I recently visited Lithuania for the first time, finding it full of surprises. My biggest realization was that here, World War II ended just about 15 years ago. At least that is the underlying attitude of Lithuanians, who lost their Russian oppressors in 1991, after 51 long years. The atmosphere here, of a new freedom, is entirely different from that in Western Europe, where people saw the end of Nazi domination two generations ago, in 1945. West of the former Iron Curtain, everyone takes liberty for granted now, but not in Eastern Europe where that comfortable feeling is too new. The locals never considered themselves close to their Slavic conquerors, anyhow, being much more European in their outlook, and possessing their own language and religion, two among many major differences. Natives point out that Pope John Paul II's mother was Lithuanian.
Bolstering their claim to a European identity, Lithuanians have latched on to a French geographical institute's report that Europe's physical center lies just 15 miles from Vilnius. The Slovaks make a similar claim about being at the center. The center's location is hardly important to visitors, who enjoy Lithuania's atmosphere of hope, ambition and determinedly pro-American sentiment. Lithuania has been a member of the European Union since 2004, but the EU has already proclaimed Vilnius the European Capital of Culture for 2009, which is also the millennium of the city's founding.
All in Vilnius: the Vilnius Festival features classical music through June 30; the St. Christopher Summer Festival offers jazz, classic, organ, and choir performances from July 6 through August 28; The 19th international festival, Vilnius Jazz runs from October 5 to 8. Musical events run all year at several venues.
Kaunas also has a Jazz Festival in late May and June, as does Klaipeda, the country's biggest port.
With 554,000 inhabitants, Vilnius is Lithuania's capital, and most important destination. Vilnius is the nation's biggest city, and lies far inland, near the Belarus border. The city is part of a vast, flat plain, though locals claim it sits on seven hills, as is said for about a thousand other places in the world. (My hometown in Iowa boasted of its seven hills.)
Vilnius Old Town
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the 1,500 buildings here present an attractive picture of medieval Europe, though many were reconstructed after severe damage during World War II. Although the castle above is far more ancient, most structures here date from the 16th century and later.
Head first for the Cathedral (1419), where one chapel memorializes the 300,000 souls deported to the USSR and the 14 patriots killed in a 1991 battle with Russian forces. Don't miss the Chapel of St. Casimir, Lithuania's patron saint, with its deeply Baroque décor and a silver coffin above the altar. Outside the church is a "miracle spot" embedded in the pavement. Supposedly, your wishes will come true if you turn around while standing on it. In 1989, this spot ended a human chain of thousands of protestors, stretching from Estonia in the north, through Latvia, into Lithuania, demanding the USSR leave the Baltic Countries. When that actually happened two years later, some in Vilnius claimed the spot was "where a miracle happened."
A favorite of many visitors, St. Anne's was built of brick and dates back to 1495. One of the country's most charming structures, it even transfixed Napoleon, who apparently wanted to take it back to Paris "in the palm of my hand." The Bernardine Church next door, built in the later 15th century, is currently under restoration, but well worth a look.Depending on how one read's history, Vilnius University (www.vu.lt/en/ was founded in either 1570 when its first college was established -- or in 1579, when King Stephen Bathory officially proclaimed it an establishment of higher learning. Either way, it's the oldest center of learning in Eastern Europe.
The Aisciai Hall with its ancient brass tomb and weird modern (1970) frescoes, and St. John's Church, built in 1426 but heavily restored after a 1737 fire. The Russians closed the university in 1832, and it wasn't reopened until 1919, when Lithuania got its independence after World War I.
One highlight of my trip was a visit to the Chapel in the Gates of Dawn, the only survivor of the original ten gates in the city wall. Up a 40 step flight of stairs and perched over the roadway is the utterly charming chapel, whose Madonna is reportedly responsible for many miracles.
Outside Old Town
If you can stand the assault on your emotions, consider the Museum of Genocide Victims, commonly known as the KGB Museum (www.genocid.lt, Auku g 2a,). In this lugubrious building (c.1900) are two centers of interest, the KGB Prison in the basement, and two floors dedicated to the history of Lithuanian struggles against Soviet occupation from 1940 to 1991.
Lithuania's second-largest city, Kaunas (pop. 362,000), a 90-minute drive west of the capital, also has an Old Town, though it's merely a fraction the size of that in Vilnius. Kaunas' castle is a fabulous find for photographers, as is the churchy-looking Town Hall. The castle, built in the 13th century and heavily reconstructed 100 years later, is a venue for many concerts and occasional theater. Nearby, the picturesque Town Hall was built in 1542, and heavily reconstructed in 1771 after a huge fire. In the basement is a ceramics museum. Another Old Town highlight is the Perkunas (Thunder) House, probably a merchant's home. The brick, 16th century house is built in the Gothic style and pretty gargoyle-ish at the top.
If you have time, journey about 15 miles west to Trakai, whose chief attraction is the impressive, beautiful castle on holy Pilies Island. The original dates back to the 14th century, but it was destroyed by the Russians in the 17th and 18th centuries, and reconstruction only began in 1955. Regular tours travel here from Vilnius. Contact the operator at email@example.com.
In Vilnius, check out the National Opera & Ballet Theater (www.opera.lt) for performances there, or the National Philharmonic Hall for concerts by the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra (www.filharmonija.lt).
Outside Vilnius, there are amber displays in Klaipeda and an Amber Museum in Palanga, worth visiting for the town's mixture of Slavic and Prussian architecture.
There are five 5-star hotels in Vilnius, including the Crowne Plaza, Meridien and the Radisson, but foreign VIPs stay at the Stikliai (tel. 5/264-9595; www.stikliaihotel.lt; Gaono St. 7) a charming spot in the Old Town's former Jewish Quarter. The interior is reminiscent of a small castle's decor, and contains almost every amenity imaginable, including a fitness center and pool. There are 44 rooms, with rates for a double from Lt 760 (US $280) and up.
Located just outside Old Town, the 4-star Holiday Inn Vilnius (tel. 5/210-3000; www.ichotelsgroup.com; Seimyniskiy 1) has an excellent dining room with a superb breakfast buffet, a computer for hire in the lobby and minibars in the 134 rooms, as well as a mini gym with sauna. You can even order Major US newspapers with your breakfast for a healthy sum (New York Times, Â? 10.70 or $13.60, for example). Double room Â?170 ($216), including breakfast, taxes and service charges.
If possible, ask for cepelinai (zeppelins), which are not found in gourmet restaurants, but are practically the national dish. Named for their resemblance to dirigibles, they are meat-filled potato dumplings in a heavy sauce. Then there's "Lithuanian Salad," with boiled carrots, pickles, meat and whatever. Summer borscht (saltibarsciai) is pink, with beets, onions and more. A good dessert choice is lietiniai, a thin pancake containing cheese, often apple or berries, fried in butter. And then there's local beer, averaging about 5% alcohol content and costing around Â?1.50 ($2) per liter on average. Tipping is not mandatory, but people usually leave 5% to 10% for good service.
Serving Lithuanian specialties on Old Town's main drag is Forto Dvarras (www.fortopica.lt; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Tuskulenu St. 35), at Pilies St. 16, open for lunch and dinner, an average entrée is about Lt 15 ($5.50). Farther from Old Town, Marceliukes Kletis has a Zeppelin Show, where the cook shows how to make this dish, and a folk band every evening, except Sundays. Sample entrée also Lt 15 ($5.50). An excellent place for Italian cuisine is San Marco, where I found both the penne Bolognese (Lt 16 or $6) and osso bucco (Lt 23 or $8.50) delightful. Average entrée price is about Lt 30 ($11). The restaurant is in the smart, 4-star Ramada Inn (55 rooms), opposite the Philharmonic Hall. Subaclaus St. 2.
Medininkai, (www.tourclare.com/lithuania.php; Ausros Vartu St.) in the Old Town near the Ramada Inn and the Gates of Dawn, serves fusion Lithuanian cuisine, including salmon and steaks, in a romantic atmosphere, an average entrée running about Lt 30 ($11).
To follow Lithuania's tax rebate system, shop where you see the Tax Free Shopping Sign and ask for a tax refund check. Produce your check at customs to receive your refund on the spot, or later by mail.
Amber is a must see in Vilnius. Visit the Amber Museum & Gallery (www.ambergallery.lt; Sv. Mykolo 8), with a basement devoted to an explanation of how the precious commodity is formed and refined, and a ground floor full of jewelry and do-dads for sale. Typical price: an egg-sized plain piece, no insect imbedded, around $450.
There are other notable shopping opportunities for antiques, handicrafts, original art and jewelry.
There are official tourism offices in the Town Hall and at the main rail station. Good websites include www.tourism.lt (for the whole country), www.vilnius-tourism.lt (the Tourist Information Centre's site) and www.tourism.vilnius.lt (the city's site). You can also get good information from Vytis Tours in the USA (tel. 718/423-6161; e-mail: email@example.com).
An excellent source of information is Vilnius in Your Pocket, a free, lively and often humorous bimonthly publication that seems to tell everything, warts and all.
At press time, one US dollar was worth about Lt 2.70, and about 78 Euro cents. Lithuania uses pricing in both currencies, but is not yet a member of the European Union currency agreement.
Note that the country telephone code for Lithuania is 370.
Have you been to the Baltics? Would you like us to write more about them? Tell us on our Message Boards.