Lithuania

Getting lost in a strange city can be unnerving, especially when you find yourself in the less salubrious areas, but having survived the experience it can be quite invigorating and leave you feeling that you have peered behind the tourist façade.

The centre of the Lithuanian capital Vilnius oozes quaintness: narrow cobbled streets, crumbling buildings, baroque churches – both Catholic and Eastern Orthodox – tavern-style bars and restaurants and even clanking armoured guards outside the presidential palace.

Surrounding the old city is a more functional belt of late 19th/early 20th century buildings rising three to four storeys and it was in this area that we ended up staying – a good 20 minute walk to the more picturesque part.

However, Lithuania is a former region of the USSR and that legacy is evident in the outlying suburbs where functional blocks of flats and industrial estates sprawl.

Most Lithuanian street names seem to have five or six syllables which when squeezed into a map can make them difficult to read – well that’s my excuse for getting lost anyway.

The advantage was a long peregrination into areas which were well of the beaten tourist trail but left me with a smug feeling of having experienced Vilnius in a more intimate way than if I had simply traipsed the cobbled roads and the not unpleasant streets leading back to the apartment where I was staying.

Although there is a distinct Lithuanian national identity the country has had historical ties with Poland and been claimed as part of Russia at various periods in its history. The onion-towered Orthodox churches stand testament to that legacy.

Lithuania’s 50-year membership of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics is grimly marked by The Museum of Genocide Victims located in the former headquarters of the KGB. Its main purpose is to remember the country’s partisans who resisted Soviet occupation until the mid-1950s.

Tens of thousands were arrested and sent to gulags thousands of miles away, often with their entire families and their stories are told in words and pictures.

In the cellars below are dozens of prison cells where the dissidents were kept before being deported and where others, even deeper underground in a sinister bunker, were executed.

During the Second World War Lithuania was occupied by Nazi Germany and the country’s Jews were gathered into ghettos in Vilnius and murdered there or sent to concentration camps.

Their fate is commemorated in a small but poignant museum and the former ghettos are close to the city centre.

There are more than 30 museums and art galleries listed on the tattered tourist map which led me astray but quite often these seemed to have disappeared or to be inexplicably closed.

A museum of Russian Art was closed on the two days that I tried to get in to it and a long trek – four kilometers each way – outside the city to visit a museum dedicated to the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin also proved fruitless. There were signposts, but no museum, or at least I didn’t see it.
Pushkin never actually visited Vilnius, although his grandfather lived there and one of his sons did as well.

Neither did Californian psychedelic jazz-fusion guru Frank Zappa, but there is a statue to him in Vilnius anyway which, after a fair bit of searching I did manage to track down.

A 30-minute bus trip took us to the small town of Trakai on Galvė Lake, where a 16th century castle overlooks the surrounding lush green countryside and five linked lakes.

The architecture here is unique and refelcts the history of many of Trakai’s residents whose ancestors were brought from Crimea 700 years ago.

I was expecting the food to be stodgy – blood sausages and cabbage with a side of gherkins and stubborn black bread – and to be fair it was there if you wanted it. However, the menus in the restaurants that I visited were varied and surpsingly fresh and healthy.

A Ukrainian restaurant close to our apartment was a highlight with superb borscht and some excellent fish dishes. The surprise treat was a bowl of cold beetroot soup, served with a hard-boiled egg and a dollop of sour cream. It shouldn’t work but somehow it did.