If you are done with ticking off your list of ‘places to visit’ and suddenly realise that you have successfully turned out to be a copy-book traveller – going to places where others usually go, places which come up in every holiday conversations you are having at the cocktail party at the Smith’s or at the Kapoor’s. Or the places which had been alluring you for a visit everytime you had been flipping through the pages of your magazines. So if you have reached that stage of asking yourself ‘where next?’ then read on. Certainly you have experienced the better and brighter sights of the usual suspects in the list and also you don’t want to straight away venture into somewhere where nobody has ever been before. Or really so? In case you want to hear it from at least one person who has been there, seen that and done things – you are reading the right article as the time for you is just right to get ready and travel to discover Lithuania through our eyes.
Well it is true that our encounter with Lithuania, or Lietuva as they say in Lithuanian, was not really a love at first sight when we had heard about it from someone we know or when we had read about it in a lifestyle magazine or in any news. We are happy to admit that it was more like an arranged marriage which turned out to be an everlasting sweet and uncommon love affair – partly because that love has not been shared yet by Lithuania in abundance with the mass common travellers who flock to other European countries in their yearly holiday pilgrimages. Partly because we had little idea before finally putting our foot in Vilnius, the vibrant capital city, about with whom we were getting into a relationship into. So read on to accept our challenge to steal away the love of Lithuania from us, before everybody else does and it becomes just another European destination where almost every other traveller ends up going to.
I was invited to be a speaker at the Login 2011 conference to speak on human rights and digital technology. Tanusree accompanied me in this discovery. After a short and convenient air trip from London via Brussels, Vilnius welcomed us with a sunny but chilly reception in the March morning. The conference volunteer who was given the interesting job of being our eyes, ears and mouth while in the Baltic country was patiently waiting for us at the arrival lounge holding a placard with our name. Speakers at the conference were tagged along with interested student volunteers to help with getting around.
The short trip of around 20 minutes from the airport to the luxurious Hotel Congress in the heart of the city gave us the first impression where the young European Member state came from and where it was heading to since its ceremonious independence from the communist rule in early 90’s. The perfectly located Hotel Congress, just next to the river Neris, facing the National Opera and Ballet Theatre, five minutes from the famous Cathedral Basilica and a walking distance to the city center was all ideal to feel the pulse of the place so eager to please the new arrivals. The hotel suite was surprisingly way larger and imposing than our modest one bedroom apartment in London and the quick first peek at the bath confirmed the availability and abundance of elements for relaxation and rejuvenation.
After a quick freshening up, we were accompanied by Justina, the face of the Lithuanian youth force and personal volunteer guide, for a nice little stroll towards the old town in search of some Lithuanian delicacies. We walked past the glorious Cathedral Basilica turning to an alley next to the Presidential Palace and the Vilnius University. The proximity of important monuments and hallmarks was rather surprising and very unusual. The narrow alleys towards the old part of the town simply gave us a nice cosy feeling as our walk led us to a gastronomes’ delight uncannily under the banner of Cozy Restaurant. A must visit if you are to indulge into some continental and fusion recipes in the company of a great vibrant crowd in the nicely lit literally cosy ambience with English speaking staff serving you some of the finest cuisines in town.
Like any other European capital, Vilnius too had its shopping malls with designer show rooms lined up, hip and happening culture centers, theatres and discos. Don’t confuse the definition of luxury when you are in Vilnius, the beauty of the emerging capital cannot be found if compared with your usual top of the list destinations elsewhere in Europe. The city will tell you all its hidden stories, unfold all its mysteries from the Grand Duchy era only and only when you will walk slowly through the narrow alleys of the Old Town deciphering the murmurs between the walls of the Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and classical buildings and the blowing gentle Baltic breeze. As the narrow alleys will hand hold you while the storytelling will go on, you will discover near the Jewish area the true gem of Lithuania – the amber. You will look back at the walls of the Old Town and realise now why the colour of the walls looked like amber, that gentle yellowish-orange blend as if a Lithuanian sunset got trapped forever after in the natural stones. Don’t forget to grab a piece of the entrapped sunset in the form of amber necklaces, bangles, ear-rings or mere show pieces to shine in your living rooms or study tables.
By now you will have realised that comparing to other popular European capitals, Vilnius is smaller, and that is what makes it so easy to feel and live as you walk around. To really witness the love for freedom and culture of this city, do cross over the bridge over river Vilnia and step into the Uzupis district in the eastern part of the city. The Bohemian style artists, painters and performers of the city have exercised the colors of their creativity, imagination and liberty to have declared ‘independence’ of Uzupis on 1 April, 1997 thus having a ‘state within a state’ for artists. As you will walk past the colourful artisan workshops, you will not miss the constitution of the ‘neighbourhood republic’ where it clearly declares that ‘everyone has the right to love’ and where ‘every dog has the right to be a dog’. Such unique manifestation of liberty, art and freedom will even belittle the likes of Paris or Rome.
Time to venture out of Vilnius? Hire a cab and head to Trakai, the city situated between three lakes, just 28 km west from the capital Vilnius. There the jewel of Trakai – the Island Castle – awaits you with its grandeur. The magnificent 14th century stone castle, which is a must visit during your stay in the Baltic state, stands proudly on an island of Lake Galve. Cross the bridge that leads to the Gothic style monument and be lost in the midst of lovely wooden galleries, paintings of stained glass, murals and secret passages. Feel free to spend the whole day relaxing around the Island Castle boating or trying out some local food of the Karaites called Kibinai.
Surely while you will be driving back to Vilnius, the luxury bath that awaits you at Hotel Congress suite will be alluring you as you end your excursion in Trakai. As the sun will set as you enter back into the vibrant Vilnius, you will reflect on the Baltic surprise that Lithuania unfolded in front of you. The young nation, serious to make an impression and for attention chose you as one of the first few to go back and tell your folks that the new sun in the Baltic is rising from Lithuania tomorrow. So you decide whether you will keep sleeping while Lithuania shines or will witness its rise with your senses wide open early on.