Vilnius is the capital of Lithuania, the largest of the Baltic states, once part of the Soviet Union. Although a large part of the population still is Russian, the city cannot be seen as typical Soviet. There is little that reminds us of the Soviet occupation, Vilnius definitively has it’s own “Look” and especially “Feel”.
When we arrive by bus, it’s pretty late. Luckily, we read in the Lonely Planet that there is a youth hostel near the bus station, and that’s where we’re heading for. The icy sidewalk, however, runs a bit downhill, which makes it very difficult to walk, especially with a backpack.
History of Lithuania
Lithuania has an impressive history. Since it first got mentioned around the year 1000, it became the largest European country around the year 1400.
In the following centuries, the power of Lithuania declined and it ended up being divided between Russia, Prussia and Austria around 1795. In 1918, Lithuania regained its independence, only to loose it again after the second world war, when the Soviet Union was created.
When perestroika and glasnost came in the late 1980’s, Lithuania was the first Soviet-state to become independent.
But, in a short while we reach the hostel and although the boy at the reception claims not to speak English, he points us to the cozy livingroom where we enjoy a nice cup of tea. We immediately feel at home here. We chat for a while with some other guests before we head for the bunk beds in the bedrooms.
The following morning we get up early for some sightseeing in the city. Vilnius has an old city center with a lot of winding streets lined with colored buildings, and a lot of churches. It has nice, friendly atmosphere. Not only tourists are here, like in the old town of Warsaw, but normal life takes place here as well.
We walk from church to church, and end up on the other side of town. On a hill, the medieval tower of Gediminas is inviting us for a climb up. On top, we get rewarded with a nice view over the old city. We see the river winding through the city, and we can see the famous hill with the Three Crosses. After visiting the exposition in the tower, we slip and slide down via the snowy side of the hill.
Vilnius old city center
The old city of Vilnius used to be surrounded by walls, featuring 9 gates to enter the city. Of these, only the Gate of Dawn has survived, giving you the best entry into town. The town measures 3,6 square kilometers, and is one of the largest in Europe. It is full of historic buildings, churches, and squares.
At the other end of town, there’s Gediminas tower together with some remains of the castles that ones stood here. The bell tower in front of the cathedral is one of those remains.
On our way back, we visit some more churches and a café. When we order hot chocolate there, we get exactly what we ordered: a heated bar of chocolate in a cup. Not precisely what we meant…
Meat and more meat
Just before we arrive at our hostel, it becomes clear to us why we didn’t see any super markets. We pass a large market place where just about anything can be bought. Halfway, there’s a big building and to our surprise, it’s full of showcases filled with lumps of meat, of all sorts and sizes. Enough food in this former Soviet state, although we don’t know if everybody can afford it.
There are not many beggars here. At the entrance of the old city at the Gates of Dawn there are a few elderly women and a man who misses a leg, but that’s it. Those people had a salary during communism, but are considered useless by the new, capitalist system. And thus, they have nothing now.
Outside the old center
The next day, we visit the outskirts of town. We have a home stay address we would have visited if the youth hostel wouldn’t have been so close to the bus station. We receive a warm welcome at the home stay. They are a bit surprised since they rarely have visitors in winter. They want to give us some tips and assure us we should come back in summer, when Vilnius is at its best.
We walk through the green parts of the city, passing an eastern style church and some old houses. We reach the park, where parents are playing in the snow with their children. All in all, this part of the city is as nice and welcoming as the old city center.
Vilnius is a great city with a lovely old city center and green surroundings. But even more important is that the people are friendly and happy. That is the impression that got stuck in our minds, and gives us the feeling we need to come back some time.