By this morning, the rain had passed, and the sun was shining again. We left our campsite, and drove along the road that followed the course of the Nemunas River, the most significant river in Lithuania. The land remained flat, and the river wide and fast flowing. As yesterday, we spotted many storks in the arable fields. I read that Eastern Lithuania has the highest concentration of storks in Europe, with 13,000 pairs.
We turned off the road at a town called Vilkija, just east of Kaunas to take a look at the river. Here, we could see a small car ferry making regular trips across the river. Looking at the map, I guess this was the most direct route into Russia from this area. Also sat besides the river was a memorial to the Vilkija Synagogue. I later discovered that during the Second World War in 1941, the Naxis slaughtered 800 jews in this town alone, decimating the Jewish population here. Almost unprocessable information. We then followed the road up into the town, where there was a massive two towered Catholic Church. A church service was about to start, and there was a constant flow of people arriving.
A little later we arrived at Kaunas, Lithuania’s second city. Our plan had been to stop there for coffee, but we became so confused with the road system, that we missed the turning to the town centre. The quality of driving here led a lot to be desired. We were constantly being cut up, and in the end, the aggressiveness of the drivers put us off turning round, and we decided just to head on to the capital, Vilnius. Certainly, the outskirts of Kaunas did not appeal, but that’s maybe unfair on the city – a little like comparing the Hammersmith flyover to Westminster.
Our approach into Vilnius was equally stressful. This is one of the largest medieval cities in Europe, and it’s streets are a maize of narrow cobbled streets and one way signs. We had booked a room in a central hotel, which supposedly had free parking. It was not my first choice, but seemed cheaper than most, so we had booked it last night. Once we eventually found the hotel, we were informed that the hotel had overbooked, and so we had been transferred to their five star sister hotel up the road, for no extra cost. We tried not to grin! Having left Oscar parked close by, we walked to the hotel, which was only two minutes away. The hotel couldn’t have been more helpful, as we explained we couldn’t work out how to negotiate the labyrinth of streets to drive to the hotel. They promptly produced the concierge, who walked back to Oscar with us, and sat in the passenger seat, directing Howard around the maize of narrow one-way streets to reach the parking area. The two minute walk took nearly fifteen in the van – we never would have found it on our own.
The hotel is gorgeous! It dates back to the 16th century, and from our room in the attic, we can see the Bell Tower of the Church of St. John’s, part of Vilnius University. We very quickly decided to stay another day, and to our delight, we were given the same rate as our original hotel. Frankly, the whole process of getting here had been so stressful, that to just stay an afternoon and evening, and then turn around again seemed a step too far.
First impressions of Vilnius are really positive. The Old Town is as beautiful as both Riga and Tallinn, but without the mass tourism that the other two seem to suffer. The streets were still busy with visitors, but not the tons of large tour groups we had noticed in the others. The architecture, which dates from the 15th and 16th centuries is largely Baroque. It is a muddle of narrow cobbled streets, hidden courtyards and lovely church spires. Vilnius University, which dates back to 1579, was run by Jesuits for two centuries, and occupies a campus with thirteen courtyards, 15th century buildings and 300 year old frescoes and the Church of St. John’s. The rector’s office used to be in the hotel where we are staying.
We took a wander through the cobbled streets, and found a lovely cafe for a late lunch. We then headed off to see Vilnius Cathedral, with the adjoining Cathedral Square and Bell Tower. Situated between the Cathedral and the belfry is a famous tile – a star with the words in Lithuanian which translates as ‘miracle’. It was sited there after the ‘Singing Revolution’ 1988 – 1991, when two million Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians linked arms, forming a human chain from Tallinn to Vilnius. It is said that if you stand on the tile, close your eyes and turn clockwise, making a wish – it will come true. Of course, both Howard and I had to join in with the myth.
Next we walked up the cobbled track to the Castle, which afforded wonderful views over the city, despite the looming black clouds. The rain started just as we were walking back down, so we took shelter in a cafe, and then made our way back to our hotel.
Tomorrow we will explore the city further. It’s history is chequered with tragedy. Pre-WW2, Vilnius had a Jewish population of 100,000 (out of 240,000 in the whole of Lithuania), and was known as the ‘Jerusalem of the North’. The Jewish population was all but decimated during the holocaust. Following ‘Perestroka’ or re-structuring in the mid 1980s under the Soviets, an estimated 6,000 Jews left for Israel.
So far, our stay in Vilnius has exceeded our expectations. The city is lively and stunningly beautiful. The Old Town is like stepping back in time, and refreshingly lacks the usual tourist tat, that so often ruins a place. Even the buskers are up-market. As we took a stroll this evening – a classical quartet were playing along the street. They were so good, a crowd had gathered, and were sitting on the wall opposite, to take in the concert. I guess they must be music students from the university – and provided a wonderful finale to our first day in Vilnius.