A New Adventure
I’ve definitely been curious to see more of Eastern Europe ever since I visited Budapest last year and it seems like a no brainer on paper. There’s fascinating architecture, flights take around two hours and your money tends to go a lot further. Why am I not making the most of having so many countries on my doorstep?!
I’m fortunate to get a helpful nudge by way of a press trip every so often and sometimes it can be better to have no expectations or frame of reference. Lithuania was probably one of my most jam-packed press trips yet as we managed to cover the capital of Vilnius, dense forests in Anysckai and the sand dunes of Nida. Did I mention that I had my first ever hot air balloon ride?
If your knowledge of this Baltic country is a little rusty, then don’t worry. Lithuania is about 4 times smaller than the U.K and nestled in between Latvia, Belarus, Poland and the Russian province of Kaliningrad (I hadn’t heard of this either).
The country has seen massive economic growth over the past 30 years and is carving out a new identity after Soviet occupation. It has two independence days, as it was part of the Russian Empire until 1918, occupied by Nazi Germany during World War Two and then occupied by the Soviet Union from 1944 until 1989.
There’s hopefully exciting times ahead with a Lonely Planet ‘Top Ten Places To Visit In Europe’ accolade and lots of hotels being built. Also can we talk about the fried bread with cheese?! It’s a typical appetizer that you have to try and I’m now on the lookout for a decent recipe.
I was a guest of the Lithuania Tourist board with flights, accommodation & food covered.
I’m sure that most of you will be interested in Vilnius for a city break, as you can get flights for less than twenty quid and eat all the meat and potatoes your heart desires. It also helps that the city’s pretty compact, so even though we only spent half a day exploring, we managed to cover most of the impressive Baroque buildings of the Old Town. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and boasts a familiar blend of Eastern and Western architecture.
I always aim to find the creative (OK, hipster) areas when I travel and Užupis definitely has a lot of character. Our guide mentioned that it was similar to Freetown Christiania due to its bohemian nature, but this neighbourhood actually goes one step further since it’s technically a country within a city.
In 1997 Užupis was declared a republic by local artists (Independence Day is April 1st) and there’s even a constitution with gems such as ‘Everyone has the right to celebrate or not celebrate their birthday.’ Unfortunately we didn’t have long to wander around, but we did see some of the street art and taste tree cake at Coffee 1. Basically it’s a spiky cake that usually appears at weddings and I’d describe the taste as similar to shortbread.
Speaking of food, I didn’t know what to expect when it comes to Lithuanian cuisine and we probably had some of the more modern interpretations in Vilnius. Amandus is a great example. There seems to be a collective of chefs who work overseas and come back to reinvent Baltic cuisine. Everything was very inventive here, with lots of Scandinavian influences and a dry ice spectacular for dessert. I highly recommend the beetroot bread and whipped hazelnut butter.
We also had a lovely dinner at Ertilo Namas, where every course came with a story from the waiter. Although these examples are at the pricier end of the spectrum, you’re definitely getting a good deal compared to London for an expertly-crafted tasting menu. If you’re on more of a budget, then my friend Mary was also in town at the same time and noted that most mains were around €7-10. Milly also has a few recommendations, including a cute ‘dessert boutique.’
Looking for somewhere aesthetically pleasing to stay? It’s worth considering the new-ish Hotel Pacai situated inside an old 17th century mansion. I didn’t even know that gingham beds existed but now I want one. There’s plenty of exposed bricks mixed in with beautiful bathtubs and the cheapest rooms are around 130 euros a night.
Photogenic spots to check out: I’d definitely recommend the view from St John’s Church and wandering down ‘Literatų gatvė’ (or Literary Street). This is street art with a twist, as locals can apply to have their pieces displayed on the walls. The Church Of St Casmir is also the perfect shade of pink.
Once you’ve ticked off the sights of Vilnius, make sure you head to Trakai National Park for a completely different environment and cultural mix. You can probably guess that I was pretty drawn to all the colourful wooden buildings. The whole area is the old capital and where the Karaites (a community of Turkish descent) first settled 600 years ago. I wish I’d had time to try the traditional pastry Kibinai, which are apparently a bit like a Cornish pasty.
One thing I will never forget, is the hot air balloon ride that gave us perfect views of Trakai castle and the surrounding islands. Vilnius is one of the few capital cities where you can take off in the Old Town, but I’d definitely recommend seeing the National Park in this way. It’s definitely a lot cosier than you think in the basket (and I wouldn’t recommend wearing a flowy skirt that keeps getting caught up in the ropes), but a surprisingly calm experience as you feel like you’re just floating across the water.
Trains from Vilnius to Trakai take around half an hour, but make sure you check timings as they can be few and far between on certain days. Thankfully there’s a handy bus that will take you back to the capital for around €2.
After a spot of tobogganing in Anyksciai, bargain €3 lunch and night in a taxidermy filled hotel (!), we eventually made our way to the UNESCO World Heritage area of Nida. It’s a good few hours drive from Vilnius plus a ferry, so one to visit if you’re having an extended trip, but what you’ll find is one of the most unique places in terms of landscape and architecture.
The resort town sits on the Curonian Spit, which is a narrow strip of land formed by sliding sand dunes and human efforts at replanting the forests. Expect quaint German wooden houses, spooky carvings at the Hill of Witches and beautiful sandy beaches.
Nida is near the Russian province of Kalingrad so beware the texts from your network that say ‘Welcome to Russia, data now costs £20 per MB!’ In 2016 it was a bit of a cultural hotspot, when the town was transformed with a series of student art installations. Now it’s a great place to explore on two wheels and learn about folkloric tales.
On our way back to the airport we managed to make a flying visit (geddit) to Kaunas, which is the second-largest city and future European Capital Of Culture for 2022. There’s a real mix of Medieval, Art Deco and Renaissance architecture but what I really liked was all the street art and installations dotted around.
There’s even a place called Courtyard Gallery, which is open-air and free to visit. It’s all down to artist Vytenis Jakas, who noticed the abandoned yard when he moved into one of the flats. His curiosity led him to research previous inhabitants and discover their stories of community, before painting their portraits on the walls. Now it’s filled with a mix of pieces and local artists are encouraged to join in.
You also need to visit the traditional doughnut shop Spurgine, as its decor hasn’t changed since the 70s and it’s a bit of a Midcentury time capsule. Some of the flavours are a little different too, so you’ll find cottage cheese and meat fillings as well as the usual jam.
Dress – Y.A.S (old), Boots – Vagabond (old), Bag – Mansur Gavriel (affiliate link)
Where to next?
There’s definitely a few people at my coworking space who are putting me to shame when it comes to European destinations and I’m now curious to see more places that are a bit more underrated. The fact that places like Lithuania, Latvia and Albania are short-haul and affordable is definitely appealing plus I’m rather tempted by some of the multicoloured architecture that I’ve heard about. Perhaps I need to give myself a goal by the end of next year?