The Not-So Villainous Vilnius
derive n. Lit. "drift"; a spontaneous journey where the traveler leaves their life behind for a time to let the spirit of the landscape and architecture attract and move them
Leaving Riga felt like Christmas in July. Much like when, as a child, I would wake up on Christmas morning far earlier than I knew was acceptable to wake my parents to go stare longingly at the presents I had organized and reorganized in the preceding weeks beneath the tree, I woke up and got out of the hostel long before checkout so I could once again imagine what it would be like to sleep in a friendly, non-smelly environment. I hadn’t been so excited to leave a place since Barcelona, which is the only hostel experience I have had thus far worse than Riga.
Because I left the hostel so early, I had several hours to kill before my bus came. Here I thought I had been doing myself a service by booking later transportation. Where did I go? That’s right, my teahouse. Today, however, the sun was out and the weather was warmer than it had been all summer yet for me and thus instead of curling up on cushions of the teahouse, I stretched out in the grass nearby, attempting to get my grossly pale skin some color, reading, and playing on my ukulele. By the curious looks I was getting, you would have thought the Latvians had never seen an American leaning on a pack with just about everything but the kitchen sink in it playing a purple ukulele before. I can’t imagine why,
The hours inched by agonizingly slow. I was itching to move on, see something different. But even when the scheduled time of my bus departure came, my immediate flight was thwarted. Just as my bus had been delayed getting to Riga due to construction on Latvian roads, the bus bound from Tallinn to take me to Lithuania was also delayed by the same construction. In that extra hour I now had to wait, I meandered through the nearby market, buying myself half a kilogram of cherries, telling myself I would only eat half and save the other half for the bus, then proceeding to eat all of them anyway by the time the bus came. I was so ready to leave by that point that I could have spotted the Lux Express bus from miles away as it came barreling into the coach station, but maybe that was more due to the fact that it was highlighter yellow.
I got into Vilnius, Lithuania an hour behind schedule but as daylight lasts so long, it’s not as much of an issue as it was during my first backpacking trip. Whereas then delays could have meant the difference between finding my hostel in safe daylight or less safe darkness, now it only meant a different of finding my hostel in just slightly less daylight. From the outside, the Fortuna hostel didn’t look like much. In fact, it looked like a cement block that I would have assumed was an old abandoned building were it not for the giant bright colored sign advertising its name on it. My first thought was, “Oh hell please don’t let this be a repeat of Riga.” I hesitantly walked inside and immediately breathed a sigh of relief (during which I was not assaulted with the rancid smell of body odor). It was instantly better. After I was shown to my room, a lovely little rustic room, I collapsed on the bed, relieved. I could see a couple of the bunks were taken but only one other person was in there at the time. As long as he didn’t try to talk to me incessantly and incoherently like the Russian guy. I soon found out he was French, so I could safely assume him even bothering to talk to me wouldn’t be a relevant concern.
Part of me could have just stayed in and gone to bed right then and there, but another part of me felt like I had done nothing noteworthy with my day and thus sought to remedy it by at least making an effort to take a walk around while it was still light. I was glad I did. Vilnius is a charming city by day, as I would find out on the morrow, but it is even more charming by night. It was nearly 9pm (or 17:00 as I’ve gotten used to) when I walked the five minutes form my hostel to the Gates of Dawn, a large powder blue archway that acted as the official entrance to Vilnius’ Old Town. From the inside of Old Town, the Gates of Dawn are positioned in the east, and thus while it probably appropriately acts as a lovely horizon for the sun to rise over in the mornings, it catches the rays of the setting sun beautifully as well. I watched at the sun sank, turning the sky from pink to purple, and the moon rise as I got my first taste of the pristine and quaint streets of Vilnius over the next couple hours. I love cities at night, and the extended daylight over this trip has noticeably subtracted form my ability to experience them as such, considering I generally don’t have the energy to stay up past the point of actual darkness right now. But cities at night are peaceful. They breathe a tranquility that is different, but no less alive, than their daytime existence. It’s easy to lose yourself amid that sigh of relief that comes with the vanishing of the day. It was not until the street lights began to flicker on, casting an amber glow over the town that sold amber on every street corner, that I finally made my way to the hostel.
Excited by the small bit of the city I had seen the night before, I woke up the next morning, donned the new romper I had bought myself in Stockholm, and set out. For once, I actually felt cute and summery, which are two feelings I don’t often get as a backpacker with my clucky hiking boots and minimal wardrobe choice. I’m convinced it was the romper. Rompers are basically the one piece pant suit of the 21st century. With flowy legs that make you still need to be mindful of how you sit, they look like a dress, but they still maintain most of the practicality of pants (trousers, whatever). The only thing I knew I wanted to do that day was take the free walking tour, but as I still had a couple hours until that started, I wanted around a bit outside Old Town, stopping at a small bagel café in the local market to get myself a small bagel and a cup of coffee to start my day. The market In Vilnius was unlike a lot of other markets I’ve seen. It was kind of a catch-all of just about anything you could imagine. Sure, there were fresh produce stands, and cheese, meat, and fish stalls, but there were also clothing booths, ice cream booths, booths piled with random shoes. It was as if the market acted as a permanent, sanctioned garage sale, which is probably not too far from the mark in all honesty.
At noon, I made my way to the town hall steps for the start of the tour, where Martina, our tour guide, began by giving us a little lesson on Lithuania. To start, she told us that “Lithuania” in Lithuanian, comes from a word for rain, indicating that for most of the year, Lithuania, like the UK, is rainy. I had lucked out with some beautifully sunny weather. While all the Baltics are relatively small, Lithuania is the largest, with a population of about 2.9 million, though most Lithuanians will round that up to 3 because they are quite proud of being the largest Baltic country. For being such a small country, Lithuania is quite surprisingly ranked #4 in the world in basketball. They are fanatical about it; so fanatical, in fact, that it is often considered, jokingly or not, their first religion. The fact that many old churches have been converted into basketball courts only enforces that. Gee, it’s almost like the country of Lithuania is like a small farming town in Montana. Like all the Baltics, Lithuania had a rather short history, mostly concentrated around WWII, as Lithuania acted as a safe haven for the Polish and Jewish people during this time . However, this didn’t last long. Lithuanian, you see, was also unfortunately situated between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, and for Lithuania that had previously been under Soviet control, the German take over actually acted as a relief, at least until they found out that Soviet Russia had actually been the lesser of the two evils. During Germany’s period of control, Lithuania lost 94% of its Jewish population, and this mass exodus took a big toll on the country’s population, reducing it from 5 million to 3 million.
After this fast fact history lesson, we set off, walking through the Old Town and getting little history lessons as we went. I always look like a huge nerd on these tours, because I always have out a piece of paper and a pen, frantically scribbling down facts to later write in this blog. Sometimes people ask me if I’m seriously taking notes, and I explain to them that I’m a writer. “Oh! That makes sense,” they say, nodding as if it wouldn’t be excusable for any other reason. Sometimes, however, this writing as I walk can be quite dangerous. I’ve walked into countless poles and tripped over a great many curbs. On this particular tour, I almost fell down an open man hole. In other words, I almost fell into a sewer for you guys. You’re welcome.
Not long after the manhole almost-incident, a young guy came up to me. “I like your tattoo,” he told me, which always a great way to begin a conversation with me because I love talking about tattoos. After about a half hour of talking in between our tour guide speeches of the tour, we finally introduced ourselves, which is not unusual. I find that I can talk for hours with fellow travelers without the subject of names coming up. It’s funny, but travelers find connection to each other through experiences and commonalities, not social conventions like names. It’s part of what I love about travel friendships. When we did finally introduce ourselves, however, he told me his name was Chris. At least I would remember his name, which is not always a guarantee considering how many people I meet over my travels. You should have seen how long it took me to finally learn most peoples’ names at St. Anne’s. Chris was from Germany, traveling with a group of other Germans (whose names I admittedly do not remember all of) and one other girl from America, Colleen.
Then came my favorite part of the tour, the part where we actually left the country temporarily. Yep, we left Lithuania for a span of about 30 minutes. How? Well, in the center of Vilnius, just outside Old Town, there exists a tiny independent country called the Republic of Uzupis. In the late 90s, a group of artists and intellectuals in Vilnius got the crazy idea to start their own country, and that is just what they did. So, on April 1, 1988 (April Fool’s day though this was far from a joke), the Republic of Uzupis was born, complete with its own president, minister of affairs, ambassadors, parliament (which meets in the local bar), anthem, flag (a hand with an open palm), and an army of twelve. It even had its own currency made, though that currency is only accepted there on their independence day, April 1st, of each year and it can only be used to buy beer. You guys probably think I’m kidding about all this, but I promise you, it is 100% legitimate. To get in, there are four rules one must follow: 1) Smile- A smile is considered your visa into this strange little country because they believe art should make people happy. 2) Drive slow- Unlike the maniacal drivers that speed through Old Town, nearly plowing tourists out of their way, they want people to drive sanely, or better yet, walk. 3) Be creative. And 4) Keep an open mind.
But the best part of this country is their constitution, which can be found written on mirrored plaques translated into 24 different languages and hung along on of the streets. Reading through the rules is an absolute gag as it contains rights like, “Everyone has the right to die but it is not an obligation.” So, ever feel like living forever? The Republic of Uzupis is the place for you. Some of it’s rights are rather contradictory, such as its last three rights, which state respectively, “Do not defeat,” “Do not fight back,” and “Do not surrender.” I’m not entirely sure how these three things coincide but then again, art has never demanded pure sense. Our final stop before returning to Lithuania was the main square where independence was claimed. On that day, the artists wanted to erect a statue commemorating the event but, like most artists (and writers for that matter *chokes back a sob), they didn’t have money. Instead, they put a big stone egg on a pillar and said that one day an angel would hatch from it. Sure enough, once they got the money, an angel did, and that angel looks over the square to this day. Even outside Uzupis, however, Vilnius is rather focused on art and literature. The city is host to a ton of graffiti and wall murals. One of my favorite places of the city was Literatu Street, a street dedicated to Lithuanian literature that holds over 200 writings and art works connected to literature molded into its pale powder blue walls. My favorite piece: a pair of false teeth to represent literature critics. How appropriate is that?
Other fun facts about Vilnius I learned while on the tour: The former mayor of Vilnius actually ran over a car with a tank once because it was illegally parked and blocking bicycle paths. Apparently, this was a huge problem for the city and the mayor decided to make a statement and deal with it in a huge way. For this little stunt, he earned himself an ignoble prize and to this day, all the souvenir shops sell key chains and bumper stickers that read, “Don’t make me get my tank.” Another fun figure of Vilnius is an ex-politician now named the Duke of Vilnius. One day, he apparently decided he hated politics and decided to become an alcoholic instead (like he actively chose it). He now walks around Old Town with beer in hand and a pipe singing “America” but only knows the American phrase, “To be or not to be”. Just your average beloved town nut, I guess. Like in most free tours, we were given a small lesson in Lithuanian. Most Baltic languages I have found are rather difficult to learn, but I was happy to discover that Lithuanian is actually rather simple. You know how people joke about adding “o” to the end of every word to make it sound Spanish? Well, in most cases, you can quite literally as “as” to any English word an you have the Lithuanian equivalent. I also quite appreciated the fact that their word for “thank you” is “aciu” pronounced “achoo”. I could practically hear the endless chain in my head: *sneeze, “bless you”, “aciu”, “bless you”, and so on and so forth. You get the idea.
At the conclusion of the tour, my new German friends asked if I wanted to hang out with them. I told them that I had some things I wanted to see, but we could all meet back up for dinner later. While I could have stayed and hung with my friends for the remainder of the day, their motivation to see and do things seemed slightly lacking and the general indecisively stagnant attitude with which they went about deciding what to do was simply not my travel style. I was only there for one day. I had shit to do. I gave them my Facebook information and told them to message me when they figured out what they wanted to do for dinner. I did want to meet up with them later and I hoped it would work out. Having been alone for all of my time in Riga, I needed a fix of being around people. While I like having my alone time, I find myself having more extraverted tendencies while I’m traveling. Usually, my recharge comes from time by myself, but out here, it is the opposite. If I go too long without really being able to talk to other English speakers, I start to get lonely, homesick not so much for America home, but for Oxford. As I walked away, I thought about how it might have been a better idea for me to stay with them all day, but between not wanting to be a burden to them (something I instantly assume I am to all people I hang out with ever…. Even my closest friends) and having a few more things I wanted to do that day, I knew splitting off would be the best option for now.
From the point where we departed, I made my to the outskirts of Old Town where a large hill rose up and on it, sat an old brick watch tower practically inviting me to hike up to it. And so I started the climb. Much like Kotor, I was ill prepared for a climb, wearing my Toms shoes that had about as much traction as a wet bar of soap. I nearly feel several times while climbing up the smooth stone incline. Unlike Kotor, however, the top wasn’t far away and I managed to stay on the legal hiking trail. Up at the top, the city of Vilnius opened like a flower in bloom and I could suddenly see everything about it that got lost between the bright walls of buildings below. In many of these cities, it can be easy to forget that more city exists beyond the Old Town, and while I was cognizant that Vilnius was larger than the bit I had seen, I had no idea how much larger. From the top of the hill, I could see everything. On one side, was the Old Town through which I had spent the day wandering, orange rooftops, low buildings, and winding streets that didn’t know the meaning of the word “grid system”. But on the other side of the hill, modernity took control of Vilnius in the form of metal and glass skyscrapers that caught the warm rays of the sun and reflected it back at my eyes in sharp glints. Finally, between the two, another giant hill rose out of the ground, this one covered in trees, untouched by either forms of man’s architecture. Above all of this, was the endless sky, so perfect on that day that I couldn’t help but think it looked fake, with its perfectly scattered clouds, flat on the bottom and fluffy on top, set atop a background of blue, as if a child’s rendition had come to life. Vilnius had a little bit of everything it seemed.
It was a perfectly peaceful place, at least until a child came up and started singing tunelessly, romping over the stone wall on which I was perched. Another lesson I’ve learned while traveling: children are annoying in every language. Once that initial serenity was broken, I was approached by two guys asking where I was from. We started talking for a bit and I found both of them were from Finland, but one had lived in America for quite a few years of his life. After a while, they invited me out for lunch with them. Though I could feel my stomach growling and they seemed nice enough, I was also aware that they were much older than me, and as a female solo traveler, I must sometimes bear that in mind. It might be unfair to stereotype people in such a way, but there are certain things that just don’t make me feel comfortable alone, and going out with two older guys, one of which was dressed very much like a bro, was one of them. I politely declined, saying I wanted to sit there and read for a while, and bid them farewell. Truth was, I had actually wanted to leave soon myself to go get food, as that one bagel I had eaten over six hours just wasn’t going to cut it until dinner, but now I felt obligated to stay for a while, at least until I was sure I wouldn’t run into them on the street.
After a while, I descended from the hill and meandered back to the hostel to make myself lunch. By lunch, I refer to sautéed onions and cheese, considering they were the only groceries I really had to my name other than rice at that point and I needed to use them up. After that brief intermission to my day, I returned to Old Town, aimlessly wandering the streets. There was always something to see, whether it be a bright pink and yellow flower bed, or an equally bright pink building (seriously, lots of pink here). There was even a church that looked like someone had taken a bottle of Pepto Bismol and a paintbrush to it. And yet, I still found the entire town very lovely. My travels are making me like pink more and more it seems. Vilnius was also littered with street musicians and buskers on every corner, but like everything else in the city, they differed from those I had seem in a lot of other cities. While you did have your talented accordion players and violinists, you also seven year old girls playing on the recorder, making money purely on the puppy dog eyes she gave people as they walked past, and crazy people on the guitar singing, “Fuck you, I’m drunk,” of which I wasn’t entirely sure whether it was an actual song or just a statement set to music. The crazy musician dream is open to all, it seems.
I passed a great many funky shops during my wanderings, and every so often, I would actually go inside and look around. Here seems to be an appropriate time to mention that I don’t particularly like shopping. Just going in stores and looking around makes me nervous. Why? Because I know that 99/100 times I am not going to buy anything and I feel guilty for that. That’s right, as the shopkeeper looks at me either sadly or suspiciously as I walk out empty handed, I feel guilty for not buying something. That’s engrained the foundations of capitalism are within me, and for that, I kindly say, “Fuck you capitalism.” On the other hand, I also feel guilty when I do buy things and that type of buyer’s remorse manifests in a “well there goes tonight’s dinner” sort of guilt. If I ever feel I’ve spent money frivolously, I punish myself by not buying things (sometimes necessary ones) until I feel as though I have monetarily reached a balance. For instance, one time, after losing £50 out of my pocket at a club on my 21st birthday (I choose to believe I bought drinks with it during my period of non-memory) I basically lived on white rice for a week because I felt I deserved no better. It was my punishment for being stupid with money. For all those reasons, I’m usually more a window shopper. I love looking at displays in windows but I rarely ever get past the point of poking my head in the door of a shop. I did, however, finally buy myself a cheap pair of amber earrings, something I’ve been meaning to do while I’m still here in the Baltics. I figured since I’m so famous here, giving back a little was the leas I could do. Plus, the whole “Amber buying amber” thing was too punny for me to pass up.
Eventually, I ended up sitting on a bench in the town square and reading for several hours, feeling the sun slowly burn my skin. I was sure I would probably wake up with a sunburn the next morning but at that point, I was enjoying the sun too much to care. Bring on the tan! I had yet to hear from my new friends regarding dinner and just as I was getting ready to give up and go scrounge some food for myself, I saw them waving at me across the square from the steps of the town hall. Small town, I guess. They still had some plans to work out for the next day before dinner and so we went back to their hostel, a couple blocks away from my own for a while to hang out. As we sat there chatting away, exchanging stories and the like, the hours slipped by. An important thing to note about them was that they had all become friends while studying abroad in Valencia, Spain a few years back. Spain, as you may know, has a custom of eating dinner quite late in the day. Being all back together again for the first time since Spain, they had all slipped back into the habit, so while I was sitting there with my backbone snatching at my belly button, they all sat there as if food was the farthest thing from their mind. I, of course, did not want to be rude considering I was technically their guest and thus I suffered in silence. Finally, they realized it was past 10pm and someone suggested we go eat. About time! Yet as we began our search for food, we realized this wasn’t Spain, and everything had just about closed around 10pm. At this point, I was bordering on my hangry point and I was really hoping my new friends would not have to see that ugly side of me and so, with a fierce determination, I led them through the streets of Old Town, hoping against hope that we would find something soon still serving food. And we did… except that it was called the Meat Lovers Pub. Of fucking course it would be. Naturally, there was nothing vegetarian on the menu and since moi, the vegetarian of the group, was the only one who was legitimately ready to either pass out or murder someone in a blind rage from lack of food, we moved on, feeling discouraged yet again. Fortunately, not far down the street, we came upon a nice restaurant that didn’t look too expensive and, even better, was still serving food without giving us an attitude about it. The food wasn’t the greatest, but it was food and that was really all I cared about at that point.
It was nearly midnight by the time we left, and them, being normal young people, wanted to go out and have fun. In case you haven’t all gathered this by now, I’m a it like an old lady. I turn into a pumpkin around 11pm and I rather enjoy going to bed early. I’m not much of a party animal and I would have thus been A-okay with just going to bed. Unfortunately, I also have a considerable lack of self-control and thus when they all pleaded with me to go out with them, I gave in. It wasn’t long before we found a funky little Spanish dance club where we spent the next hour dancing to weird music they all knew from their days in Spain. I did have fun while I was there, but I hit the brick wall of exhaustion that means the end of my night fairly quickly. Luckily enough, one of them was also itching to go back and so we bid farewell to the rest of the group, me knowing I would probably never see them again, and left. Again, I was enchanted with the warm glow of Vilnius at night as we made our way back to our respective hostels and I said goodbye to my last night in the Baltics before moving on. Next stop: Poland.