December was dark and rainy in most of Northern Europe. It felt like such a chore to get up in the morning and step out of the door .. somehow the blankets get so much more comfier in the middle of winter. So what to do to cheer up? Take a little holiday!
Thanks to the long Christmas break we had time for a small impromptu getaway. Destination: Vilnius! This lovely capital of Lithuania (yes, that's the southernmost Baltic state) is home to roughly half a million people - and many many Baroque buildings. The entire old town, Senamiestis, is in fact on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Did you also know that it is claimed that the geographical centre of Europe lies in close to Vilnius?
The city has quite an interesting history that is well worth looking into. Vilnius has in fact been the capital city from as early as the 1300s. I really enjoyed this story of how the city was founded:
According to the legend, Gediminas, the Grand Duke of Lithuania at that time, was hunting in the area now know as Vilnius. After slaying a giant bison he fell asleep in the woods. He dreamt of an iron wolf howling as strong as one hundred wolves on a hilltop. Gediminas went to see a pagan priest Lizdeika for the dream's interpretation. The priest told him that he was destined to be the ruler of Lithuania. On that spot where he slept he was to build a city that will be the capital of the lands, as powerful as an iron wolf and so awesome that its fame shall echo as strong as the howl of one hundred wolves. And so there lays Vilnius, on that spot still today.
What to see in Vilnius? Walk around in the old town. The center is marked by the Cathedral and the Gediminas Castle on top of the hill behid the Cathedral. You can visit the Castle if you're up for the small hike. Now was a great time also to admire the beautiful (and some very tacky) Christmas lights all around the city, like these in front of the Cathedral square's Christmas market.
There's plenty of cute small streets in the old town and more flashy shops in the big & stylish avenue, Gedimino. I'd say it's safe to go anywhere day or night but be your own judge. Make sure you stop in the cafes and restaurants in the old town, the food is great and prices are reasonable. There's lots of bars between the old town and Gedimino, you'll have no trouble finding one to your liking. Try the local beers!
We also made an evening walk cross the river to Uzupio district - though daytime walk is recommended (not that we felt it would be unsafe, just pretty dark this time of the year). This artistic and a bit desolate area was unofficially - I kid you not - declared an independent republic in the late 90's. I hear on April Fools day you can even get a stamp on your passport (should you wish one?) by fake border guards. Another curious thing you find in Vilnius is the Frank Zappa Statue - though it's not much to look at so unless you're a die hard Zappa fan you can skip that.
The city is full, FULL, of churches of all sorts. Many of them well restored, massive monuments that are nice to see if you're into architecture. Museums are also plenty. I'd recommend the Museum of Genocide Victims (KGB Museum) to learn more about the brutal history of Jews in Lithuania. Sadly the musem was closed when we finally made it there - and I'm not sure if I'd recommend it to the faint hearted - but should we worth a visit. The museum is located in the former KGB headquarters.
One of the most interesting things we did in Vilnius was to go see a basketball game . Despite its small size Lithuania currenty has the nro 4 men's basketball team in the world according to FIBA, behind USA, Spain and Argentina. We got lucky as that weekend it was the anticipated match between the Vilnius' Rytas ("wolves") and Kaunas' BC Žalgiris - the two top teams in Lithuania and only ones to ever win the national league. The Siemens Arena was packed to the roof with fans from both teams and crowd was roaring all through the game. Though the local team dominated the scoreboard the match was very intensive on both ends and quite a show to watch. And who doesn't like a show, all with sweat, fire, smoke and battle songs. Not to forget the team of limber cheerleaders with over 10 dance choreographies and as many costume changes!
Ticket are just under 30 litas (8€) and you can find them in sold in all ticket offices and Vaga bookshops. We got some of the last seats to the game the day before. If you are looking for shopping then you're in the right place. Small shops and shopping malls of all sizes are everywhere. We enjoyed the big shopping centre right next to the basketball arena, Ozas. About 1 km from there is also the largest shopping complex in the Baltics, Akropolis. In addition to the shops there you'll find an indoor skating rink, bowling (20 lanes) and a 5D cinema. 5D. You can't beat that!
On Christmas eve morning, after three days and nights of eating and enjoying ourselves we flew back home for the traditional festivities at home. The little bit more of rest and the couple more hours of daylight (though it was raining at times, like back home) was a welcome start to the holidays! I'd be happy to go back there for a summertime visit.
How to get around? Everywhere in the old town and its vicinity - where you'll find most restaurants, hotels and sights - you can reach by foot. The shopping malls, such as Akropolis, you can get to by bus (you can't possibly miss it if you come anywhere close). The local bus travel can be quite exciting... I can imagine the Christmas may take its toll on public transport but I must say I have not been in buss so full of people (piled on top of each other) after South America. But still, everything works smoothly. You can eve pay your buss fare to the driver by passing the money to the person in front of you, who will pass it on, and on - and you will get your ticket and change back. Taxis we found safe, clean and quite cheap. You'll get by with English.