Lithuania 2011: Vilnius Airport

Last update of trip. I spent the morning wandering the Old Town, said goodbye to Zombie Gediminas, had a look down a few cobbled alleyways and a shopping street I’d never noticed then came back to pick up my luggage. I sat at the station for 45 minutes waiting for the airport train and am now at the airport (and have seen and said hello to Coral). It is 12.50. My flight is at 4.15. Check in hasn’t even opened. Won’t for another hour and a half. I have never had to sit and wait for hours at an airport before. It has wireless. I have also never used my phone as a boarding pass before. I have a little paper bag full of ducks. Maybe I’ll try to get them in my case.

Lithuania 2011: Trakai Castle

I was woken up far too early again this morning and took my time getting going.

I got to the bus station just in time to be told at the desk that the bus was about to leave, I had to hurry and to buy the ticket from the driver. I hurried, found the platform, stared at the driver but he didn’t open the door, he just pointed at the queue on the next platform and drove off.

According to the timetable I’d been given, there were plenty more buses. I decided on the 10.30 and went to see what there was to look at around the station.

I saw a couple of trains, prowled the station, discovered that trains are listed by track and platform (the airport train is Platform IV but track 7) and found a supermarket. I got some bread and a milk slice and went back to the bus station.

Waiting for my bus, I realised I could hear English. Three women were discussing the Trakai bus. I asked if the bus at platform 28 was the one. They said it did go there but it was the slow bus. The 10.40 at platform 29 was the fast bus.

I sat and waited for the bus and talked to one of then. She was visiting the other two who live here teaching English and all three of then were retired teachers from Toronto.

I successfully got on the 10.40 and bought my ticket from the driver and when I went to sit down, they incited me to join then for the day. The visitor was Coral, the one in green was Georgina, who was planning to bring her class to Trakai Castle and Suzanne was the ringleader of the group who’d invited me.

We spent the journey discussing safety procedures for nuclear reactors, earthquake drill and the apparent missiling of Libya. Suzanne and Georgina had spent a few years living in Japan and Georgina had lived in Sendai.

The bus station wasn’t so much a station as a deserted car park with some boards up. The driver pointed us in the direction of the town and we started a routemarch. It was cold. Trakai is on a peninsula between three lakes; three lakes so frozen that people were ambling around on the ice and the air was much colder than in Vilnius.

Trakai is well known for the Karaim, an ethnic minority brought in from central Asia six hundred years ago as private bodyguards to the Grand Duke who used to own the town. The town centre is lined with their bright green and yellow wooden houses, just like the ones in Turku.

We scurried up to the castle and stopped for coffee (or hot chocolate) just before the bridge. The Canadians also had kabinas, described in my guidebook as “a crescent-shaped pastry filled with grey meat that unleashes a deadly drip of hot fat after a few bites”. They were pretty from the outside and the pastry was apparently wonderful but you don’t want to look at the inside as you eat then. These ones poured out liquid and were very oniony.

Kabinas eaten, we crossed the bridge to the castle on the island. There were two tone-deaf children making a hideous noise on recorders on the other side and plenty of people using the frozen lake instead of the bridge to cross.

The castle was once a stronghold of Lithuania and Trakai its capital at one point. The castle was ruined a few hundred years ago and restored throughout the 20th century. It is still one of Lithuania’s symbols and foreign dignitaries are taken there to be entertained in the Great Hall.

From the outside, it’s a proper castle of red brick, with watch towers and walls and a keep and everything. In the inner fortress there’s a courtyard with wooden walkways all along the inside and it’s now a national museum. The outer fortress has a museum about mediaeval life, with furniture and a hunting room and “an eminently missable history of pipe-smoking throughout the ages”. It was a very pretty and very interesting castle and it was very warm and cosy.

By the time we came out, the sun was emerging and everything looked even prettier. We spent a while in a souvenir hut by the lakeside. Coral bought some amber earrings and Georgina tried on hundreds of interesting hats before Suzanne talked her into buying a green knitted one with flaps.

We ambled back to the bus station. The Vilnius minibus was about to leave but there were no seats. The 3.15 bus didn’t show up (possibly only a weekday bus) and nor did the 3.40. But the 3.55 did. It was already pretty full but that was ok. In Lithuania, you just pack people into the aisle. I finished up standing on the back steps where i had quite a lot of room and two seats to lean against.

It felt like a much longer journey back. I couldn’t see very much because backpackers had hung up a suit bag over the back door but I didn’t recognise what I could see. Coral and Suzanne, who’d both had seats, fell asleep.

It was 4.45 by the time I got in. I ate my bread and the last of my cheese and I suppose I should pack at some point.

Lithuania 2011: Vilnius 4

Today I woke up at about 6 because people in other rooms were being noisy. I didn’t get up but I couldn’t go back to sleep either. I pulled back the curtains a little bit and played with my phone – the wifi had finally come back after being missing for about twelve hours.

When I looked up, the wall was orange, as if the sun was shining right in through the window. I got up and looked outside. It was not sunny. It was snowing.

It snowed on and off all morning. I spent quite a while trying to convince myself to get up but it was grey and cold and snowing and didn’t look appealing.

As usual, my first stop was the supermarket, then I went down through the Old Town to Cathedral Square and up to Gedimino9 where I bought the yellow duck I’d missed yesterday and the red duck I hadn’t seen and then swore never to go in the duck shop again.

As I walked back down to the cathedral something seemed odd. Police were stopping the traffic on Gediminas and the cathedral bells were donging non-stop. I still don’t know what it was but it was like I’d walked into some kind of Lithuanian Remembrance Day.

I decided to turn left at the bottom of Gediminas and walk down to the river. I crossed over the bridge, decided there was nothing on the other bank and came back. This time I noticed that there were a lot of locks and chains attached to the bridge and also a sign. At first I assumed the sign said something like ‘Don’t chain your bike to this bridge or we will make it disappear” but it had a few phone numbers on. I deduced that it must be the Lithuanian equivalent of the Samaritans.

I walked back through the Old Town and went down a side street to see St Anne’s and St Michael’s Churches (different St Anne to yesterday’s). St Anne’s was exactly as pretty as the guidebook said. That is how you build a brick church. I see why Napoleon wanted to take it back to France.

I took an icy route back to Pilies gatve, past a wall embedded with teapots and up the street. Now it was time to look at the amber.

The Old Town is packed with amber shops. It ranges from chunks the size of my fist on strings like ropes to delicate little necklaces. I bought some amber and came back to the hotel via every amber shop in sight. I soon figured out that there are two kinds of amber shop. There are the blue and yellow shops and the brown ones. The brown ones seem to sell the more delicate jewellery and the blue and yellow ones sell all kinds of souvenirs.

I came back to the hotel for lunch of bread and cheese and chocolate and to change jeans – mine are far to long and were soaked from the slush.

After lunch, and with my spare emergency money I went out and finished my amber shopping and then stocked up on food and drink in case the shops aren’t open tomorrow (they will be) or I can’t get to them (eg if I’m on a train). My balcony makes an excellent fridge for things like bottles and apple juice tastes much better cold.

By now it’s stopped snowing. Now everything’s just wet and grey. I hope the sun comes back out again tomorrow.

Lithuania 2011: Vilnius 3

Today I skipped breakfast and made a supermarket my first stop.

I’d decided I wanted to go to Vingis Park, an open green area out to the west of the city. I planned my route, avoiding the long route via Gediminas and started off in the Old Town.

This starts just around the corner at the Gates of Dawn and it seems to mark the point where the city starts to become pleasant. I went down to the square with the stalls next to the Russian church and this time turned left to head down towards the university and the Presidential Palace. Even at 11ish in the morning it was still quiet, except people in military uniforms – some decorative, some functional – getting on an army coach and some people taking photos of the uni’s philosophy department.

I followed the road and found myself back in Cathedral Square. That would lead back into Gediminas so I went back and took the back streets to try and find the road across.

I soon discovered I was on Pylimas gatve, the northern end of my road and it looked familiar. I was one junction down from where I watched the trolleybus yesterday. I made my way up the hill to a bench to consult my maps.

I was in more or less the right place. I had to climb up a sloping road and keep going straight on. Handily, this also took me right past the Frank Zappa statue. No, I don’t know. I suspect most of the locals don’t know why either.

I followed the road until I reached St Anne’s, a pretty church with bright green onion domes I’d seen from the bus on Wednesday and on the horizon from the hill yesterday. At the bottom it’s brick but the top is all white under the green domes. I kept following the road, past the Finnish Ambassador’s house (I can’t read either Lithuanian or Finnish very well but that was easy to work out) and on until the road became a pleasant tree-lined avenue. At the end of that was a pretty little green house opposite a not-quite-finished glass tower hotel. And beyond them, the road went over a dual carriageway and into Vingis Park.

I didn’t like it. It was pine forest, it was thick with ice and it didn’t feel like the peaceful open space I’d expected. I immediately abandoned my plans of sitting on the grass to eat my bread and cheese. I wanted to get back to civilisation.

It had been about an hour and a half since I’d left the hotel. One toe was particularly painful and I knew there were no benches until I got back to St Anne’s. I limped along wishing I’d never come out here.

Eventually I made it. I took off my boot and had a drink and watched people in suits milling around an odd-shaped white building, trying to decide if they were there for a wedding or a funeral.

When I eventually got up and hobbled down the road in the direction of Gediminas I found the sign on the door. If you ignore -ius, -iu,-as etc stuck on the end of words it’s reasonably manageable to figure out nouns in Lithuanian and I could read that this was a registry office. My favourite Lithuanian word so far is ‘picarija’. Any guesses what it means?

I made my way across the park area behind the office, already starting to really really hate ice and snow and followed a never-ending staircase down onto the streets below. From there I was 170m from Gediminas.

I found a park on the corner with red paths leading to lots of benches. It was all in front of a particularly big church and it was sunny and it looked ideal for lunch, even if it was a bit late by now.

I did not eat my lunch there. I very quickly discovered that the red paths with melted snow on top made reddish mud two inches deep which coated my boots and would probably have sucked sandals off altogether. I went back to the benches on the pavement and ate bread and cheese watching the traffic again. Further up on the corner there seemed to be someone dressed as a very bright green banana possibly handing out leaflets but he didn’t come close enough for me to see what he was actually meant to be.

After a leisurely lunch I walked back down Gediminas, wondering where I could buy an SD card. I have taken quite a lot of photos. I didn’t find anywhere but I stopped in Gedimino9 again. The shop called Lucky Duck was open. Initially it looked like bath stuff but then I spotted the ducks. I now have eight brightly coloured Lithuanian ducks and will have to do some luggage rearrangement to get them home.

It was a huge effort to walk back. By the time I got to Cathedral Square I was starting to feel like I was almost at the hotel already. But first there was the trek through the Old Town. I made it to the triangular square in front of the Town Hall and just sat there. It could be no more than another half mile to go but even standing up seemed impossible. I sat there for so long.

Eventually I decided I would drag myself up and on but I would count my steps. It couldn’t be that far. Just up the road to the Gates of Dawn, then round the corner and down to the south end of Pylimo. 1400 steps. Biggish steps at first but they got smaller and smaller as I approached the last two corners.

Tomorrow I will shop. Shopping is likely to be difficult on Sunday and I don’t want to be dragging my 9.7kg suitcase around the shops on Monday on the way to the airport. Maybe on Sunday I will try to get out to Trakai.

Lithuania 2011: Vilnius 2

I was woken this morning at 5.55am by the sound of beeping. I didn’t think it was the fire alarm but I got up and stood bare-footed on the balcony (quite cold at that time of morning) to try and work out what it was before concluding it was coming from further down the road, finding my earplugs and going back to bed.

When I went down to have breakfast I was given a plate with food already on it. There were three slices of salami, four diagonal slices of cucumber and three slices of cheese that looked like it had been out too long. I drank the apple juice and had two bits of bread and butter, then I made my escape.

I didn’t get out until 10.30 (the beeping was still going!) but that is apparently quite early by Vilnius standards. People didn’t start appearing until about midday.

I wandered down through the Old Town, where all the shops looked closed and seemed to sell either linen or amber but not a lot else, except Emporio Armani, which looked quite out of place. The tourist information is in the town hall in the middle of the Old Town – a big white thing with pillars in front of a triangular square with some sort of complicated one way system around it.

Sooner than I’d expected, I found myself at the cathedral. It looked big and square and a lot less cathedral-like than I would expect and it acted like a giant windblock. The sun was out, the sky was clear and blue but the air was icy and the wind was freezing.

From the cathedral I crossed the road onto Gediminas Prospektas which was wide and clean and bright and non-intimidating. Gradually I started to recognise shops – first Vision Express, then United Colours of Benetton. I also spotted a takeaway with my favourite name ever – Wok To Walk. I went into a shopping centre called Gedimino9 which seemed not quite finished, with at least a floor and a half still empty but it had a supermarket. I bought bread rolls and plastic cheese slices and crackers and chocolate and drink and had a picnic on a bench, where the local pigeons soon realised they weren’t getting anything and wandered off. Plastic cheese slices are perfect for picnics like that.

Next I wandered down a side street that seemed to have shops and stopped off in a toyshop. I got to the end and turned round to come down the next one and back onto Gediminas Prospektas.

This one came out opposite a sort of park on the side of a hill. I crossed the road to climb up the park but got distracted by a trolleybus causing chaos by coming off the overhead wires right in the middle of the junction. The driver got out, pulled the poles down, did something to the ends and they went back up and stayed up. Two minutes later the traffic was clear, I had plenty of photos and had been entertained. I went on up my hill.

It was slippery. I’d seen plenty of ice and snow but this time it made it difficult to walk. The centre of the pathways was gritted but the sides were either crunchy ice (easy to walk on) or sheet ice (lethal to walk on). I scrambled to the top and surveyed the view. A junction and a few buildings. I came back down, taking it very carefully. It was very icy.

Now I was back on Gediminas Prospektas. I went in Marks & Spencer. Everything was English, although the food had stickers on the back with Lithuanian translations. Now I know where to go if I need salt & vinegar crisps (are they labelled ‘British-style crisps’ at home? Nothing else on the packaging seemed changed).

I went on a bit further. Past the casino, past a geographically challenged restaurant called Tokyo China and down to the river, from where I could see the big glass shopping centre I’d gone past yesterday. I decided to start retracing my steps and slowly make my way back to the hotel.

First stop on the way back was another bookshop. I can’t remember the translation for Eragon/Eldest and the other one which I can’t spell (how do you translate made-up words like that, anyway?) but I saw ‘Haris Poterius’ and Clarkson and the Twilight series.

Next stop was the cathedral. I sat on a bench in the sun, sheltered from the wind. After a while it occurred to me that I wasn’t so much people-watching as traffic-watching but it was still entertaining. Lots of cars had studded tyres and made a noise like a rainstick as they went past. The Irish Embassy was opposite, so I took a St Patrick’s Day in Vilnius photo of its flag fluttering in the wind.

My original plan was to head home and see Gediminas Tower tomorrow but it was a bright, clear day which it might not be tomorrow and I didn’t have anything else to do. The road up was closed but the sign said to use the funicular instead.

I walked the circumference of the hill and was almost back at the cathedral before I found the funi, hiding inside the old Bishops Palace. There were no proper signs for it; I wondered if I’d be arrested for just wandering in, but no. Station hiding around the corner and besides, these days it’s all part of the Lithuanian National Museum. I bought a ticket and was put in the funi. It’s like a sloping lift. You get in on your own, no driver, and press the button to go up and down when you like, as long as you’re down by 9pm when the museum gates are closed.

Th view was spectacular. To the north was ‘downtown Vilnius’, just blocks of flats as far as the eye can see, then the Hill of Three Crosses, then a 180• panorama of the Old Town and about 10,000 churches. Then there was the newest district, a handful of glass towers (where I accidentally went yesterday). It was windy but worth it. I sat in the shelter of a little brick hut and ate some chocolate looking at Gediminas Tower. Turns out you can go up there too.

There are three floors of museum – first how the castle would have looked in the 14th and 17th centuries, then some armour and weaponry, then modern independent Lithuanian. And then you’re on the roof.

It’s the same panorama as from the hill but a bit higher. It’s magnificent. I nearly didn’t go up there; the tower door was closed and unlike the shops there’s no open sign on it. But I’d seen people on the roof so I pushed the door. I’m very glad I did.

Now it was time to head home. I came down in the funi, no less fun coming down than going up and since I was going back to the hotel, I decided to go inside the cathedral first.

It’s quite white and minimalist inside, apart from St Casimir’s Chapel which is a riot of black marble and silver statues and decoration everywhere decoration can possibly be put. It struck me how many people were actually praying, either in or in front of the chapels or in the main cathedral itself. There were also a cleaning team, one up a ladder polishing the statues and the other dusting with an extremely long-handled duster. And at the back, there was an old lady lying on a bench, looking spookily like one of the statues on a tomb.

After that I really did head back. My feet were starting to hurt. I ambled back through the Old Town,taking photos, finding my local Guinness-serving English pub (complete with red phone box), making vague plans for tomorrow and eventually hobbled back to the hotel at 3.20. Bit early but I’d seen and done a lot and run out of energy.

Lithuania 2011: Vilnius

After two flights (and two lots of security) with all my luggage in my hands (9.7kg and feeling heavier by the minute) I arrived in Vilnius at about 4.00 local time. I’d been watching the landscape from the plane, drawing coastlines and rivers for looking up later and had noticed snowy patches appearing. As we were making our descent to Vilnius I spotted a river that was almost completely white, as if it had been frozen in one instant. Fields and hills were snowy and there was snow by the roadsides.

It took all of 30 seconds to get from the bus that brought us to the terminal to the outside world. No luggage to pick up, no one to check passports, not even a desk for officials to sit at.

There was a bus outside. I got on it, reasoning that the 1 and 2 had to go to similar places. The driver didn’t have enough change so I finished up with two tickets and no instructions to validate it. The ticket inspector I looked blankly at told me about that when she got on a few stops later.

I soon discovered (from my guidebook) that the 2 didn’t go to the right place but I thought maybe if it went to Gediminas Prospektas that I could walk back down. However half an hour later i seemed to have left the city centre behind and was on a dual carriageway. It was time to get off, cross the road (via the bridge; I didn’t walk across four lanes of Lithuanian traffic) and get the 2 in the opposite direction back to the airport and start again.

I took the train this time, to make sure I couldn’t get lost again. The platform is far too low and especially with a suitcase it’s quite a leap to get on and off the thing. Tickets were no problem – buy from the conductor, no need to validate, and by this time I had a 5 lita coin.

It was easy enough to get to the hotel once I’d found my way out of the station. There is a McDonald’s outside the station in case I’m in dire need of hot chips and the Comfort hotel which does look much better than this one. This one is on a road that apparently is being dug up and has mounds of muddy snow down each side.

I have checked in and have a room. The ceiling is too high for the light to be really effective but it has a balcony and no metal cots inside and it also has unexpected free wifi which is wonderful.

First impression is that Vilnius is like Bucharest but with a much colder climate. There are also a handful of older wooden buildings that look like the ones in Turku and half a dozen glass towers. Not sure what to make of Vilnius so far.

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