Lithuania is the Golden child of the Baltics. Vilnius has been proclaimed to be the Paris of the East and it does not disappoint. Not only are there magnificent churches, twisted alleyways, and cobble-stoned streets, but Lithuanian cuisine hits the spot after a long day of exploring. Topped off with delicious beer and garlic bread, a visit to Lithuania is definitely alluring. So much so that Becky visited over 6 times (some for work but mostly for pleasure)…something about those easy on the eyes 6 foot men!
We had an early start to drive towards Vilnius today. Our aggressive plan was to drive from Riga to Vilnius (avoid getting pulled over by the traffic police) and make a mad dash back to Riga late that evening. However, for the first half hour, we drove circles around Riga and simply could not find the A7 signs leading out of the city. Once we gave up on finding signs and relied on navigating by geographical landmarks, we made significant progress and finally made our way out. (Now that we both have struggled to drive within and around Riga, we can definitely claim to know that city like the back of our hands.) We were cautious about our speed as we didn’t want yesterday’s repeat performance with the police but fortunately, it started raining. We eventually found our “white rabbit”, a speedster who was zooming towards Vilnius and we followed in hot pursuit. Amazingly, it only took us slightly over three hours to get to Vilnius (including our little detour) and we were there just in time for lunch before kicking off our walking tour.
Parking in Vilnius is a breeze and we parked a block away from the Katedros aikste (Cathedral square), our first stop. The square was used during Lithuania’s campaign for independence in the early 90s but it has long played a prominent role. Back in the early 19th century, the square and cathedral used to be part of the lower castle and a moat ran around what is currently the square’s perimeter. The 57 meter tall belfry that still stands today used to be located within the moat! The immense cathedral has amazing statues and frescoes to admire. It was also the scene of an ugly battle that remains unresolved till today. Back in 1985, workers in the cathedral discovered a $10-million treasure. It is believed that the stash of 270 religious jewels were stowed away and hidden by Russian soldiers back in 1655. Today, both the church and state dispute who should benefit from the treasures.
Inside the cathedral, a baptism was being held so we didn’t linger too long inside and walked over to the statue of Grand Duke Gediminas. This controversial statue depicts the Duke wielding a sword despite the fact he was never a warrior! However, he is widely acknowledged as the founder of Vilnius. From there, we took the footpath up to Gedimino Tower (located on top of Gedimino hill). From the tower, we had a fabulous view of Vilnius: the old town to the South, the Three crosses hill to the East, the river to the North and the newer part of Vilnius to the West. The rain started to downpour while we stood on top of the tower, but we decided to enjoy the liquid sunshine while wandering through the old town on Pilies gatve (Castle street). There are tons of tourist shops selling amber jewelry, lace and souvenirs along the length of Castle Street, which expands into a daily handicraft market at the southern end of the street. We weren’t in the mood for shopping and opted to check out Vilnius’ oldest street, Gates of Dawn Street, instead. This street was originally named Greater Castle Street but during the soviet regime, it was renamed Gorky Street. There are several amazing churches conglomerated along the street and our first stop was at the Holy Trinity Basilian monastery, after which we saw the Russian Orthodox Church of the Holy Spirit. Inside the church, three 14th-century martyr’s perfectly preserved bodies are proudly on display. Maybe it was a good thing we got indoctrinated with some mummified remains first as the next church, St. Teresa’s Church, was a bit of a shocker. We didn’t realize that below the entrance is a chamber for the dead. We wandered right in on two funeral rituals, where entire families, huddled in separate rooms, surrounded their newly departed. Becky is definitely queasy around the dead so we made a beeline for the exit immediately and found ourselves at the Gates of Dawn (this is the only one of the original gates in the town wall that is still intact). Apparently it scraped by with a close call as it was scheduled for destruction during the Soviet era plans to build a highway from Minsk to Moscow. We stumbled upon a nice surprise at the Old Town Hall who was hosting a photo contest gallery. Local photographers (professional and amateurs) had submitted their favorite photos, broken down into various categories, to be scrutinized and voted on by the public. Some of the photos were absolutely amazing…we spent quite a bit of time going through each section and wishing we could take similar pics. After hitting most of the highlights within the old town, we decided to grab a bite for dinner before the long drive back to Riga. We strolled through Vilnius’ nooks and crannies before settling on a traditional Lithuanian restaurant, that was unfortunately out of cepelinai (Becky ate this in Vilnius a couple of years ago and was a huge fan of the glutinous potato dough/ cheese/meat & mushrooms concoction). However, there were plenty of other traditional dishes to try and Robby has his first taste of Lithuanian garlic bread (awesome but everyone has to eat it simultaneously cause it is STRONG). After dinner, we enjoyed a beautiful drive back to Riga. While Becky voted Riga as her favorite Baltic capital, Robby enjoyed Vilnius more but was holding off his vote until after visiting Tallinn (our upcoming June 04 trip).