Tuesday 7 October 2014

Vilnius - Lithuania

We arrived in Vilnius in the late afternoon having spent most of the day on buses to and from the Hill of Crosses. When I was researching accommodation I read about Domas Maria, a hotel in an old Monastery next to the Gates of Dawn and knew I had to stay there. The corridors had a Shining-esque quality about them but it was a lovely albeit simple hotel in a fantastic location. It has a great breakfast spread which is included in the room price and our 2 nights here were more than comfortable.

We didn't have time to do a lot of sight seeing on our first evening as it was getting dark quickly so we headed out to dinner to the restaurant Lokys. The place specialises in lots of meaty dishes including wild boar, beaver stew and game sausages. I had a delicious plate of venison roast, cheese stuffed potato croquettes and roasted courgette with a delicious wine and cranberry jam. Steve went for a meaty feast of venison and boar roasts plus game sausage. Both meals where beautiful and I highly recommend visiting. Not a place of vegetarians though!

Like Kaunas, Vilnius has a quaint medieval old town made up of winding cobbled streets. Now, no holiday would be complete with some sort of disaster happening and this was the first of a few. When we left Kaunas and well on our way to the Hill of Crosses we realised we'd left our jackets in the Kaunas hotel. I emailed the hotel and asked if there was any way they could get them to Vilnius or London (I'd pay for postage of course) but they refused outright to help us! In order to save time we decided to rent a car in Vilnius and drive the 200km round trip to get them back instead of taking the train. In the end it turned out having a car for the day was a bit of a blessing and thanks to the local rental company Autobanga it cost about £25 for 24 hours rental in a Ford Fiesta (excluding petrol which was about £15 for nearly 3/4 of a tank).

Anyway, after our morning on the road we had the rest of the day to explore the city. We started at the Museum of Genocide Victims which was a sobering yet insightful experience. Situated in a former KGB building complete with a basement prison it's an extraordinary account of the sufferings the Lithuanian had to deal under Nazi and Soviet rule. Towards the end of the exhibition (before entering the horrendous basement prison) there's a neat little section about Soviet spying techniques, complimented with hidden cameras throughout the museum. Entry was less than £3 per person and somewhere I'd recommend visiting if you have even the slightest interest in 20th Century European history.

After the museum we spent the rest of the day wondering around town checking out sites including the cathedral, Vilnius castle and St Anne's gothic church.


We stopped here for delicious afternoon crepes.

Many of the trees were covered in knitted blankets

The three crosses on the hill

Dress - Beacons Closet

I'd read that there was a funicular at the castle but as we walked around the base of the hill we couldn't find it. Of course once we were at the top we spotted it so decide to ride it down the hill.

The Three Sisters

As I mentioned before we had a car for the day so we were able to drive out to the TV tower to catch some fantastic views over the city. There was no queue and even though the revolving restaurant was completely cheesy the views were fantastic.

After the TV tower he hopped back in the car and drove to the Radisson Blu hotel to watch sunset from the SkyBar. When I'm on holiday I love searching out places with a good view so doing three in one day was fantastic. Watching the sunset with a cocktail in hand (Happy Driver mocktail for Steve) was a great way to finish the day.

Once we dropped the car back at the rental place we realised we needed dinner but it was getting late and options were limited. We ended up popping into Amatininku Uzeiga for potato pancakes, a Lithuanian speciality. These were a bit grim to be honest, dripping in oil and covered in sour cream (the Baltics favourite condiment) but they had to do. This was probably the most disappointing meal of the trip but to be honest it could have been worse. In the future, don't leave dinner too late in Vilnius on a Sunday evening.

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Saturday 4 October 2014

Hill of Crosses - Lithuania

On our second day in Lithuania we went on a day trip to Šiauliai to visit the Hill of Crosses. I'm not a religious person but I was fascinated by this small hill in the middle of the Lithuanian countryside where over 100,000 crosses have been planted. Whilst the site was originally used to signify Catholicism in the country it has more recently became a tribute to hope when the country was occupied by the Soviets at the end of last century. Walking around the area you can feel the sense of love and respect the Lithuanian people had for each other during these hard times. If you ever visit the Lithuania I highly recommend taking a day trip to this area, it doesn't take long to walk around and for a country that was ravaged by the Nazi and Soviet regimes (it was destroyed in 1961 and 1975) it is an incredible testament to the people's beliefs that it is still standing today, stronger than ever.

Useful Tips:

We caught the bus from Kaunas to Šiauliai which took about 3 hours. We pre-booked our tickets online and it cost about €9 per person for a single journey. You can book from the Lithuania national bus service website. The bus leaves from Kaunas bus station which is just around the corner from the train station and drops off at the main bus station in Šiauliai which is also next to the train station.

The Hill of Crosses is 10km north of the city so once in Šiauliai we walked up to the tourist office and asked them to book us a taxi to the Hill of Crosses and back including a 30min stop. This cost a total of 50 Lt and for us half an hour was plenty of time but you can pay 60 Lt to spend an hour.

The taxi dropped us off at the bus station where we caught a bus to Vilnius. We had to pay on board this time which cost about €14 per person and took around 3.5 hours. The bus stopped at the main bus station which is a few minutes walk from the Southern gate of the old town.

The buses were never full so you don't have to pre-book but if you want to save a little money it's definitely worth doing. Student tickets are available but drivers can be fussy about what they think is acceptable or not. Steve has his NUS card declined at one stage because it didn't look exactly the same as the pictures in the Driver's student card book.

Before catching the bus to Vilnius we popped into the Finnish burger chain Hesburger to grab a quick bite before our 3 hour journey. It wouldn't be me to try out this Baltic burger chain and I'm glad I did because the double cheese burger, despite being incredibly small albeit cheap, was pretty tasty. We saw the chain in every city we visited on this trip but I'm glad to say we only tried it the once.

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