Lithuania a hidden gem worth discovering
As Christmas approaches, Lynne Coates visits Lithuania and discovers a country that’s fast becoming a top tourist destination whatever the season.
L ithuania may not be at the top of your ‘places-to-visit’ list, but, as I recently discovered, it is deservedly becoming one of the latest up-coming destinations. There is no escaping the fact that the country has suffered from wars and occupation which have left their mark on its cultural landscape. However, determined to emerge from the past, its two main cities, Kaunas and Vilnius, are evolving at a pace, through a combination of modernisation, art, culture and an enthusiastic new ideology that is especially magic at this time of year.
When you arrive in Kaunas, formerly the capital of Lithuania, and recently voted the 2020 European Capital of Culture, it doesn’t take long to see how enthusiastically it is embracing its new title as a city of youth and culture.
The oldest city in Lithuania, Kaunas is steeped in history. Multi-cultural influences, combined with past Soviet occupation, have resulted in an extraordinary architectural landscape, from Modernist to Baroque. The easiest way to understand this fascinating city is to take a walking tour and we had an excellent guide, who began his tour at Kaunas Castle, a landmark building in the old town.
Originally built in the 14th century, on a strategic site at the confluence of two rivers, it served as an outpost to guard the city and its trade routes. From there we walked through the old town where evidence of a thriving ‘street art’ culture is visible on many of the neglected buildings as a way of revitalising run-down areas. The old town has much to offer visiting tourists and with a definite ‘arty’ vibe, the main streets are full of interesting galleries, boutiques, trendy cafés and restaurants you’ll fall in love with.
Heading south of Kaunas to the spa town of Birštonas, famous for its mineral water springs, spa hotels and wellness centres, we checked into the luxurious Vytautas Mineral Spa, a stunning, contemporary hotel, with some of the best spa facilities I have ever encountered. This is a serious wellness centre and the spa offers an astonishing choice of therapeutic and beauty treatments with expert therapists. Birstonas has become a centre for medical tourism, where people can receive the best treatments for post-operative recovery, and in some cases undergo medical procedures, at very reasonable prices. Surrounded by vast forests and rivers, the area provides a glorious natural environment that is perfect for wellness retreats. After a few days of wonderful pampering, it was the perfect pick-me-up and the ideal preparation for our next adventure in Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital city.
En route to Vilnius we stopped at one of Lithuania’s major tourist attractions, the historical village of Trakai, to visit the famous Trakai castle. It was a summer residence for the Lithuanian Grand Dukes, on a small island in the middle of Lake Galve, which is a truly beautiful setting for this magnificent medieval castle. Nowadays it is used to stage historical events such as knights in armour tournaments. There are plenty of boats by the lakeside, available to take you over to the island, or just enjoy a sail around it, as we did – it is storybook enchanting.
There is no doubt Vilnius has become a ‘hot’ destination, and it didn’t take long to see why. It’s a city that’s easily accessible, not yet too expensive and with a great deal to offer tourists, especially at this time of year with its bustling markets and incredible Christmas lights. We checked into the luxurious five star Grand Hotel Kempinski, housed in a beautiful, listed building in a great location opposite the main Cathedral Square in the old town. Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1994, the old town is, architecturally, the richest part of Vilnius with every style from Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Classicism to Post-Modernism. But, don’t imagine this city is only about history. In and amongst all these wonderful buildings, super-contemporary hotels are springing up, together with uber-cool bars and restaurants, plus a great shopping area with designer and individual boutiques.
The city definitely has a current vibe and is rightly attracting European socialites as well as international tourists.
There are so many different dynamics to Vilnius. A landscape of churches sit next to one of the most bohemian areas of the city, known as Užupis, a self-proclaimed ‘republic’, with its own constitution promoting the ideals of free thought. Truly a unique place, this is a ‘must do’ for every tourist to the city, it is quirky, welcoming and full of character. Once a run-down part of the city it is now full of galleries, shops and contemporary restaurants. We had dinner in one of the best known, ‘Sweet Root’ a fascinating concept which has no menu and involves you telling the waiters what you’d like before they return with a seemingly unending selection of tiny, delicious dishes all beautifully presented and made from some unusual seasonal ingredients of your choice. Vilnius is easy to navigate on foot or by a bus tour and with each district having its own character and history, there is no shortage of galleries and museums for culture vultures to enjoy. The recently opened MO Museum, designed by the famous architect Daniel Libeskind, is one of the city’s great new attractions and with direct flights into Vilnius, it is fast-becoming the perfect city-break destination.
Lithuania is an intriguing country. Having survived wars and occupations it is emerging like a chrysalis into the 21st century with a vibrancy and energy – definitely worth discovering. Go soon, before everyone jumps on the bandwagon and the cost of visiting this hidden gem soars.