Words Holly O'Neill
Photography David Loftus
It may be the perfect winter escape. Blanketed in snow, Vilnius abounds in old-world charm. The central Old Town is recognised by UNESCO as one of the best collections of baroque-style architecture in the world, but just near the ornately grand pastel buildings and exquisite churches you’ll find farmers selling produce from trucks, and small workshops specialising in local craft. Although tourism is established, and the pound’s strength against the lita makes a jaunt to Vilnius a cheap long weekend, it’s not a go-to destination for rowdy stag nights. (But there are plenty of decent bars to warm up in, should you be inclined.)Director Dalia Ibelhauptaitė divides her life between London and Vilnius, where she’s sometimes joined by her husbandthe actor Dexter Fletcher. Dexter provides a frequent-visitor’s view, pointing out hidden gardens he’s found while walking, cafés where he likes to catch up on work and cultural differences he finds amusing. Dalia sets a tight agenda – shops, bars, pickles, markets – while managing the opening of her opera company’s revival production of Sweeney Todd – Stephen Sondheim’s opera about a cut-throat barber and the baker who turns his victims into pies. They’re fine guides to a city that’s unknown to many in the UK.
Once the biggest country in Europe, and an important trading and education centre, Lithuania was invaded, captured and liberated repeatedly until the 20th century, when it fell under Soviet, then Nazi, then again Soviet occupation. It was the first Soviet state to declare independence, with the last of the troops leaving in 1993, and was a country on the rise, financially and culturally, until the recent economic downturn. Driving into Vilnius from the airport, you’ll see Soviet Bloc architecture, its starkness enhanced by the proper picture-perfect snow.
At the top of the beautiful Old Town, in the Gates of Dawn, an icon of the Holy Virgin surrounded by heart symbols watches out down the hill – over the buskers and old ladies bundled up in coats and shawls, carrying their shopping – to the mammoth white cathedral. To the west is the main shopping street, Gedimino Avenue, for high-street fashion, and the national drama theatre. Round to the east is the red-brick St Anne’s church, then you reach a bridge where lovers stop and fasten padlocks engraved with their names, before casting the keys into the River Vilnia below.
On the other side of the bridge lies Užupis, a suburban bohemian haven that is far less grand than the imposing buildings of the Old Town but no less pretty. Ramshackle buildings are covered with murals, the brightly painted walls contrasting against the snow-covered banks of the partially frozen river. This artistic community declared independence in 2001. Their constitution is posted on a wall and includes such statutes as everyone has the right to die, but it is not a duty; no one has the right to violence; a dog has the right to be a dog; and everyone has the right to hot water, heating in winter and a tiled roof. By the river, the president of the republic and a few artists are building a fire and undertaking some maintenance – and making plans for a poetry and mead party that’s taking place the next night.
No one in Vilnius seems to find it particularly odd that a suburb has seceded from the major town, to be watched over by a statue of an angel standing on an egg. Vilnius residents take creativity seriously. Well, sort of seriously – when the country gained independence from the Soviets, artists chose to celebrate by commissioning a statue of mental rocker Frank Zappa. (What did he have to do with Vilnius? Nothing, except the new-found freedom for people to rejoice in what they wanted, without restriction.)
A European City of Culture in 2009, Vilnus boasts two opera companies for a population of just over 600,000 people. One of those is the one that Dalia founded. The darkly atmospheric posters for her revival Sweeney Todd are dotted around town. At the restaurant La Boheme, they’re making pies, as they did for the first production. But recent changes to the economic condition have brought a change to the pies. Meat was always out the question but the jams and vegetables that formerly filled the pies are now replaced with whatever the restaurant has left over from the previous day’s service – today it’s polenta. However, Dalia says it doesn’t matter what the stuffing is, the ravenous chorus will eat it: “You will not even see crumbs after the show.”
The diminishing quality of pie stuffing was a trivial but telling indicator of the state of the Lithuanian economy earlier this year. Everyone is struggling, particularly those in the creative fields, explains fashion designer Juozas Statkevičius. Juozas is Dalia’s friend and costume designer for her productions, and an internationally acclaimed fashion designer. Without the kind of funding available to artists in other European countries, it is difficult for him to put on a show in a fashion hub like Paris. The government recently revoked a favourable tax status for artists, making things harder, and people like Juozas and Dalia must look to forming relationships with private business to help fund productions.
Yet it’s not for a lack of public interest. As long as enterprising artists can put on shows, it seems the citizens of Vilnius will pay to see them. Sweeney Todd’s run is sold out, attracting an enthusiastic and diverse audience, from groups of teenagers to stately couples in fur coats (lots of people in fur – it’s very cold).
Those looking to get a glimpse of what Lithuanian life was like under Soviet rule can visit the old KGB prison. Now called the Museum of Genocide Victims, it has exhibits that document repression under the country’s most recent occupiers. Dalia, whose parents were both interred in Soviet work camps, won’t visit, or even recommend the museum. She does, however, suggest lunch at Neringa restaurant. A favourite with the intelligentsia under Soviet rule (Dalia says the regime bugged the banquettes), this strange space is locked in the past. You’ll see a different side of Vilnius society here. Older women with immaculately lacquered up-dos and big brooches lunch from a nostalgic menu of dishes that time forgot – chicken kiev with crinkle-cut chips, chanterelles with sour cream, beef tongue with jellied salad and chicken broth with dumplings. The service too seems leftover from the grim days. “When they throw a plate of food at you, it’s your problem to catch it so it doesn’t land on your lap,” says Dalia.
While a nice insight into social history, Neringa is not a great look at Lithuania’s culinary culture. Better instead to head to the weekly farmers’ markets where small-scale producers travel in to the city to sell their wares, or the everyday market above the Old Town, or the well-stocked organic shop Senamiesčio Krautuvė. You’ll find the hearty, rustic food – jams, smoked meats and pickles – that you’d expect to find in Eastern Europe, but also flavours that echo further afield. Herring and deer are reminiscent of Scandinavia, which of course is just across the Baltic Sea. A trip to Trakai, about an hour’s drive away, not only shows Lithuania’s importance as a hub on historic trade routes but is an interesting culinary experience. The attractions here are a castle-museum with exhibits about the local ethnic minority, the Karaim, and a couple of restaurants that specialise in Karaim food. Most famous are kibinai, a type of pie like pierogi, but with, as you might imagine from the name, a Turkish vibe.
“The ancient cuisine in Lithuania was influenced by European cuisine,” says restaurateur Arūnas Oželis. “The cooks in the castles were foreigners, from France and Spain, and brought their own recipes and spices. We have food similar to Greek dolma, but wrapped in cabbage, while zeppelins come from Germany.”
If tourists have heard anything about Lithuanian cuisine, it will be about the infamously indigestible potato dumpling, known as zeppelin. Lithuanians,
we’re informed repeatedly by locals, don’t really eat it. Nevertheless, Arūnas’s restaurant Zemaičiai serves it to the curious, along with vederai. “Haggis is a good comparison,” Arunas says of this potato sausage, encased in pig’s intestine. “The smell is so strong,” Dexter says, wincing. “Dalia’s dad loved vederai but I can’t eat it.” He chooses to have another juniper-smoked slice of roebuck, which Arūnas says is a ‘royal meat’ in Lithuania, and a top-up of Svyturys, Lithuania’s best beer, available in an impressive range of shades and flavours. They’re going down well – turns out smoked meat, pickles and lots of potatoes are the perfect food to go with a decent brew on a cold night.
The local vodka is also very good. Better, Lithuanians boast, than Russian vodka. It’s smooth and best served ice-cold – and not as a rather lethal shot known as
a kalashnikov. “You’ve never had one?” asks Radvile, Dalia’s assistant, who’s at Cozy bar with her sister Teodora. She orders a round. Out come shots of vodka, accompanied by slices of lemon that are topped as half-sugar, half-ground-coffee. Down the vodka, suck the lemon. It doesn’t seem as violent as its name suggests. “Radvile, why didn’t you tell me about this before?” asks Dexter, ordering the third round. “To Radvile!” everyone toasts, as she mutters, “You’re only meant to have one…”
The damage is apparent the next day. After downfall at the suggestion of Radvile, redemption lies in the hands of Teodora, who in a happy vodka haze invited everyone round to breakfast. Dexter is unrousable, but Dalia is, as ever, indefatigable and leads a band of sorry souls to the sisters’ flat in the Old Town. Everyone sits in sore silence. Teodora’s paler-than-usual face suggests she regrets her invitation, and no one apart from Dalia is able to articulate appreciation. Yet, sitting in the kitchen of young Lithuanians, just-cooked traditional pancakes on the table, plans already being made for the evening ahead, snowy streets outside just waiting for intrepid footprints, markets to visit and amber to buy, Vilnius seems like a pretty great place to explore. And coffee helps. CITY GUIDE
EAT & DRINK Cozy
10 Dominikonu gatve; +370 5 2611137, cozy.lt. A welcoming atmosphere means this is where the city’s media and creative set descend for a late-night meal, glass of wine, and good music. Domm
Vilnius Town Hall, Didžioji 31; +370 686 77707, domm.lt. If you like your gastronomy to be molecular, this restaurant, under the guidance of Spaniard Javier Lopez in the kitchen, is a world away from the rustic setting and comfortable cuisine of owner Arunas Oželis’s other two restaurants (below). La Provence
Vokieciu gatve 22; +370 5 262 02 57, laprovence.lt. If you want a change from the rustic pickle-and-black-bread fare of traditional Lithuanian food, try the Mediterranean style fare at this restaurant – the first in the city to invest effort into sourcing quality fresh fish. Zemaiciai
Vokieciu gatve 24; +370 5 261 65 73, zemaiciai.lt. In the maze of cellars, you can experience high-quality traditional Lithuanian food. While locals view dishes such as the infamous zeppelin (potato dumplings, boiled or fried) with mirth, they appreciate the dishes such as beetroot soup with pork ribs, and the excellent smoked meats and pickles. Bistro 18
Stikliu gatve 18; +370 687 72091, bistro18.lt. Duck confit, pasta, Irish stew – bistro fare with a side of comfort is yours for a very reasonable price in this cosy restaurant-cum-wine bar, owned by an Irish-Lithuanian couple. La Boheme
Šv. Ignoto 4/3; +370 5 2121087, laboheme.lt. Below an art-house cinema, this is another restaurant of interconnecting rooms, and another haunt of the Vilnius glamorous and creative set, especially in winter. Though the French/Italian/local menu is variable in execution, the spirits of the punters keep the atmosphere jolly. In Vino
Aušros Vartu gatve 7; +370 8-5-2121210, invino.lt. Not as hip as it
was a few years ago, this wine bar is nevertheless humming with locals drinking reasonably priced wine and tapas-style small plates and snacks. The Tavern
Hotel Stikliai, Gaono 7; +370 5 264 9595, stikliaihotel.lt. Though the hotel has a fine-dining restaurant in a pretty domed atrium, this less-formal space offers excellent Lithuanian cuisine such as herrings, potato pancakes that stay the palatable side of stodgy, and very good bread and vodka ice-cream with apple jam. Stikliai Café
Next to Stikliai Hotel (see previous); +370 5 264 9581. Elaborate cakes, handmade chocolates and marzipan sweets, plus jams and honey from the country home of the hotel’s manager. Neringa
Gedimino prospektas 23; +370 5 2614058, restoranasneringa.lt. Worth a look for a glimpse of life past but, as Dalia says, don’t eat here and think you’ve had Lithuanian food. El Gaucho Sano
Pilies gatve 10; +370 5 210 77 73, atrium.lt. Meat on wooden boards with sides and sauces. This basement Argentine restaurant in the Old Town, is where Dexter and Dalia come for a mean steak after shows. Pilies Kepyklele
Pilies gatve 19; +370 5 2608992. “Just wait till we go to my crêpe place,” says Dexter, promising it’ll be a highlight of Vilnius food. The low-key vibe and friendly staff are part of the attraction but Dexter’s proof is in the pudding – the crêpes really are good, as is the coffee. A perfect pit-stop on a cold afternoon.
SHOP & SEE Jonas Bugailiškis
Aušros Vartu gatve 17-10; +370 86 5236613, bugailiskis.com. If you want to visit the workshop and store of this sculptor, you may need to call ahead and arrange an appointment. Worth a look if you’re looking for some Lithuanian folk art – decorative carvings, toys and musical instruments. Amber Museum Gallery
St. Mykolo gatve 8; +370 5 2623092; ambergallery.lt. Artefacts and souvenirs, information on Baltic ambers, as well as finely crafted jewellery and objets. Juozas Statkevicius
Odminiu gatve 11; statkevicius.com. The showroom of Lithuania’s leading, and Dalia’s favourite, designer. Juozas’s clothes combine classic feminine tailoring with directional flourishes. Souvenir market
Pilies gatve 23. In the main street of the baroque Old Town, you’ll find paintings of the kitten-and-sunset variety, as well as local handicrafts and amber that’s of questionable quality (and authenticity) but is pleasing aesthetically and fiscally. Contemporary Art Centre
Vokieciu 2; cac.lt. The largest contemporary art centre in the Baltic States has changing exhibitions from Lithuanian, regional and international artists across different media. And if you prefer the company of arty people, rather than their work, the café is pretty good too. Akademija Galerija
Pilies gatve 44/2; + 370 5 2612094. Gallery exhibiting the works of students and staff of the Vilnius Academy of Arts,some of which make beautiful and affordable souvenirs. Senamiescio Krautuve
Literatu gatve 5; +370 6 9969998.senamiesciokrautuve.lt. Any resident in any city would love this as their cornershop. Hanging cured meats, slabs of lard, big ceramic jars of pickles, honey, birch and sea buckthorn juice, freshly baked cakes and a huge range of digestive teas. The best of local and organic produce – you can easily spend an hour browsing, and could easily spend a fortune. Thelonious
Stikliu gatve 12; +370 5 2121076. As you’ll have guessed from the name, this secondhand vinyl shop specialises in jazz. Number 1 Linen & Amber Studio
Stikliu gatve 3; +370 5 2610213, lgstudija.lt. Sells two of the things Lithuania is most famed for. This is the best place to buy traditional, simple but high-quality linen, mainly tableware and bed linen. Tymo Turgus
– Farmers’ Market Aukštaiciu/Maironio. If your feet are feeling (or not) the effects of tramping through the snow, the felt in-soles here provide welcome relief. Pop them in your shoes then taste your way down the market trying black bread, all manner of sausages, jams and, of course, pickled vegetables, sold from stalls or the trucks of small-scale producers and farmers. Every Thursday. Hales Turgus
Pylimo 58/1. A covered market where locals shop for smoked and fresh meat, fish, local honey and juices, as well as cheap clothes.
STAY Stikliai Hotel
Gaono 7; +370 5 264 9595, stikliaihotel.lt. Right in the heart of the Old Town, and within walking distance of everything you could want in a weekend away, this is a five-star hotel with two excellent restaurants. All the rooms are decorated differently, and the hotel has traditional and contemporary artworks. Favoured by visiting statesmen, the exchange rate makes it an attractive
option for accommodation in Vilnius.
For more information about Dalia’s opera company, see bohemieciai.lt. Getting there
At time of press there were no direct flights from the UK to Vilnius. You can fly with stopovers on Air Baltic or Lufthansa, among others.