Yes, that was one of the several questions I was asked by my friends when I announced my upcoming travel plans. I pulled out the Lithuanian flag from Google and asked them where they thought Lithuania was located.
“Africa?” was one of the answers. People often get confused as Lithuania somewhat uses darker shades of Pan-African colours similar to that of Ghana, Ethiopia, Benin, Senegal and many other African countries.
Well, to clear any doubts –
It is the Geographical center of Europe! It is one of the three Baltic countries along with Latvia & Estonia and it shares borders with Belarus, Russia, Poland and Latvia.
The Kingdom of Lithuania was once the largest country in Europe encompassing land from the Black to the Baltic Sea consisting of present-day Ukraine, Belarus and parts of Russia and Poland. In the 16th century, Poland and Lithuania formed a Commonwealth partnership which was successful for over two centuries. But this Commonwealth was disintegrated by Russian, Prussian and Austrian forces in the 18th century bringing unimaginable dark times for the country until 1990. During this period Lithuania was tossed between the Russian and German Empires – both exploiting Lithuania’s geographic location to further their conquests against each other.
Lithuanians have come a long way since their restoration of Independence from the Soviet Union in 1990 and is currently one of the biggest hubs for innovation and AI in the world. Nearly 65% of their GDP depends on the Services sector and is the largest economy of the three Baltic countries.
Here are my observations from my short one week journey through this incredible country in October 2018:
My route through Lithuania – Vilnius-Kaunas-Klaipeda-Palanga-Nida-Siauliai-Trakai Vilnius is the biggest and the capital city of Lithuania. It is home to several monuments, museums and is currently the city of choice for young Lithuanians. I wasn’t blessed with the best of weather during my week in the country and my photos might look a bit gloomy. Old Vilnius and the New separated by Neris River. “Nobody knows where it is, but when you find it, it’s amazing.” An extremely successful tourism campaign launched earlier this year claiming Vilnius to be the G-spot of Europe.
Old Vilnius is indeed special. It is creative as well as preserves the historical figures in the city. You’ll see this in my essay below:
Firstly, if in Vilnius, take a free guided tour held by qualified local guides which starts at the city center every morning at 10:00AM and 12:00PM. Incredible way to kick-start your journey in Lithuania and get a brief insight to the Lithuanian history. The Old Vilnius city center Cobbled streets and eighteenth century architecture adorn Old Vilnius. (Like any other European city?) There was a large Jewish settlement in Vilnius until the Nazi Germany took over and either killed them or drove them out. Until today many streets in Old Vilnius have directions and names in Hebrew. There are some streets with names in Braille as well! Every single street has something fascinating. Fancy a brunch here? Walls paying tribute to the literary scholars and their works on Lithuanian literature. One of the best ones I could find. Street art in Vilnius. This mural of Putin and Trump became an overnight success when the Keulė Rūkė restaurant owner unveiled it in 2016. He stated – “If Russia and the USA would ever make out, it would happen in the Baltic states … with tongues or with tanks.” If we’re talking about tanks, this is Vilnius’ former Mayor driving an armoured vehicle over illegally parked cars in the city! He will be running for the upcoming elections in Vilnius again. “Don’t make me come with a tank”. Citizens now use this as a warning outside their houses. Biking is encouraged throughout Lithuania with designated biking lanes in big cities and ticking counters calculating the number of bikes running everyday. Street market in Vilnius. They say – “No matter where you are in Vilnius, you can always see 2 churches.” There are 28 churches in just Old Vilnius (one for every 700 inhabitants!) St. Anne’s Church(prime example of Gothic architecture in Lithuania) being the most famous one. Gothic churches are usually huge but this is one of the smallest ones in Europe. Legend has it that when Napolean Bonaparte visited Lithuania during the Franco-Prussian war of 1812, he found this church so beautiful that he wanted to take it back to Paris with him ‘in the palm of his hands’. Lithuania celebrated 100 years of Independence earlier this year and their friendship with Ireland by dyeing the Vilnia river green on St. Patrick’s day. Don’t worry they did not pollute the river with chemicals. They used water-based environment friendly colours. (Image source: https://en.delfi.lt) Republic of Užupis makes Vilnius look even more trendy than it already is. A neighbourhood developed by artists in 1997 having it’s own flag, constitution, president, parliament(which is a cafe) and even an army of 11 men(now retired). There are pianos set up all around the neighbourhood. Even on the banks of Vilnia river. They believe Jesus was the first backpacker on Earth and hence this statue. #backpackwithjesus Well, if Vilnius has Putin-Trump mural, Užupis has this. When viewed from Restart Reality App, it appears to move and smoke a cigarette. (You can try it right now with this photo). And there’s this. Constitution of Užupis written in over 30 languages! “A dog has the right to be a dog”, “Everyone has the right to make mistakes”, “Everyone has the right to cry” are few of the rights you would have if you were a citizen of Užupis. Angel of Užupis Until 2 weeks before my visit to Lithuania, a cat named Ponilis was the Ambassador of Republic of Užupis and used to live in the Library. She died in a fatal car accident on the streets of Užupis and a funeral was held in her honour. (Image from https://www.15min.lt) The Museum of Illusions is a perfect way to escape the rain and have a fun time without leaving Old Vilnius. Lithuanians love potatoes. There are potatoes in almost every dish. This is Cepelinai (named after the Zepelin Airship). The center is filled with meat while the outer layer is made of mashed potatoes. It is served with cream and bacon on top. “Pink Soup” or “Cold Soup” is another famous dish from Lithuania. It is prepared with several veggies, boiled eggs, beets and buttermilk. Since, it’s served cold, it is mostly a summer dish for a hot warm day. But nothing beats Kepta Duona (Fried bread) with beer. Basically, Fried Black bread with garlic and cheese. I loved it so much, I’ve been making it every week since returning to Canada. In fact, one of my friends packed some for me before I left Lithuania (Thanks Monika!). Weissbiers and fruit beers are very popular in Lithuania. Pubs carry several varieties on tap. Busi Trecias pub in Vilnius. Restaurants and bars/pubs are inexpensive in Lithuania. You could find a meal for 4-6Euro and a drink for 1-2Euro. Lithuanian language is one of the oldest surviving languages in the world and belongs to the group of Indo-European family of languages. This means that it shares roots with Sanskrit. Currently, there are only 3 Million Lithuanian speakers but Lithuanians fought very hard against the Soviet oppression to save their language are very proud of their unique language. In fact, they also brag about their longest word which is 40 letters long – . nebeprisikiškiakopūstlapiaujančiuosiuose Gediminas Tower is the most important landmark in Vilnius named after and built by the Lithuanian Grand Duke Gediminas in 1400s. After having a dream of a steel wolf standing at this point and howling as loud as a pack of hundred wolves, the seer indicated this to be an omen and asked the Grand Duke to build a city in this place, which would later become famous around the world. The interiors of the Gediminas tower hosts a small museum showcasing ancient Lithuanian artifacts. The museum also exhibits history on the Baltic Way. Perhaps, one of the most interesting forms of protest against Soviet oppression when more than 2 Million people from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia came together to form a Human-chain 675Km long in 1989. The Baltic Way became a symbol of the universal goal of independence, unity and statehood of Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians. It drew attention from all the corners of the world and was added to UNESCO’s Memory of the World register in 2009. One of the best images from the protest. I was really curious about that weird drainage pipe on the banks of river Neris. “Is it something left by the Soviets?” I asked my friend. “Na, it’s just art!” was the reply. It acts as a frame for Gediminas Tower and is in the shape of river Neris. Lithuanians are divided over it as many find it ugly and want it removed. My hostel in Vilnius – Jimmy Jumps House located very close to the city center in Old Vilnius.
I was now headed West towards Kaunas and Klaipeda.
Vilnius – Kaunas train. First class seats on the upper deck and second class on the lower deck. Vilnius – Kaunas train (second class) from the inside. Vilnius – Klaipeda train (second class) from the inside. A bit more luxurious. (There are no direct trains from Kaunas to Klaipeda. So you’re first brought back to Vilnius where you change trains). “Without you, it’s just furniture.” Spotted at Vilnius train station. My primary mode of transport in the cities were these old, Soviet-styled buses. In Vilnius and Kaunas they run on electricity. (Thumbs up!) Orange bikes are the other way to explore Vilnius. English is not widely spoken by Lithuanians born before the fall of communism. But all government officials do speak English. So, buying train tickets is not a problem. Smiling might not be the best attribute of Lithuanians. The people are usually reserved and unlike in Canada, you would not receive any smiles on the streets. I could personally understand this as the country was occupied for over 80 years and the suffering that followed is still inscribed in their hearts which could make them seem unforthcoming. But, they are very helpful when required. I had an incident when a woman let go of her bus intentionally so that she could give me the correct directions. I also hitch-hiked one segment and it was not difficult to find somebody who would be ready to give you a ride. Inexpensive phone cards are available at local stores for 3-5 Euros offering 2GB of fast internet and 200 minutes of free calls. Lithuania is also the country with fastest internet speed in the world!
Lithuania was occupied by the Soviets in 1940 before being taken over by the Nazis and then eventually returning to the Soviets. During this time, hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians were killed or exiled to Siberia as slaves for the Soviet Union. Lithuanian books were banned and so were the Catholic crosses. After 45 years of fight for independence, Lithuanians eventually succeeded in 1990.
Kaunas Fortas IX or Ninth Fort was a part of the huge defense fortress constructed by Russian forces in Kaunas in the late 1800s. The Germans were able to defeat the Russian defense in 11 days. The fortress has a complex system of tunnels and barracks still preserved and open for tourists. It costs 3 Euro (1.5Euro for students) per head plus an extra 4 Euro if you require a guide. I would recommend a guide. The Nazis occupied Lithuania during the Second World War and these fortresses were used as execution camps for ethnic cleansing of Jews and PoW. Over 45,000 Jews were killed in the Ninth Fort by the SS. The Ninth Fort currently serves as a museum and this 32m tall memorial stands to commemorate the victims of Nazi brutality in Lithuania. Would highly recommend this traditional donut store in Kaunas named “Spurgine” running since the Soviet era. Klaipeda is the third largest city of Lithuania with a population of about 150,000 people. I did not have the time to explore Klaipeda to the best of my abilities as I was more interested in Palanga and the Curonian Spit but I could spot some creative buildings during my walk around the city. Spotted in Klaipeda. Not sure what the millennials would prefer.
Palanga is a beach town 45-minute bus ride away from Klaipeda famous for mainly two things –
1.The Amber Museum 2. And this bridge which leads to nowhere. (along with the beach) Only if the weather was better. The sea has sent Amber to the Baltic shores for centuries. People wake up early morning and search the beaches for Amber which they could sell and earn a living. I along with a fellow traveller(Raika) set out to find one for ourselves on a cold rainy day in Palanga. It didn’t go as we had hoped to. But we did end up finding 1 Euro and 4 cents on the beach – enough to pay for our ride back to Klaipeda. The Amber museum is housed in a 19th century palace in the middle of the Palanga Botanical Garden. The ground floor exhibits the history of the palace whereas the amber museum is on the upper level. Favourite pastime for Lithuanians – Mushroom picking. They literally have races and competitions for mushroom picking in autumn every year. When I first saw the Curonian Spit on Google Maps, I found it’s shape too perfect to be real and later became one of the main reasons for me to travel to Lithuania. I wanted to go and see for myself this unique landmass which is shared between Lithuania and Russia(Kaliningrad).
And Curonian Spit was one of the highlights of my trip.
Best way to explore the Curonian Spit is to hire a car using the CityBee App. It is possible to find a car for an entire day for 30Euros and leave it anywhere in the city at the end of the day. You can always find fellow backpackers/travellers in hostels who would be ready to split the cost. In my case, they were Edgar and Raika. Nida is the biggest and most famous town on the Spit and there is one single road that runs the entire length of the Spit from the point where the ferry drops you till Nida. Russian checkpoint post on the border of Nida. Walk from Nida town towards the famous sand-dunes of the Curonian Spit. Lithuania was one of the last pagan countries and thus a lot of pagan influence exists here. That is a pagan throne just chilling by the coast. The Curonian Spit is one of very few places on Earth where sand dunes meet the sea. It can be an expensive place in the summer with swarms of tourists visiting this UNESCO World Heritage Site. (The cost of the ferry from Klaipeda to the Curonian Spit costs 5 times more in the summer than it does in the off-season!). One of those spectacular views in Nida. The town of Nida as seen from the dunes. You can also spot the giant throne in the bottom-right. The Curonian Lagoon on the East coast of the Spit offers calm waters and some more dose of Lithuanian creativity. Curonian Lagoon coastline Hill of Witches was our next stop on the Curonian Spit. Edgar reclaiming his throne. There are no guides and there is no entrance fee. 15 minutes are enough to walk through the hill. Couldn’t really understand the history behind this or who maintains this site due to lack of any information desk. This spooky place is packed with several wooden sculptures of witches. Some weird ones too. Massive cemeteries are present all over Lithuania. Lithuanians believe that their ancestors deserve respect and the cemeteries are well constructed and decorated.
Up next, I was off to Siauliai to visit the Hill of Crosses with Edgar.
The Hill of Crosses has a very interesting story behind it’s origination. Although it has become a site of pilgrimage for Catholics from around the world, the first crosses here were put by protesters as a peaceful objection against the Orthodox Soviets in 1940s who would not let the Lithuanians practice their religious beliefs freely and the Catholic cross was banned. This site was bulldozed many times by the Soviets but Lithuanians kept returning with more crosses. It is estimated that nearly 200,000 crosses can be found here currently. Thus, making it a really unique site. An artist’s prayer for a better world? Nearly 80% of Lithuanians identify themselves as Catholic. Vilnius Christmas tree 2017 was termed “the most beautiful tree in Europe” as it was illuminated with 70,000 Lightbulbs. Magical! It is safe to say that Basketball is the second biggest religion for Lithuanians after Christianity. Unlike other European countries where football dominates other sports, Lithuanians live for Basketball. Many Lithuanians have gone on to play in the NBA and Lithuania is one of very few countries which have defeated the United States in the Olympics! Lithuanian countryside is usually deserted. The youth migrate to larger cities and Western Europe in search of a better income. Traditional houses in the Lithuanian villages. In cities, it is rather common for Lithuanians to live in such soviet-styled buildings. Trakai castle was the former residence of Grand Dukes of Lithuania. It is one of those touristy places because of it’s proximity to Vilnius. Constructed in the 14th century on an island which served as a strategic control point for the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. (Image source: https://exploretrakaivilnius.lt) The Trakai Castle from the inside has a striking resemblance to the Dzongs of Bhutan. It was Deja-Vu for me. The Great Hall of Trakai Castle. Trakai was a multi-cultural city back in early 1400s with Lithuanians, Germans, Russians, Jews and two Islamic tribes from Turkey – The Tartars and the Karaims living in peace. The castle exhibits the lifestyles of the Tartars and the Karaims. Traditional Lithuanian dress for women being showcased by my friend Samanta. And, a traditional tie for men. Lithuanians participate in dancing competitions where hundreds perform together in a local stadium. I spent my last evening in Lithuania with these lovely people as I was invited for dinner by Samanta(centre). Dessert time! Things on table – Wine, organic honey, lazy cake(Tinginys), Lithuanian vodka, Fennel seeds(saunf) and chai. Viola! And my week in Lithuania came to an end and now I was headed to China! (well, of course not on the train)
Backpacking in Lithuania was a fantastic experience and I’m glad I chose such a remarkable country. Vilnius is a unique, creative city where the residents enjoy a fine blend of work-life balance. Terming it as the “G-spot of Europe” was a clever but a successful strategy which has paid off for Lithuania as the country is seeing constant increase in tourism every year.
The weather could have been better but that didn’t stop me from visiting all the towns and cities I wanted to and more importantly, learn about the Lithuanian heritage. I met several backpackers in Vilnius but nobody had plans to explore the Lithuanian countryside and I couldn’t comprehend their reasons. Usually, travellers climb north from Vilnius towards Riga(Latvia) and the traffic towards the coast decreases. If you’re planning a trip to Lithuania, I cannot recommend the Curonian Spit and Lithuanian countryside highly enough. It’s a treasure waiting to be discovered.
Lastly, I would like to thank my friends Samanta and Monika who made this trip possible and supported me during my time in Lithuania. There are many more towns, villages and National Parks I would like to explore further and I’m confident that I will be returning to this country in near future. Maybe during the summer, maybe the winter. Until then, Ačiū and iki Lietuva!