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krisek Vilnius - A travel report by Krys
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Vilnius,  Lithuania - flag Lithuania -  Vilniaus Apskritis
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krisek's travel reports

Historic capital of Lithuania on a cold weekend.

  7 votes
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I was lucky with Vilnius. It was very sunny with cloudless sky. Albeit, the city was dug out terribly and the temperature dropped below zero too much for my liking, but visibility was perfect and I liked the good condition of the majority of the monuments

The symbol of Lithuania. Ruins of a castle.
The symbol of Lithuania. Ruins of a castle.
I went to Vilnius for a weekend in autumn. It was long overdue. Unfortunately, it was a little cold and almost the entire poor city was under construction. Half of the streets were dug out. I guess I should have gone there in the summer, but I could never decided on the right moment and there were always other priorities, particularly for the far flung places. And in the summer the streets might have been already dug out. I do not know.

Vilnius was not too bad. Not too bad at all. I struggled a little with identifying nice places for a warm-up drink initially, but it was great discovering, wandering around the city, particularly the old town. It was inscribed by UNESCO in 1994 with the following justification: "Political centre of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania from the 13th to the end of the 18th century, Vilnius has had a profound influence on the cultural and architectural development of much of eastern Europe. Despite invasions and partial destruction, it has preserved an impressive complex of Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and classical buildings as well as its medieval layout and natural setting."

The capital of Lithuania has a great history indeed. The origins are not entirely clear. Certain sources claim that it was founded before 1250s, when Mindaugas was crowned King of Lithuania in Voruta. Other sources state however that it was not until the Grand Duke Gediminas moved out of Trakai to Vilnius and built a stronghold there in 1320s. Anyway, it was under Gediminas when the city gained increasingly more importance. Then two Polish kings, Władysław II Jagiełło, aka Jogaila in Lithuanian (who had to convert to Christianity in order to marry the female king of Poland Jadwiga, creating the United Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania, aka the Commonwealth, in 1385), and Zygmund II August in the 16th century contributed to the city's greatest development.

Much of this history is evident in Vilnius, including the sad Soviet occupation. It is truly a remarkable place.

Favourite spots:
The Cathedral
The Cathedral
The old town of Vilnius is the city's focal point. It is its main attraction. The old district is not large, and it can be explored by foot in the space of few hours. Many facades of the old mansions and terrace houses have been restored and they look superb. It was the cathedral (pictured opposite), the square in front of it, the tower beside it and the statue of the Grand Duke Gediminas, who ruled Lithuania between 1316-1341 and made the country one of Europe's most powerful and influential states at the time. The facade of the cathedral looks like en entry to an ancient Greek temple. But the rest of the building seems awkwardly lacking harmony with the grand portal. And this is what makes the entire structure special, unique and unforgettable. The triangular pediment and the supporting columns are so bright and perfectly proportioned that they look delicate. The three sculptures on each corner make the cathedral even more special.

What's really great:
Old town
Old town
I seems that the capital of Lithuania in late September is calm. If it ever receives a wave of tourists, it appears that it does not happen in the autumn. This leaves streets fairly uncrowded and free for browsing. The mornings are of course the best. Particularly on a weekend. The sun is still low making the colours nicely saturated. The beauty of the old town is nicely emphasised and emptiness of the public spaces leaves nice eerie ambiance.

Since Vilnius used to be part of Poland or the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth for a few centuries and then again briefly between the World Wars, it shows typical Polish style in the architecture. It was so interesting to see that. For me it was like walking in parts of Warsaw or Krakow. It was a little weird and special at the same time. Of course Vilnius carries similarities also to a few other countries from the neighbourhood, like Russia and Germany. The very Lithuanian touch is the Gediminas Tower, remains of once great castle.

The 'Sharp' Gate
The 'Sharp' Gate
Although the first defense structures in Vilnius were erected by Gediminas in the 14th century (made from wood), it was the Lithuanian Duke Vytautas the Great (before he became a Christian and was baptised Jogaila, and later became Władysław II Jagiełło, the king of Poland), who built the Upper Castle of brick. And the Gediminas Towers is the last remains of it.

The old town is full of lovely little (and medium-size) churches, narrow lanes and hidden squares, mansions, terrace and tenement houses, and small fragment of the old city walls. The most prominent and famous gate is the Gate of Dawn (Ausros Vartai), the only intact of the nine gates that once surrounded the city. The gate was mentioned by a Polish romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz, who was born in Lithuania, and apparently miraculously saved by God's Mother, whose portrait hangs in the gate, in Poland's epic book-size poem "Pan Tadeusz".

Vilnius has an interesting Jewish quarter, complete with ghettos, synagogue and a museum.

Ramada Hotel
Ramada Hotel
There are many hotels in Vilnius, fit for all budgets - ranging from glamourous five star establishments to post Soviet workers' hostels. Many Lithuanians also rent rooms across the city.

I stayed at the mid range the Zhaliasis Tiltas (eng. Green Bridge) on the corners of Tiltas, Zhygimantu and Vilniaus gatves - whose official street address is 2 Vilniaus gatve. The hotel has also a sister venue on the prime Gedimino prospectas, an avenue full of expensive boutiques, stores and hotels. The one I chose, close to the river, is adequate. It is nothing terribly special, but clean and professional. The personnel is polite and helpful. It is also pretty central, just five minutes walk to the cathedral. It is also in a safe part of the town, also for those who want to stay out until wee hours of the morning. The rooms are fine and the en suite bathrooms well scrubbed, fit for a business hotel even. Probably not the best value for 180 litai (€50), but not overly expensive for what you get.

Old Town by night
Old Town by night
As many pubs and drinking holes in the old Vilnius are 'hidden' in the basements and cellars, it is rather hard for a first time visitor to find a decent place to go out. Without local help, or a map with the spots indicated it, is hit and miss. Some of the cellars are a great combination of a pub and a restaurant, many serving Lithuanian and Polish-Lithuanian dishes. The best street to start looking is Pilies running from the cathedral towards the classical townhall. The street then extends beyond under a different name (Aushros Vartu) all the way to the Gate of Dawn. This is where the cellars are most popular.

The other, more night-clubbing scene, is the Gedimino. One of the better pubs-cum-clubs is the Brodvejus Pub. It is also a restaurant. It is amazing how quickly it converts from a quiet eatery to a lively bar/club. The best thing about nightlife in Vilnius is that it is generally safe anywhere, and many very popular places do not have cover charge.

Adam Mickiewicz, greatest Polish poet, monument
Adam Mickiewicz, greatest Polish poet, monument
The Gediminas Hill is probably the best way to recover from the long and late nights in Vilnius. The walk up the hill is gentle (just 48 meters of mean altitude) and the tower on top is open for public. The morning view from the tower covering the entire old town and beyond is great to reflect on the capital and an interesting exercise trying to identify movements from the night before. This is not so much of a classic hangout spot and rarely a place to hide, as the hill is frequented by both tourists and the locals. It is definitely the most important spot in the country. This is where Vilnius was founded and the history of Lithuania as a great empire kicked off, probably.

In the autumn, when temperatures drop considerably, people hide indoors, but the number of obvious cafe spots to lounge is not that great. Fortunately, when the city is relatively empty there is plenty of spaces in those cafes that do exist. Double Coffee is among the best known ones.

University of Vilnius
University of Vilnius
For an atmospheric dinner, it is best to head to one of the medieval cellars of the old town. They are the best. Not always the cheapest but always the most professional and they serve Lithuanian traditional cuisine. Again, Pilies and the Gate of Dawn streets are best. Two examples of very traditional restaurants (and very popular among the locals and expats alike) were: Forto Dvaras and Pilies Mene. Both are great with superb food - the rustic bread is absolutely the best ever, and they serve local beers (Avilys, Kalnapilis, Svyturys, Utenos).

The second most popular type of place to eat in Lithuania's capital is a pizzeria. It is almost impossible to say how many pizza places there are and even some of the traditional national restaurants would add pizza to their menus. In addition to the Italian and American styles pizzas the country developed its own style of the dish. It is based on thin crust, small amount of tomato sauce, and cheese and bread, with ketchup served in a small jug.

Other recommendations:
Lithuania is a small country and the constantly improving infrastructure makes travelling relatively easy. Trakai (aka Troki in Polish), about 30 km west of Vilnius, is amongst the most popular day trip destinations from Vilnius. The town, or rather a village nearby known as Old Trakai (aka Stare Troki) used to be Lithuania's capital. It boasts a great [restored] castle on an island and ruins of even earlier stronghold on a peninsula. Trakai was built and rebuilt by Lithuanians, Poles, Jews, Russians, and even Karaims and Tatars. Now, the Trakai Historical National Park preserving the memory of Lithuania's statehood, is Europe's only historical national park. There are many grand examples of wooden architecture as well as mansions from the times of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It is set in the lake country. There area about 200 lakes nearby, making the area one of the most picturesque in Europe.

Published on Sunday December 14th, 2008

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Sun, Dec 14 2008 - 02:08 PM rating by pesu

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