I am a total sucker for picture-perfect travel destinations. The places that make my heart flutter and ignite a fiery blaze behind my eyes. I’m the kinda girl that falls fast in love at first sight when it comes to travel. I fall hard for a place and then I never forget; it lingers in my memory long after I have been torn away. Such is the way I felt about Vilnius, Lithuania when I first explored its cobbled streets one crisp Autumn morning. My favourite season, no matter where I am in the world.
Before visiting Lithuania, I could not have told you anything about it, let alone where the country was geographically located (which is in Northern Europe, by the way). Admittedly, I would have hazarded a guess that it was somewhere in Africa and believe it or not I am actually quite good at geography. I was visiting the country as part of a four week whirlwind adventure to Europe, the first visit for my boyfriend, Moe, and my third adventure to the continent. It was certainly my first encounter with the Baltic States. We were joined by Moe’s cousin Brett and his girlfriend, Ash, two passionate travel agents who had organised the entire adventure for us.
We were staying at the charming Radisson Blu Hotel located just a stone’s throw from the ancient entrance to the old town. After a delightful continental breakfast and blissful night’s sleep at the hotel we met our tour guide. I can’t quite remember her name, so for the sake of this blog we shall call her Albertas. Albertas was an immaculately dressed religious lady in her 50’s. A devout Catholic supporter, she was faultlessly polite and passionate about her country’s infamous history. As she led us through the cobbled laneways of the historic centre,my pulse started racing and I immediately started to fall. The buildings were colourful and infected with character and the laneways were narrow, crammed with bakeries and stores selling varied qualities of Baltic Amber. It was autumn at the time and the streets were littered with leaves in hues of red and gold. There were intricately crafted artistic tiles lining stone walls and castle-like turrets rising in the distance. This surely had to be the place where fairy-tales were crafted by the minds of hopeless romantics like myself.
We listened fervently about the history of the Russian occupation in the Baltics. I was swept in my Alberats’ tales of the past and simultaneously gloriously basking in the charm of the surrounding architecture. We stopped by a local chocolatier that delivered just-melted chocolate straight to the crisp white mug and heard our voice echo inside the walls of a spectacular cathedral. In the afternoon, once Albertas had reluctantly left us, we ate mouth-watering pastries from a hole in the wall bakery and wandered aimlessly through the equally charming outer streets, where I bought a unique necklace that resembled an old pocket watch. We stumbled across an impressive church, St Anne’s, and a lock bridge standing protectively over a charming rivulet. This, was my favourite part of travel; that aimless wandering where hidden treasured could be discovered.
After exploring the alluring streets of the old town, we ventured back to where our tour had finished to explore the Museum of Genocide Victims: truly a haunting and confronting experience. We experienced the cells that prisoners were kept in and the reality of the Soviet Occupation. It was the first time I had come across the history in such a haunting way, I was moved by the stories of brave locals and the recollection of horrible encounters.
After, we stopped by a local bakery to drown our sorrows with sweet treats and we visited the amber museum. The Baltics are home to the largest deposit of amber dating back to 44 million years ago. I purchased my mum and aunty earrings, and a small pig crafted out of amber. The pig’s belly was a beautiful yellow amber and now sits proudly on my jewellery box 2 years later.
We navigated back to the hotel to prepare for dinner at a local restaurant that served traditional Lithuanian food. As we ventured back out, the town was dark and the full moon shone above the historic buildings.
The restaurant was warm and full of the cluttered chatter known in restaurants around the world. I picked perhaps the only vegetarian dish on the menu, something that resembled fancy potato cakes, traditionally Lithuanian. They were warm and comforting and I paired them with some sort of dark ale Moe ordered. After just one drink, this Lithuanian beverage had made me shamelessly drunk.
After dinner, we meandered back through the moon-lit streets to the hotel, deciding to stop at a bustling local pub on the way. I ordered a similar type of ale, and drank at least two before the room started to swim seductively around me. It was the type of night when any idea was a good idea, and if you’re in Lithuania, you might as well. Soon, I was solo dancing through the pub, grabbing a strangers drink and skulling it before him while he clapped along and laughed. Moe soon whisked me out into the dark streets and with a smile, guiding me gently back to the hotel. It was soon after we had walked out of the lift that I realised my jacket had been left at the pub. With a half-annoyed, half-amused smirk, Moe turned around and ventured back to the pub while I sat alone in the dark corridor near our room. That was when I noticed the official surveillance room manned by what appeared to be the Lithuanian equivalent of a CIA agent. The room he was in had a surveillance television, walky talky and one single bed. As a fairly drunk Australian girl, I was intrigued.
So, surely enough I soon engaged this man in conversation. Rambling on about how I was from Tasmania and hopping around to demonstrate what a kangaroo was. This man, who I probably would have been intimidated by in a more sober frame of mind, was staring at me with a smile, probably like I was the most crazy girl he had ever laid his eyes on. I questioned him endlessly about what he was up to, asking if there was a celebrity in the building. After this endless interrogation he finally revealed he could speak English and informed me that there was an official Government dinner at the hotel that night. Moe returned soon after and dragged me away from my new friend back to the hotel room where I was soon fast asleep.
The next day, in my slight hungover state, we jumped aboard a mini-bus on a day journey to the nearby historically significant town of Trakai. The bus journey took us through the city, past the rural towns to the charming town home to a magical castle surrounded by mist on the lake. I was momentarily overwhelmed by the sheer magnificence of this castle and a family of ducks floating by its imposing form.
After a tour of the castle, we explored the nooks and crannies of the town, once again enjoying the most delicious pastries we had wrapped our mouths around from a local restaurant in the area. I was absolutely mesmerised by the local religion, called Karaims. It was a deeply historic religion and unlike anything I had come across before.
After the bus-ride back to the town centre, we made our way back to the city to visit Gediminas Tower, offering spectacular views of the ancient Vilnius to one side, and the modern city to the other. We ambled back down the hill past quirky antique stores and paused in the cold to sample the just-melted delights at the chocolate store we had visited on our tour with Albertas the day before. It was sickly sweet but perhaps one of the most amazing sugar-infected delights I’d ever tasted.
Dinner that night was at a game restaurant, Restaurant Lokys, much to my own disgust and mutual intrigue. We were lead through a brick archway just large enough to fit me (at 5 foot 4) let alone my six foot boyfriend. The staircase was narrow and ancient and winded into an open cellar-type room that reminded me of a medieval movie setting. We were guided to a small table next to an open fireplace. On the walls surrounding me there were bear heads and around us locals and tourists bending their heads together to talk intimately by candlelight. I looked at the menu, and the vegetarian inside of me cringed at the list of game meats available. There was deer and even bear meat. I ordered myself an eggplant stack while Moe selected the deer. While we waited for dinner we sipped on wine. This restaurant, despite specialising in game, was cosy and alluring. Everything about it whispered of medieval times where locals carried swords and drank from goblets.
Afterwards, we spilled out into the dark night, a stark contrast to the warm glow of the restaurant. The moon was full and the night crisp. We wandered back to the hotel, lost in conversation. Surrounded by the beautiful streets of a place I had madly fallen for and would hopefully revisit again sometime.