The past month in Jordan and Israel was amazing, however we were delighted to be on our way to the Baltic Region. As we lifted off from Tel Aviv airport, our excitement for exploring a completely different culture of the world quickly set in. Moreover, we both have family heritage from Lithuania dating back to the 1800’s, before both our ancestors migrated to the United States. Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, was our first stop in the Baltic Region. Vilnius’ Old City still dominates daily life with locals out enjoying the warm weather among the beautiful Baroque style architecture and old churches. The town is quiet, peaceful and full of parks, cobblestone alleys and “Kavines”. We walked for hours with few cars or tourists around. It was like the city was our own.
Amazing Lithuanian hosts
After a good experience in Singapore, we decided to use AirBNB.com for our stay. We found a three-story apartment very close to the Neris River and city centre. AirBNB is great because you get the benefit of a more intimate experience living with locals. Our hosts, “Sigita & Vidas” both work in the Arts and their home is beautifully decorated with interesting art pieces and cozy furniture. Their kindness began with their offer to pick us up from the airport at midnight on a Saturday night. Upon entering their flat, we were greeted by their adorable and friendly dog “Snoopy”. Sigita and Vidas made us feel like family. We shared stories about researching our ancestry and learned about Lithuanian culture. Sigita shared her authentic borst soup, cheeses, honey and strawberries. Our experience with our hosts was incredible and made our trip to Lithuania, searching for our ancestry, even more special.
Our days around Vilnius were full of exercise; running along the Neris River each morning before cooking our breakfast, followed by walking around town for hours in search of the perfect photo to explain this colorful city. Some of our favorite spots include “Gediminas Tower”, the old Jewish Quarter, “Cathedral Square”, and the independent district of Uzupis.
Exploring Vilnius Old City
A funicular ride up to 48m- high Gediminas Hill, followed by a steep climb to the top of Gediminas Tower awarded us with perfect panoramic views of the city. Walking around the Cathedral Square we encountered lots of Pagan artwork. Lithuanians still incorporate old Pagan traditions into their Roman Catholic culture. Following Sunday mass, a huge procession with priests, nuns, children and clergy people from different denominations began at the Square and proceeded down Pilies Gave. It seemed like the entire congregation followed closely behind and we found ourselves trampled by the procession.
Pilies Gatve is the main cobblestone street that cuts through the Old City to “The Gate of Dawn”, which is the only remaining 16th century gate of the old city wall. Pilies is where most shops, kavines and historic sites are located. The old Jewish Quarter (not many Jews left after WWII) was a mixture of abandoned buildings and new outdoor cafe/restaurants. We had lunch at Rene Belgian Restaurant specializing in fresh mussels and home brewed beer called “Kwak” which comes in a fun glass with a wooden stand. On our way back through the old city, we found an old school record shop and spent over an hour with the owner drinking coffee and listening to music. He was so pleased when we asked for cool Lithuanian music and proceeded to unwrap dozens of CDs, introducing us to an array of artists. We took home a few Lithuanian artists, including Alina Orlova, Migloko and Empti.
We found ourselves mesmerized with the graffiti art sprawled across the city. At every turn we’d find an alleyway, corridor, tunnel or entire buildings covered with colorful graffiti. Lithuanian street artists have taken every opportunity to express themselves through a myriad of murals and designs. We wondered what is behind the motivation for such expansive graffiti and if the government has taken any steps to prohibit this art form.
A day in independent Uzupis
Exploring the bohemian Uzupis district warranted at least half a day. Upon walking across the Vilnia River, it was as if we were entering an entirely different town. The rebellious residents here declared themselves a republic in the late 90’s, creating their own constitution, flag and anthem. We read that Uzupis is known for housing artists and galleries, so we were in search of some up and coming Lithuanian artists. However, what we found was lots of abandoned galleries and more building graffiti art. We stopped in Tores Bar for a beer and asked the waitress what happened to the artists. Sshe explained they moved downtown to sell their art about two years ago. We hadn’t really encountered too many small galleries downtown either. We still wondered where all these talented artists making their mark on the streets lived and why they their talents weren’t being put to better use.
The main bridge into Uzupis is decorated with an abundance of engraved padlocks. We found out that lovers engrave their names on the padlocks and lock them to the bridge, in hopes of bonding and strengthening their hearts. Below the bridge is a bronze sculpture of a mermaid, Uzupis’ symbol that guards the enchanting city of artists and lovers.
Our time in Vilnius was very special, mostly because of the wonderful people we met during our stay. In just a few days we found Lithuanians to be among the kindest and most generous people. Our ancestors would be proud that we’ve traveled back to the country where our families began.
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