Egle, our tour leader, met us in the hotel lobby the night before our tour began. She memorized our names and outlined our agenda, emphasizing that we would be on a tight schedule. We will cover three countries in seven days, she told us, and she wanted to show us the sights and teach us about this part of the world. Then she encouraged us to attend a music festival in the main square and she went home to prepare for the tour.
We were in Vilnius, Lithuania, to begin a cycling tour of the Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia). The tour had been organized by Explore (www.exploreworldwide.com), a U.K. travel company, which arranged the tour leader, bus, driver, and bicycles. There were 11 of us -- eight Brits and three Americans – representing a variety of ages and backgrounds. It was a cordial group, easy to fit in and easy to get along, and we spent the next week together; cycling, sharing, and developing friendships. Our mutual goal: relax, enjoy each other, and take in as much as possible.
There were a lot of Russians at breakfast the first morning, and people from Poland, Spain, England, and Germany. They were all trying to get into the breakfast room at our hotel at the same time, and it was a feeding frenzy for those who got in. Eventually the young man at the door began to turn them away, telling them there was no more room and they would have to wait until someone left. Why, I wondered, were so many people in Vilnius, from so many countries? After breakfast I went back to our room and looked again at our map. Lithuania is in a central location, readily accessible to all those countries, and tours from all over Europe, Russia, and Asia come here to study the history and see the lakes, forests, and wildlife. So why is this country, which many people in the U.S. haven’t even heard of, so popular?
For one thing, it's easy to get to. There are a variety of airlines that fly here, and an extensive train network from most major European cities. Also, it’s relatively inexpensive. Our meals, for example, cost a fraction of what they would in the U.S. or the U.K., and hotels cost half as much as in Western Europe. There’s a lot to see and do here, too; like hiking, cycling, swimming (in the Baltic Sea), shopping, and sightseeing. And there’s an extensive history here, as well. These countries are on the Baltic Sea shipping route from Western Europe to Moscow, and they have been major ports for hundreds of years.
Because of its central location, Lithuania has been invaded and ruled by outsiders for centuries. In the past 200 years it has been under the control of Russia, Germany, Poland, the Soviet Union, Germany, and the Soviet Union again -- and each of those regimes has been harmful. The Nazis rounded up and murdered most of the Jews, and the Soviets tortured the leaders and oppressed everyone else. Yet Lithuania has retained its identity and its pride, and its people have remained friendly and accommodating.
We cycled today in Trakai Historical National Park, which is an oasis less than 20 miles from Vilnius. It was a peaceful ride through woods and lakes. We happened upon a festival and were treated to women in traditional costumes, local music, and dancing. We toured the ruins of the Trakai Castle, first built in the 14th century, and now a museum of Lithuanian history.