Civic Pride and Cleanliness Reign
Recently my wife and I had another incredible opportunity to spend 12 nights in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. This came about because we had received an invitation from a close relative to come and discover the city. This relative has a smart, up-market two room furnished apartment right in the heart of the city and alongside the main road i.e. Gedimino Avenue.
We accepted the invitation and soon discovered many interesting and unusual facts about the city.
Where is Vilnius, Lithuania?
But first, where exactly is this country called Lithuania? It is a small country in Europe with a population of some three million people. The capital, Vilnius, has a population of 250,000 inhabitants, eighty per cent of whom are ethnic Lithuanians, eight per cent are Russian and another seven percent are Polish.
Lithuania is bordered by the Baltic Sea, another small country called Latvia and also Poland. It also has the unusual Russian enclave of Kaliningrad! It is one of the safest countries to visit in the whole of Europe. We can attest to that because we felt very safe and secure throughout our stay in Vilnius.
Early History and Growth of Vilnius
Vilnius is amazingly attractive and alluring with its labyrinthine Old Town cobblestone lanes and courtyards. It has its very own distinctive ambiance that is both charming as well as endearing. With proper shoes, walking on the well laid cobblestones can be quite a lot of fun.
Its first period of growth took place south of Cathedral Square right in the heart of Old Town. Standing majestically here is the imposing Cathedral – Basilica of St Stanislaus and St. Ladislaus. It remains to this day, the most important Catholic building in Lithuania. It was first built way back in 1251! It was partly destroyed and rebuilt a number of times.
Many people, I believe, visit the city of Vilnius to marvel at the interesting and unusual mix of Baroque, Gothic, Neoclassical and Renaissance architectural styles.
Next to it is Vilnius Cathedral Belfry… and it became a belfry only in the 16th century. Seeing it first hand, I was astounded to learn that the belfry is 57 metres high and quite wide at the bottom. No mere description can do justice to this building.
Dazzling Architectural Styles
Old Town in Vilnius achieved UNESCO world heritage status sometime in the early nineties. After walking through the Old Town on many occasions during my brief stay in the city, I can well understand why it earned this highly coveted status. Many people, I believe, visit the city of Vilnius to marvel at the interesting and unusual mix of Baroque, Gothic, Neoclassical and Renaissance architectural styles.
It was such a pleasure to walk leisurely to Old Town and to take in the sights, sounds and feel of this wonderful, well preserved place. To me and my wife the whole city is clean but I later revised my opinion when I had a chance conversation with a senior gentleman from the Netherlands. To him, and I must stress here that this was his 5th visit to the city, he said that the city was not just clean but very clean!
Civic Pride and Cleanliness
He remarked that compared to the streets of Amsterdam which he said were quite dirty, Vilnius was exceptional. I had to agree with him because I have been to some major European cities and generally the streets are quite dirty because, in part, many of these cities have very many tourists on a regular basis. This was not the case with Vilnius. It has, I believe, yet to be discovered by hordes of tourists.
My wife and I did a lot of walking around to get a real feel for the city. We walked all over New Town as well as Old Town. We however liked Old Town better because of its unique charms and buildings.
No Cigarettes Butts on the Streets!
Walking was made that much easier because the pavements for pedestrians are wide enough and not crowded like most busy European capitals. There were thrash bins placed at strategic intervals and people actually used them. And nobody threw cigarette butts on the streets! Amazing self control or is this just a matter of civic pride?
It was also pleasant weather for the most part and the people of Vilnius did stop and help us out when we asked for directions……………….each and every time. Best of all, the people of Vilnius, not just the university students but also the middle aged and the not so young individuals all spoke and understood English. Let me add though that outside the capital of Vilnius, English is neither widely spoken nor understood.
Vilnius City Fiesta
It was just our good fortune that the day after we arrived in Vilnius, the city began three days of celebration. Titled Vilnius City Fiesta – 2 to 4 September, it was held on the avenue for about a mile just below my relative’s apartment building. How convenient for us!
There were properly erected, sturdy stalls set up the day before the event on Gedimino Avenue. There were stalls selling cooked food – Lithuanian food is mainly hardy fare of meat and potatoes. Nothing was too exciting but solid stuff for the masses. There were also stalls selling grilled sausages of all types, cheese, biscuits, cookies etc. There were also stalls selling jewelleries, furniture, art works and paintings. Some stalls sold clothes, hats, caps etc.
For me, the best part of the City Fiesta was the element of music …there was enough variety for all ages and groups. Two huge stages were set up at both ends of the avenue. From these stages, rock groups belted out popular numbers and I could see people moving and occasionally dancing to the beat. Families with young children were all over the fiesta grounds having a really good time.
People in Vilnius are more than willing to provide help and assistance when asked. In other major cities, they do not have the time for you. They are not prepared to stop and assist.
It was all good, heady stuff and I enjoyed the shows. Further down the avenue, we heard a jazz quintet playing beautiful music. As we walked along the avenue, we also heard buskers belting out numbers to a vey appreciate crowd. It was simply good clean fun…there was no rowdiness, fights or drunken displays by anyone in the crowd.
On day 4 when we came down from our apartment, we noticed that all the stalls had been dismantled and removed and the place cleaned up and restored to the way it was before the event. Such discipline is to be admired.
Other Strange Facts and Information
- In addition to the city being very clean, I also noticed very little graffiti in the city. Most major cities of the world have the scourge of graffiti plastered all over the city. Vilnius is spared this scourge to some decent degree. Once again, I think it is civic pride that is so ingrained in the people.
- People in Vilnius are more than willing to provide help and assistance when asked. In other major cities, they do not have the time for you. They are not prepared to stop and assist.
- English is widely spoken and understood. Where this is not the case in a restaurant or department store, they will immediately summon someone who can assist us.
- There are no cigarette butts, cigarette packets or plastic wrappers carelessly thrown away and littering the streets!
- The country has a very small population of Sunni Muslims, about 7000 who, I have been informed, have integrated well with the rest of the population. These Muslims are very supportive of the government.
- Believe it or not. …………the first Lithuanians came to the country thousands of years ago from India!
- This information was conveyed to me by our guide who said he is also an amateur historian, during our brief visit to the resort town of Trakai. He said the Lithuanian language and Sanskrit are very similar. In addition, I would like to add that Sanskrit has been very important in the origin and development of comparative Indo-European linguistics.
- Cost of living in Vilnius is really low. Three racks of meat on the bone cost 3 Euro. A can of beer ( larger than normal ) 42 cents and I purchased a bottle of fairly good wine ( Merlot ) for about 3 Euro.
- There is a wide variety of good restaurants including those that cater for the Asian palate i.e. Thai, Chinese, Indian and Japanese.
- All statues of prominent Russian personalities and heroes i.e. Stalin, Lenin etc have been removed from the capital and relocated to a small town 120 kilometres away.
- Unfortunately, Vilnius too has its share of rogue taxi drivers. The taxi ride from the airport to our apartment was a whopping 15 Euro by a truly dishonest young taxi driver. However, our trip to the airport for the return journey home by a middle aged taxi driver cost us only 5 Euro. Even the tourist brochures warn us to be careful about this matter.
Trakai: Picture Postcard Perfect
Towards the end of our stay in Vilnius we decided to visit the resort town of Trakai. It is just a 45 minute drive to the town in a comfortable, medium sized Mercedes Benz bus. Trakai only has a population of about 7,500 residents. It has all the other facilities of a modern town, complete with hotels, restaurants, post offices, hospitals, pharmacies etc. However, the one drawback is the lack of sufficient and decent toilet facilities for the crowds of tourists.
My first impression of Trakai is of a picture perfect postcard setting. I marvelled at how tranquil the place seemed. Trakai boasts thirteen beautiful and charming lakes within and around the town! We stopped at the regular rest area which happened to be directly opposite the only remaining castle. Even this castle was only partly ancient, the bottom part and partly modern….which made it look rather incongruous!
There were two other castles there in the past but these were destroyed during the occupation.
The rest area was dotted with a succession of souvenir shops, bars and restaurants and we stopped at a restaurant for a local meal. We had a local version of curry puff but there was no curry in it…… it was just meat, potatoes and cheese. It was more like a pasty… a convenience food. A pasty is actually a baked pastry.
I noticed many sturdy wooden houses here. Some seemed old and weather beaten while others looked fairly new and impressive. It gave the town a different feel and seemed to fit in well with the town’s image as a tourist draw.
Go For the Path Less Travelled
If you are tired of the packaged tours and the usual countries to visit in Europe, then do give a thought to visiting Vilnius. It has much to offer and you do not need to book any tours or need a guide. Cost wise, it can be a dream vacation and from a safety angle, it is a place that is relatively free of crime. Here you can choose to be a real traveller rather than a tourist.
Some of my friends just came back from a holiday to Italy and another to France. Both said these countries had very interesting sights to see and marvel at. However, they felt unsafe, especially from pickpockets in some places. One friend also grumbled about racist shopkeepers, the huge crowd of tourists and unfriendly sections of the population. This is the price one has to pay to visit the popular countries. In that sense, Vilnius will be a complete change and it will also be easier on the pocket.