The city of Vilnius is renowned for its baroque churches. It's one thing to read about it, but it's quite another to realize that there seems to be a baroque church on every street corner. I mean, they're basically everywhere. Most of my pics from Vilnius show churches. So much so that I will never be able to figure out which is which when I get back home.
The Old Town of Vilnius is beautiful, though there are still a lot of work to be done. As is the case across the Baltic States, there are cranes and scaffoldings everywhere, with crews of workers refurbishing buildings, etc. For all that it's supposed to be a party place (at least during the weekend), Vilnius is much more quiet and laid-back then Tallinn and Riga. A bit more romantic as well. Think about Vienna, Austria, but on a much smaller scale.
The main difference is how friendlier people are here. Lithuanians have been dubbed the "Spanish of the Baltic" and they're much easier to chat with than their cousins in Estonia and Latvia. Simply say, "What about them Celtics winning the NBA title?" and you'll have a hoops discussion on the way. Lithuanians are crazy about basketball. You might remember that they came very close (losing by a single point) to beat the American Dream Team in the Olympics.
Though the service industry is said to be mediocre, I have been well served in bars and restaurants thus far. Knock on wood!
Understandably, the main attractions in Vilnius are baroque churches. Trouble is, after a few you sort of get the feeling that you've seen them all. I've lost track of how many churches (Gothic and baroque) I've been in and out of. . . The Museum of the Genocide Victims house in the former KGB building is a must. Once again, you see that the Soviet yoke was as bad -- or even worst -- than the Nazis'. As a matter of course, checked out Vilnius Cathedral and went up to the top of the tower of the Gediminas Castle for views of the Old Town. Too bad the Royal Palace is undergoing renovations and won't open till 2009. I visited Uzupis, which is supposed to be a bohemian district inhabited by artists, squatters, etc -- a bit like Christiana in Copenhagen. I was a bit disappointed by the fact that there is close to nothing to see, especially since I walked all the way there. For the designer clothes and the posh shops, get yourself to the New Town's main promenade, Gedimino prospektas, where you'll see those who want to see and be seen. Every big city has a street like this, and it's good for the eye candy!;-)
Yesterday the weather was nice, so I took the bus to see the medieval castle of Trakai. The castle can be found on a small island in the middle of Lake Galve, and it makes for a very enjoyable day trip.
I'm kind of bummed out today, as it is the very last day of my Eastern European adventure. Can't believe that it's already over. Time really flew by! I'm sure glad I came, and I now realize that Finland should never have been on the itinerary. I should have spent those days in Poland, or simply wandering around and exploring a bit more of Estonia, Riga, and Lithuania.
For anyone looking for a place to go, you can't go wrong with any of these destinations. The timing is perfect, as inflation, though on the rise, has yet to reach the level the adoption of the euro as the main currency will bring. Those 4 countries are in complete effervescence, with the old making place for the new. These people have had to fight hard to maintain their identity, their traditions, and their cultures. They're proud of their newfound independence, and they are looking at a bright future ahead. The elderly people you see here have had it extremely hard, and it shows. But the younger generation is vibrant, looking forward to the new opportunities that are open to them. In Poland and Latvia especially, you'll feel that special vibe.
So whether you are looking for culture, architecture, night life, good food, cheap drinks, or some of the most beautiful women in the world, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are a must!:-) Although it's not the fairytale that many believed when their countries became part of the EU, you can see that they are moving forward and the sky's the limit. These countries are also lands of contrast, where old-time charm competes with new, modern skyscrapers. One must never forget that programs like Kazaa and Skype are Estonia products. So is it any wonder that there are wifi taxis over there!?!
Unlike Poland, which was a pain in the ass at times because no one spoke English (which, in retrospect, was all part of the fun and the adventure), you'll never have any problem being understood in Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius. And even outside the main cities, if tourism is blooming there, someone will be happy to help you out.
I've now been to 30 different countries around the globe. And yet, I feel that this latest trip may have been the most rewarding one so far. The timing was good, visiting each country part of the Baltic States before the euro took over (same thing with Poland). It's a time of change in each of these countries, but the people nevertheless desire to hold on to what they have fought to preserve for the decades of oppression at the hands of the Germans and/or the Soviets. There's a lot to see, a lot to do, and you can do it all on a budget without missing out on anything. It won't be true for long, so consider visiting those places as soon as possible. As for me, 5 weeks abroad will have cost me (I haven't made the calculations yet) about a paltry 3000$, and that includes the plane ticket. Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are all accessible from cheap flights from London and beyond, so check it out.
I know I say this every time I return from a trip, but I WILL go back to each country. Sadly, I feel like I've missed out on a lot of things everywhere. I've already listed where I would have gone in Poland. But given more time, in Estonia I would have gone to Saaremaa, Parnu, Tartu; in Latvia, I would have visited Sigulda, Cesis, Liepaja, and Ventspils; in Lithuania, I missed out on the Hill of Crosses, Kaunas, Klaipeda, and the Curonian Spit. So you see, I have to go back there! And yes, the gorgeous ladies are an incentive that is not negligible!!!:p
Next time you hear from me I'll be back in Montreal, so this blog will resume its habitual programming. Still, I hope that some of you enjoyed following my adventures and misadventures these last few weeks! I know that many people cannot afford to travel, so hopefully these little blog updates made you dream about new places to discover.
The return to reality will be atrocious, as I have a wedding to attend on Saturday and I resume work on Sunday. . . Ah, the humanity!