Vilnius, Lithuania

Trip Start Mar 13, 2007
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Trip End Aug 10, 2007


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Wednesday, April 4, 2007

The next several legs of my journey from Warsaw to Tallinn will be by bus rather than train.  There is actually still an overnight train running from Warsaw to Vilnius, but it crosses through a small corner of Belarus and would require an expensive visa to transit through. It would be nice to add another country to my list, but an hour on the train in the dark doesn't quite cut it.  For some strange reason I was expecting a deluxe piece of equipment for my overnight ride to Vilnius, one fitted with a toilet and a coffee machine like the luxury long-distance buses in Mexico and Brazil.  The Eurolines experience, though, is more equivalent to traveling the SIlver Dog in America.  Although the bus was scheduled to arrive in Vilnius at 7:00 A.M., it somehow got there by 4:30 and the hostel was nice enough to let me in a crash for a few hours even though my reservation was only for the following night.

Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, is a beautiful mostly Baroque city that actually reminds me quite a lot of Prague - well, a smaller, somewhat shabbier version of Prague that has not yet been completely overrun by tourists.  A huge amount of work seems to be going on currently to spruce up some of the still crumbly buildings and monuments.  Meanwhile, Lithuania's economic success is very apparent in the extent of the office, commercial, and residential construction taking place, mostly in a new business center across the river from the old city.

I've been extremely interested in the three Baltic countries since following their struggle for independence from the Soviet Union in the 1989-1991 time frame.  Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia were independent nations between 1918 and 1940.  Then Stalin invaded and incorporated them as republics in the Soviet Union, also deporting hundreds of thousands of people to Siberia both in 1940-1941 when Nazi Germany invaded Russia and then again in the years after WWII.  These 50 years of occupation were clearly a very traumatic time for the Baltic peoples, as evidenced by the large number of memorials to the Soviet's victims in the three countries and the museums explaining the Soviet oppression in great detail.  The Balts' desire to keep the memory of the victims alive and to preserve a historically accurate record of their suffering bears many similarities to that of the Jews and the history of the Holocaust.

One of highlights of a visit to Vilnius is the Museum of Genocide, a former KGB prison and interrogation center on the city's central commercial street.  As well as detailed exhibits on Lithuanians' suffering under Soviet rule, you can also visit the prison cells, guard rooms, and interrogation rooms, see some of the torture devices and walk into the execution chamber where hundreds of people were shot. 

The sobering trip into this darker part of Lithuania's history balances Vilnius's prettier and lighter sides.  One of those lighter sides is the Uzupis neighborhood, a rather dumpy Hippie haven on the other side of a stream that had declared its independence as a new republic.  It's a makes for a nice short foray into the 1960s, but it's not a place you'd want to stay too long!  I had just crossed the stream to Uzupis on a footbridge and was walking along a muddy footpath between some rundown squatter shacks and the stream when I became aware of someone running towards me from behind at high speed.  Convinced I was about to be robbed of my money and my passport, I swerved around a yelled, "What!"  In front of me was sickly little flower child with matted hair and torn jeans who breathlessly whimpered something like, "Ummy mummy shvetty cigaretty?"  With shrugged shoulders and turned up palms I responded, "No cigaretty, no smoky, sorry!"  She looked as though she was about to cry and quickly stomped off again from where she came.  It took me much of the evening to get over my adrenaline rush.

Sometimes I feel like Andrew Zimmern, the guy with the "Bizarre Foods" show on The Travel Channel.  I don't know if Andrew's ever featured the Baltics, but he's have a field day in Lithuania, where the national dish is something called Zeppelin.  A zeppelin consists of various fillings stuffed into a large blob of mashed potato dough and boiled like a big oblong dumpling.  A zeppelin can be a fairly small side dish or can be a football-size meal of its own.  It will be called "grandma's style", "landlord's style", "son-in-law's style", etc, depending on what it's stuffed with and what cholesterol-laden sauce it's smothered in.  Fore example, "traditional style" contains a meat filling and is doused with a sour cream and crackling sauce.  What does this taste like?  Well, imagine what it would be like to feast on a teddy bear that's been drowned in snail slime and you'll be close.

Lithuania is definitely a beer drinking country, so much so that the ancient Lithuanians (actually the last European ethnicity to be Christianized) worshipped a beer god named Ragutis.  One of the specialties is Alus Medaus, a delicious honey beer which I sampled at the Alytus Microbrewery in Vilnius while entertained by a small local ensemble of flute, fiddle, accordeon, tambourine, and song.  It would make Ragutis proud.  But good beer in Lithuania must be accompanied by good beer snacks, the favorites of which include Rukytos Kialis Ausys (smoked pigs ears cut into narrow strips and saturated with garlic) and Vedarai (mashed potatoes stuffed in natural sausage casings).

I've had beer samplers at microbreweries before that enable you to try small glasses of six or eight different kinds of the home brew, but the brandy/liquer sampler at Forte Varas restaurant in Vilnius was a first for me.  It was small shots of six different Lithuanian spirits ranging from Trejid Devynarios (bitter herbal) to Malunininku (sour cherry and heb) to Zagaros Vysniu (super sweet cherry liquer).  The star, though, was Krupnikas, a spiced honey brandy that was just like liquid ginger bread.

Two nights in a row a went by a restaurant named Lokys, famous for a particular game meat specialty, and both times I continued on.  Although the word Lokys means bear in Lithuanian and although there's a carved wooden bear out front, it's not bear that's their renown.  Finally my curiosity won out over my frugality and I went in on my third night in VIlnius.  The main floor looked as though it had several elegantly decorated private rooms with vaulted ceilings and rich wooden furniture, but I was escorted by a medieval maiden down to the cellar via a brick stairway so narrow and winding anyone slightly fatter or broader-shouldered than I am would almost certainly get stuck.  Above my seat was a giant mounted wild boar's head and the coat racks on the walls were all deer antlers.  "A perfect hangout for hungry Hobbits", I thought.  I sat down, perused the menu, and ordered my Beaver Stew.

Now what does beaver taste like?  Well, when it's prepared in a cream sauce with lots of wild mushrooms and served with mashed potatoes, it tastes a lot like Beef Stroganoff.  My beaver was quite delicious, fairly tender with a few slightly chewy pieces, not particularly "gamey" but also not something I would have mistaken for one of our everyday meats.
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