On 18 June I left Warsaw, traveling to Vilnius Lithuania by overnight bus. I would have preferred to have traveled by train, but the only direct train to Vilnius went through Belarus, and passing through Belarus requires going through a lot of bureaucracy to get an expensive transit visa. So most people go by bus. I don't think Vilnius is a popular tourist destination. Nobody on this bus spoke English. Neither did the Polish guard who checked my passport at the border. He didn't like the worn look of it so took it with him. The bus waited at the border until some paperwork was accomplished, then started to take off before I got my passport back. I yelled "Stop", the driver hit the brakes, and I said something about my passport and started fumbling with my Polish-English dictionary. Fortunately the person sitting behind me had seen the guard take my passport and explained it to the driver. The driver sent his assistant to get my passport and we took off. Here's an important tip if you're going to do a lot of traveling--get a good passport cover. Some guards don't like passports in poor condition.
I arrived in Lithuania early on Monday morning on June 19. My first two nights I got a room at Mikotel Hotel for 120 lita (Lt). The Lita is pegged at four to the U.S. dollar, which makes conversion easy. Average pay in Lithuania is a little over $100 a month, but that doesn't translate to cheap hotels. I took a long nap to make up for the overnight bus trip. Many guidebooks advise saving money on rooms by traveling overnight. I find this to be a false savings, especially when traveling by bus. The first thing I want to do the day after one of these overnight trips is get some sleep.
I walked around Vilnius on late Monday and Tuesday morning without seeing anything too impressive. My guidebook said that the Lithuanian Youth Hostel in Vilnius would arrange entertaining tours of the countryside, so early afternoon on Tuesday I went looking for this Hostel. On my way I met a group of rowdy Australians (is "rowdy Australians" redundant?) who pointed me in the right direction. This was fortunate since the entrance is hard to find. Also finding a mob of Australians often means interesting things are going to happen.
The Hostel was a construction project in work. The manager, Livius, told me they were no longer doing tours because the renovations were taking all their time. He did have a single room for rent, though. I went with him to check out the room, and on the way I passed a lot of disheveled, unsteady, but happy looking backpackers. The room wasn't much but it was only 70 Lt a night, and the place looked like fun. I took the single. Only Youth Hostel Association members were allowed to stay, so I am now a card carrying member of the Lithuanian Youth Hostel Association. I'm so proud. This proved to be the smartest thing I did on the entire trip; I had a lot of fun and got a lot of useful information in this and other hostels.
I can't say there are fabulous sights to see and things to do in Lithuania. The most interesting thing there is the Hostel I just checked into, run by Livius with significant help from Egla. Livius is a moderately large, fuzzy, energetic and friendly man who greeted every visitor in their native language. He was vague on how many languages he spoke, but in addition to English I'm sure he had all the Nordic and Baltic languages covered, along with most of western Europe, Russia and Japan. His policy was that there was always room in the dorm, and the dorm was anyplace he could fit a mattress. I saw some mattresses in strange places while I was there. Dorm beds were cheap, but I was glad I got a single room.
Egla was Livius' sixteen year old cousin. She was cute and assertive--she had no problem giving orders to customers. She also did not hesitate to delegate. One afternoon she was invited out to supper, so she told a guest to watch the place while she was gone. I think he was Finnish; he looked confused and asked what he should do if anyone wanted a bed. She said to tell them she'd be back in an hour. Ninety minutes later he was still there and still in charge. If someone wanted to write a book on how to run a Hostel they should go to the Lithuania Youth Hostel to learn what not to do. But somehow everything worked out fine and everybody was happy.
Vilnius would not make a list of great cities of the world. It isn't a bad place, just unexceptional. But the people there are really friendly. There are lots of college students who like to practice their English, lots of bars that are quiet on the street level but have all night dance parties going on in the basements, and an excellent selection of beers, some of them really strong. It's a good idea to check the labels before drinking the beer. One day I picked up a half liter bottle of beer at a sidewalk store and was drinking it on my way to supper (you can drink in public in most of Europe) and started to feel light headed. I checked the label and saw that it was 9% alcohol, almost as strong as wine. It hit quick on an empty stomach.
Lithuania also has tall people, both men and women. I think it was the Lithuanian basketball team that gave the U.S. team a scare during the Olympics. There were many tall, attractive women that attracted a lot of attention. In the Hostel were two Austrian men who unabashedly announced they were there for the women. I don't know if their original intent was to find wives, but one was up to the "meet the parents" stage before I left. A lot of Scotsmen go wife hunting in Estonia and I met American men in St Petersburg on tours arranged by a Russian/American lonely hearts businesses; perhaps Lithuania is the place for Austrian men on the prowl.
I was in Vilnius from 20 to 27 June, so I was there during the Summer Solstice. Since Vilnius is at about 55 degrees latitude (check the globe, that's way north) this meant I had really long days. It would get dark around eleven in the evening and the sun would rise between two and three in the morning. This, combined with friendly people, good beer, and interesting things going on, made it difficult for me to maintain a responsible schedule. I didn't really try. Also, this meant I was there for Vilnius' Summer Solstice festival. The festival was split between two locations: On an open field north of the Neris river, there were folk dances and traditional food, costumes and crafts. South of the river there was an all night outdoor concert with local bands and lots of beer. I did a quick walk through of the traditional stuff then headed for the music and beer. I met people from the Hostel, lost track of them, drank with strangers who didn't speak English, bumped into Hostel people again, and went back and forth this way a few times. To be honest it's all kind of hazy. I do recall hearing "YMCA" and "Living on Tulsa Time" being song in Lithuanian. "Tulsa Time" survived the translation quite well.
Vilnius has good restaurants with good prices, but the most memorable place I ate at was Ritas. When Lithuania was part of the Soviet Union Ritas was the bomb shelter beneath one of the government buildings. Now it's an American style restaurant where they have free refills on the coffee and play oldies over the sound system. I enjoyed having bacon, eggs and lots of coffee while listening to Don Maclean's "American Pie" in a Soviet bomb shelter.
That's a vague summary of what I did in Vilnius. Now here's the pictures.
I'll start with a shot of central Vilnius from Gedimo Tower, one of the old cities defensive towers.
Below is the television tower that you see in most cities that were under Soviet control. Television towers often were focal points for protests against Soviet rule. In March 1990 Lithuania declared the Soviet Union's 1939 annexation of the country invalid, becoming the first Soviet Republic to declare independence. Estonia and Latvia quickly followed in declaring independence. The Soviet Union held back for a while, but at this television tower in January 1991 a crackdown on the independence movement by Soviet troops and paramilitary police killed 14 people. The independence movement persisted, the Soviet Union dissolved, and Lithuania was an independent country before the year was over.
Vilnius is still renovating itself after the Soviet days. The contrast can be quite stark.
Strangely enough, this is the only Frank Zappa Memorial I found in Europe. Maybe I didn't look hard enough in the other places.
I saw my first Eastern Orthodox church in Vilnius. I can't remember which one this is, but I like it. It isn't as somber as most churches.
Saint Peter and Saint Paul Cathedral is kind of small by European standards. However its' interior of white stucco, sculpted in the late seventeenth century, is the most unique and, in my opinion, the most beautiful of all the cathedrals I saw.
The only part of Lithuania I saw outside of Vilnius was Trakai Castle, which is just a short bus ride from Vilnius. It is a restored fifteenth century castle of no great historic importance, but it looked really pretty sitting on an island in a lake.
That's it for the Vilnius pictures. On 27 June I checked out of the Lithuania Youth Hostel, changed some money to roubles, and boarded an overnight train to St Petersburg Russia.