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Vilnius, Lithuania 
      

June 1

A travel day by train with a change of countries part way through. Our passports now contain the stamp of Lithuania. The trip was pleasurable and uneventful. We arrived in Vilnius, capital of Lithuania, as the sun broke low through the cumulus clouds and cast long shadows as we walked through The Gates of Dawn into Old Town.

Just inside the gates and around the corner of St. Teresa’s Church we booked into Domus Maria Guesthouse which was once the monastery of the church.

It’s a handsome place and spotlessly clean, with marble staircases and long arched corridors. Our room has a livingroom, bedroom and bathroom (surprising that Domes Maria Guesthouse is shown under the classification of hostel). Deep sills reflect the thickness of the old walls and our windows open onto a centre courtyard. Wide rich mahogany doors and tasteful furnishings complete the picture. Having in-room unlimited access to the internet (they supplied the cable) was a much appreciated bonus ... we even talked with our son Bryan shortly after our arrival.

After settling in, we walked further into Old Town and were impressed with the buildings and its clean appearance. It has modern touches, just enough to add some pizzaz but without destroying the timeless elegance of the older buildings.

We found a Lonely Planet recommended restaurant, Balti Drambliai, which specializes in inexpensive vegetarian dishes. Thinking it might get a little too cold at the outdoor tables, we ventured down the stairs into the brick arched rooms decorated with Asian/Middle Eastern motifs with music and incense to match.

The music, a little too loud and the incense, captured between the thick brick walls, a little too intense, convinced us to return to the last available outdoor table where we were able to enjoy the curry and other spice smells wafting from the kitchen below. The place was crowded with locals – mostly in their late twenties - early thirties enjoying their Friday night. Some were having dinner while others drank over nibbles, or drank while playing a game of chess. It was quite bohemian and most enjoyable. The food was good, not spectacular, but good and the beer tasty.

It started to rain and we check the security of the large umbrella our table was under and wished we had brought our rain coats. It passed by the time we finished dinner and kept dry as we walked back to our room, glimpsing down alleyways and side streets promising to investigate further tomorrow.

   

June 2

The buffet breakfast was ample and served with pan flute music.

We started off without jackets, wearing sandals, but realized by the time we reached the corner of St. Teresa’s Church that such apparel today wasn’t going to do. Returning to the room we changed into socks and boots, long sleeved shirts and jackets.

Our first stop was the beautiful and ornate St. Teresa’s Church next door. It was built in 1650 with a graceful facade made of Swedish sandstone, black and white marble and granite. It was designed after churches in Rome, but the proportions are lighter and more vertical. The 18th century interior is sombre and lavishly decorated with frescoes and sculptures and completed with a Rococo high altar under a half dome.

A wedding was taking place and we thought of Laurie and Malcolm Fiander, as today is their wedding day so many miles away on Salt Spring Island. Hopefully for them it is a little warmer. Here the groomsmen had taken off their suit jackets and draped them like capes over the shoulders of the bride’s maids.

Suppose most Saturdays of the year Old Town sees (as we were seeing) a number of brides and grooms as they marry in one of the many churches or use the beautiful cobblestoned streets as settings for photographs.

People have been settling where the Neris and Velnia Rivers meet (where Vilnius now stands) since the first century BC. The history of Vilnius has been as tumultuous as the country’s. Each conflict and its aftermath, has contributed to the city’s culture and architecture: Polish, Russian, Jewish, German, Karaite, etc.. Old Town, Eastern European’s largest at 360 hectares has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Mostly three-storey-plus-attic buildings form two sides of Old Town’s central square which is dominated on the upper side by Vilnius Town Hall. Small squares, like charms on a bracelet, accent the main street through Old Town.

In one of the squares we critiqued art work, looked at antiques, handcrafts, knitted wear, crocheted and tatted doilies and a plethora of stalls selling tourist gismos and souvenirs.

 
 

 A teen boy fills the air with violin music and later a lady fills it again with her accordion.

 

As all Eastern European countries are experiencing an increase in tourism, plans are implemented to entice visitors to stay longer and spend more money. To do so the plans must include things for tourist to do (other than shopping) and ways to move them around. To these ends, Vilnius has, among others, plans to build a domestic airport, develop water tours on the Neris River (expected end of 2010) and construct a 10 km tram line, part of which will go through Old Town. The latter has some hoops to jump through since UNESCO heritage specialists must be consulted.

 

We walked main streets and tangled side streets and the huge Cathedral Square. The square, as usual was busy with a number of happenings - besides the roller-bladers and skate boards. A group of ten girls were working out a dance routine and bowed and giggled when their audience of two clapped. At one end of the square a stage had been set up and costumed teens were putting on plays. Some of them were dressed in imaginative costumes made into see-through wired hooped skirts.

At the other end, where the main doors of the Cathedral open up towards the bell tower, young people dressed in white confirmation gowns, were being congratulated and photographed by family. The classic lines of the cathedral’s exterior are continued inside with white walls and ceiling accenting the delicate high ceiling arches.

 
 
 

It was chilly and the idea of stopping for a bowl of soup was appealing. We went into Valentino’s, a little café on a corner. The white table clothes and leather bound menus were reflected in the prices. We eased into a pair of tall backed padded chairs and ordered the soup of the day. "Oh my goodness! It was delicious!" Asparagus soup. Hot, thick, creamy and bursting with flavour, topped with a dollop of sour cream and served with a selection of breads. A bargain! We savoured each sip like fine wine.

 
 
 

Fortified we walked up to the rebuilt bastion and then outside the walls and back in through the Gates of Dawn which always finds a group of people, some praying, some begging, some snapping pictures but most looking up to the painting of the Madonna. The Gates of Dawn are famous all over Lithuania and is one of the symbols of Vilnius. Built on the road to Medininkal, the gate – initially called the Medininkal Gate – was among the first five city gates built in the 16th century together with the city wall. It is the only one to survive.  From the outside it has holes for shooting and a Renaissance attic storey with two griffins holding the Lithuanian coat of arms.

Inside is a chapel with an image of the Virgin Mary painted in the 17th century by an unknown artist. The painting is covered, all but face and hands (a familiar practice within Eastern European churches) with a silver gilt setting (donated by a jeweller of the city). By believers, the painting is considered miraculous. In 1993 it was visited by Pope John Paul II. During the day the doors between the chapel and the street below are open. Often services take place accompanied by beautiful music. As we looked up, we noticed only a few people in the chapel, so we decided to venture up and take a closer look as there are not many paintings of Mary without her holding the baby Jesus.

 

A super market with a deli section is close to the Gates of Dawn so we decided to have a quiet night "at home".

     

June 3

A day trip to Trakai.

 

The town of Trakai and its beautiful lake-filled surroundings hold much pride for Lithuanians. The town is seeking to preserve its history through the development of the National Historical Park of Trakai established in 1991 – to date the only historical park in Lithuania. Today’s visitors come to see Island Castle on a small island in Lake Galve. Early records tell of a castle being built here in the latter part of the 4th century. It experienced many invasions and in reaction continued to build it’s defensive walls and towers. It is mentioned in battle reports by the crusaders. After the castle was destroyed around the 17th century it lay in ruins until monks built a monastery in its place. Today it is tourists who roam within its walls and through the many rooms.

 
        

We didn’t use a tour company to get there. We simply walked into the Vilnius bus depot, caught one of the frequent buses which took us to Trakai’s bus depot where we were met by a farmers’/flea market set up across the street.

The kilometre walk through town to the lakeside was a pleasant one. From the mainland we walked across a footbridge to a little treed island where a lady was selling smoked eels. It was only a short walk to another footbridge which took us to the Island Castle.

 
 

Inside seemed much larger then the view from without. Many of the rooms held museum pieces and most had descriptions in English. Sherrie particularly enjoyed the room displaying stamps ... not the kind you lick ...the kind you pressed into wax to

seal ...  not the kind that bark and clap their flippers ... confidential written communications.

 
 

We returned across the bridges. It was too cold and to choppy on the water to enjoy some canoeing (the only ones we saw on the water were the owners of the boats they wanted to rent).

Walking another half kilometre along the lake we took refuge in a recommended restaurant and had a traditional kibinai – a meat stuffed pastry along the lines of the Cornish pastry but smaller in size. If it is a nice day and you just want to pick some up and go, there is an outside pick-up window (expect line-ups because even today it was busy) and the prices are about half.

 
 

The town of Trakai has a little over seven thousand inhabitants. Some of them are Karaites, who have been living here since the 14th century when the Grand Duke brought them back from his marches to Crimea to serve as guards for the castle and bodyguards for himself. They were craftsmen and traders as well. Their homes have a distinctive architecture showing the narrow side with three windows to the street front, without any front yard. Their "yard" is in the back where we found four gentlemen who welcomed a friendly hello and kibitzed about having their picture taken.

The 1.5 km walk back to the bus kept us warm and the buses were frequent but busy and it was standing room only for the ride back. It had been a good day ... despite the weather. They say the sun will return tomorrow.

 

June 4

Seeing blue sky and early morning sun, Sherrie was out on the streets of Vilnius with her camera before 6:00.

 
 
   
 

We bussed from Vilnius, Lithuania to Riga, Latvia.

   

     

 

click here to continue June 4  and trip to Riga Latvia ...



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