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Feb 2020 - Sveiki Lithuania

Updated: Nov 22, 2022

By this stage my ability to absorb new languages was failing and I'd often end up responding with some jumbled Italo-Franco-Bulgar-Ukrainski phrase. In any case "sveiki" was the new hello I needed to learn in Lithuania.

Sveiki - another simple language to master in a short period of time

I had paid extra (5 euro) for a near-front row seat on the flight from Lviv to Vilnius, capital of Lithuania, so I could get out fast (the plane arrived at night). Unfortunately the over-head lockers were so full by the time I got on that my bag had to be placed in Row 18. This meant I was literally the last person to get off as I had to wait for everyone to pass so I could walk down the aisle to my bag.... anyway, there's worse things in life.

It was a short bus ride from the airport to my Airbnb, which was again close to yet another UNESCO listed old town centre. Would I ever get sick of these old town centres? Unlikely. I briefly met the Airbnb host, an interesting character with eyes pointed in different directions and who wore a head-torch inside. Nice guy though and it was his talent that gave rise to this extraordinary Airbnb. Hard to describe this place.

The staircase to the second bed

The Airbnb dated to 1521 and adjacent the front door the owner built a glass cabinet into the wall full of artefacts found beneath the building including ancient keys and vases, as well as Soviet passports. Inside, the original 16th century arches remain intact and the place was full of sculptures, medieval features, and unique lighting ... there were so many light switches here that I never did discover what they all did. Some were unique e.g. the shower also had a built-in illuminated glass cabinet filled with artefacts and you could choose the colour of light by which to shower.

That first night I ate in a student pub nearby, pea soup with potato pancakes and craft beer. This place was later to give me moderate food poisoning. The following day started with a Free Walking Tour, this one being pretty full (25 people, mostly British as it was a long weekend in the UK).

Vilnius Cathedral

Not sure how many churches I'd seen by this point but it was a LOT

My first impression of Vilnius was actually one of wealth, a feeling that increased over the coming weeks as I got closer to Scandinavia. It's a beautiful city, even if the weather was a mix of rain, wind and temps around 5c. The people are also very fashionable. I really felt like a drifter in my faded black jeans, worn out hiking boots (the only pair of shoes I had) and nondescript hiking jacket.

The entire trip I had chosen to dress poorly to be less appealing to scammers and thieves because I'd been falsely convinced by the reputation of 'Eastern Europe' for crime etc. Turned out I felt much safer everywhere here than in any Western European city. Statistically this turns out to be true as well. Anyway back to fashion, I thought Western Europe was fashionable ... ha! ... then I went to Bulgaria, Ukraine, and now Lithuania. All much more fashionable, and tasteful (elegant dare I use such a word).

Standard decoration for a cafe...
Fashionable chap carrying surely something very artistic

Lithuania is an interesting country with complex history. It was the last country in Europe to adopt Christianity, being pagan until the 14th century - very late! Even now there is a small minority of practicing pagans. Vilnius also has a unique area in the city that has proclaimed itself an independent republic. Called the Republic of Uzupis, it has its own flag, currency, constitution, president and army (11 people). The constitution is quirky e.g. one must smile, and a cat has the right to be a cat. Uzupis is full of artists and my passport now has an entry/exit stamp for having visited this strange (unrecognised) republic.

The basic laws of Uzupis, smile, drive slow, do art, or otherwise

The Republic of Uzupis constitution in many languages
One of many interesting objects in the Republic of Uzupis

A day trip from Vilnius took me by a super modern train to (yes, UNESCO listed) Trakai Castle. In summer this place is crammed with people, today it was basically me and some ducks and swans who I shared my lunch with. The castle itself is on an island in a large lake and worth visiting for the incredible array of medieval artefacts.

UNESCO Trakai Castle
A simple castle bedroom
One of the few people I saw at Trakai Island
Trakai Island - a peaceful place in winter

Turns out the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (late 12th to 18th century) was at one stage in the 15th century the largest state in Europe and had a formidable army - the Battle of Grunwald (1410) was one of the largest battles ever fought in medieval Europe with up to 70,000 men! The attacking German-Prussian Teutonic Knights were decimated by the Lithuanians and lost so badly the entire balance of power shifted from western to eastern / central Europe.

In Vilnius I tried my first salad in a month and I paid the price with some kind of food poisoning. You don't make friends with salad. The final day me and my upset stomach climbed up to the Gedimino Tower that overlooks the city. The visual display inside is one of the best I've ever seen, it uses the windows of the tower to show the city changing over the centuries including the inevitable battles.

Gedimino Tower withstood some epic sieges

My next stop from here was Riga in Latvia, which required my first long distance bus trip. Let me just say buses here are amazing. The company called Lux Bus operates almost hourly to many international destinations. The buses have enormous seats, Wifi, in-seat entertainment (movies, etc), even a business lounge at the back and an on-board coffee machine. A large Latvian girl next to me did however use me as a cushion.

I didn't actually take that many photos in Vilnius but a few more...

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