Vilnius and Kaunas and Trakai

Vilnius and Kaunas

The tiny country of Lithuania was actually once the biggest country in Europe (during the 14th century) and a powerful empire, known as the Grand duchy of Lithuania, its successor as  Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth. The empire once incorporated parts of Poland, Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. However the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth went into decline as it though lost a lot of terrority to a strengthening Russia and suffered partioning of its lands.

I had planned my tightest change over so. Arrive back San Francisco at Heathrow and a few hours later leave Gatwick for Kaunas, Lithuania
I check and it was very tight but in theory possible just that I should make sure I have no checked in luggage for my plane from the US and rush as soon as possible to get first a bus into London and then a train.
My hopes were dashed very quickly as Continental Airlines (which hadn’t allowed me to make a flight change before) arrived back into London over an hour late.
A terrible journey from the beginning I was left with a difficult choice. Throw away my opportunity to continue on to Kaunas or take a taxi from Heathrow. It was then that I took my most expensive journey so far of £196! Around double my flight ticket!

My taxi battled the time to arrive in Gatwick so I could take my flight.
I just arrived in time for the gate but not my luggage it meant I could take check in my luggage but I could take it after paying another fee (read high priced fine). I had just made it!
I arrived in Kaunas at night and took my pre-booked coach n to Vilnius. On the way I met Andrew & his friend, both of whom I talked to for a short time before I was dropped off at my hotel.

Fortunately the hotel itself was OK. Pleasant staff, the room itself was OK and the location was OK to but perhaps a little bit deserted despite being a big street. Actually as the bus drove from Kaunas to Vilnius the city itself seemed a bit deserted at night. Maybe I was too sued to London but I am sure even Weybridge is busier.
I went around Vilnius by foot and without the aid of my guidebook.
I walked to the tourist information centre where a friendly woman advised me to visit Trakai however as this was just a weekend trip I decided to focus locally and instead explored the Old Town.
It was a Saturday but to me the town deemed dead. Shops seemed shut except not all of them were on close inspection. It did liven up a little. Lithuania has a reputation for stag parties so I was wondering is it the evenings that are most lively.

Vilnius has a beautiful kind of ambience and the light brown coloured buildings and architecture were very beautiful. The squares were the classic European style that I like the most with some nice coffee shops and I guess in better weather would encourage people to relax and talk outside while life
I would also describe was a city of churches with an abundance of architecture with mostly Roman Catholic and Protestant churches but also some Orthodox. I visited one of the Orthodox churches, the outside door was unlocked but the light was off and the second door inside was locked but through the window the beautiful iconostasis could be seen.
I took the chance to try classic Lithuanian food including Zeppelins.
Zepplins are potato-meat dumplings eaten with sour cream.

Apparently not to everyone’s taste there are variations so you may find something you like if the texture is OK. The food was fine for me.
I also the visited the hill of three crosses.
A chapel to Franciscan monks killed by pagans was created and the three crosses added later.
Lithuanians certainly love their crosses. For example in Siauliai there us the Hill of Crosses.

The next morning I took my train to Kaunas. The guard on the train was very friendly and enthusiastic to meet me.
He was even more pleased when I greeted him with “Labas” hello in Lithuania and wanted to know if I was studying I explained I was a tourist.
I think taking the time to learn a little more Lithuanian will really pay off with some people.
While on the train a drunk man who spoke what I would describe as lower-intermediate appeared to warn me that there had been some racism related trouble in Kaunas of late but also saying I was big and so should be ok.
I don’t know about the regular situation but I faced no hostility at all in Kaunas.

I arrived at Kaunas train station and waited for Rita.
Rita a very kind friend, was the first friend from Interpals that I met.
She had limited time because she had to work later that afternoon but took time to meet me and show me around.

Her English was very good and I was quite surprised about.
We travelled by bus and made our way to Freedom Avenue (Laisves Aleja).
Where we walked past the Church of St. Michael the Archangel church which was an Orthodox church of neo-Byzantium style but now under control of Roman Catholics.
The streets were quiet and we arrived at the Old Town.
The Old Town and Kaunas in general was even more quite than Vilnius.
Kaunas is considerable smaller than Vilnius, and the Old Town is no exception but the buildings are beautiful there too.
Rita took me to Aleksotas where you have a nice view over the river bank and Old Town. The funicular was closed so it was a short walk up some stairs.

I wanted to see the church of the resurrection but due to taking the wrong route and not wanting to risk missing my flight I gave it a miss. At the airport I met Andrew again and we were able to catch up on trip.
I enjoyed Kaunas it was a small place but with a nice old town and worth seeing if spending some time in Lithuania.


Trakai (and Vilnius again)

I returned to Vilnius in 2013 on route to Latvia. Having my emergency passport I did not specify Lithuania as part of my itinerary but I had no problems getting a ticket there are buying a ticket for Latvia there. I went with a Polish tour group, Paula arranging the trip. I left my accommodation to the last minute. Fortunately I found a kind host in Ruta.  My trip was just literally an enforced trip because I could not find any suitable itinerary that would allow me to go to Riga and meet Valeria on her arrival without stopping. So having alreadly being to Vilnius I decide to make the most of my trip by visiting Trakai.

Trakai castle looks similar to Bodiam Castle in the UK. Two castes sounded by a moat make a most beautiful setting. Only that Trakai is more complete because of rennovation. Theoriginal castle was destroyed in conflicts and rebuilt from the 1960s but not completed until the 90s.
Perhaps because of this the castle is mostly empty and despite being inexpensive I cant recommend going inside unless there is some cultural festival etc. I still felt it was not worth it. You will miss about one or two chances of photos however but you can certainly get the best shots (from across the bridge) and by the entry just before you go in. The region and town of Trakai itself is beautiful.. There are over 200 lakes, but as the town it is small and under 6,000 people (according to estimates from 2007). I visited an Orthodox Church that was in a bad state outside and in need of renovation. Also there were some interesting buildings around before getting to the castle.

In Vilnius I just walked along the old town and had a nice evening speaking to Ruta. Who was a very friendly host and spent time talking despite being ill.