Lithuania – Land Of My Baltic Roots And Unexpected Gems
Welcome to the center of Europe!
You probably didn’t know that this southernmost of the Baltic States is the officially recognized center of Europe. This was the first of many surprises I encountered in Lithuania. The exact spot, near the village of Girija 16 miles north of the capital, offers visitors an impressive looking stamped certificate with their full name authenticating the jaunt to Europe’s geographical center. Here travelers can also enjoy a lovely wooded area, scenic Girijos ežeras (Girija Lake) and The European Center Golf Club.
Vilnius – Enchanting Medieval Capital And Bohemian Oasis
Vilnius, the capital, charms with its windy cobbled streets, elaborate churches and colorful Baroque houses. Romantic restaurants, artisan craft boutiques and pubs are hidden from view, tucked behind large wooden doors in age-old buildings. Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and neoclassical structures stand side by side in one of the largest medieval towns in Europe, a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Architectural aficionados will marvel at 16th century Vilnius University with its stunning frescoes and arches amid 13 courtyards. Notable monuments in the Old Town include St. Anne’s Church, a masterpiece of the late Gothic period, Gediminas’ Tower and The Royal Palace. The Cathedral of Vilnius is a paragon of classical beauty. Stroll Pilies Street, the town’s oldest walkway filled with small shops, bakeries, cafes, markets, street musicians and quaint archways. Quirky Literary Street looks like an outdoor museum, its walls covered with artwork and tributes paying homage to the country’s writers and poets.
Užupis – Artist Oasis and Autonomous Republic
Užupis, an artists’ mecca located on the banks of the river in Vilnius Old Town declared itself a separate republic on April Fools Day 1997 (celebrated annually) with its own flag, anthem, currency, president, cabinet of ministers, a constitution carved into a wall and an army (numbering approximately 11 men). Here artistic endeavors are the main preoccupation. It’s no surprise that the life-long President of the Republic, Romas Lileikis, is himself a poet, musician, and film director. Drop by this captivating bohemian enclave dotted with ateliers, galleries, studios, and gathering spots to chat and drink in life’s pleasures.
Zeppelins and Borscht
The excellent cuisine was yet another unexpected delight. A host of innovative chefs helming superb eateries such as Mykolo4 and La Provence deliver creative seasonal cuisine, locally sourced along with outstanding classics. I was agog over their Borscht – each restaurant has its own version of this tantalizing beetroot soup – and zeppelins, warm tasty dumplings stuffed with potatoes, meat or cheese accompanied by sour cream and herbs. Other standouts included Baltic herring, mushrooms fresh from the forest, exquisite duck, venison and the sweetest berries.
Culture Vultures ‘Must See’ – The KGB Museum
I couldn’t resist visiting the historic Genocide Museum, called the KGB Museum by locals. Set in the heart of the city, this former KGB headquarters and prison set up in 1940 shortly after the Soviet Union occupied Lithuania, eerily houses the cells, torture chambers, interrogation and eavesdropping rooms with the actual spy equipment.
Photos along with newspaper clippings, videos and news reels document what Lithuanians call their ‘dark period‘ – when they cooperated with the Nazis, killing their own countrymen, Lithuanian Jews. Before the war, there were so many Jews in Vilnius, actually 45% of the population, it was called Little Jerusalem. During the German occupation, about 95% of Lithuanian Jewry was killed. Photographs of the courageous Lithuanian men and women, the true heroes who formed the resistance, also adorn the walls.
Ancient Amber – Baltic Gold
Amber is a honey-yellow, semi-precious gemstone that Lithuanians value more than gold. This prized Baltic Beauty matures in about fifty million years, producing an acid that acts as an elixir with curative powers. After experiencing this unique rejuvenating and healing therapy at Amber Spa located in the Old Town, I can sing its praises. Vilnius houses many excellent spas offering amber treatments, a local favorite. In addition to gorgeous amber jewelry sold in shops like the famed Amber Gallery, you can try amber tea, amber soap, amber incense and amber makeup.
Heritage Traveler – In Search Of My Baltic Roots
The day had come for a trip to the northeastern part of the country where my great-grandfather lived before he emigrated to the US. Hoping to discover some trace of my family, my guide and I drove through the picturesque countryside of hills, lakes and forests, first stop – the lovely town of Zarasai. I walked through the former marketplace where my grandfather would have bought goods for his family, then visited the simple two-story building that had been the synagogue where he worshipped, oh- so-long ago. Next we drove to the nearby village of Antaliepte where we met a father and son whose family had lived there for generations. They took us to a street of now deserted wooden houses, the former Jewish area, where they believed my family had lived. I imagined my grandmother on the rear porch washing clothes in the stream that ran behind the house while my grandfather fished on the narrow footbridge at the road’s end. I had found my Baltic roots.
Enjoy A Hot Air Balloon Ride
Lithuania is one of only three European countries allowing hot air ballooning over its capital city, so I topped off my visit with a buoyant flight up high. The baroque old town, lush landscape and forested greenery stretching below, the azure sky above, made an unforgettable memory.
The 5-star Grand Hotel Kempinski Vilnius is ideally located in the Old Town directly on Cathedral Square. Beautifully appointed rooms and suites showcase elegant décor and feature large windows and balconies that offer splendid views of the picturesque town.
Located in Vilnius Old Town, stately Hotel PACAI is a 5-star design hotel, set in a magnificent 17th century mansion. The glamorous property features an expansive courtyard and stylish rooms and suites with striking accents. www.designhotels.com/hotels/lithuania/vilnius/hotel-pac
To view the exciting festivals and events in Vilnius for 2020, visit www.vilnius-tourism.lt/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/Whats-on-in-Vilnius-2020-1.pdf
For more information, www.lithuania.travel