Sunday, 25 October 2015

Vilnius, Lithuania

I did already write a post about the food in Vilnius, Lithuania, but my general report is only coming up only now. The summer has all but fallen out of reach so it's not so fresh in my mind. I also don't really enjoy blogging about travel anymore, so I'm not gonna lie: this was a bit of a chore to write. However, I still feel it would be a shame if I didn't have a summary of my trip up on here.

Was there any special reason I was going to Lithuania? No, not really. I hadn't been on a long-distance bus trip since 2013... and I hadn't been on any in Europe since 2012. I'm now not keen to go on another one again, but that's quite a different story that has little to do with the destination itself.

I had completely forgotten that Lithuania had joined the Euro zone at the start of this year, so that took away the hassle of getting travel money. However, since the bus would be traversing Poland, I did make sure I got some Polish złoty. I'm glad I did, too, as it turns out Poland is massive and I must have spent about 12 hours of the whole journey in that country.

Vilnius is a very aesthetically pleasing city. Even if you were just passing through it for a day, I think you would become pretty enamoured in it. Although it's clearly not as tourist-ridden as a bigger, famous more "accessible" city like Paris, there were definitely a lot of tourists.

The hostel I stayed at was called B&B&B&B&B, located inside a big neoclassical building - I think maybe a former gallery. Although huge, there was a lot of unused space. The bottom floor was a bar/restaurant and even a skate park, while the top floor was dorms.

I was reminded of how universal hostel experiences actually are - I mean this in both good and bad ways (let's not forget I worked in a hostel for five months).
The people you meet in such circumstances are not always ones you'd necessarily want to see again. These brief companionships tend to be pretty superficial, but at the time you might feel they mean more because you have the shared experience of being far from home.
On my first evening in Vilnius, a couple of hours after arriving, I went for dinner with a woman in my dorm. On the way there she told me some interesting things about the city - she did, of course, have the advantage of having been here for three days longer than me. But when we got to the restaurant, she was very rude to the staff. I felt embarrassed, giving them apologetic glances, and was relieved that she would be leaving at 4am the next day. I hoped this wasn't going to set the tone for all interpersonal interactions during the trip, as I'd already spent all my energy avoiding gross, aggressive men on the bus.

I hung out a lot at Crooked Nose & Coffee Stories, as it was on the street of the hostel. This is a great little place, bringing a real passion for coffee to the city ("the coffee scene",  so to speak). It could so easily have been pretentious and uninviting, but the people there were really friendly. Each week, they have five guest coffees from different places in the Americas. Some are more chocolatey, some are more bitter. I think I tried just about each one during my stay.

I observed everyday conventions in this country that I'd never seen before, like simply putting an upturned triangle to indicate the ladies' loos, a downturned triangle for the gents'. (In Poland, it's a triangle for the gents' and a circle for the ladies'.)
There was also the common practice of listing days of the week in Roman numerals - Monday being I, Sunday being VII.

I communicated in basic Russian with older Lithuanians, although I didn't feel good about forcing them to use the language of the oppressors. Still, it seemed to be the "second" language and there were a lot of signs in Russian, as well as quite a few Russian magazines available in shops.
On the other side of the coin, younger Lithuanians could speak some English, but again, I just didn't feel good about making them do so as most of them didn't look confident doing so.

Walking around the town, I soon discovered which part was "for show" and which part was where residents of Vilnius conducted their social and business lives. On Gedimino Prospektas, which appeared to be the main shopping mile, I even went to Marks & Spencer and bought some sweets that I miss very much from the UK.

I was actually on my way to visit the Museum of Genocide Victims, on the same street. Unfortunately, it was closed due to it being Assumption Day.
The museum commemorates victims tortured and murdered by the KGB, and before that, by the Nazis. This part of history gets erased so often; we tend to think that "it was all over" by 1945, but this just wasn't the case in all parts of Europe.

Even though it was closed, I could still admire the handmade murals outside about what Lithuania means to its individual citizens.
I was suddenly really empathetic with the fact that this ancient and rich culture, traceable from the first century AD, has been warped by the various invasions and acts of brutality.
In around 2007 - or perhaps even before but I didn't notice - a wave of Lithuanians and Latvians migrated to my hometown. It is not the most cosmopolitan place, but this was when I first became acutely aware of the concept of xenophobia; people started complaining about the "foreigners" and lazily referring to them as "Russians".
The interesting thing about these countries is that their residents get indignant about being called "Eastern European"; they would rather be part of Northern Europe, or simply be referred to as the Baltic States. Once you adopt that view, rather than preconceived stereotypes about Eastern Europe and Eastern Europeans (yes, all 120 million of them), everything begins to seem rather different.

I spent an afternoon at Trakai, a town just outside Vilnius. A minibus departed every hour from the bus station, taking me and five other people down the motorway into some countryside, before stopping at a small bus stop.
For some reason, I'd expected Trakai to be an off-the-beaten-track type of deal that only Lithuanians knew about - in fact, I'd say that it is even more touristy than its neighbour.
Trakai's main attraction is the castle, sitting on an island accessible by a footbridge. It dates from *goes to Wikipedia* 1409 and was inhabited by Gediminas, who founded the nation of Lithuania.
I decided not to pay the 6€ to go inside - if you have parents who had an English Heritage membership and you were dragged to castles every weekend as a kid, I guess you get a bit allergic to them.

Trakai town was small and walkable. There was no transport from the bus station to the castle, so I had to walk. On the way, I stopped by little coves as the whole town is surrounded by lakes. It was lovely.

The other "big" thing I did was ascend Vilnius' TV Tower, which is about 40 metres shorter than Berlin's. I travelled in a very stuffy trolleybus to get there. I got off at Karoliniškės on the 11 route and had to walk along a ring road to get to the actual tower - there were no directions. I had to climb over a (small) wall to get there as the entrance point wasn't entirely clear. You had to enter the tower's reception from underground, where you paid a fee, dropped your bags and were given a ticket to ascend the lift.

It was my first time in a revolving restaurant, which was fun. I didn't eat anything but just had fun admiring the views which, of course, resembled some of Berlin's eastern districts.

The part of the televizijos bokštas where people actually work

All that forest in the distance is Belarus!

I admired more concrete architecture from the Soviet era and the 1990s.

Finally, it was time to go home.

The journey back always seems to take longer, perhaps because on the way there you're full of excitement and anticipation, whereas the way back is a means to an end. Indeed, we did get held up in several Polish villages but I knew that the worst was behind me.
Once we crossed back in Germany via Frankfurt an der Oder (and I could once again use my phone as I pleased) I was overcome by a sense of relief. The journey back from ZOB (Berlin's main international bus station - if you ever get the choice, do not travel from here) while in dire need of a shower and toothbrush was pretty grim, but I managed to get home, freshen up and take a nap before going to a client's office. #likeaboss

Takeaways from this trip:

1. Avoid bus journeys exceeding eight hours if you possibly can.
2. Convince someone else to go somewhere with you if you do not know anyone at your destination.
3. Commit to learning Russian properly!