Leaving Riga we had another lovely bus ride of about five and half hours to get to Klaipeda in Lithuania. The journey went as quick as it could have given the expected time but could have been quicker if it wasn’t for the road works that were being completed. Just like in Australia, the road workers work at the same slow pace with more men leaning on shovels talking rather than working. I guess it is common the world over.
Arriving in Klaipeda at a latish hour in the afternoon, Stefan showed us around the Old Town pointing out the balcony from which Adolf Hitler claimed Lithuania as a German province thus breaking the pact between him and Stalin and eventually led to all out war.
The Old Town itself was set out like most others I have seen to date with one square surrounded by old buildings and small parks. What surprised me here was the size of the cobblestones on the roads. I think it was rather generous calling them stones when they were huge rocks. They would be great for testing your vehicles suspension or seeing if your 4WD could actually go offroad. The square here had been set up for watching the Eurobasket championships as they were hosting some of the earlier games. I was getting a real feel for this championship now.
Dinner tonight was at a Lithuanian/German restaurant that had a great vibe to it. You have to love a place where you can buy a litre of beer and a one metre sausage. I had the beer but left the sausage to a couple of others. It came in two lots of 50cm and I am not sue how they ate it all but I can confirm there was none left. I also loved the fact that the main music played at this place were AC/DC classics. You could almost say it was an Aussie backpackers dream restaurant.
The next day we travelled by ferry to the Curonian Spit. It is the fifth longest spit in the world. It’s a true seaside resort the Lithuanian peope who live on the western side of the country. The National Park is half Lithuanian and half Russian.
We had a local guide here who took us up Witches Hill which has wooden sculptures scattered throughout, telling a story all the way. I went through the Gates of Hell and posed with the devil. I just couldn’t pass up such an opportunity and let’s be honest, I may as well meet the guy in statue form before I head there eventually. Well hopefully not anyway.
Lunch was at Nida where I had two huge potato dumplings. The sausage inside was great but the rest I could have gone without. I felt like I gained 5kgs in that meal alone. Sometimes what seems like a good idea actually isn’t. That’s where I should have had something more ‘normal’ but hey, I am only likely to be here once.
After lunch we went to a lookout where a large sundial was present and one could see the Russian Border in the distance. Large dunes spread from the Curonian Spit to the Baltic Sea. We then walked through the old town and the docks of Nida before catching the ferry back to Klaipeda.
Back in Klaipeda, a few of us tried to find the restaurant that dished up crow, as mentioned by Stefan. Unfortunately it could not found, the crow that is, and decided that Stefan was leading us on by saying it could be eaten. Ended up having a few beers from the place we ate at the night before then a few others joined us where we then decided to eat a local restaurant much closer to our accommodation.
At the restaurant the service was great but when we were eating the Eurobasket game between Lithuania and France was being played. Being the basketball fan I didn’t mind but having a somewhat distorted speaker above our head was annoying. As the game was being telecast outside the restaurant there was nothing we could do about the volume. For me it was good to get a vibe of what to expect when we hit Vilnius over the next couple of days.
After heading back to the accommodation both myself and my roommate, Chris, could hear these guys outside making a lot of noise. I heard that Lithuania lost to France so they were probably drunk and talking about what went wrong. I was so tempted to yell out ‘Viva Le France’ but thought better of it as for I knew they could have easily smashed our windows.
The following day was what I call the bus trip from hell. Not because of the driver or the bus seat legroom but because the driver could not turn off the heat or put on the air-conditioning. It was like being on a moving sauna for 4 hours until we made it to Vilnius. The driver was pretty good about it and was friendly and helpful but I guess there was only so much he could do. We were all just thankful it was not a full bus as that would have been unbearable.
Upon arriving in Vilnius the first impressions were not great where the city was looking somewhat rundown but as we got nearer to the Old Town I realised this city was going to be something special.
Checking into the hotel was more difficult than it should have been as the place was overbooked so myself and two others moved into another property. The property wasn’t too bad except I was in one of the attic rooms so had to get up a set of stairs that would have had close to a 70 degree incline. Not so bad heading up but coming down in the middle of the night for toilet run or first thing for a shower was going to be interesting.
Stefan had organised a local guide for us to be lead around Vilnius and the surrounding area of Uzupio. It was a most interesting tour that went for almost 4 hours. Sights in vilnius that impressed were the Catherdal Square, St Anne’s Church, the Presidential Palace and the observation deck within the University that gave great views over the city.
Going through Uzupio was a real local experience as it showed us what real life would be like. It’s now very much a haven for artists but you can really feel it’s charm in a different way. The main highlights in this area were the artwork/graffiti and the Angel of Uzupis. The final stop here was an old silo type building that was no in use but standing on the top the view as the sun was setting was nothing short of spectacular.
Dinner tonight was late, well for me anyway and it was booked into a German restaurant where most of us chowed down on huge, but very tasty schnitzels, washed down with some German beers. I took the opportunity to have desert and the apple strudel was definitely worth it even it wasn’t consumed until 10.30pm.
Our local guide had informed us of Georgian dance performance that starts at 11pm each night so after dinner we took up that opportunity. Seeing as though we only had to stay up for another 15 mins after dinner, it wasn’t to hard to push ourselves. The performance was truly awesome and very energetic and it was very easy to get into the spirit of it all. It would have been something I would have gladly paid to see.
It had been such a long day that sleeping was no problem. It was so easy in fact that I didn’t get up almost 11am. Today for me was Eurobasket day but before that the only place I was interested in seeing was the Genocide Museum which also housed the old KGB Prison. I found this most interesting especially the prison section. One could really gain a sense of what the prison life would have been like. Also seeing the execution chamber was deeply moving and emotional.
From there I started making my way to Town Hall Square for some basketball action. Along the way I came across the Vilnius Live Music Festival that happened to be free. Sitting there for about an hour soaking up the music was beautifully relaxing. One of the musicians cracked me up as once he finished his set, he jumped off stage, then rode away on his bike like it was the natural thing to do. Most of the groups sang in English and in general were pretty good to listen to.
I also came across the Vilnius marathon that was being held concurrently. Plenty of people were hanging around at the finishing line as well as in the recovery areas. First time I had seen a marathon and given how the athletes looked when they finished it, I have no intention of ever competing in one.
By this time I was getting excited by the anticipation of sitting amongst a few thousand Lithuanian fans in the Town Hall Square to watch the national team take on Germany. The first game to be broadcast was Spain v France and whilst this should have been a great game, the French rested their star players and Spain won easily. During the build up to the main game the crowd swelled significantly and by the time it started I was fair and square in the middle of all these crazy Lithuanian supporters. The atmosphere was absolutely amazing. The only negative was all the smokers that surrounded me. If I end up with lung cancer, I’ll know where it started. It was a great game between Lithuania and Germany and only in the last minute of the game was it decided and from there the fans were going crazy in celebration. Walking back to our accommodation you could not help but get involved in the cheering and chanting.
Today we left Vilnius and headed to the Aukstaitija National Park just north of Vilnius by train for about two hours. Must admit I was so glad to not be on a bus for a change. One could spread out and not be cramped for legroom.
On arrival we were greeted by Regina, our host at the home stay. This was located in the village town of Ginuciai which is a very quiet and peaceful place surrounded by lakes and forests. As it was my turn again to have single room I shared the summer house with Stefan while everyone else was in the winter house. The accommodation was very homely and most welcoming. Unfortunately for us the hot shower was in the winter house. It was a small inconvenience but the chance to have some quiet time when required was fantastic in the summer house.
After we settled in we went on a canoe trip with a local guide. As it was my first time canoeing I went with the guide which was a good thing as I had no idea about about steering or controlling a canoe. I must admit I felt like I was doing a lot of the work while he was correcting the steering but as I was in front I’ll never know.
It was extremely peaceful canoeing on the still waters and it felt like we had the whole world to ourselves. We eventually hit land after about 90 minutes minus a bit a skin from both thumbs to then walk up many steps with a stone to make a wish at the wishing tree. The tree was ok but the view was amazing with all the lakes and forests for as far as the eye could see. At that point our local guide could see a huge storm coming in and was in our best interest to get out of there and fast.
Right now I didn’t care about the blisters or the shoulder pain, it was about beating the storm. With about 100 metres to go the storm hit with strong winds, heavy rain, thunder and lightning. By this stage I was trying to canoe like an Olympic athlete but it didn’t seem to make much difference. In the end I still got saturated and this probably contributed to the cold I was suffering from. It was great that our guide shared a few shots of home made vodka when we hit dry land, that definitely warmed up my insides.
That night Regina cooked up a huge homemade feast that we all devoured before sitting back and having general chats while knocking back quite a few drinks. My Estonian vodka was awesome and unlike on the Trans-Siberian railway I managed to keep it all down without disgracing myself. At least this time I had slices of apples after each shot which made a huge difference.
Next day we hiked or should I say walked for 5kms to the ancient beekeeping museum. Given my natural hatred of bees and my allergy to beestings, I did not go in but just stayed back and enjoyed the views. It was actually a lovely walk that was refreshing and needed after the great breakfast served up by Regina.
Once we got back, lunch was served and yes, it was another feast before some of us headed out to the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant for a tour. This was the same sort of soviet plant that is at Chernobyl and the largest in this part of the world. Under EU conditions the plant must be decommissioned by 2029 and the process is currently underway. I did think it was an unusual place to see but was definitely worth it as how many people can say they have seen a soviet nuclear power plant?
It had been another long day and after another Regina feast for ages I headed to bed for reasonably early start for our train rides to Warsaw.