Sunday, February 15, 2009

Vilnius, Lithuania

Although I am always excited to visit new places, I was unusually enthusiastic about going to Vilnius. I thought it was simply because it was another country I had never expected to visit, but as I later learned that I actually have some Lithuanian ancestry thanks to my Great-Grandfather!
Not surprisingly, I found Lithuania/Lietuva a bit quirky (so very familiar to me) and filled with nice people, beautiful architecture, and tasty food.
February isn’t the height of the tourist season, and with temps averaging -3 degrees and only 2 hrs of sunlight per day it is for good reason, but it was nice not having any crowds to battle in order to see the city or experience real Lithuanian culture.
Our first day there, my work friends and I strolled down the Gediminas Prospektas, the main street of Vilnius, a diverse street of banks, government institutions, theaters, the national library, and other shopping and dining options towards Vilnius Cathedral and the central meeting point of the city. There is a tile near the belfry marked with the word “stebuklas” or miracle, which marks the spot where the 1989 human chain of 2 million Lithuanians protesting Soviet occupation ended. It’s said that if you stand on the tile and turn around clockwise you will be granted a wish…my wish is that I had known this before I found the tile!
Our next stop was the Gediminas Tower - named for the 14th century Grand Duke or High King of Lithuania - the only remaining part of the upper Vilnius castle. This tower is a historic symbol of the country and is even depicted on the national currency, the lita. From that vantage point, 48 m above the city, we could see The Hill of Three Crosses, where legend has it Franciscan monks who were trying to spread Christianity were tortured to death and thrown into the Vilnia River.
Around 4pm the sun was down so we decided to pop into a coffee shop to warm up and then proceeded on to a wine bar (hey, you got to do what you got to do to stay warm!) to kill some time before dinner. We sampled traditional Lithuanian atmosphere –live chickens greeted us at the door! -- and food at Cili Kaimas. My adventurous undertaking was the aptly named “cili kaimas” or baked meat dumplings. They looked a lot like pierogies yet tasted a bit like lasagna, in short they were incredibly delicious!
The following day I strolled around the Old Town area some more, enjoying the winding cobbled stone streets, and taking in the unique atmosphere. It was freezing! so there were many stops for coffee and pizza, but I also managed to fit in a stop at the 15th century St. Anne’s Church, which is virtually unchanged since that time. The interior seemed a little dilapidated but the fact that it is still in it’s nearly original form made it all the more interesting and unique. After this trip to Vilnius, I am rather proud to claim myself as part Lithuanian!

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