Just 30 kilometers outside Vilnius is Trakai, a small tourist town known for castles and surrounded by a beautiful set of peaceful lakes. We scheduled a kayaking tour of the lakes (thanks credit card rewards) for a Saturday afternoon during our stay in Vilnius. We were fortunate – rain that had plagued our weeks in the city cleared and July day was warm. It was perfect for paddling.
We walked to the main station in Vilnius, bought tickets for the next bus to Trakai, and had just a few minutes to wait. The journey was quick, and from the Trakai bus station, it took about ten minutes to walk to the waterfront where were to meet for kayaking. To our surprise, we were the only ones on the trip for the day. Tomas, our guide from North North East, was fabulous. He took us around the castle, along the edge of the more crowded Galvė Lake and the Trakai waterfront, through a hidden passage to small ponds, and into the peaceful Skaistis Lake. Stopping for lunch on a small island, we enjoyed kibinai and apple-honey tart. My favorite portion was on the quiet out-of-the-way lakes, separated from the dozens of paddleboats and partyboats. Our arms were still feeling good after several hours of kayaking, and we had plenty of daylight left to see the rest of Trakai after returning the kayaks.
We toured the Trakai Island Castle, the main tourist draw. It is incredibly scenic – reconstructed red brick towers and halls on small islands connected by bridges. At one time it was completely surrounded by water but lake levels have lowered over the centuries, and we walked around it, sharing the path with wedding parties and picnickers. Inside is a small history museum and a few collections of porcelain, ceramics, coins, and smoking pipes (apparently guys in the 18th century liked to have flirty ladies put on their pipes… which is something, I suppose).
We saw the rest of Trakai fairly quickly. The waterfront is crowded with restaurants and souvenir stands. Other streets are quiet with colorful houses. We wandered back to the bus station to catch the next transfer back to Vilnius. The bus arrived quickly but the driver waited until it was full to start; not a big deal to us since we had the time.
With southern Europe swamped by excessive summer heat, our plans to head north looked like the best choice we could have made. After enjoying Estonia so much last fall, Vilnius and Riga looked equally tempting (and Eurovision 2016 didn’t hurt either). First up was the capital of Lithuania, Vilnius. Our apartment was between the Old Town and the Neris River. We were central enough to be within walking distance of all the main sights but away from the crowds. After Prague, however, Vilnius seemed laid back and relatively tourist-free.
The long summer days gave us plenty of time to wander around, and evenings were cool and perfect for exploring. We arrived on the longest day of the year – the sun rose well before 5 a.m. and set at 10 p.m. Technically the rest of the night isn’t night, just varied degrees of twilight. Everyone takes advantage of the extra sun. In parks and plazas around the city, there are evening picnics, frisbee, people at the skateparks late into the night. Just a block away from our apartment was Alus Namai, a local beer bar that was a great place to grab a drink at sunset.
Our second day we visited the Catholic Cathedral. Preparations were going on for the Beatification of Teofilius Matulionis, an Archbishop who served the Catholic Church despite intense persecution during the Soviet Era. I decided to attend the mass, which took place outdoors with thousands in attendance. Matulionis’s casket, normally housed in the Cathedral’s crypt, was brought out for the ceremony and so the faithful could pray with it. Even Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė spoke near the end of the service.
Vilnius was a wonderful city to explore on foot. The Statehood Day holiday occurred during our visit – we joined crowds of people heading up the hill near the Three Crosses for the evening singing of the National Anthem at 9 a.m. People came at nine, sang, left. No fireworks since it doesn’t get that dark. It felt much more laid back than the 4th of July in the US.
Vilnius’s Old Town is the largest in Europe and provides plenty of opportunities to explore churches and side streets. The Castle hill behind the Cathedral is open for climbing and is a beautiful sunset spot. We found churches with crumbling interiors that seemed abandoned and small cafes to people watch from. Because it is the capital, there are government buildings scattered around. We hid from a rainstorm on a staircase of the Presidential Palace without realizing why so many people were interested in photographing us.
The area near the train and bus stations is known for murals, especially one that made the news recently for the interesting current event commentary. Others are prettier and more to my taste but less noteworthy.
Vilnius bridges the gap between Germanic and Baltic cuisine. There are plenty of potatoes and potato dumplings stuffed with meats and cheeses but also preserved herring. Kalvariju Turgus, the largest market in the city, was a great place to try fresh local produce, honey, and sausage. We picked up lots of summer veggies and strawberries, as well as incredibly dense hempseed bread (that nearly took a saw to get through). The dessert of choice was sakotis, a layered cake made from a creamy batter poured over a rotating spit. Not quite sweet enough for me, but the ones dipped in chocolate came close.
And the beer! Lithuania takes the prize for the world’s best beer, soundly beating Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic. We read a few articles before arriving about brewing styles that incorporate local yeasts and family traditions – and each turns out a unique, tasty brew. We had witbiers, darks, beers made with peas, cloudy beers, unfiltered beers, saisons, IPAs. Even the mass market brands were tastier than any other country we’d been to. We kept wondering that we’d so rarely seen Lithuanian beer outside of the country: clearly they are keeping the best for themselves. My advice is this: If you like beer, you will like Lithuania. If you don’t like beer, you will probably be able to find beer you do like in Lithuania.
There wasn’t much to offer as far as local grape wine. However, the deficit is partly made up for by local fruit and flower wines. I had a single glass of wine made from goldenrod flowers that tasted like spring. And bread is turned into gira (kvass), a barely-alcoholic drink somewhere between soda and beer. It tastes as good as the bread, and is a favorite summer-afternoon-cool-down-drink
Vilnius really seemed like a great place to live. The relaxed atmosphere and relatively cheap cost of living made it one of our favorite European capitals. It might be harder in the winter, with only a few hours of sunlight, but I’d definitely love to return in spring or fall.