Lithuania

Lithuania
Lithuania owes much to the rich cultural currents of central Europe: it once shared an empire with neighbouring Poland that stretched from the Baltic Sea almost to the Black Sea. Its capital Vilnius boasts a Baroque Old Town that is the largest in Eastern Europe and praised as the ‘New Prague’.
Any country that gives pride of place to a memorial statue of singer Frank Zappa has got to be worth a visit. The Lithuanian people are regarded as much more ouutgoing and less organised than their Estonian and Latvian counterparts; you’ll make many friends.
Lithuania owes much to the rich cultural currents of central Europe: with neighbouring Poland it once shared an empire stretching from the Baltic Sea almost to the Black Sea. The Lithuanian people are regarded as much more outgoing and less organised than their Estonian and Latvian counterparts, and most still practice the Roman Catholicism which sets them apart from their Baltic neighbours.
Although small and less than spectacular, Liithuania boasts attractions ranging from the intriguing Curonian Spit and the strange Hill of Crosses to the urban pleasures of Vilnius, the historic, lively capital.

VILNIUS
Lithuania’s capital city has an international flavour, partly due to the influence of the big Lithuanian di

iaspora and partly because it has always been exposed to influences from central Europe and beyond. In the 16th century, Vilnius was one of the biggest cities in eastern Europe; it played a part in Poland’s 17th-century ‘golden age’ and became an important Jewish city in the 19th century. Germany, Poland and Russia have all played pass-the-parcel with Vilnius this century. Post-WWII, with the Poles and the Jews mostly gone, Vilnius developed into the chief focus of Lithuania’s push for independence. Particularly dramatic and tragic events took place here in January 1991, when Soviet troops trying to destabilise the situation stormed the city’s TV installations, killing 13 people and injuring many others.
Vilnius lies 250km (155mi) inland from the Baltic Sea on the baanks of the Neris river. It’s in the southeast of Lithuania, just a stone’s throw from the Belarus border. The centre of the city is on the southern side of the river, and its heart is Cathedral Square, an open square with the cathedral on its northern side and Gediminas Hill rising behind it. The Old Town, the largest in eastern Europe, stretches south from Cathedral Square. A church spire can be seen from every one of its winding streets, wh
hich, coupled with its countless hidden courtyards, make it intriguing to explore. Other landmarks include Vilnius University, the President’s palace, an observatory and the old Jewish quarter and ghetto. Restaurants, pubs, nightclubs and cafés abound. Three Crosses Hill overlooks the Old Town and is a long-standing landmark. Crosses are said to have stood here since the 17th century in memory of three monks who were martyred by crucifixion on this spot.
The New Town lies 2km (1mi) west of the Old Town and was mostly built in the 19th century. The city hall is situated here, as is the Museum of the Genocide of the Lithuanian People, housed in the former Gestapo and KGB building. The guides here are all former inmates and will show you round the cells where they were tormented. South of the river there’s a bronze bust memorial to American rock legend Frank Zappa. Vilnius’ Soviet-era suburbs are north of the river. There are plenty of accommodation options in and around the Old Town; this is also the best place to nose out a good restaurant.

DRUSKININKAI
In the historical museum of Druskininkai, which is helping to commemorate the town’s 210th anniversary this year, there is an old advertisement fo

or the town hanging on the walls. In frame one, a man is lurched over a set of crutches, hobbling along the street. In frame two, he stands steadfast and tall. The caption reads, “I spent just one day in Druskininkai. And you see, gentlemen, what a change!” And so goes the story of Lithuania’s most famous resort town, Druskininkai. It is a place to go to and get well. The town is, in itself, a sanatorium, named one of Europe’s top ten health resorts in 2003 by Newsweek magazine.
It is located a short 130km from both Vilnius and Kaunas, and is widely accessible via public transportation. Buses leave almost hourly, cost 14Lt and take two hours to reach the sanctuary. It is a slightly quicker ride via minibus or car. No matter how you opt to get there, the saltiness of water and general focus on wellness treatments and spa therapy mean that you will be pampered upon arrival. As one Lithuanian aptly put it, “having spent the entire weekend getting treatments, we were all too relaxed to even drive back home.” If you think you will be prone to the same type of massage-induced malaise, take the bus or
r hire a driver.
If you are a big fan of the restaurant and nightlife sections of In Your Pocket guides, it is important that we reiterate the meaning of the word sanatorium. As defined in several dictionaries, it means a place that provides medical treatment and rest, often in a healthy climate, for people who have been ill for a long time (Read: You will notice the lack of nightlife). However, on our last visit to the town, we shared the city’s prominent hotel with the Russian Women’s National basketball team, prepping for the Athens Olympic Games. and they were looking quite healthy.
Even without the ample partying that typifies Vilnius, Druskininkai is a great place to spend a day of recuperation, or if need demands, longer. For the sake of our day-trippers to the salt of Lithuania, we propose the following itinerary.
Depart Vilnius via bus or car around 10:00, and plan to arrive near noon which is the perfect time to check-in to a hotel. If you arrive by bus, the station is about 500m to the main street in town, Čiurlionio. For our excursion, we passed the large city square, featuring the city’s largest church, Šv Mergelės Marijos Škaplierinės,
and headed straight to the Druskininkai hotel.
The hotel has been around for some time, but has been completely revamped and now features the most modern and comfortable rooms in town. It is on the top of the price range for hotels in the city, but the differences in price are marginal compared with what you will get. The first thing you should do before going to your room is to have the staff call the Afroditė Spa to check on availability for that evening (or you may wish to call in advance from Vilnius). There is often a lengthy wait for appointments during the busy season.
After checking in, prepare for some walking or inquire about renting a bike for the day (15Lt). The town is small enough to manage by foot, but on a bicycle you can see it all the more quickly, while freeing up time for spa treatments. Adjacent to the hotel, and throughout the entire city, are a series of walking promenades. Whether on foot or by bicycle head down to the Nemunas river banks and follow the crowds of people heading to the famous water fountain. It is here where you can splash your face and taste exactly how the town got its name. Druska means salt and it does not get much saltier than this. People say that the water has healing power, but those with a sensitive stomach may beg to differ.
Head back up towards the town, passing the large green building with flags in front of it. It is called Druskininkų Gydykla and is where you should consider returning for a mud bath later in the day. Continue onward toward the bright blue Russian Orthodox Church on Laisvės square directly in front of you. A visit here is part of the essential Druskininkai experience, as is the purchasing of a religious icon from the attendant, if she happens to stir upon your entry.
After leaving the church continue forward until you once again reach Čiurlionio. Turn left and go about 200m until you reach the Čiurlionis museum, where you will find out exactly how the street came to be. It should take about 20 minutes to peruse the four small buildings and art collection on hand. Check the concert schedule while you are there as regular piano performances are staged in an uproariously docile venue.
Continue down Čiurlionio until you again reach the large square with a church in the centre. On the right side of the street, above the lake, is the Druskininkai Town Museum, well-worth a quick trip inside to marvel at how many different military forces previously occupied the town and how well-preserved it has remained considering.
By now a late lunch is in order. You will already have passed several cafés and/or pizza places. For the record, you will find the food alternatives in the town are few and far between. The cafés all serve the same basic food at the same dirt-cheap price. We have listed a few of the better ones for your consideration.
After eating you might wish to bicycle out to the Echo of the Forest (2km) for a refreshing nature hike or ride. The site offers an intriguing perspective on nature and along with presenting a “living evocation” of the forest it exists in, it has a splendid walking trail with all manner of tree carvings scattered about. Even Robin Hood would consider this place a real kickshaw.
Time to head back to the hotel and prepare yourself for some pampering. The treatments you can indulge in are seemingly limitless, and by name, sometimes scary. Suffice it to say if you need an intestinal bathing treatment or a Scottish shower, Druskininkai is the place to get it. There are many sanatoriums to choose from and among the newest is the renovated Druskininkų Gydykla. The pleasure of being caked in a mud bath costs 16Lt and lasts about an hour. We were disappointed to learn that a mud bath doesn’t actually entail sitting in a tub of mud, but instead it is more like making mud burgers on your privates. still fun though. Afterwards, you’ll definitely need to shower down with some of that salty delight.
If you were able to get a reservation at the Afroditė Spa, the early evening is the best time to head there for their sweet 50Lt treatment. It entails unlimited access to the sauna, Turkish bath and mineral water pool but features two massages. The first consists of brisk honey rub down, while the second is a more traditional Swedish massage. You will leave here feeling like a million litas.
For dinner, we recommend dining at the Regina Hotel, as their kitchen is among the best and most innovative in town and is the perfect follow up to Afroditė. On the walk back to your hotel, you might stumble across a small bar or party café for a beer, but likely it will be unnecessary.
After a long night’s rest, you can venture down for the breakfast. At the Druskininkai, there is a nice buffet, but excellent dishes are also made to order at no additional cost. Then head to the small spa in the Druskininkai resort or over to impressive Vilnius Spa on Dineikos. It has the best mineral water pool in town, perfect for a refreshing morning swim.
Your final adventure in Druskininkai should be a trip to the infamous Grūtas Park. This clever reunification of hundreds of Soviet sculptures has been drawing in crowds for years now. The Soviet Sculpture park is impressive, and ever expanding, seemingly like the Union once was itself, which is an ironic tribute. It’s easy to spend several hours here, and the kids will love it as there are plenty of distractions for them should they not be interested in the vanities of Stalin and Lenin, including a giant playground and petting zoo.

KAUNAS

Hats off to Kaunas, the second biggest Lithuanian city, the most Lithuanian city, and packed full of things to do. From the best beds to the finest pizza, everything has been boiled down, carefully examined, and put on-line for the discerning travelling net head. Need to know where to watch basketball? Looking for some industrial sights with a bit of history behind them? Simply want to dance all night? Here you go!

PALANGA
Palanga has over the years been of major strategic importance, no importance whatsoever, part of Latvia, and up until the mid-19th century and subsequent invention of the seaside holiday, a small fishing village. Modern Palanga is a year-round health resort, but is famed more for what happens during the short summer period between the beginning of June and September. During this time the population balloons from a regular 20,000, to 100,000 or more, especially during the weekends. A hotbed of hot people, sunbathers and all-night party animals, Palanga is the number one Lithuanian hedonist institution.

ZARASAI
Established at the tail end of the 15th century, Zarasai has suffered its fair share of misfortune over the years, experiencing the more wicked sides of plague, fire and war. Essentially flattened in 1812 by warring French and Tsarist troops, it was only after the Napoleonic wars that the town truly began to prosper. Falling under the Russian sphere of influence, the decision to run the Warsaw-St. Petersburg highway through the town saw it transform from one horse town to boomtown. Things are less frenetic now, although its status as a regional hub means that it’s about the only place for a hundred kilometres where you’ll find a menu in English and an internet café. With a population that barely touches 9,000, the town never loses its surreal atmosphere of history mixed with provincial madness, ambition and astonishing good will. Enjoy.

NERINGA

Curonian Spit sits at the southern Lithuanian end of the extraordinary piece of land that is Neringa, a UNESCO World Heritage Site of extreme beauty and fragility (Starting from Klaipėda, places go in such order: Smiltynė, Alksnynė, Juodkrantė, Pervalka, Preila and finally Nida). Essentially a huge strip of sand, Neringa also has the status of national park, and as such most visitors are required to pay a fee to enter (pay at the ‘border’, some 10km south of Smiltynė). Forested with linden, elm, birch and pine, Neringa plays host to a wide range of wildlife peculiar to sandy environments and is the traditional home of a unique group of hardy fisherman. Essentially, Neringa offers a peaceful, soul-cleansing alternative to the non-stop party that is Palanga, and is worth visiting at any time of the year. The sheltered Curonian lagoon running along the eastern edge freezes over in the winter months and is something quite extraordinary to see. The beach at Nida in 2002 received a ‘blue flag’ status, meaning that the waterwashing its shores is of an exceptionally clean and healthy quality.

KLAIPĖDA

Klaipėda kicked up a storm in 2002, the 750th anniversary of the city’s official founding. This year will be an equally memorable one. And Klaipėda In Your Pocket is the key to discovering where it’s all going on. Have a good click!

VISAGINAS
If nothing else, Visaginas is extraordinary. Lithuania’s newest town (born on August 7, 1975) was originally named Sniečkus after a former leader of the Lithuanian Communist party, and one look at the place confirms that it is indeed the product of pure, unadulterated socialism. Built for the sole purpose of housing the workers of the neighbouring nuclear power plant, the architects’ dream was to concoct a model town constructed in harmony with the surrounding countryside. What you actually get is a collection of grey blocks built in a forest, which, depending on one’s particular viewpoint, is either good or bad. What is clear is that Visaginas is a town like no other. Almost entirely populated by Russian speakers, and a marvellously bizarre adventure for all.

TRAKAI
One of Lithuania’s many former capitals, Trakai, located just 28km west of Vilnius, is a charmingly small settlement, strategically placed in the middle of five large lakes. It is a popular destination for locals seeking a little rest and relaxation by the water and tourists hoping to storm the infamous castle. To replenish all types, Trakai now plays host to many a fine restaurant. There must be reason all roads seem to lead to Trakai in the summer, therefore we are pleased to break it down for you.

RADVILISKIS

A town in the north of mid Lithuania, district centre with a population of 21.700. The settlement under the same name has been known since the 15th century and was owned by Radvila – one of the most influential and wealthy noble families of the country. Pasusvys village has an architectural monument comprising of the village chapel (1553) and the church ensemble. Baisiogala is a site of another ensemble known as the Komarai landowner’s estate. Nirtaiciai cemetery is decorated with unique stone sculptures. While Seduva old wind-mill houses a very popular wayside tavern.

FLORA AND FAUNA
The sea is full various kinds of fish, jelly – fish, and other aquatic animals. It’s a pity, but in the Lithuania hasn’t got sharks, whales, and dolphins. Lowlands and forests cover most of the territory.
Wolves, foxes, wild boars, bears, and other mammals can be found in the Lithuania forests. Woodpeckers, swallows, and sparrows are busy all the year round as they look for worms, spiders or earthworms. That is their food. The national bird is the stork. These birds are endangering, and law protects swans.
Can watch the life of bees, grasshoppers, butterflies, ants, and ladybugs on the ground and in the air. There are lost of species of insects there.
Ruth is our national flower. People admire the beauty of lilies – of – the valley, tulips, roses, daisies, and daffodils. One can find a lot of flowers and various plants in the meadows and fields.

HILL OF CROSSESS
This two-humped hillock is covered in a forest of thousands upon thousands of crosses – large and tiny, expensive and cheap, wooden and metal. Some are devotional, to accompany prayers, others are memorial. It’s thought that the tradition of planting crosses here may have begun in the 14th century. In the Soviet era the crosses were bulldozed at least three times, only to spring up again. It’s an eerie place, especially when the wind blows and the rattling of crosses and rosaries breaks the silence. The Hill of Crosses is 10km (6mi) north of Siauliai, 2km (1mi) east off the road to Riga, the Latvian capital. Siauliai is 140km (87mi) north of Kaunas and has good rail and bus connections with both Kaunas and Vilnius.

CURONIAN SPIT
The typical Baltic coastal scent of mingled ozone and pine is at its headiest on the northern Lithuanian half of the Curonian Spit, which dominates Lithuania’s Baltic coast. This area is made up of four settlements – Juodkrante, Pervalka, Preila and Nida – none of which are more than a couple of kilometres from the coast. There’s a magical air to this isolated 98km (60mi) thread of sand, which is composed of dunes and lush pine forests inhabited by elk, deer and wild boar. Savouring fish freshly smoked to an old Curonian recipe is a highlight of a visit here. In summer you can hire jet skis or paddleboats in Nida; ice fishing and drinking vodka are the principal winter pursuits.
Check on the cleanliness of the waters of the lagoon and the spit before you dive in – they’re often not fit for swimming. The dunes along the peninsula are delicate, and their continual steady erosion is of great concern to environmentalists. It’s for this reason that you should only walk along marked tracks and should not pick flowers, since they help to stabilise the sand.
Buses run along the spit from Smiltyné, at its northern tip. Ferries cross to Smiltyné from the mainland town of Klaipeda, which has bus and rail connections to Vilnius and other centres.

EVENTS
The most emotive cultural event is the National Song Festival, held every five years (the next one will be in 2005). Over 100,000 people are expected to join in with the singing of several hundred choirs from the Baltic region. Midsummer celebrations are keenly celebrated in these latitudes: the night of 23 June, considered to have magical powers, is the climax of events. The Baltika folk festival rotates among the Baltic capitals – it’s due in Lithuania in July 1999.
Other popular cultural events include horse races on Lake Sartai in Dusetos, near Utena, on the first Saturday of February; St Casimir Day, Lithuania’s patron saint’s day, on 4 March; April’s International Jazz Festival, which attracts top musicians from all over the world to Kaunas; and the Life Theatre Festival, a week-long theatre festival that features avant-garde productions in Vilnius in May. Also in Vilnius is a week-long Summer Music Festival of street theatre, dancing, masked parades and craft fairs in the Old Town in July; and Vilnius City Days, three days of musical and cultural events in theatres, concert halls and on the streets in mid-September. Velines (All Souls’ Day) commemorates the dead with visits to cemeteries on 2 November.

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