About a month before we packed up our lovely little apartment in Cary, NC and headed out on this great adventure, we met a fellow resident named Vilma at the annual Christmas social. We’d all lived in the apartment community for years, attended various social events, and even had a mutual friend – but we’d never met. She was friendly, outgoing, and really interested in hearing about our upcoming adventure. Vilma informed us she was from Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital city, and told us if we made it there, she could give us lots of ideas for sightseeing. Fast forward seven months, and we unexpectedly found ourselves in Riga. With the intention to head south to Poland, we knew we could not pass through Lithuania without a stop in Vilnius. We emailed an excited Vilma, who was quick to send us an extensive list of must-dos.
As soon as we stepped off the bus from Latvia, we hailed a cab and made a beeline for Drama Burger, a cute little burger joint owned by Vilma’s brother. A tall, blonde girl greeted us, and Stephan eagerly opened with, ‘you must be Vilma’s niece.’ Her face looked kind of shocked, as I’d imagine you wouldn’t expect a customer to run up to you saying they knew your aunt who lived 5,000 miles away. Gabriele was very friendly and sweet, sat us at a cute little table inside, and took our order. Stephan was thrilled as, to his good fortune, it just happened to be ‘pastrami Thursday’ on their menu. He enthusiastically ordered their traditional recipe (which takes nine days to prepare) and, needless to say, he was not disappointed. With a hulking pile of meat in one hand and a local draft in the other, he seemed pretty content to be in Lithuania.
The great start to our stay in the city continued as we headed to our apartment, a stunning two-bedroom on the fifth floor of a building just outside Vilnius’ Old Town. Skylights in every room illuminated the apartment with warm light and also provided stunning views of the Neris River and the neighboring Church of St. Raphael the Archangel. Unlike most of the other AirBnB rentals we’ve stayed at, this apartment had a lovely history that the renter made sure to showcase in a neatly-organized binder she put together for guests. Apparently, the large housing complex had been constructed in the 1960s specifically to accommodate directors, choreographers, dancers, and singers of the National Opera & Ballet, Vilnius’ premier center for the arts. This apartment in particular was the former studio of her grandfather, Vytautas Grivickas, an artist and master of ballet who traveled and performed at theaters throughout Europe and Asia in the 1950s and 60s. His sketches and paintings adorned the walls of the apartment, and a small plaque in his honor was affixed to the outside of the building facing the National Opera & Ballet, a venue where he regularly performed, choreographed, and taught. Although we couldn’t read the words, his memoirs were prominently displayed on a bookshelf, and it was clear that his family took a lot of pride in honoring his contributions to Lithuania’s artistic programs.
When we finally hit the streets to explore Vilnius’ Old Town, we were met with charming scenery and architecture at nearly every corner. We were initially surprised at how close all of the towering, modern, skyscrapers were to the center of Old Town, but quickly discovered how easy it was to lose yourself in the small alleys and veritable sea of churches, easily forgetting that a sprawling urban center hovered just beyond the Vilnia River. We spent our two days primarily wandering around the narrow streets of old town – stopping at beautiful cathedrals and small cafes. We passed under the sacred Gates of Dawn, the only surviving gate of the city’s original five, erected in the early 16th century. We perused the embellished walls of Literatu Street, decorated with some two hundred small pieces of art that are dedicated to the nation’s beloved novelists and poets. And did I mention the churches? Everywhere we turned, striking steeples soared overhead. One of the city’s most revered, the Vilnius Cathedral, dates back as far as the 13th century.
At the edge of the historical district, along the banks of the Neris River, we also visited Gediminas Castle, perched commandingly atop a small, grassy hill. The fortress was initially constructed at the start of the 14th century, when Grand Duke Gediminas had a telling dream, that directed him to build a majestic capital at this site. Carrying out the vision, the Duke set a large defensive castle within the heart of the nascent city. Once protecting the capital from numerous attacks, portions of the (restored) brick complex still overlook Vilnius’ endless expanse of red, tile roofs and ornate steeples.
Perhaps one of the more unique parts of Old Town we visited was the Republic of Uzupis. The small neighborhood runs along the Vilnia River (the name Uzupis means ‘the other side of the river’), and on April 1, 1997 (yup, April Fool’s Day), the residents declared the bohemian district an independent republic, replete with its own flag, cabinet, currency, and army. Its laudable constitution lines one wall of the quarter in 23 different languages, proudly proclaiming each resident’s (and dog’s) right to love, happiness, uniqueness, imperfection, freedom, and peace. It is thought that some of the district’s more eccentric and clever artists devised the Republic as a tongue-in-cheek approach to celebrating the fall of repressive Soviet control in the early 90s, and the ensuing uprising of democracy and free expression. We sat and enjoyed a beer in the warm sunshine of the progressive ‘republic’ and, luckily, were still able to exchange our standard Euros for a mug of the frothy beverage.
Like everywhere else we’ve been, we tried to get a small taste of the local cuisine. Stephan eagerly grabbed a loaf of Lithuania’s traditional black rye bread (juoda duona) from the city’s open-air market, as well as a variety of freshly-baked pastries. I have to say, while I am not normally a huge fan of bread, this little loaf was amazing… super rich in flavor, packed with tasty little seeds… this could turn me into a bread-lover for sure. Ever the fan of a nice, flaky pastry, Stephan thoroughly enjoyed his handful of sweet treats, as well as his savory kibinas, a crispy pastry stuffed with meat and onions. Fittingly, our final stop before leaving the city was at Coffee Inn, a hugely-successful café also started by Vilma’s brother that now has locations scattered across all three Baltic states. Vilma had keenly suggested we try the pravda, a spicy, hot coffee made with a splash of milk, and insisted that, while not listed on the menu, they’d know how to make it. Indeed, we each enjoyed a cup of the delicious pravda in the café’s cozy window seat as we relished in one last view of Vilnius.
Lastly, one additional treat we indulged ourselves in that can’t go unmentioned was sakotis (‘tree cake’), a traditional Lithuanian cake that’s cooked on a rotating spit and enjoyed at special occasions, such as weddings and Christmas. Our final day in Vilnius happened to be the day we celebrate our ‘anniversary’ of (unwedded) blissful togetherness, and we thought the meaningful cake was the perfect way to commemorate the occasion. Furthermore, because our long, late-afternoon bus ride to Bialystok, Poland would probably preclude dinner, we figured the chocolate-drizzled cake would likely make a fabulous substitute (at least, I thought it sounded reasonable). Since the little cake has long disappeared since the time of publishing this blog, I can say this: (1) it was freakin’ delicious, and (2) we at the entire thing for “dinner” later that evening in Poland. I must say, making mealtime decisions as an adult rules! With that, I guess I’ll go ahead and close this out with a smidge of sentimental crap – happy 12 years of togetherness to my partner in crime. I often wonder how you possibly put up with me, but now I am guessing it’s because of my incredible decision-making skills – like choosing cake for supper.
Thanks so much for sharing your homeland with us, Vilma! We had such a wonderful stay in Vilnius, and are so happy that our amended plans allowed us to fit a visit into our European tour.