Down-in-the-mouth does not even cut it. For four months I have looked forward to going to Lithuania to visit my very dear friends and former colleagues Mantas Gliaudelis and Žana Čikiliova. And in four days, it is all over now. I suppose it is testament to how much I enjoyed myself, because I would get the next plane back over there if I could.
I can recommend a visit to the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius especially if you have friends over there who can help overcome the language barrier. It is a part of the world I’ve never even considered going to, and I certainly would not have done if I were not being accommodated, assisted and shown around by Mantas and Žana. Still, with the exchange rate of around four Lithuanian Litas to the pound, it can still be quite a cheap break. However, the January temperatures leave much to be desired, being at best around -10°C at best for my four-day stay.
Being in the country was not the problem for me, and neither was the flying, which I know can be off-putting to some. It was everything before getting on the plane that I was worried about – checking in and getting to the right departure gate. But this is just me being my worry-wart self and even though I was waiting over two hours to check my luggage in, it was worth the wait.
Mantas and Žana picked me up from the airport at around 9.30pm local time (Lithuania is two hours ahead of England). They live together in a comfortable apartment not far from the city centre, which is where I was to be staying for the duration. On the evening of my arrival, Mantas had already drawn up a plan (see pictured) of everything I was to see and taste over the four days. So much for a relaxing holiday, you may be thinking, but believe me it was all worth it.
The first morning, I was to be shown around the capital by Mantas – in particular the Tower of Gediminas, who was a 14th century Grand Duke of Lithuania, though the landmark itself (see pictured) was completed early the following century by another Grand Duke, Vytautas. As Mantas explained to me, the tower is the only remaining part of the upper castle, which was since neglected and destroyed in wars.
In order to reach the top, I had to climb a wealth of stairs and slopes, not helped by the fact that most of these pathways are cobbled, which in turn were covered with ice and snow. In all honesty the walk uphill was not as bad as that back down. This took my mind off the cold weather, though. That and the fact that Mantas had prepared some mulled wine in the morning – Lithuania may be the only country where I could think it acceptable to drink mulled wine, at 11am, from a thermos, in public. A luxury to me.
We did not take the time to visit it, but on a neighbouring hill, Mantas pointed out to me what he referred to as the “Three-Cross Hill” (see pictured). There is no way of going into Gediminas’ Tower, but the walls that run alongside it provide excellent opportunities to appreciate the views over the capital itself (see pictured below).
The other landmark that Mantas intended me to see that morning was Sareikiškes Park, which was all blanketed with snow. It runs alongside a small river, on which ducks are still living. Mantas explained to me that because their winter was delayed (the snow only came in a couple of days before my arrival) the birds did not fly south in December and are now confused. Sadly this will affect their survival.
As with many of the sites I was shown during my visit, I was told that the park would be better seen and appreciated during the summer, when everything is green and the fountains are in use.
Now this is the time where we go in search of food – I had been told we were to go eat at a Čilipiča, which from what I gather is a chain restaurant all over Lithuania. There, Mantas wanted to get me to eat Cepelinai (or Zeppelins), which are boiled potato dumplings (though fried versions are also available) stuffed usually with meat and sour cream. However we ended up in a place called Forto Dvaras instead, which in its basement-like setting had a very Medieval atmosphere to it.
Prior to my eating the Cepelinai, which I had chosen to be fried, Mantas ordered (without my knowledge) another of his county’s most synonymous and traditional dishes, in the form of Šaltibarščiai (see pictured). The Russians have Borscht – a hot soup made with beetroots. The Lithuanians have this cold version. Much to my guilt, it was probably the last thing Mantas should have ordered me because, aside from its flamboyant pink colour, it was like eating cold mayonnaise from a jar, with a boiled egg at the bottom. I made an effort though – the dish comes served with hot potatoes, which I broke up and put into the soup, which made eating it a bit easier. I suppose it was a culture shock – eating cold food with hot mulled wine next to me.
Conversely, it turns out I love Cepelinai (see pictured), which I was glad about because I felt awful that I could not eat the Šaltibarščiai. The smell of fried food is attractive enough to me, but it’s a good thing I like potatoes because a lot of Lithuanian cuisine is founded on them. In their boiled form, I can imagine the dish to be resemblant of the Italians’ Gnocchi, which is how Mantas said they ought to be eaten. But I was most happy to eat them fried. They were filled with pork crackling, again something that I adore to eat wherever I am. It almost reminded me of a fried breakfast all in four small potatoes – I suppose the Baltic’s version of a hangover cure – and very much appreciated. And it turns out I quite like sour cream, something of which I was not previously aware. Again, it is something that features quite heavily in native dishes. The price came to just below 30Lt, which is about £7, and this included the gratuity, which is expected in Lithuania.
Following this meal, Mantas took me to meet his mother and her partner in the area of Vilnius where he grew up. There I was received warmly with chocolate, Italian wine and a bowl of Borscht. I was inspired by how appreciative the Lithuanians all are of their culture, which is something many English people could learn from.
So ends the first part of my series on my travels in Vilnius. In the next part, I will recount my visit to Trakai and the Sky Bar.