September 7 – October 15, 2019 (Fall)
Lithuania! As is tradition, we returned to Vilnius for our third visit in as many years. It’s getting to the point that nothing short of a global pandemic could keep us from coming back. And yet, try as we might, it’s hard to articulate the hold it has over us. We still get funny looks when answer truthfully that most common question, “what’s your favorite place you’ve been?” Where else but Vilnius?
And what better neighborhood to stay in than Uzupis? This quirky corner of town was one we’d come to love on past visits. It feels out of the way, but is just steps from the very center of town. The windows of our Airbnb↗ looked over the narrow Vilnia River toward Tymo Market. With the famous Constitution of Uzupis just outside our door, it seemed the only downside was just how in the way the throngs of tourists gawking at it were!
Of course, we never passed up a chance to appreciate the spectacular beer. We made frequent stops at our favorite bars. Alaus Namai. Snekutis. Smagus Raugas. Nisha Craft Capital. And we added a new favorite in Alaus Kolonėlė🌐. From farmhouse brews that follow ancient recipes to the newest craft styles, Lithuanian beer is always a highlight of our stay.
…along the Neris…
…back to Bernardine Cemetery…
…as well as Vingis Park and the Song Festival↗ Grounds.
A few days into our stay our quiet, airy apartment started getting loud. Our host warned us in advance about roof work. Unfortunately, it was less “repair” and more “adding a whole new level to the building.” Some days the crew was in-and-out; many others they’d be jackhammering away all day. We could stop around the corner at Špunka and listen for when it was safe to return.
There were plenty of other escapes on the worst days. The Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul provides a welcome sanctuary for quiet reflection. The stark all-white interior is particularly striking.
Up the street from the church, the Old Jewish Cemetery provides a different sort of quiet, or perhaps disquiet. Soviets demolished the cemetery as an intentional form of cultural erasure, appropriating the tombstones for building material. Scattered cracked bases and a memorial gathered from the few remaining specimens stand in defiance.
The National Art Museum takes a couple hours to visit, and charges only a couple of euros for admission. We come back every year. This time it was undergoing renovation (very on-brand for this month). But the best pieces were luckily still on display. New additions, like a Death Coaster, were equally enthralling.
One weekend the Nation’s Fair took over Gediminas Avenue, with booths stretching from the Cathedral to Lukiškės Square. Visitors sampled cuisines and crafts from around Europe and the Caucasus region. Vendors sold knitted socks, beer, coffee, honey, and traditional dark bread. We picked up some remarkable Georgian smoked paprika, and enjoyed stage performances by a troupe of Polish dances.
Plenty of foodstuffs took the edge off the autumn chill. The most ubiquitous is deep fried bread slathered in garlic and dipped in cheese or mayo, a delicious local take on garlic bread. It’s a simple pleasure, but one we’ve only seen here in the Baltics. Peas (not little green ones, but larger and yellow or brown) and cracklings are so filling that it is hard to put away even a small bowl. Cepelini topped with bacon and sour cream fills out the slate of filling local dishes.
The first ones probably were put up in the 1830s, but the spot became more important as a symbol during Soviet-era repressions of religion. Authorities bulldozed it several times, only for more icons to appear in their wake. Now they number in the hundreds of thousands. We arrived between tour buses and had the site nearly to ourselves.
Closer to home, a lot changed in the year since our last visit. Most noticeably, the large grass field/park along the Neris was completely stripped for renovation and rebuilding. Images of the plans are nice, but there’d be no balloon launches there this year. New apartment redevelopment along the Vilnia now reached to the highway. Electric scooter-share has taken over the city. Scooters are sometimes found in groups but they are more often are abandoned singly along sidewalks, beeping displeasure at low batteries or being tipped over by wind.
At Gediminas Castle Hill, the funicular was finally back up and running. Shoring-up and earthworks were limping along at the top the hill, but it was once again open to climb and most of the work around the base was finished.
Once again bidding adieu to lovely Lithuania is always heartbreaking, but we vowed to return again next year, and
in greater numbers for even longer. Wild horses couldn’t keep us away.
Pathogens on the other hand…