Vilkaviškis, we decided not to try taking on the snowy roads, and then returning to the city in the dark. Instead we headed to the bus station and took a day trip the Trakai.

Trakai was an hour out of Vilnius, and the drive was amazing… not much scenery wise, in fact it was flat, forested in parts and grass plains in others, and very little in terms of building after we left the city. The amazing part was the way people drove… I was happy I’d decided not to drive. The bus at one stage was over taking by a semi-trailer, which had to dive back into the lane, almost tipping, to avoid on coming traffic… it was quite bizarre. Plus some of the bus stops were in the most random places ever, just on the side of a highway without another road or house in sight.

Arriving at Trakai, I knew there was a castle on a lake, so figured if I found water, I’d find the castle. Well that didn’t plan out as we’d imagined, and we walked around the wrong part of the lake looking at the strange residences and boat for the best part of an hour. Eventually we came to the main part of town (a five minute walk up the main road instead of an hour around the lake away) and found our way to the Island Castle.

The red brick castle is built on a small island in the Lake Galvė, and accessible by a wooden bridge. The castle dates back to the 14th century when Prince Kęstutis ruled the area. His son, Vytautas completed the castle that he had started and died in it in 1430. It really is a fairytale picture castle.

Trakai is also home to a small group of Karaite’s, a rare religious sect originating in Baghdad, and practise strict adherence to the Torah. The Grand Duke of Lithuania Vytautas brought 380 Karaite families to Trakai from Crimea in around 1400 to act as his body guards. Less than 100 families still live in the area today, and around 280 in total are still in Lithuania today.

From there we wandered back into town and caught the bus back to Vilnius, arriving on dusk. For the life of me I can’t remember where we ate that night, but I do remember trying another traditional place and being turned away as it was too full. Eventually we ended up back at the hostel, and Potter crashed out. It seems the allergic reaction he’d gotten on the Friday was taking heaps out of him and he was sleeping like a crazy man. The rash on his face also wasn’t gonna do much but scare off the ladies as he put it.

I headed out with a few people from the hostel and headed to a pub/night club called prospekto pub, not surprisingly on Gedimino prospekto. Given it was St. Paddy’s day, and one of the hostel staff was Irish, we ended up having a few drinks and having a merry old time. I will say one thing though, the Lithuanian girls perhaps over danced… a lot of them seemed like they were trying out for a new position in the Pussy Cat Dolls, and kind of went a little (or a lot) over the top. But on the most part, they were attractive and had the bodies to pull the role off… At around 3 or 4 we called it stumps and headed back to the hostel in the snow… I’d have to be up in 4 hours to make the bus to Šiauliai.

We had it perfectly planned, get up, catch the first bus to Šiauliai arriving at 2 pm, and visit the Hill of Crosses, then head on to Riga on the last bus at 5 pm for the Tuesday night. Of course, in foreign countries, NOTHING goes to plan!

Stay tuned, more tomorrow with any luck.