Lithuania’s capital Vilnius, and second city Kaunas, harbour rich histories, taking in vodka by royal decree, the KGB, and bohemia. WORDS: JOHN SHERIDAN
I have a theory: if the name of a country ends in ‘ia’, it’s worth a visit. From Algeria to Armenia, Bulgaria to Bolivia, and Slovenia to Syria, all evoke a sense of adventure and the prospect of a steep cultural learning curve.
Now, Lithuania might not spring readily to mind when thinking of a short break destination. But whether it’s sampling the local moonshine or coming face-to-face with the devil, I soon find Lithuania ticks all the right boxes.
The country’s second city, Kaunas, is where I start my trip and a very interesting, compact and walkable place it turns out to be – with the added advantage that it’s Lithuania’s largest producer of alcoholic spirits. Kaunas started making vodka in 1906 in a factory built at the personal decree of Nicholas II of Russia, and has been manufacturing it almost without a break to this day.
For the not-unreasonable sum of about £15, you get a tour of the distillery, a visit to the museum, and a tasting class with 10 different drinks varying in strength and age. Purely in the spirit of journalistic research, I feel that I have to go along and take part in the tasting class.
During the talk, the difference between the spirits and the reactions to the aging process are explained. Basically, at a certain age the spirit gains a fiery temperament that changes with the temperature, and eventually mellows. The selection of vodkas and local specialities – some with a few herbs mixed in – all taste pretty similar, but ‘the older the spirit, the smoother the taste’ seems to be the rule.
After an hour of nosing and tasting, it’s time to move on. I head to 55° Restaurant (Laisves aleja, 79) for lunch. This intriguing cellar eatery gets its name from the alcohol content of the country’s traditional moonshine, samane. Here, I learn about the making (and drinking) of the moonshine, which commands more of my attention than lunch itself. There seems to be a pattern emerging …
It’s soon time to check out one of the city’s stranger attractions – the world’s only devil museum. Housed in what looks like an unimposing government building, it comprises a collection of devils from around the world, and visitors are encouraged to bring along their own creations to put on display. The curator looks at my wife, but decides that she would not fit in the display cabinet.
Departing Kaunas, I head by coach to the capital of Vilnius, and if ever there was a city of two halves, this is it. The best way to view the city is from the top of Gediminas Castle. It’s certainly worth the climb of 78 steps – although it seems more – to get panoramic views of castle turrets spiking out of forest greenery on one side, and high-rise glass buildings on the other.
Of everything I see in Vilnius, the independent republic of Uzupisdefinitely demands a visit. With its own president, constitution and Independence Day (which falls on April Fool’s Day), Uzupis is a district of Vilnius Old Town and home to many artists, local celebs, and even religious prophets. It’s often compared to Montmartre in Paris, with its citizens, their lifestyle and beliefs all contributing to the unfettled feel of the district, which seems like a cross between a Sixties hippy commune and a refugee camp.
In Uzupis, numerous art and socially responsible activities take place year-round, including the release of live fish into the Vilnia river, or voluntarily helping to clean up the neighbourhood. However, the actual contents of the shops and stalls – hand-woven rugs, paintings, odd-shaped ceramic jugs and colourful plastic cups on bits of string – leave little to be desired.
Another highlight of my trip in Vilnius is a visit to the KGB, or Genocide, Museum. Here, I see the old KGB prison that was established in the basement of the building in the autumn of 1940, after Lithuania‘s occupation by the Soviet Union. Most frightening is that at street level, life and business continued as usual, but beneath the surface the misery, deprivation, torture and executions took place.
It’s a sobering and humbling few hours which, set against the devils, hippies and moonshine, shows the sheer breadth of experiences on offer in Lithuania.
For more information see lithuaniatourism.co.uk
More on the KGB museum at genocid.lt/muziejus
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