Have You Ever Been to Vilnius?

I’m spending a few weeks in the Baltic countries, researching a magazine assignment, and just living the global nomad work-from-random-places lifestyle.

I thought you might like to join me.

Not literally — I hate getting woken up in the morning, and I doubt you’d enjoy my traveling style. But we can hang out virtually throughout the trip. And you’ll only have to see the best stuff without suffering any of the setbacks.

So yeah, Vilnius.

We rented a small loft apartment in a converted factory building in the capital of Lithuania. I like finding places on the edge of the old town, in a neighbourhood where residents actually live. It’s peaceful for working, there are grocery stores and shops, and the touristy stuff is usually just a short walk away.

This city has just about as many churches as Malta... every street seems to lead to one...

This city has just about as many churches as Malta… every street seems to lead to one…

Speaking of walking… Vilnius is a lovely green city, surrounded by forests and lakes and small rivers, and the people here have a great love of the outdoors. Everyone seems to be riding a bike, or paddling something, or running.

Living in Malta, I almost forget what all those shades of green look like. And I forget all about the smell of fresh air.

Views of the "new town" and the Neris River from Geiminas Hill...

Views of the “new town” and the Neris River from Geiminas Hill…

The kids look healthy and intelligent too. They’re amusing themselves and playing outside — like we used to do back in my day (etc, etc, grumpy etc…). They aren’t waiting around for their parents, or sitting indoors twiddling some sort of computer gadget.

I expected to find more of a Russian influence here, given that Lithuania was forcibly annexed to the Soviet Union for quite a long stretch of time. The language sounded vaguely Russian to my untutored ears too, but the people are more open and shy, with none of the stern closed-faced bluster I’ve come to regard as the badge of the Russian tourist in Europe.

The food is hearty and filling. Lots of cabbage and beets and splashes of cream. And of course there’s the ever-present and rather noble potato. It’s served on the side of every dish, and it forms the soft protective shell of dumplings too.

This delicious lurid pink soup — a cold beetroot summer soup — is called Saltibarsciai...

This delicious lurid pink soup — a cold beetroot summer soup — is called Saltibarsciai…

I ate some small dumplings for dinner during my first evening in town. We asked our young waiter which ones were best.

“I usually have meat,” he said.

“What’s your second choice?” I asked. “My wife already picked that one.”

“I would have the chicken liver,” he said. And so I wisely followed suit.

It struck me that a young person in Canada would never order liver at a restaurant. It would be something greasy or fried, like nachos or a burger. Something unadventurous and typical; never earthy.

In Vilnius all the churches look like layer cakes (but don't bite them or you'll break your teeth...)

In Vilnius all the churches look like layer cakes (but don’t bite them or you’ll break your teeth…)

But the Lithuanians like the less popular bits of animals, and they’re extremely fond of meat and potatoes. You can get great vegetables in the shops too, and at least compared to Malta, the groceries are incredibly cheap.

Speaking of food, what trip of mine would be complete without an exploration of the local drink?

This is a beer drinking country, and there are many excellent craft brews to be discovered, from light lagers to amber ales to pale wheat beers. The beers have a lovely floral note, with hints of honey. And each region seems to have a specialty of its own. You can even find some beautiful unpasteurized ales.

Lithuania has some lovely beers and ales to explore...

Lithuania has some lovely beers and ales to explore…

Mead is another interesting addition to the regional table. This fermented and spiced product of honey is said to be the world’s oldest drink, and was also enjoyed by the Vikings, and by Irish kings. It’s normally abut 15 degrees, so really no stronger than a glass of wine. And it tastes a bit like white wine too, though it’s “thicker” on the tongue, and the floral notes of the honey come through in a very pleasant way.

Ahh mead... it's the best of the bees, without the sting...

Ahh mead… it’s the best of the bees, without the sting…

But enough about food and drink. I’m getting hungry, and I still have work to do.

Before I sign off,  I want to share a few images with you. Random shots taken from our wanderings through Vilnius’s old town. The entire thing is a UNESCO site. It’s filled with interesting churches and coffee shops and traditional houses.

Exactly the sort of place to reward the curious traveler who likes to wander without an agenda.

The evening light lingers in summer and casts a warm glow on these quiet northern streets...

The evening light lingers in summer and casts a warm glow on these quiet northern streets…

Vilnius Cathedral and belfry, built over the same ground where pagans once worshipped Perkunas (Lithuanian god of thunder)...

Vilnius Cathedral and belfry, built over the same ground where pagans once worshipped Perkunas (Lithuanian god of thunder)…

I do some of my best work in bars...

I do some of my best work in bars…

Check out that psychedelic Jesus...!

Check out that psychedelic Jesus…!

The tower on Gediminus Hill — the first fortification on this site dates back to the 13th century...

The tower on Gediminus Hill — the first fortification on this site dates back to the 13th century…

Views of the UNESCO-listed old town from up the hill...

Views of the UNESCO-listed old town from up the hill…

A taste of Canada in... Vilnius? I don't think I've ever seen a Second Cup outside my home country.

A taste of Canada in… Vilnius? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Second Cup outside my home country.

Cities like this are perfect for aimless walking, and must be explored on foot...

Cities like this are perfect for aimless walking, and must be explored on foot…

 

 

Photos ©Tomoko Goto 2015
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Comments

  1. Jeff and I are both in love with the constant “side” of potato. It just might be added to the “potato dream destinations”!

    • Ryan Murdock says

      I’m expecting the entire Baltic region to be very potato-intensive. An immersion into the humble spud.

  2. Geoffrey Daigle says

    Well, I’m definitely a meat-and-potatoes-kind-of-guy, lol. Unfortunately, I don’t do my best work in bars, whether actually “work-work” or drinking. The Baltics have always seemed to have an allure to me. The churches look magnificent. I guess that the thing with Europe; there’s so much more history. Seems like a beautiful city. I guess the reason the groceries are so cheap compared to Malta because of the shipping cost?

    • Ryan Murdock says

      It’s a very interesting region, always caught between bigger powers. The Teutonic Knights invaded because they were stubborn heathens. The northern German Hanseatic League controlled much of it, because it was an outlet for trade goods from further east. And even the Vikings trod over it, to get to the large Russian rivers that led to the Black Sea and Byzantium. And then of course there was the Soviet Union, which left behind all sorts of hideous (but fascinating) concrete structures.

      re: groceries, everything was much cheaper in Lithuania. Salaries were lower than those in Malta too (which I always find shockingly low).

  3. Geoffrey Daigle says

    P.S. Sorry, that’s my Fantasy Sports Baseball Avatar, lol.

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