Jean and I were happy to cede £40 to RyanAir for a return flight from Amman, Jordan to Vilnius in early February. This started as a logical meeting point with our friends studying Russian in Yaroslavl. It was a necessary respite from the ‘Swindon of the Orient’ too; Amman has an M4 corridor-tier infatuation with roundabouts and sad fast food outlets. Yet the Lithuanian capital exceeded all expectations. Vilnius, with its hallowed combination of history and cheap alcohol, suits any weekend breaker on a budget, even if we were on the run from 50 Shades of Beige.
Vilnius can be visited at any time of year, though most opt for the warm summer months. The city is akin to a continental Manchester – the winters often drop well below freezing, though global warming is slowly changing that. A raincoat is always recommended. The deluge creates vast aquifers with some of the cleanest water in Europe. Rain – or ‘drip’ – is reason for the slender, chiselled Lithuanian youth to don a North Face far better than the gully guys and gals of Brighton and Boomtown. These exquisitely composed students and yuppies can be found at clubs like Loftas (also a venue) and Opium (a sweatier hive of Techno and EDM). Do bear the long queues and merciless security in mind, as well as the drinking age of 20. The sale of alcohol is also prohibited past 8pm, or 3pm on Sundays. Any Pembroke or Teddy Hall boys who are looking for a Fever-tier ‘lash’ in a foreign field will be disappointed in Vilnius, and this is a fundamentally good thing.
Notable watering-holes include the quirky Snekutis chain in the Old Town and Spunka in the bohemian Uzupis district. Both have a markedly local feel, and the range of farmhouse IPA, APA, Porter and Stout found here is truly outstanding. They come at around half the price of a Greene King in Turf. The food is similarly cheap. Vegetarians aren’t well catered for, however, and pig’s ear with mustard was an experience. Alongside pub grub is standard international fare and some excellently reviewed restaurants, where the best of Lithuanian and World cuisine is showcased.
Vilnius readily takes the helm of an ambitious new nation. The novelty of political independence shrouds an ancient, sovereign culture. Lithuanian is perhaps the oldest living language in Europe, and its similarity to Sanskrit helped add serious gravitas to the idea of an Indo-European language family. The Romuva faith enshrines fire like the ancient Persian faith of Zoroastrianism, and the Brahmanas spirits permeate Lithuanian mythology, itself full of strikingly Vedic allusions. We found out about the Brahmanas from a friendly German man in Snekutis, shortly after he berated my ‘half ok, half fucked-up’ dress sense.
Famous landmarks include Gedaminas Castle and the Gate of Dawn. The Cathedral jostles for pride of place with other Gothic and Baroque Churches around the city’s old town. These speak of a gilded period when Lithuania, in Commonwealth with its Catholic neighbour Poland, ruled from the Baltic to Black Sea. Its fortunes declined significantly in the 19th and 20th centuries. A €3 visit to the Museum of Genocide Victims must be made, and explains why Lithuania so treasures its independence. The nation is virtually equidistant from Berlin and Moscow, and this has not, historically, been to its advantage. This misfortune is laid bare in the Museum, once the headquarters of the KGB. The basement’s macabre torture chambers will seldom leave my memory. A dubiously small part of the museum is dedicated to Lithuania’s Jewish population, who fared the worst of any group during the Second World War. The once thriving ‘Litvaks’ lost 200,000 to the Holocaust. The nightmare of their confinement in the Vilna Ghetto and eventual deportation is told in the Vilna Gaon State Museum. This is found in the city’s Jewish Quarter, a ghostly vestige of what was once the ‘Jerusalem of the North’.
Vilnius is well-connected. A train to Kaunas, the 2022 European Capital of Culture, takes just over an hour and a train to the port of Klaipeda just over four. Klaipeda was the Prussian city of Memel until 1923, and its quaint fachwerk architecture reflects this. You could even take a 3 ½ hour bus to Minsk, the capital of Europe’s last dictatorship, Belarus. Our day trip was to one of the 200 lakes in the region surrounding Vilnius. We chose idyllic Trakai, with its 14th century island castle. A return train journey to Trakai from Vilnius comes to €3.60, half an hour each way. Entry to the castle will set students back €4 and a boat trip out on the lake around €5/€6 per person, depending on the size of the group. The castle is a 40-minute walk from the train station, excluding our detour to an orthodox church to buy some Old Slavonic icons. Trakai, like Vilnius and Lithuania, has hosted an array of peoples throughout its history; its tiny Tatar mosque and Karaim synagogue are testament to this. Trakai is a worthwhile day out, and leaves enough time to sleep off the hangover to make it back to Vilnius, raring to go again.
For us, Vilnius was a pelmeni and porter-themed panacea to the nausea of Zahran Street and Buffalo Wings and Rings. Jean and I felt this acutely as RyanAir took us back to Sweet Home, Amman. All the while, a Lithuanian booze cruise rinsed the onboard alcohol reserves, anticipating exorbitantly priced (and fake) Amstel in the Hashemite Kingdom. For you, Vilnius is a rogue weekend break that simply can’t be missed.