Today started as a continuation of yesterday as I barely slept on the bus. Around 2am, we stopped for the drivers to switch out and for folks to smoke. We stopped again at 4am because the police pulled us over. It seemed civil, not like the time in Nicaragua many years back where they got everyone off the bus, set me and the guy I was with off to the side, and had the others fronts up against the bus with large guns directing them. Scary stuff. This time was a cake walk, we all stayed on the bus, it was civil and quick.
After 5am we stopped every 30-45 min until we got to the final station, Vilnius Coach Station. At 8am when we arrived it was cold, low 40s, light breeze, and cloudy. Luckily it was a quick 15 minute walk to the hotel which I broke up by stopping in a little cafe for, you guessed it, cappuccino and a pastry. Although my pack is heavier than I’d prefer, I’m really enjoying the fact it’s a duffel that’s easy to haul from place to place, stairs or walking onto bus or train and so forth. Though I’m really loving the fact it’s PacSafe and hard to penetrate so I can pretty much lock it anywhere and have peace of mind, which I do – trains, buses, hotel room, everywhere and anywhere. Is it a fortress, no, but is it better than nothing, absolutely!
Probably the first thing I noticed in Vilnius was the lady at the coffee shop spoke perfect English. When I checked into the hotel, the front desk guy spoke perfect English. Speaking of the hotel, the room I booked turned out to be the super budget room with no windows in the basement and a co-ed shared toilet and showers with no way for privacy. Adventure! Given it was off season and the place was mostly empty, I asked if there was another option with a window as the thought of burning to death in the basement with no escape if a fire broke up would have likely kept me up at night (zoning please??). He was super chill about it and I think kind of expected that (maybe I don’t look like the type of person that’s chill being locked in the basement – ha!) and he already had an idea of where he could place me – in a private suite – wowzer! It was literally 2x my old NY apartment with bedroom, sitting room with kitchenette, and large bathroom. Strangely, with windows on both sides. Spoiled again. Love off season.
Vilnius old town was certainly influenced by its time when Poland ruled. The large Polish style cathedrals can be seen on almost every corner. The windy cobblestone streets were much like Gdasnk. Apparently there was a time when almost half the city was Polish and only a quarter Lithuanian. They are very proud of their heritage and all the battles over the centuries of war and power. Today they mostly compete with the Baltic’s, but still have considerably Polish influence. Unrelated from history, though I noticed a definite uptick in attractiveness here. Most people were fit and perhaps because it’s a college town, were 20/30s and good looking. Top that with plenty of English speaking and it’s been a far more social city than my prior stops.
Having not slept much on the bus, I was like a walking zombie trying to make my way around the city so decided to go back to the room for a slow moving unpacking and preparing ideas for the day and catching up on emails/texts/writing. Around noon I found out about a free walking tour which combines my two favorite things when traveling – walking and learning about history from an architectural perspective. Happiness!
The free tour was well attended, maybe 20 or so people which given it was 40s and cold and off season was a bit surprising. About a third of the group was either English, Austrailian or American so there was plenty of commodore in my local tongue which was lovely. We strolled around the old city getting a live narrated history lesson on Vilnius from a born and raised local, Maria. She had clearly been doing it for a while and loved her city as she didn’t skip a beat and had an encyclopedia of information to share.
The old town seemed smaller than Gdansk’s old town, though I’m not sure it is. I think it’s more just that Poland must have had more money for longer to preserve their town (or more desire?). In any case, portions of the old city hasn’t been beautified for tourists and as soon as you’re outside the city wall it’s covered in graffiti and a bit rundown in places. Kind of sad, but then again it’s expensive and if they don’t have the tourist money coming in it’s probably good they don’t prioritize prettiness over taking care of their people and the amenities they need to survive. The parts that were preserved for tourists were beautiful with winding cobble stone streets and ornate buildings. I’m guessing within the last couple years money must have started to come into the area because there were cranes and construction everywhere. I’d suspect if you come in 5 years this place is going to look like an enhanced version of what I’m seeing.
Much like Christiansted in Copenhagen, Vilnius has a free and somewhat rouge community of artists that have taken over a portion of the city and created an artists colony of sorts called Uzupis. No where close to the size of Christiansted, but they are still quite proud of it. They’ve even written their own constitution which they display prominently in various languages. It’s separated from the old town by a beautiful winding river and adorable bridges covered in love locks. There are sculptures and artwork displayed around the area and it certainly feels a bit more bohemian than the other parts of the city.
When the tour ended, everyone had kind of partnered up with those that spoke a similar language to grab lunch and chat about the tour and their travels. It was surprising how many were on a similar Baltic voyage as myself. Strangely two of the guys were even on my bus from the night before – I think all three of us were dying a bit from lack of sleep. Haha! The place our tour guide recommended was a kitschy Lithuanian joint on the main strip called Forto Dvaras. They had a good beer selection, which is apparently per our guide the third religion in Lithuania (second to football and first to Catholic). I of course had the wine (which was less than 2 Euro per glass!) with my beef stroganoff. I probably shouldn’t have been surprised but the stroganoff was only beef, sauce, and onions, no noodles. Is noodles only in the American version?
Anyhow after the late lunch, there was a bit more walking around the city taking pictures before heading over to the Museum of Genocide Victims. Although the people of Vilnius aren’t as friendly and overwhelmingly helpful as the Poles, the lady at the museum was extraordinarily grouchy. Perhaps a despise of her job or English speakers or who knows. It dampened the experience a bit, however, the place was an old KGB Headquarters building. The main floor was setup as a historical encounter with narratives and pictures of how Lithuania was impacted.
In the basement was the prison cells, which I was surprised had windows in each cell. Most cells had four beds, which would have been a bit cramped. There was also a cell with padded walls for torture which looked horrendous. The solitary confinement cell was awful as well, about 4×4 square feet with no window and the door sealed completely for no light. I can’t even imagine. They also had two rooms where they filled the floor with water and made the prisoners stand and balance on pegs. The outdoor area where the prisoners could have exercise was small and cramped and partitioned into little rooms (I suspect so they could cordon off groups of inmates, but not sure). From there the next section is where they tortured and killed prisoners, which they had an all too visual (re-enactment??) video playing of the killings and sweeping up of blood.
The third floor of the museum was more about the genocide and the deportation of the Lithuanian Jews across Siberia and into ‘working’ camps in Poland. It also showed some of the KGB Headquarters functions with some of the things they did. Apparently bugging hotel rooms so when tourists came they could watch (yes watch! Um…??) and listen to make sure they weren’t going to say bad things about the KGB or do something bad in country. Are they watching me now? Hmm…How much of this was past versus present? Hmm… They showed how they listened to everyone’s phone calls. Aren’t we doing this in the USA? Do we really think Russia isn’t watching us now? Isn’t reading this? Or my texts/emails/web activity? Hmm…
After the museum it was time for dinner though at that point, having such a go-go day, I had to call it a night. It was already 6pm and having been running on fumes, I was looking forward to a lazy night of watching TV in Russian and just chilling in my enormous hotel room. Many of the folks went out for drinks afterward so there’s certainly quite a bit of a tourist presence and options for socializing here than in my stops. Gdansk was definitely more couples, it was a pretty romantic town, whereas Vilnius seems to be more backpacker singles.