City on the Rise

New city contrasts with Old City in Vilnius
Nearly empty classy mall in Vilnius

Consider Vilnius, Lithuania, as a city on the rise. Since Lithuania finally escaped communist control in 1991, its city leaders have been busily working to make it into the modern city that it is today, while maintaining its old-world charm.

Today, you can visit Vilnius at a fraction of the cost of other European cities and have an equally good time. The food is unique to Lithuania, but very delicious.

Like Ireland, most dishes are served or made with potatoes and meat. The restaurants usually have pictures of the dishes on their menus because they know that few people outside Lithuania speak the language.

Lithuania is a member of the European Union and uses the Euro as its currency, making it very easy to convert money. That is done at a bank or by using one of the many ATM machines that are easily found. There is a super high-end shopping mall in town, called Europa, but I found it mostly deserted during evening shopping hours.

The city has a population of about 550,000, but feels much smaller. Most tourist areas are in the easily walkable Old Town on one side of the river that divides the city. Most commercial activity is on the other side of the river which is less than a decade old.

As you stroll through the Old Town with its cobblestone roads, you are transported back to the 14th century when much of this area was built. There seems to be a church around every corner. A main pedestrian street is lined with familiar tourist shops, such as ice cream stalls and coffee houses, along with restaurants and souvenir shops with amazingly low prices.

Despite all the fun in the Old Town viewing buildings, the main interest in Vilnius revolves around its convoluted history. It received independence from Czarist Russia in 1918 only to be invaded by the Germans and Russians during the intervening years before it achieved independence again with the breakup of the Soviet Union of which it was a part. With that independence, Lithuania adopted capitalism and threw off the shackles of communism. The transition seems to be going very well, but Lithuania does not forget its past.

Before World War II, the largest group of the population of Vilnius was Jewish, about 100,000 in number, and it was a seat of Jewish learning. The War wiped out most of this population, leaving only 3000 Jews. To gauge the effect of the War: there were 100 synagogues there at its start. Today there is but one. Under Russian domination, the KGB tortured many political dissidents and free thinkers in Vilnius. Both of these activities, and more of the painful past, are documented in a genocide museum located in an old jail in the former KGB headquarters, a must see, even if disturbing. If you see Old Town without seeing the museum, you will miss the most important story of Vilnius.

Remember so as not to repeat history
Genocide Museum

Get out of the city 45 minutes to visit a castle on an island in a lake in Trakai. There on Lake Galve sits a magnificently restored 14th century castle and museum with authentic period pieces in its collection. The castle is the site of official functions when Lithuania entertains foreign dignitaries, as when it held European leader summits. The town itself is charming to visit, and getting out on the lake in one of the numerous boating options is relaxing, weather permitting.

Beautiful castle on lake
Trakai Castle

Of particular interest is the fact that a Turkish religious sect whose worship is based on the Old Testament, the Karaims, were brought to Trakai to serve as guards for the the royal occupant of the castle in the 14th century. They still live in this area maintaining their religious practices. In Trakai, one of the traditional dishes of the Karaim is very popular, called kybyn, and there are Karaim restaurants. You can identify Karaim homes by their unique 3-window design all around Trakai. A Karaim house of worship, the Kenesa, still operates here. Although their religion is in many ways similar to Judaism, including not eating pork, an otherwise popular dish in Lithuania, they were never persecuted by the Nazis, as they fell under their radar—just one of the intriguing aspects of Lithuanian life available to be viewed in Vilnius.

2 Comments

    1. I highly recommend it! I will be writing about other Baltic destinations. They can all be covered in one trip. The area is as fascinating as any part of Europe, less crowded, and less expensive. But many people are visiting because of the increased popularity of cruising, and cruising to the Baltics is one of the least expensive cruises to take, so visitors are increasing. Go sooner rather than later, because prices are likely to increase with increased numbers of visitors. I don’t recommend seeing the Baltics on a cruise because you only stop in the main ports for a short time and don’t get to experience the places in depth. Also, when a cruise ship stops, it disgorges a large number of people all at once defeating the benefit of going to a “less crowded” place. They definitely wouldn’t have time to see the museum or Trakai, both highlights.

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