Lithuania in November. It doesn’t sound exactly glamorous does it, but that’s exactly where I found myself. Ryanair recently started a service from Leeds Bradford Airport to the capital Vilnius, and for a mere £40.00 return the opportunity seemed too good to miss.
Opportunity for what?
Although Latvia has profited from Western tourism (often of the wrong sort) to their capital Riga, and Estonia through the dainty capital city of Tallinn and its easy access ferry to Helsinki, it feels like Lithuania has been the Baltic’s abandoned cousin. Not many people are aware of Vilnius as a destination, or the wider appeal (for a start: doing everything you can do in Sweden and Finland for about a quarter of the price).
Really though, Lithuania?
For a few years myself, I too had overlooked the potential attraction for the country, despite having a Lithuanian uncle (albeit not one overly enamoured with the country as a cultural destination). However, through a modicum of idle research while procrastinating at work, I was soon impressed and excited by the prospect, with Vilnius and the second city Kaunas both looking interesting enough. However, there was more to it than that, as most guides I read made a trip to Trakai sound essential.
The town itself is built on a peninsula spearing into a lake, and indeed is situated in a system of lakes in the local area. The terrain in Lithuania is not remorselessly flat as you’d think, as the train to Trakai followed over some sweeping river valleys and wooded hills. However, Trakai is certainly on the flat end.
Unfortunately the main train station was out of use meaning we had to board a ‘rail replacement bus’ one stop from Trakai, which as any Brit knows, sends a cold shiver of dread down the spine at the mere mention. This specimen was especially amusing. I’m not sure from whose depot or even back yard this was dragged out of but the detail and markings inside suggested it had seen service by the French in Africa, whatever that could mean. If these badly upholstered seats could talk…
After a rickety ride on the autobus time forgot, myself and 5 other intrepid travellers (Germans) were deposited on a grass verge and had to make our own way to Trakai from there. It took a bit of a walk to my bed for the night at ApartmentsLT , an extraordinarily good place to stay and one I would highly recommend if you choose to go. The owner doesn’t speak much-a-the-Anglish but armed with Google Translate and a series of exuberant hand gestures, no major confusion arose. The place was appointed to an absurdly high standard considering the price, and if visiting as a couple, you would be staying in genuine 4 star accommodation for the price of a hostel. She was even generous to drive me into town after checking in.
That’s all great, like, but why were you here?
You may see that big turreted building in the picture at the top. That’s Trakai castle, possibly the big event of all Lithuania. After being discovered as a forgotten ruin in the 1800s, Trakai castle became a romantic icon for renaissance gothic painters and architects, yet for over a century there was very little interest from the state in recognising the asset or doing anything about it. It is only until relatively recently that the castle has been majestically restored in brick form. The castle itself is located on an island, which is something that lends it even more of an impressive medieval air, and historically played a prominent role as the seat of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which you may have vaguely heard of as the outfit that saw off the Teutonic Knights.
The walk towards the castle takes you across a couple of bridges where you can take in not only the castle views but some serene lakeside vistas, the boardwalk along the lake shore, reedbeds, far away manors, and local wildlife.
The castle tour is a steal at 6 euros, really far cheaper than what you would pay nearly anywhere else in Europe for such a venue. Especially, given there isn’t anything else in the country that rivals it.
In addition to the main castle there is a second castle on the mainland, albeit not fully exploited as of yet. If they get around to restoring the second one to a similar level, they alone could put Lithuania on the map as a rival to the other Baltic states.
The tranquil scenery and provincial life reminded me very much of Sigulda, a town in Latvia also very much worth exploring, and which I wrote about here. Lots of potential activities, sightseeing and monuments to enjoy across an expanse of land that may profit use of a bicycle to get the most out of.
However, what makes Trakai doubly interesting is it happens to be an enclave of a Turkish minority, the Karaime, meaning that many of the buildings, indeed on the main street running through the town, are of an oblique Turkish origin, wooden painted houses that are not exactly oriental in style but have their origins in Turkish culture. The town trades on it to an extent, in its food, with lots of restaurants offering Karaime cusine and local firewater. The big one to try is Kybyn, a Turkish pastry which will be relatively familiar tasting to most English people exposed to different cultures. The Kybynlar is probably the epicentre, and worth visiting also for a home brew beer.
Is there any nightlife here?
This was, I must say, of serious concern. In the evening I found a lakeside cafe restaurant which was my first taste of Lithuanian beer. The bog standard mainstream party piss is Svyturys, however it must be said, even that is a reasonable standard and does a passable impression of a Dortmunder-style lager. However, the venue itself was quiet, and by 6pm this left me wondering quite where would be busy. The waitress suggested visiting a bar attached to a local theatre and arts centre, and in desperation, with no other option I gave this a go, being quite mentally prepared to take one look in and trudge off home.
As promised, there were a hoard of locals gathered around the bar, while the lights were off in the rest of the room. The bar also served Svyturys and a craft beer, for 1 euro a half litre. This is significantly cheaper than the prices you can expect to pay in the capital. The barmaid didn’t really bat an eyelid, nor the locals, and both to my relief (and paradoxically slight disappointment) my presence went ignored.
I stayed for a couple of beers without expecting much development. However, crucially, a group of four girls came in and the place immediately became lively. After about fifteen minutes they spotted my solitude and must have taken pity, invited me over and this became the first of 4 solid days of friendly, social and happy interactions with Lithuanians. Any doubt in your mind about dour, unsmiling ex-Soviet countries may as well be blasted out of the water. I found these people, not just the young ones, to be very jovial and not at all lacking a sense of humour. It ended up being an interesting night involving a huge man who lays roads giving me a succession of bear hugs before vomiting lager all over the floor of the bar. I alerted the barmaid to this who only shrugged knowingly: It was his mum.
Alcohol, the ideal lubricant for such an adventure is used in equally liberal measure to ourselves.
Trakai is an essential addition to anything you may wish to do in Lithuania. Not only is it beautiful in an obvious way, but quirky too, stuffed full of minor attractions, cultural oddities and as you can see above, interesting locals. Yet again, further proof of the times you can have if you brave dipping your toes in uncharted waters. If you live near Leeds, Doncaster or Liverpool I would say a trip to Lithuania, given the low cost, is almost inexcusable to ignore. Come on, give it a go!