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Saturday, 30 June 2007

Travel Lithuania!

Written by Christina Kay Bolton
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lithuaniaLooking for a safe place to explore with friendly and beautiful people, ancient castles, magnificent churches, cobblestone streets, quiet forests, thousands of lakes, huge sand dunes, and sparkling beaches lining the sea?

 

When I tell most people in the US that I’m going to Lithuania their eyes glaze over with uncertainty and if they don’t ask, ‘Where’s that?’, I can tell that they want to.  With this audience of travelers I’m sure I’ll have more luck, but just in case: Lithuania is the southernmost of the three Baltic countries.  It sits between the Baltic sea on the west and Belarus on the east. Latvia is to the north, Kaliningrad is southwest, and Poland is just beyond.  Part of the recognition problem may be due to the fact that was occupied by the Soviet Union for so long and part of that huge land mass on old maps labeled USSR.  However, after a long struggle to regain its independence, Lithuania has been free for the last 16 years and has pulled itself out from under the pall of occupation and been  re-building.

 

I visited Lithuania in May for the second time and am happy to report that its unfortunate past is but a shadow now, contained largely in the KGB museum in Vilnius.  Almost all of the incredible churches have been restored (many were offices, warehouses, or ‘museums of atheism’ in Soviet times).  The Baltic Sea is gorgeous, and at Nida, a superb little fishing village turned beach town, the beach gets the blue flag – a sign of one of the cleanest beaches in Europe.  The cities have well restored old towns and thriving businesses in the new towns, due to much recent investment here by other European countries as well as the US.  Lithuania is now part of the EU and NATO and has one of the fastest growing economies in Europe.

 

Aside from all this, it is a fabulous place to travel through. There are relatively few tourists here, even after Vilnius was termed ‘the new Prague,’ and what tourism there is still largely remains in Vilnius.  This leaves the rest of the country to be explored.  Some beautiful countryside can be found around its national parks: Aukstaitija with its thousands of lakes, rolling farmland at Zemaitija, and Dzukija in the south with its huge forests and mushrooming.  The Hill of Crosses near Siauliai must be seen as well as the Curonian Spit (Kursiu Nerija National Park) with its sand dunes and beaches.

 

lithuaniaLet’s start with my trip in May. I flew into Kaunas, Lithuania’s second biggest city, just in time for ‘Kaunas City Days’ – a festival celebrating the city which consisted of live bands playing in many city squares, an artisan fair lining the main streets of both the old and new towns, and a small amusement park set up near Kaunas castle.  It seemed the whole city was in the streets and it was a lot of fun.  I was surprised at how few tourists there were in Kaunas. Most everyone at the festival was speaking Lithuanian, and I really got a feel for the city.  The artisans were so talented and the prices so inexpensive that I couldn’t help but buy many special things: hand carved wooden crosses, linen shirts, crocheted linen hats, amber jewelry, and delicious honey from one of many beekeepers.


The musicians were from all over, the main concert Saturday night in the town square featured a modern eclectic Lithuanian band with both an electric guitar and violin section that sang in English called Rebellious International. They were followed by a very popular Turkish singer Sibel Tuzun who was Turkey’s representative at Eurovision 2006.  She was a rambunctious performer and kept the crowd involved especially when she came out with a Lithuanian song that everybody knew and the crowd went wild!  The festival was so entertaining that I barely had time to see the rest of Kaunas.

 

I did see the Kaunas castle and several churches in various architectural styles as I wandered down all the cosy cobblestone streets of the old town.  The old city was small, but had a very nice feel to it, and Laisves Avenue ‘Freedom Ave’ in the new town is a bustling pedestrian street with lots of outdoor cafes and at one end is the majestic St. Michael the Archangel Church with its Russian style domes.  I was glad I visited Kaunas – it did really feel that this was a more Lithuanian city than Vilnius (like all the tourist literature points out).  It has 92% Lithuanians and it seems like such an authentic place.lithuania

 

I mainly ate street food from vendors at the festival, but I did stop in at Crazy House’s outdoor café. After my meal I went inside to use the bathroom and realized why it’s called ‘Crazy House’ – it was like walking into a haunted house with strange looking things startling you as they move around. I also went to City Café on Laisves Ave where I had Saltibarsciai: cold sorrel, beetroot, and sour cream soup and potato pancakes with mushrooms, both of which were good.

 

I stayed at Kunigaiksciu Mene which was a nice, newly refurbished, small hotel with highly polished floors, beamed ceilings, and all the amenities - ac, phone, and wireless.  Most importantly, it had a perfect location right in the old town at an affordable price.  A filling breakfast was included – a plate of cold cuts (common in Lithuania), boiled eggs, bread, cheese, yogurt, coffee, and juice.

 

lithuaniaAfter two nights in Kaunas I was off to Druskininkai, a spa town that’s become famous because of its curative mineral waters.  I took the bus there (2-3 hours south, depending on stops) and arrived in the park-like healing center of Lithuania.  One of the first things I noticed was the smell of lilacs and the people walking leisurely on the many paths and resting on benches.  The thing to do in Druskininkai is relax and heal any aches and pains you may have, so the first thing I did was book a spa package for the next day at Spa Gydykla.


If you have any serious medical issues the first thing they schedule at any of the many spas in town is a doctor’s consultation (which only costs about $5) and your doctor recommends a series of treatments for you. In fact a number of the procedures can’t be done unless you first have that doctor’s consultation, I was surprised to find out that the mud bath was one of them.  After much deliberation, I finally decided on the ‘Embraces of Neptune’ package which was supposed to be a 1 hr 40 min package of various treatments. It turned out to be good, but not as great as it sounded because I spent most of the hour and 40 minutes waiting in the pool for the procedures to begin, and seeing how I’d just spent the previous 2 hours in the pool at the new Druskininkai Aqua Park (more about that later) and 45 minutes in this same pool in the morning, I was disappointed that the various massages were only a small part of it.

 

On the other hand, the whole thing only cost about $25, and I had a short body scrub and honey ‘massage’, relaxation massage, and a somewhat strange ‘circular shower’ – where you stand at one end of a wet room and someone stands at the other with two water pistols and sprays extremely hard beams of water at you in a certain pattern.  Though it sounds like some form of torture, I thought it actually did feel good when they went in circles in the abdominal area.

 

I loved walking through the quiet flower lined paths of Druskininkai.  There’s a nice lake in the center of town, again with walking paths surrounding it.  You can also rent a bike and cycle along the Nemunas River which is pretty at sunset when the flowers and trees alongside it are reflected in the otherwise yellowish-brownish waterway. There are a few nice churches as well; be sure to explore the Orthodox Church, as the priest is extremely courteous and generous (and speaks English).  He spent an entire hour showing me around, explaining the icons, and telling me about the church’s history and restoration. He also mentioned that people from Chernobyl have been coming to Druskininkai to heal from very serious medical conditions (even though it is quite far away).lithuania

 

The next morning I was off to Spa-Vilnius where I had some appointments booked, which turned out to be more like the Spa treatments I’m used to in length and privacy. I did sign up for some unusual ones, though, just because they sounded so unique.  I tried the lymphatic drainage massage with bamboo sticks which was actually very relaxing despite the sound of it.  Inhalations in the salt room was another, basically you lay on lounge chairs in a cave-like room with naturally shaped pure white salt walls and a rock salt floor – kind of like walking through sand except that it’s big salt crystals crunching under your feet – then you just breathe (and if you like watch the silent Tom and Jerry cartoons which were a surprising match for the new-age music and soft lighting).  This is supposed to be very good for the lungs, asthma, and other respiratory issues.

 

I also booked a seaweed bath, but there was no water in the town – they said sometimes this happens in summer when they’re working on the systems. Though later I went back to my hotel and had a hot shower, so perhaps it was only in that area of town, or only for a few hours. The staff at Spa-Vilnius were professional and suggested I have a head, neck, and shoulder massage instead and given the situation didn’t charge me the additional cost.


lithuaniaI stayed at the Europa Royale which was a lovely place that had nicely decorated rooms with dark, highly polished wood and plush textiles overlooking a park and the city pump house (where you can partake of the town mineral waters each day from 11:30-12:30). The front desk staff was excellent – bright, helpful, and smiling. There is a nice bar and restaurant with wifi (which can also be found in the comfortable lounge area).

 

The Europa Royale had every amenity you could imagine, even phones in the bathroom, but unfortunately the ac in my room did not work too well. It’s more expensive than some other places in town, but offers more as well, such as a fabulous buffet breakfast in an elegant dining room. Eggs, sausages, mushrooms, smoked salmon, meats, cheeses, nuts, fruits, breads, and more were part of the smorgasbord. The best part was the pancakes stuffed with apples or curd, oatmeal, or omelets made to order. Breakfast was so filling, I didn’t have to stop for lunch.

 

If you stay at the Europa you can visit the Gydykla Spa’s swimming pool from 8-8:45am which is connected through a long passageway to the hotel. It is a small pool, but filled with mineral water known for its healing properties.

 

I didn’t find too many choices for restaurants in Druskininkai, and the ones I went to were a mixed bag – Senjoi Kolonada was the best of the ones I tried and it was right next to my hotel overlooking the same pretty park. It is a very pleasant place to sit and the service was excellent and my waitress spoke good English. I had the beet soup and crepes with chicken and mushrooms, both of which were good. My worst experience was at Saulegraza, also close by, but with terrible food and pretty bad service. I ordered ‘roasted salmon with chanterelles’ which sounds heavenly, but in reality the salmon was fried, not roasted, and it was not the right texture or flavor as if it had been frozen a very long time. The chanterelles were not fresh either, they tasted canned. Even the French fries tasted frozen and were cold when they arrived at the table. In a potato-rich country like Lithuania, it’s almost inconceivable for the potatoes to be that bad.

 

Sicilia is a popular café that specializes in Pizza, though most Lithuanians were eating Ceppaloni, the national meat and potato dish (that was by request and not even on the menu). They also serve freshly squeezed juice, so I stopped in and tried the carrot and then the lemon. I wasn’t sure if the lemon would be sweetened like lemonade, but it wasn’t – just strait lemon – a little sour, but probably healthy! At Spa-Vilnius there is a café with special herbal teas for whatever ails you. I tried ‘strength;' there is also a special tea for men called Tik Vyrams, aka: ‘Lithuanian Viagra.’ I missed out on the restaurant at the Europa Royale, I’d planned to go my last night there, but never made it. That is one of the more upscale restaurants in town with a menu that sounds delectable.


The new Druskininkai Aqua Park is worth a visit while you’re here – it’s a fun, high action place in contrast to the calm feeling of most of the other places in town. It features the longest water slide in the Baltics – a crazy, twisting, turning thing that you walk up and up and up just to get to its beginning. There are a variety of pools, waterfalls, waves, and currents propelling you in certain directions, and way too many tacky plastic palm trees! Even with all the different pools, none are really a straight lap pool, so I gave up trying to swim through the figure 8’s and jet streams, grabbed an inner tube and headed to the wave pool where 1 meter tall waves plunge the rings into one another uncontrollably, kind of like bumper cars. If you get tired of this you can spin around the perimeter in your float as the forceful current carries you.

 

An assortment of Jacuzzi’s sit atop fake rock formations and there is an area for small children with brightly colored inflatable toys. Kids and families abound in the whole place which lends to the wild atmosphere. There is also a large ‘resting room’ filled with cloth lounge chairs and playing relaxation music, but there was absolutely no one in it.

 

You can duck into the sauna and steam room as well, but if you’re really looking for serious sauna’s, you should try their Complex of Baths ‘Alita’ with 18 styles of saunas and steam rooms including: Russian, Finnish, Roman, Japanese, Spanish, Turkish baths, and Hammams with the appropriate decoration in each. I didn’t visit this building since it was over 90 degrees outside and I couldn’t bear the thought of more heat.

 

If you visit you’ll notice that the prices differ by which complex you want to use and how many hours you want to spend. I thought it was strange at first, but then I saw that other pools also charge by the hour. They’ll give you a bracelet that has the times you paid for programmed in and also works as a key for the lockers. The way the place is set up is confusing, you walk into a cubicle to change and the door on the other side leads out into either the men’s or women’s locker area, but its not well marked as to which is which, so I saw both women and men as I searched for the right place. The shower areas on your way to the pools are marked, though. Your best bet is to avoid changing in the locker area altogether and go from the shower area directly to the little cabins.

 

lithuaniaI also took a boat trip down the Nemunas to Liskiava, a small town in the National Park with a beautifully restored church. The boat moved slowly down the yellowish river and I doubted the river’s cleanliness as we moved past many drains spilling into the river and there were strong agricultural smells in places. When we reached the dock near the town a tour guide met the boat and led people up the hill to the church and monastery, then talked for about 20 minutes in Lithuanian about its history. When she was thru I asked her what she’d said (since she spoke some English) and she told me: “old church and monastery, meet at the boat at 4:40,” so I imagine I missed a few things! I found out later that Liskiava was the site of a 14th century castle as well, so that was probably what some of the talk was about. I wasn’t that impressed with this trip, but I may have been more so if I’d had more understanding. And if you aren’t able to get out to any of the countryside on your own, it’s not a bad way to visit a small town, you could look around the church for a short time, then wander the dirt roads and see the pretty little houses with huge stacks of firewood that keep these communities going all winter.


I kept up the spa atmosphere the next day with my arrival in Vilnius. I checked into Le Meridien Villon for one night and was very impressed with the service, the spa, and the country-like setting. The rooms are huge with balconies, seating areas, and marble baths. Welcome cookies and mineral water was a nice touch, and every amenity you could possibly need was either in the room or easily attained through room service. I liked the fact that there was a window with screens that could be kept open all night for air (instead of the kind of windows that are more common where the two choices are: wide open or folded in a bit at the top without much air flow), though there is the noise to consider – the rooms have fabulous views over lakes and trees, but are also right on the highway, so you hear the swish of fast moving cars all night.

 

My first stop was the spa – which is gorgeous with a large pool, Jacuzzi, sauna, and Turkish bath with lounge chairs both inside and outside. As soon as you walk in you’re handed a robe and a key to a locker by a smiling attendant. The locker room itself is beautifully designed and there are single-sex saunas and Turkish baths and large open showers here as well as the co-ed ones by the pool. Unlike in Druskininkai, there are no time limits on the pool and I loved coming in the evening and again in the morning before breakfast. A gym, tennis courts, and a putting range are also at your disposal.

 

lithuaniaThe breakfast buffet offered a dizzying array of choices – hot and cold bars, fruits, and pastries, and the dining room offers a wonderful view. Their highly touted Le Paysage restaurant has a popular chef. Unfortunately, I didn’t stay for dinner, so I can’t comment on his creations.

 

This is a 5 star establishment, but since it is located in Lithuania it is less expensive than a similar hotel in another country, with spa packages for 255 euros pp including 3 nights, breakfast, spa access, and 4 hours of treatments. One thing that I liked was everything was included in the room price and they didn’t try to nickel and dime you like so many other places – for instance a business center is available if you’re not traveling with a computer and is free (instead of some other places who charge $8 an hour to use the computer). Some places also charge for the use of their spa areas, or for breakfast. It is a good place to splurge while keeping within your budget.  Its only real drawback is its distance from the center. There is a free shuttle bus 8 times a day to the center – which is very convenient if you don’t have a car. When I took it I was one of only a few passengers, so I think most people staying here rely on taxis or their own cars. It took about 25 mins to reach the drop off point in the new town and it’s another 5 minute taxi ride to the old town, or 15 min walk. Depending where your plans are centered while you’re in Vilnius, you may want to consider this.


I went from staying in the 5 star Le Meridion to the 2 star Litinterp Bernardinu St. Guest House in the old town. My room was very small – 4 rooms of this size could have fit into the room I’d been in the night before, but it was perfectly clean and the bed comfortable. Best of all was the location – 2 mins walk from the main pedestrian boulevard Pilles St., 2 mins from St. Anne’s Church, 3 mins to the Cathedral, and 5 mins to the University. The price was hard to beat at 29 euros ($39) for a single with private bath. It also came with breakfast, which was delivered to your door at the time of your preference, though it is definitely not a culinary feat: a few small pieces of bread with honey, yogurt, and coffee. Though you can order a boiled egg, sausage, or corn flakes if you like those. I ended up buying some fruit and nuts at the market to supplement it.

 

I got to Vilnius just in time for the Skamba, Skamba, Kankliai festival which I absolutely loved! It’s the annual folk festival and features performers from all over Lithuania as well as other countries. During the three days and nights I spent in downtown Vilnius there were so many events that I didn’t even have a chance to partake of the Vilnius jazz scene – which is one thing the city is famous for, with many of its pubs and clubs featuring live jazz bands. In October there is a very popular jazz festival, so if you’re a fan of jazz that would be a great time to visit.

 

lithuaniaThe opening evening of the festival featured an intoxicating slow circular dance to rhythmic drumming. Singers in long linen costumes with Viking-like buttons and linen skullcaps harmonized in 4 parts with not only their voices, but their movements. It was both haunting and uplifting and I’m still not sure which was more mesmerizing: their voices or the dance. It was certainly unforgettable and unlike any music I’ve heard elsewhere, and I loved it. There were also a couple of folk groups that were in colorful costumes with plaid skirts and long woven Lithuanian belts. They were performing folk songs and dances that were reminiscent of square dancing with some instruments I’d never seen.

 

lithuaniaThe 4-day festival took place in many of Vilnius’ squares, churches, and courtyards. Saturday there was an all day event on the big plaza next to the Cathedral. In addition to copious concerts there were also many craft demonstrations: blacksmiths, weavers, potters, brass smiths, and wood carvers were in traditional dress explaining their arts. I learned from a woman how those beautiful decorated eggs are patterned – it’s difficult – it took me three tries with a short, sharp knife and a delicate dyed egg trying to find the right pressure before I was able to make a small mark. There are many opportunities to buy beautiful items here, as the whole perimeter of the plaza was lined with craftspeople.

 

lithuaniaThe Skamba, Skamba, Kankliai festival takes place the last week in May each year, I’d highly recommend it. It’s also a good time to visit Lithuania in general as it’s warm and sunny: the sun sets late and rises early as it is relatively far north.


lithuaniaWhen in Vilnius you should see as many of the churches as possible. There are so many that you can just wander the streets and go into any that you see, almost all are special. That being said, the ones that you mustn’t miss are St. Anne’s Church (Sv Onos Baznycia), a Gothic brick masterpiece built with 33 types of bricks which also has interesting stained glass inside, not quite geometric patterns and not quite flowing art, but definitely not the typical pictures of Jesus on the cross. Once when I was inside a small group of women were chanting the most mesmerizing prayers – it actually reminded me of being in India and listening to the mantras in temples there. Perhaps I wasn’t that far off because I later learned that Lithuanian and Latvian are the oldest languages in Europe and are actually derived from Sanskrit.

 

lithuaniaThe gorgeous St. John’s Church at Vilnius University is another, set inside one of their many picturesque courtyards, and the Gates of Dawn which is a pilgrimage site for the Poles where you can pray for miracles to Mary dressed in gold with walls of silver hearts surrounding her. A little out of the way, but worth the walk, is the Church of Saints Peter and Paul with its incredible Baroque sculpted ceiling, walls, and columns and its brass chandelier that resembles a Viking ship hanging at its center. You can combine this with a visit to the Hill of Three Crosses which is a symbol of the fight against the Soviet Union for religious freedom and, ultimately, independence.

 

lithuaniaYou’ll also want to stop into the beautiful Cathedral which is at the center of everything. There are always public events outside of it; I remember on my first trip to Vilnius seeing the Lithuanian basketball team playing the Americans at the Olympics televised on a huge screen (with the whole crowd cheering wildly throughout until the end when the game turned around and crying replaced the lively shouting of Lietuva!). Also visit at least one of the Russian Orthodox churches – the Church of St. Michael and St. Konstantine if you can – especially if you’ve not seen one before with their golden alters, icons, and smoky incense.

 

Behind the Cathedral is a path and funicular that leads up to the Castle. The castle tower has a museum inside and great views over the rooftops and church spires of the city. The 6pm flag ceremony in front of Parliament is another attraction to catch and you could combine this with a tour of the University directly across the street. There is also the Synagogue, the National Museum, the KGB Museum (where you can see how life was under Soviet occupation with access to all the torture chambers), several art galleries, and numerous shops to keep you busy. At night, there is opera, theatre, music, and an abundance of pubs and clubs as well as a number of restaurants offering live music.lithuania

 

Vilnius has a lot of outdoor cafes and quite a variety of restaurants, so if you’ve been traveling around Lithuania a while and are tired of meat and potatoes, this is a good place to satisfy your palate with whatever flavors you are craving. If you’re looking for traditional food you could try Lokys which has high quality meals at corresponding prices, but at lunchtime they have a tasty, affordable daily special which is a good value. Along Pilles St. is Forto Dvaras for less expensive meals, and there is always Cili Kaimas, part of the Cili restaurant chain that is so popular here – its specialty is pizza, but they also have some Lithuanian foods on the menu, I had the chicken with chanterelles which was good and the beet, carrot, and apple juice. If you are looking for pizza a better option is the Uzupio Picerija with its more traditional crusts in a nice outdoor setting.


My favorite café is Skonis ir Kvapas – it is a nicely decorated teahouse that serves homemade top-quality desserts and good food. On my latest trip, I had a shrimp and strawberry salad and hot chocolate with chili. Hot chocolate in this part of the world is a dessert, not a drink; it’s basically thick melted chocolate that you eat with a spoon. Skonis ir Kvapas’ addition of chili is a perfect spicy complement to the sweet richness of the chocolate, but it’s optional if you’re not feeling adventurous.

 

Double Coffee has good, though overpriced drinks (and good boletus soup). I went here each day not because it was my favorite place, but because they have free wifi and it was the only place where the wifi actually worked. I tried a number of other cafes that advertised this as well as the public hotspots without any luck, as Pilles St. was offline for some reason.

 

For my last day in Lithuania I rented a car and drove down to Dzukija National Park. After an unsuccessful bid to find long lost relatives, I got stuck on the dirt road that goes to Bakanausku Nature Preserve and had to walk to the nearest village in order to get help and be pushed out by the locals, at which point I decided to drive back up near Vilnius.

 

lithuaniaI spent the night in Trakai – a touristy, but lovely town built on a lake. On an island in the center of the lake is a beautifully restored castle. You walk across a long bridge to get to the island and then cross a drawbridge to get into the castle itself. Inside is a museum with history and artifacts. Trakai used to be the medieval capital of Lithuania, but given its precarious position it was difficult to defend, so the capital was moved to Vilnius (and for a short time, Kaunas). After exploring the castle, take a boat trip in the lake and eat at one of the lakeside restaurants. Trakai is a great day trip from Vilnius, as it’s a quick bus or train ride away. You can also make an overnight trip out of it and add a few more things to your itinerary like taking a refreshing dip in the lake.

 

Lithuania has a unique culture, beautiful sights, and is a great place to relax. It should definitely not be overlooked on any Eastern European or Baltic itinerary. An in-depth tour can occupy a traveler for weeks if you visit not only the cities but the beaches along the Baltic and the countryside. Lithuania is an authentic place that has pride in its culture and language.  With its new religious, political, and societal freedoms it posseses its own sense of vitality.

 

Details:

Kaunas: Kunigaiksciu Mene, www.hotelmene.lt, +370 37 32 08 00

Kaunas City Days: http://www.visit.kaunas.lt/

Druskininkai: Europa Royale, http://www.europaroyale.com/, +370 313 422 21

Spas: http://www.druskininkai.lt/

Vilnius: Le Meridien Villon, http://www.lemeridien.lt/, +370 5 2739 700

Litinterp Bernardinu St. Guest House, www.avevita.lt/guesthouse, +370 672 032 77

Skamba, Skamba, Kankliai Festival, http://www.etno.lt/

Trakai: http://www.trakai.lt/

Other Places:

Neringa & Nida: http://www.visitneringa.lt/

Countryside Tourism: http://www.atostogos.lt/

General Tourist info: http://www.visitlithuania.net/

http://www.lithuaniantravel.com/

Buses: http://www.kautra.lt/

International buses: http://www.toks.lt/

Car rental: Rimas This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., +370 698 216 62

 

©Christina Kay Bolton

 

 

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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