Sep 18, 2010 -- posted by Emile
Cramped in between Latvia, Belarus, Poland and the Russian Kaliningrad Oblast, lies the Republic of Lithuania (Lietuvos Respublika). Once part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, it is now reduced to a country of about the size of the Czech Republic.
It is in this country, that the most recent of my travels started. A plane from Estonian Airlines flew me from Amsterdam Schiphol Airport to Vilnius Airport. Vilnius is the capital of this interesting country and I’ll now tell you more about it.
A short history of Vilnius
Vilnius was first mentioned in 1323 and was granted city rights in 1387. It was the seat of the Lithuanian grand duke after this. After the third partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Vilnius was annexed by Russia and became a provincial capital.
The city remained under Russian rule until 1918, when the city became the capital of the young Lithuanian republic, created after World War 1. The city didn’t manage to hold this position in Lithuania, however, as Poland also laid claims on the city. After the League of Nations intervened, the city was officially ceded to Lithuania, but in 1920, Polish forces invaded the Vilnius region and proclaimed the Republic of Central Lithuania, which was absorbed by Poland two years later.
Under Polish rule, the city flourished. Renovations were started in the city and its surroundings (e.g. nearby Trakai castle) and the city’s university was re-opened (after being closed down by German forces in WW1). However, Polish rule didn’t last long, as during the invasion of Poland by German and Russian forces, the city was assigned to the Soviet Lithuanian SSR. The city remained under Soviet rule until the Soviet Union fell apart and Lithuania once again became a republic. In fact, Lithuania was the first of the Soviet republics to declare independence.
Nowadays, the city is enjoying its unique location on the border of Europe, being one of the main entry points for adventurous travelers to Belarus, but also to the Russian Kaliningrad Oblast.
Getting there & around and “Where can I sleep?!?”
To get in, I would recommend taking a Estonian Air flight (I flew from Amsterdam – 2nd class ticket costs about 100 euro). Take a taxi to the city centre, it will cost you about 5 euro. Be aware that you should ask the fare before you enter the cab!
It is of course also possible to take a bus from the airport. I don’t have experience with this (I am the lazy git who takes a cheap cab), but wikitravel tells us that there are multiple buses running from the airport to the bus station in Vilnius. Just look for buses with Vilnius written on it and ask the bus driver to bring you to “Stotis” [STOH-tis] (Station). Please note: the bus drivers usually don’t speak English! You might also try in Russian, as this is still widely understood ( [V vak-ZAL pah-ZHAL-st] ).
Once in the city, most of the city’s sights can easily be reached on foot. It is also possible to rent bikes, of course. I can advise to do this if you want to explore the forests in and around the city.
One can also use public transport, of course. There are buses and trolleys plying their way through the city. City buses have fixed prices: 2,50 LTL (about €0,90) standard and upon showing your student ID 1,25 LTL.
A good place to sleep, or at least the one I recommend, is Filaretai Hostel. It is located in the Užupis district, and is a mere 5 minute walk from the Old Town. Dorm rooms will cost you about 8 euros and breakfast is an additional euro a day. Furthermore, the hostel has a large common room, three computers with free internet access and the staff is very helpful.
Vilnius (map) is built on the bank of the Neris river, which nicely separates the Old Town from the modern business district.
The old town is a maze of little cobblestone streets, with one main street, the Pilies Gatve (and the Vartu Gatve – they are connected), which runs all the way from the Gates of Dawn (near the Central Station) to the cathedral. A stroll along this road is highly recommended. Start at the Gates of Dawn, a remainder of the city walls, which now houses a little chapel and is connected with the church of St. Theresa. Next to this church, you can find a really interesting orthodox church with a nice green-and-gold interior. Continuing down the street, we reach Town Hall Square, a triangle-shaped square with the town hall standing roughly in the middle. There are some nice bars here, so if you like you can sit down and enjoy the tasty Lithuanian beer (Švyturys can be recommended 😉 ).
Strolling further down the street, you pass some other little churches until the street suddenly goes steeply downhill (or at least, more steep than before). Here, to the left, is a huge church, which can‘t be reached from the steet. This church belong to Vilnius University. Continuing down the street, you find more bars and restaurants until you reach an intersection. Across the street is a huge, white, marble tiled square with the immense cathedral and its clock tower. Unfortunately, you can‘t climb the clock tower, but the cathedral is well worth a visit!
Here are some more recommendations, which make your visit to Vilnius an experience you‘ll never forget:
– Visit the University of Vilnius. Entry price for students: 1 LTL (about €0,28). The main building in the Old Town is huge, so don’t get lost. Enjoy the wall paintings in some of the corridors and visit the university’s own church.
– Climb up Gedimino Pilis (Gedimino Hill). It lies directly behind the cathedral, where signs will direct you to the other side of the hill where a footpath allows you to ascend the hill. On top of the hill is a tower which once was part of the city’s fortifications. Great views are guaranteed!
– Stroll down Gedimino Prospektas, a wide boulevard running westward from the cathedral. Nice early-20th-century buildings and expensive shops.
– Go to Užupis, a district in the Old Town, which somewhere in the 90’s declared “independence”. The district has a lot of art galleries and the arty atmosphere makes this district worth visiting. Go uphill from the main square in Užupis and you’ll encounter traditional Lithuanian architecture: nice little wooden houses.
– Get lost in the Old Town! There are just so many things to see there! Really, just do it!