Sep 14 2011
For my first full day in Vilnius, I criss-crossed the cobble-stoned Old Town marveling at the fanciful Baroque architecture and the many beautiful churches whose steeples and bell towers reach for the sky. It took only a few hours to see the highlights and so with a sense of accomplishment I stopped to rest in a cafe. If it were a few years earlier and I were on my massive post-college eurotrip this probably would have been my enduring memory of the city and the entire extent of my Lithuanian experience. This summer, however, I opted for more in depth travel. I flew in and out of Warsaw, but otherwise spent all my time in Lithuania. I had enrolled in a four-week Yiddish program. Classes were held at Vilnius University, which was founded in 1579 making it one of the oldest universities in Eastern Europe. We had two sessions of class in the morning and in the late afternoon we had lectures and guided tours of the city. Every week we had an excursion. On one occasion, we were led to the forest outside the city by a Jewish partisan of the Second World War. In Yiddish, she spoke about what life was like in Vilnius before the war, her escape from the Ghetto, the daily struggle of living and fighting in the woods, and how she rebuilt her life after liberation.
Each day, I made time to wander aimlessly about the Old Town. The winding medieval alleys always seemed to drop me off somewhere unexpected. There were hidden courtyards filled with hanging laundry and playing children. A spiraling staircase in a bar might lead deep underground to a musty-smelling cavern filled with the sounds of lively conversation and beer running from the tap. There was an old abandoned church not too far from the center. Sometimes a flock of birds would suddenly swoop from one of its opened windows. I popped in a store which sold only ladies’ gloves. They were soft and came in all colors from the bold autumnal reds and oranges to the wintry pastels of pink and blue. In a chocolate bar, I tried ginger and chilli pepper covered in chocolate. Then there were the places, which for a few weeks at least, I became a regular. For dinner I fell in love with a simple Chinese restaurant, which served a delicious vegetable fried rice. My favorite cafe was so small it served just coffee and pastries and had only two cramped seats. But they faced a floor-to-ceiling window on a busy pedestrian street and it proved a great place to people watch. Two rivers snake through the city of Vilnius and small hills provide stunning views of the red-roofed and many steepled Old Town.
Roughly the size of West Virginia and with a population of about three million, Lithuania may be a small country even by European standards, but much like its capital, there is a great deal to be explored. Lithuania has been influenced by Germans, Scandinavians, Poles, and Russians. Yet Lithuania has managed to retain its own very distinct character. Lithuanian is the closest living language to the Proto-Indo-European language. The Lithuanians were the ones to finally defeat the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Grunwald. Lithuania was the last European country to be Christianized. The Soviet Republic of Lithuania was the first to declare independence from the U.S.S.R. These facts are not only fun trivia, but they really show something about Lithuanians’ strong sense of freedom and the resilience of their beautiful culture.
Vilnius is a lovely city, but I decided that I wanted to see more of this great country. About thirty to forty minutes outside Vilnius is Trakai, a gorgeous castle on an island. It is possible to get tours of the castle, but an even better use of time might be to simply go boating around the castle, soaking up the sun and scenery. An hour and a half from Vilnius is the city of Kaunus. There are very few tourists in Kaunus, but city is truly as charming as Vilnius. Through its center lies a long, tree-lined boulevard with cafes, boutiques, and crowds of promenading locals. On one end is a gigantic, pale-blue Russian Orthodox Church. The other end leads to the Old Town, Castle, and the junction of two major rivers. But perhaps my favorite getaway was to Klaipeda and the Curonian Spit. Klaipeda (formerly Memel) has German roots and is located in Western Lithuania along the Baltic coast. It is the perfect jumping off point for the Curonian Spit, which is a narrow strip of land comprised of forests, sand dunes, and beaches. All in one day I was able to go visit a city, town, forest, and sea. I even climbed Witch’s Hill, a hill covered with trees and large wooden sculptures depicting scenes from Lithuanian folk tales. But alas, one month was still not enough time. There were many more places I had hoped to see, but they will have to wait for now.Read more: Baltic Coast, Curonian Spit, Kaunus, Klaipeda, Lithuania, Trakai, Travel, Vilnius