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.
Travel has started to make airports less fun, so we’ve started planning transit connections via bus and train. The first big test of that was getting from Prague to Vilnius. We left ourselves an extra day, and decided we’d take a bus to Warsaw, have one day to relax, and then hop on another bus to finish the journey. Two 8+ hour bus trips would be enough to find out if trading airport annoyance for longer travel time was worth it. And another chance to spend time in Warsaw would definitely be welcome.
Poland was a favorite stop last year, but in our two weeks in Warsaw we didn’t get to do quite everything we’d hoped. We still needed to find the mermaid statue and check out the viewing terrace at the Place of Culture and Science.
The mermaid was easy to locate. We’d passed nearly right by it last year, though it had been blocked from sight by dining tourists in the Old Town’s central square. The Palace was a couple blocks from our Airbnb, so this time we had no excuse to avoid it.
The Palace towers ominously amid all the newer glass-and-steel buildings of Warsaw. A ‘gift’ from the Soviet Union, it still seems out of place, surrounded by modern architecture. It is massive enough to house multiple theatres, a college, and museums in addition to the viewing deck. It was quite hot on the afternoon we went, but the 30th floor had a constant breeze. Since our apartment lacked air conditioning, we were content to relax at altitude for a while.
Eighteen hours on buses, even spread out over two days worth of trips, is a lot of sitting. From Prague to Warsaw was the prettier trip – we went through the hills on a two-lane highway and then descended on to flat plains full of farms and fields. Dozens of white storks were in freshly mown hay fields. Occasionally we’d catch sight of one of their massive nests on top a power pole or platform built specifically for them. The edges of small towns (and even many farmsteads) had ribbon-bedecked crosses marking boundaries. Small chapels served as a spot for prayers for a safe journey. Between Warsaw and Vilnius the journey was more monotonous. Fields and trees made up the scenery.
Since we had the time, the bus was the right choice. Far cheaper than flying, we didn’t have to worry about luggage weight limits and could take kitchen supplies with us. It was easier to get to and from our apartments as well. Rather than planning out an early-morning airport arrival, we could just head to the bus stop in the center of town via tram or a cheap Uber ride. No need to waste two hours at an airport or go through long lines at security. Plus, all that extra transit time let me catch up on reading and podcasts! We’ve planned future stays in such a way that plane travel should become less frequent, taken over by more relaxed bus rides.
An hour’s train ride from Prague is the town of Kutná Hora. We knew about it because of the bone chapel in the Sedlec Ossuary, but were happy to see we could spend a full day there. Our train car on the way there was nearly empty; we passed through other cozy-looking towns before coming to Kutná Hora’s station. Hopping on a second, two-car train that shuttles visitors between the station outside of town, the Chapel, and the town itself, added just another couple minutes to the journey.
After a while wandering the old town, we ended up at the Church of St. James. Often overlooked, it is next to a viewpoint that overlooks the imposing former Jesuit College and the Cathedral of St. Barbara. Inside, St. James is quiet and houses an impressive altarpiece.
A ten minutes walk past the Jesuit College (now an art gallery) is the Cathedral. Constructed with money from the city’s silver mines, it is a towering Gothic structure bedecked with gargoyles. Altars built by mine owners (and miners hoping for saints’ protection while underground) dwarf visitors.
After a meal overlooking St. Barbara’s vineyard (which only produces mediocre wine), we walked three kilometers through the old town to the Sedlec Ossuary. The Ossuary is just a small part of a former Cistercian Abbey. The massive Church of the Assumption also survives, though we decided not to pay the entrance fee for another church.
The Ossuary is a small chapel in the center of a small cemetery. From the outside it didn’t look like much, despite the shiny skulls topping the spires. Once we got to the door, however, we discovered otherwise. Since we arrived mid-afternoon we avoided tour groups and were able to walk right in.
Bone art is visible from the ticket booth, which is tucked into a corner at the top of stairs leading down into the crypt. The four corners of the underground chamber are walled off and each houses large pyramids made of bones – the resting spot of tens of thousands. Above, garlands of human skills and arm bones decorate the arches. A coat of arms created with tiny bones represents the powerful House of Schwarzenberg. In the center is the famous chandelier made from every bone in the human body. Some skulls show marks from the 15th century Hussite wars – sword cuts and arrow holes.
Sedlec Ossuary was eerie, but not disturbing or claustrophobic in the same way Paris’s Catacombs were. It takes only a few minutes to see in its entirety. Since the Chapel was undergoing preservation work, we circled it. In a trench behind the building was an archaeological dig… they had run into more bones. That shouldn’t be a surprise in a cemetery, but that skeleton was more unnerving in its completeness than the random piles inside.
We had a couple of beers at a bar down the street while waiting for our return train. Another few minutes walking got us to the station to meet the evening train back to Prague.
All over the world, we met people who adored Prague. It topped many ‘best of’ lists for tourists and digital nomads alike. We once spent part of an evening insisting that Poland’s beer was the world’s greatest only to have that adamantly denied by those who had been to the Czech Republic (Spoiler: we were all wrong – Lithuania is the uncontested beer champion).
Flying out of Uruguay was pricey, and Prague was on the cheaper end of the spectrum. With all we’d heard, we decided to re-cross the Atlantic heading to the Czechia’s capital. It took three flights, 25 hours of travel time, and one frantic connection in Lisbon with staff getting us past the thousand-person immigration line. We landed in Prague in late afternoon – enough time to find our Airbnb, get groceries, make supper. Forty hours with no sleep and a five-hour time zone shift didn’t leave energy for much else.
Fortunately, by the next afternoon we had enough rest to head to Czech Beer Fest, just two blocks from our apartment. Scores of beers – all served in the proper glass – begged to be tried. I’m not much of a beer-drinker, but I clearly needed to embrace it for the month. From the first sip, it put much of South America’s offerings to shame, and I found a few I could actually enjoy. Combined with the goulash soup, hearty sausage and chicken plates, and the frat parties, the Festival was worth going to… and at about $2US per beer, far cheaper than drinking out in Seattle even if it was high for Prague.
My sister-in-law arrived for a week visit a few days later. We all took in some of the Prague Old Town, beer gardens, the Prague Castle, and the Lego Museum. The Cathedral of St. Vitus in the Castle might be the single grandest sight in the city. The (relatively new) stained glass windows are beautiful. Even though the Cathedral is crowded, it still feels calmer and cooler than the streets outside.
My cousin and his wife also happened to be in Prague during our stay (the most family we’ve seen on the trip so far). We met them at Letná Beer Garden, one of the most relaxing spots in the city for afternoon drinks, and at U Kunštátů, a craft beer bar with a multiple-page menu of beers where even I found plenty to enjoy.
Prague Museum Night happens annually in June – for one night museums open their doors late, don’t charge admission, and are linked by free shuttles running all over Prague. We took in the multiple art museums near Prague Castle and one of the synagogues downtown.
There is plenty of street art just waiting to be found; even the river is decked out with sculpture. We walked by the Dancing House on the way to a Craft Beer Festival. Apparently its fame isn’t enough to keep the offices completely full. This smaller beer fest, associated with a farmer’s market, was even better than the first. Prices were just as cheap and the small breweries were dedicated to creating tasty products.
I was surprised by how literary Prague is. There are multiple statues of Kafka and of other famous writers and poets throughout the city. And, of course, there are libraries. Sadly, the Klementium Library was closed during our visit but others were open. We found this book sculpture in one of the public libraries downtown.
And the Strahov Library, often confused with the Klementium, was open for visits. Its two halls, the Philosophical and the Theological, managed to fill my library quota for the month by themselves. Thousands of books housed in intricately painted and carved halls… what more do you need?
The Uber driver who picked us up at the airport warned that Czech food was mediocre. However, the city seemed full of options after two months in Uruguay. Goulash soups, sauerkraut, sausages, and local gelato were all fantastic. And restaurants catered to tastes from every corner of the globe – we had our first good pho and Asian stir-fry since leaving Europe eight months earlier. Grocery stores had peanut crisps and ajvar, two of my favorite snacks that are hard to come by outside the region.
While Prague lived up to descriptions we’d heard, some parts weren’t for us. The Old Town was mobbed each day by sightseers and by night with drinkers. We witnessed more stag and bachelorette parties here than in our entire lives up to this point. And while most of the drinking was relatively contained and amusing, it still can be obnoxious, especially at 2 pm on a Tuesday. Prague is cheaper than many European capitals, but that gap is closing. Certain museums and eateries overcharge wildly in the city center and in areas heavily populated with expats.
Those minor complaints aside, I’d return to Prague. The parks, beer gardens, relaxed atmosphere, and international feel were a welcome change of pace for us. Those high quality of life ratings are definitely well-earned.
After several weeks on hiatus, I’m finally catching up on our recent European travels. The next blog about Prague will be published next week.
Part of the reason for the gap after Uruguay was the launch of a new blog, Awayfarers. My husband and I are working on this new project together. It has a much different and more formal feel than this blog, which I started for family. The pace of articles will be a bit slower, and we will be looking back on our 20 months of travel so far. Feel free to check it out – while some of the content will overlap, it will also feature more about the experience of living in each country. In the meantime, we will keep traveling.
This month we are spending some time in a semi-deserted beach town on the Uruguayan coast. La Floresta is about 30 miles outside of Montevideo; we came by bus, which took about 90 minutes.
We found our house without a problem – it is situated in a neighborhood mostly consisting of vacation homes. The beach is just a few blocks away. Since we are here in April and May, the weather is turning chillier and most of the summer weekenders are gone. Many of the other homes are shuttered for the season. The last gasp of summer was May Day, which is a long weekend in Uruguay. Hundreds of extra people showed up and even the restaurants in downtown La Floresta were full.
However, the rest of our stay has been beautifully quiet. Few cars drive by, the occasional dog parks, once a week landscapers show up to mow and clear branches. We usually only have to share the beach with one or two other people – if that.
I had never thought of Uruguay as a beach country, but the sands here are stunning. The water is now too chilly to tempt us to swim, but others are out in the waves fishing, kiteboarding, body boarding, or bobbing around, and I imagine that at the peak of summer it would be the perfect cool-down.
We try to go for beach walks each day, avoiding it only during storms. The sand goes for miles, coming upon a stream to deep to cross on foot is the limiting factor. Crushed shells decorate the high-water mark, but much of the sand is beautifully soft. We’ve found pretty shells, even an arrowhead in the sand. The sunsets are stunning, as are clouds hanging over the ocean. It is wonderful to feel like it is our own private beach and that we have it all to ourselves.
There are plenty of gulls, herons, and sandpipers fishing at water’s edge. A couple of days brought mid-afternoon beach spiders that seemed to be feeding right at the waterline. There were also a lot of webs floating in the air, possibly from spiders trying to balloon back to dry land after getting swept out to sea or from a mass hatching. Thousands of web strands were attached to seafront weeds and power lines. Not my favorite natural phenomena to date. Unless there is a stiff breeze, there can be mosquitoes in the evenings; even they like trips to the beach.
Though humans largely leave La Floresta alone in winter, there is plenty of evidence it is popular and near seafront population centers. Garbage washes up continually, and is especially prominent after wind or rain. I’ve taken to picking up a bag full every few days, but it doesn’t make a dent. It has really made me think about how much must be in the oceans – I’ve read the numbers, but to see it each day is depressing and eye-opening.
Quite frankly, at this time of year there isn’t much else to do in town. On May Day/Day of the Worker weekend, the ice cream parlor and small bookshop opened up, and stands were selling empanadas near the waterfront. But normally, we are confined to two groceries, a pharmacy, and couple of kiosks. Walking around, there is so few cars that sidewalks are unnecessary. No crowds, no traffic. Everyone seems so relaxed. It reminds us of off-season tourist towns in the Midwest.
We took one afternoon to walk all the way to Atlantida. Unfortunately the reason that spurred us to go was a hunt for parts for our washer (which is missing some of the plastic agitator panels inside the drum and shredding our clothes on the sharp corners that should have been covered). Atlantida has a larger permanent population and is more well-known as a beach town. Even during a weekday afternoon, snack stands in the parks were open. Their grocery is much larger and more well-stocked – they even had Nutella! Their beaches are more populated, and we don’t regret staying in an out-of-the way spot.
The temperatures have gone from low 70s to low 60s while we’ve been in town. We thought the onset of fall would knock the remainder of the mosquito population out. That turned out to be wrong on so many levels. Apparently there is a type of mosquito that enjoys coming out after rainy chilly weather, like we experienced after our first week here. One day, a few flew around when we were outside; the next day, clouds hovered around us all day long, unbothered by rain or wind or bug repellent. We still are waiting for the last of that bloom to vanish… and we are running out of bug spray!
We’ve gotten a lot of work done and have thoroughly enjoyed a respite from city living. Next month will be a change back to the mainstream city-centers of Europe; I’m sure we will miss the quiet beach.