The Baltics: Vilnius, Lithuania – For When One Church Just Isn’t Enough.

Today kicked off with a shock. And no, it wasn’t the Russian eating toast. It was the temperature recorded outside. -10 with the potential for -12. Was I really up for that? Pah.

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The hostel owner (who remains nameless, quite wrongly) had put on a continental spread for breakfast. I went for the salami and cheese on toast combination.

Soon after I was on my way to the bus station. I decided to walk on the other side of the bus route I took to get there. Since tit was a one way street I was unlucky to come across a bus going my direction. It seemed I had turned on my sense of direction the previous morning as within 20 minutes of leaving the hostel on foot I had arrived at the bus terminal, mapless. I was smug to myself about this achievement.

The short bus trip to Vilnius was swift and easy. I haven’t been unfortunate enough to encounter traffic on this trip, so all journeys have been in time.

I had done no research into Vilnius or what to do once I arrived. The dreary little bus station I was dropped off at didn’t fill me with confidence for the day ahead. However, a sneak peak at a guide book in one of the shops told me exactly what to do: go out and turn left.

That is exactly what I did and within minutes I was in the old town of the city. Much like Kaunas, Vilnius is glittered with superb churches in all shapes and sizes. Churches don’t usually do it for me but I tried to make this an exception.

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As I walked around, with the weather more bare able than yesterday, I enjoyed the atmosphere of the town (probably because there was a few people about). I took a few pictures of the beautiful buildings before I found the Vilnius Art Gallery. I went in for a good look around, and there was a special feature on a local artist. Once again I didn’t really know what I was doing or looking for, but I made a conscious effort to make the other people in the building think that I did. This meant a lot of chin scratching and squinting my eyes as I got close to paintings. I hope they all thought I am very cultured.

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After that I made sure I visited the cathedral and castle remains before finding some food. Since I had ticked off one of the national dishes yesterday it was not time to try the other one. I get that the best place to do this was at a restaurant selling ‘Lithuanian food’. Straight away I ordered kugelis from a waitress named Barbora. I added another Lithuanian beer to my order. It was a swift service which left me a little underprepared. This dish was effectively a potato pie with hidden chicken legs inside. Although it tasted nice I felt as though very little effort had been made by the chef. Perhaps I expect too much for £2.50.

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Full on local food I was ready for round 2 of exploring. I aimed towards the Vilnius dungeons, which supposedly housed mummified bodies. When I arrived at the street it appeared that my tour app had lied to me. I asked a nice lady in the pub opposite where I might find the dungeons but she had never heard of it. Instead she quipped that I should go to London if I wanted dungeons. I trumped her quip by informing her that the London Dungeons are currently closed for refurbishments. Winner.

Actually, this lady made me feel so welcome that I decided to try a different beer before moving on. She was keen to speak in English and told me about her desire to complete her masters degree in England. She also told me that my next destination, the Genocide Museum, came highly recommended.

Off I popped on the longish walk to the museum via the presidential palace. As I walked nonchalantly outside I was peeped by an entourage of police cars surrounding a black car carrying the Italian flag. I can only guess that someone important from Italy was in Vilnius today, and a clueless British man got in his way.

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Eventually I did arrive at the museum and I was immediately taken aback by the impact it had on me. It reminded me of the war museum in Vietnam in that it featured atrocities that are still being felt in the country. The museum gave lots of information about how people were oppressed during Soviet rule and gave detailed accounts of life in Gulags as well as what it was like to live in Lithuania as a communist. I found it all very interesting, particularly as I felt quite ignorant towards Lithuania as a country before arriving, having no regard for its history.

Perhaps the most shocking parts of the museum was the prison that has remained in tact. It was a prison used by the KGB right up until the fall of the Soviet Union. The shocking conditions if the cells, solitary confinement and the torturous stories it told made it even more fascinating.

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I must admit that I became a little bit scared when I ended up in the execution chamber alone. Creaky doors and knowledge of hundreds of death in the same room did not sit well with my stomach. The whole experience in the museum was fantastic. I would even argue that it warranted the visit to Vilnius alone.

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Following 2 hours in the museum (I’m not sure I needed to read every word) it was approaching time to get a bus to the airport. First I wanted to eat goulash since it is one of my favourite dishes. However, in the short time I had left I couldn’t find any. I am sure Vilnius has goulash though. Instead I went for my old favourite…street food. I always love a good and cheap bit of street food.

I picked up the bag that I left in hold at the bus station and got on the 7pm bus to the airport where I had a two hour wait before boarding.

And that’s where my brief Baltic adventure ends. 4 very different places in 4 days. 4 very eventful days. Who knows where I’ll be off to next, but I think I might take someone with me.

The Baltics: Kaunas, Lithuania – Stodgy Potato and Some Chilly Steeples.

A night in a lovely bed with chocolate and red wine could only have been bettered with some female company. But a man can’t have everything.

I avoided the blast shower today and went for the more familiar, normal shower. I then swiftly packed my bags, dropped my keys off where I had agreed and made for the train station. Naturally I picked up a salami wrap on the way.

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As I did yesterday morning I got on an early train and slept for most of the journey. This time it was a return to Riga in order to catch my international coach to Kaunas. In fact, today has consisted of a lot of travelling (which has given me the opportunity to catch up on this).

When I arrived back in Riga several signs pointed out that the chill factor had increased to -8 degrees…so pretty cosy then. This might explain my consistent desire to cover my ears with my hood.

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In my half hour wait I perched up for a tea and a savoury snack before boarding my coach.

The coach I had booked with was an Ecolines coach bound for Bonn, which seemed like a mammoth journey (Bonn being closer to London than Riga). I had to make sure I didn’t miss my stop or I’d end up in Poland or Germany.

During the journey an old Russian lady attempted to befriend me. She initiated conversation, in German, by complimenting me on my youthful looks and presenting genuine shock when I told her my real age. At this point I was holding my own in my GCSE German. However, as she proceeded to tell me her life story I was not following. Instead I was translating her words in my head to what I wanted them to be. In my version if her life she had 2 children in Moscow but she had met a young German man on the Internet who promised her partnership in his family’s Schnitzel business. She was fleeing via Lithuania to put her former lesbian lover, who may be following her, off scent. Of course this is just a prediction.

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Other than that there was nothing spectacular about the journey apart from the beautiful flat landscape covered in snow. This didn’t change as we entered Lithuania. I was quite excited about what differences the differences might be between Latvia and Lithuania in landscape, people, and most importantly….food.

Upon arrival in Kaunas I quickly found the bus stop indicated by the hostel website. Within a couple of minutes I was on the public bus. I have become accustomed to sitting on the pedestrian side of the road in order to look at the name of each bus stop. This was particularly helpful today as a name was all I had to go on.

Within 10 minutes of leaving the bus stop I had alighted and arrived at my hostel. The City Hostel, Kaunas, is slightly hidden through an icy walkway. However, I received a fantastically warm welcome when I arrived and the owner was happy to offer me a heater to wam myself up before I went out and got cold again. He informed me that I would be likely to share the 8 bed dorm with no other people…no surprise there then. Later on, however, a Russian man from Kalingrad was to join me.

I wanted to explore the old own in Kaunas before it got too dark. Armed with a map I set out for the town square. I couldn’t help but admire the people in fur coats walking down the streets scattered with part Russian, part German architecture. The few photos I was able to bring myself to take didn’t really capture the mood.

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Despite the uniqueness of the city I really began to feel the cold. It was about -8 at this point but the wind and light snow made the cold bone-chilling. Still, I had a few landmarks to see, not least the Kaunas castle. Once again it seemed I was the only tourist mad enough to go to Lithuania in February.

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I had only eaten a snickers since breakfast so I stopped off for some dinner at a traditional Lithuanian restaurant recommended by my hostel owner. He told me that I cannot come to Lithuania without trying Cepelinai, the country’s national dish. After some help from the waitress I sat with my Cepelinai and a glass of Lithuanian beer. The food was made up of potato stuffed with pork meat coated in a fatty sauce (which may have just been fat). It tasted wonderful and I had some stodgy bread to fill any gaps left in my stomach. It certainly tasted more appealing than it looked….like a fatty Baozi.
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It was now approaching 8 and I was flagging. I walked back to the hostel and could easily have passed out. However, the hostel owner invited me o join him in watching the Champions League. I had Italy forgotten about that. I wanted to take him up on his offer but I first decided o brave the dropping temperatures to experience a Lithuanian bar. He told me his favourite so I headed there. I sat and enjoyed the first half with a couple of beers and struck up a brief conversation with a man at the bar. He turned out to be a horrible man, effectively bullying and ordering the bar maid about. I have always had good things to say about people from Finland, but he tarnished that. It made me feel quite uncomfortable and I ended up being overly polite in an attempt, in my mind, to even things up. I didn’t stay for the second half as I wanted to see what the hostel man had to offer.

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He had tea! Tea when you step in from the cold is lovely. As is sitting in a random Lithuanian place watching Football on the top of a fridge. Proper stuff.
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When the game ended I made a quick dash to bed where I was asleep before my head hit the pillow. It was a short experience in Kaunas, but an enjoyable one.

The Baltics: Sigulda, Latvia – Cool Runnings in a Winter Ghosttown

This morning I very nearly snoozed. With no back up alarm this could have been fatal to my onward journey. Luckily I was sharing a dorm with a man, who happened to drool over my British accent, who was also keen to get up and about.

After struggling through a pretty dire shower I was up, packed and ready to rumble. I was then to head to the train station bound for a place I had never heard of until yesterday. I love thinking about how places never even existed in my mind, yet the people who live there have always seen it as the most significant place in their lives (time by myself clearly gets me philosophical).

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I boarded the snow-caked 7:52 train which would take an hour and cost no more than £2. It was dark and dreary inside but the snow clad landscape outside made or good viewing.

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I dozed off a few times during the short journey, safe in the knowledge that Sigulda was the final stop. there were very few people left on the train when I eventually arrived.

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As I exited from the train station I noticed the obvious similarities between here and Bourg-Saint-Maurice in the south of France (perhaps because they are both covered in snow). It did seem a lot colder here than the -3 I felt in Riga. It was not yet uncomfortably cold though as I was layered up.

Sigulda is a small town in comparison to Riga and it was not long before I found the hostel I thought I’d booked. When I walked in it seemed quite posh and I was right in thinking it was a bit to classy to be a hostel. The woman behind the counter had been expecting me and informed me that I had booked the dorm in another building a few roads away. She offered to take me by car, which was nice of her (and I found this quite exciting). When we arrived at the hostel I asked her about the other guests. She told me that I would be the only one staying here. Then she gave me the keys to the whole complex as she would not be staying either. Effectively she had given me the keys to a multi-story house for the night with access to a massaging shower. It is clear that tourism isn’t booming in Sigulda during the winter. I must say that most people would probably be put off by the freezing temperatures and continuous snow winds. All the postcards have pictures without snow, which might be a clue. Still, I have been trusted in this lady’s hostel by myself. The first thing I did was break the flush on the toilet.

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Before it reached 10 o’clock I decided to head to what was a big attraction to me, the bobsleigh track. It was not far from my hostel and I’ve always wanted to see one. It is unfortunate that I turned up on a day when the 70km bobsleighs were not able to be ridden. It was the first time I had ever thought about riding a bobsleigh. Unfortunately the other option required more people and since there was absolutely no one about (beside a cleaner) I was not able to do the other option (not do I have the £40+ it would cost me). I went up to the start point of the bobsleigh slide and was spooked by the sharpness of the fall. It certainly would get your heart pumping to go down it. In fact, this s the track where the annual world championships are fought. I couldn’t leave the course without sitting in a bobsleigh. I found one outside and climbed in. Fortunately a maintenance man was able to help me take a picture. Where are the locals? Where are the tourists?

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The main appeal of Silguda is that it sits right beside a national park. I had decided yesterday that I would do some trekking today. However, I had only packed city-slicker attire for the trip. As a result I ended up trekking 15km through the snow over a 4 hour period wearing Dean’s ‘Jude Law’ coat and my school shoes. Still, I stuck with the challenge.

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I carried my map along the route and tried to pass as many places of interest as I could. My ultimate goal was to reach Turaida castle in the next town. Despite the cold and snow, often knee deep, I was really enjoying me walk. In fact, I thought the elegant surroundings had brought a tear to my eye until I realised it was snow. I had a few detours from my mission since the largest cave in the Baltics was slightly off route and I had to see what the fuss of Sigulda’s walking sticks were about (still not sure). Eventually I did reach the castle grounds. Once again I was the only person in sight. In fact, I was a little scared when climbing the main tower of the castle since anyone could have been lurking in there. It could have been the perfect murder, if there is such a thing. Thankfully, no one was hiding in the tower. The view from the top of the tower over the Gauja valley was incredible. The only sound I could hear was wind and snow and I was at the top of a medieval castle all by myself. Had it not been so cold I would have attempted a bit of role play. Maybe I did, no one will ever know.

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I had succeeded in reaching my target despite the inappropriate clothing I was wearing. I decided that I had earnt some food and a cup of tea, but not until I made it back to Sigulda.

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The reward for my walk was a plate of mince and pasta accompanied by a cup of tea. The total cost was about 90p which made it taste even better. I decided it was time to head back to my empty hostel for a freshen up and a nap before my search of food in the evening and a screen for the Arsenal game.
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Also, since I was the only person in the hostel, I was given the privilege of using a shower fixed with massage blasters. This had to be taken advantage of! I scolded myself from all directions which put a slight dampener on the multi-blast shower experience.

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Since I don’t travel without losing anything I needed to buy a toothbrush from the local store before it shut for the evening. Whilst I was there I picked up some Georgian red wine to drink. This was partly because I don’t recall ever trying Georgian wine.

The only two things on my mind, aside from being weary of the snow, were finding a screen for the Arsenal game and eating food. I went to a few places that remained open and asked about watching the football. One place was recommended as a place that might have a tv and might be willing to show sport, it was a small bowling alley. When I got their my polite request for the football was declined in favour of a Latvian basketball match that was happening later in the evening. That was fair enough.

As I had two hours before kick off I set out in search of some food. The only place open was a pizzeria opposite the train station. I was reluctant to walk in as it had no customers (still no sign of people). However, I bit the bullet and ordered a pizza. The staff their were very nice and offered me a beer from their hometown. The pizza cooker lady informed me that the town is swamped with tourists in the summer but they are put off by the cold and snow in the winter. I am still a little surprised by this since the snow adds to the beauty of the national park. Yet, I guess it would also look stunning in green.

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Following my meal, and with an hour until kick off, I had nowhere to go but my hostel. Instead I asked if the pizzeria staff needed help cleaning before closing. They were happy for my request but I had to make sure I steered clear of the security cameras as the boss wouldn’t like to see a customer cleaning. In reality I didn’t do much helping and instead sipped away on my delicious Georgian wine.

One more failed attempt to get the football was to walk in to a hidden bar, which looked like a gem. As I walked in everyone turned and stared at me and the barmaid shook her head. Am I that obviously foreign? I still asked about the football but was greeted with grunts from the locals sat around the smoky bar. This was a local bar and I wasn’t welcome. Opps.

Instead I ended up back at the hostel just in time to listen to Arsenal slump to yet another defeat. I was armed with red wine and chocolate….and a radiator.

Sigulda had been very good to me today. I do feel as though I may have taken Todd time to a new extreme, but I don’t think I would have appreciated the area as much had I had company (I certainly wouldn’t have walked so far). I think Sigulda has a lot to offer and, for different reasons to Riga, would recommend it to any visitors to Latvia.

The Baltics: Riga, Latvia – On a Shoestring

I was initially a bit concerned about being judged for going alone in Europe. But, it turns out that lots of people would do, but just don’t have my desire to do so.

When I booked my trips to Latvia and Lithuania I had not considered the expensive euro trip over New Year, an expensive weekend in Cardiff and subsequent 5 week months. As a result, my budget for this trip has been sufficiently reduced, making it all the more challenging.

The flight left Stanstead for Riga at around 6 am. It’s meant a 1:30 wake up for the drive to Essex for my 4:00am park and ride. This made for a little nap at the gate after check in.

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The day really got going after the two and a half hour flight to Riga. The pilot informed his passengers of the sub zero temperatures and the likelihood of snow showers. When I stepped off the plane I had a little chuckle as I realised how the pilot had deliberately held back on the extent of the snow storm. Cheeky pilot.

Still, the snow and the crisp frosty air made for a truly Baltic feel in…..the Baltics. As per my online instructions I found the correct public bus (avoiding expensive transport) which got me to the city centre in half an hour for about £1. The only information I could remember about the hostel that I hadn’t even booked was that it was tiger themed and was situated near the main train station. Since I was now in Latvia’s capital city I gathered that this might be a tricky task. However, I decided, equipped with Dean’s soviet looking coat, to pretend to the locals (who didn’t care) that I knew what I was doing. I chose my direction and then chose to put myself down a subway. After choosing an exit at random I found myself outside the train station. Opposite the train station stood the tiger-themed hostel. I had unjustly got lucky despite my lack of preparation. The hostel was relatively empty and remained so throughout the day. I get the impression that Riga isn’t high on most foreigners list of half term getaways.

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Once I put tiger print sheets on my bed I had license to explore the city. I had been drawn to the Old Town from when I read about it and made this my mission as I walked around. I had been given a map of the various monuments around the old town and made good time in ticking a few of them off. As I walked around I was vey impressed with the way Riga was exactly how I had romantically imagined it, with the snow adding to the impression it was giving me. The streets were dead aside from a few locals, but certainly no tourists. I walked into a few independent art and craft stores who were more than willing t give me hints and tips on my next location. In fact, they all seemed very eager to show off the city that the were surprised I had chosen to be in. I asked two people fr advice n where to try Latvian beer, both told me their Christian beliefs meant they weren’t able to give good advice on beer. This reflected in the architecture found within the old town.

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At certain times on my walk I imagined myself in World War II. It struck me that the people, the buildings and the atmosphere might not have changed much since then. In fact, Riga was exactly the way I wanted it to be.

A nice lady instructed me to visit the ancient Riga market outside of the Old Town. This is 5 large indoor tubes of stalls felling everything from clothing to squid. It gave me an excuse to get in from the cold and have a look at the locals in action. As I walked around I couldn’t resist trying some Latvian cakes, including an apple slice. They certainly have a sweet tooth here. That said, I also ended up buying a pot of honey for home. I don’t know why I bought it expect for it had a few stalls and I convinced myself it was a local delicacy.

I then had the epiphany about deciding what I should do tomorrow. Initially I had wanted to stay in a derelict prison cell but I have been informed that it is too cold to be open to the public this time of year. Instead I decided that I would head slightly north to a national park with a bobsleigh track. I walked to the train stations and booked my onwards travel their and then. I then walked to the bus station and booked by international travel for Lithuania on Wednesday. This means I am sorted for travel for the next couple of days.
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When I got back to the hostel I posted a couple of cheeky tweets and had a brief conversation before taking a shower and heading back out again. This time in search of food.

A few people had told me that I cannot leave Riga without eating at Lido. There are a few Lidos in Riga but there is one that is truly special, but it just takes some finding.

I found my way to a stop on the number 7 tram route. Braving the relentless snow I waited for the tram and hopped on. I didn’t pay for the trip and find it hard to believe, given what we say for in England, that it was actually free. Instead I got slightly concerned that we travel,ed a fair distance out if town and their was no sign of Lido. Perhaps 15 minutes after getting in the tram I herd the word ‘Lido’ from the tanoy and jumped off. It was now about 7:30 and very dark. Not only that but I seemed to be the only person for a fair distance and snow had prevented me from distinguishing the path from the road. I was officially in the middle of nowhere and didn’t really know what direction to head in. Once again I gambled and walked in a direction only to concede defeat 5 minutes later and return where I came. I then tried another direction and began to hear music. As I got closer to the noise I was creeping up on a hub of a activity. I had no idea where everyone had come from. The first thing I was was a group of people ice skating around a make-shift rink. Then I began to smell food. This place, in the middle of nowhere, was going to be excellent.

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When I eventually found an entrance it did not let me down. I initially went downstairs to the bar where I ordered a 1 litre keg of Latvian beer and sat enjoying the music and the warmth. I then went up stairs where I had the selection of a variety of meats at amazing prices. Despite my hunger I decided to eat what I felt was not readily available at home, hence the pile of sour kraut that ended up sproun all over my plate. It was accompanied by a very cheap pork knuckle, all in all I had a more than decent authentic meal with a large beer for less that a tenner. Lido was rightly recommended, despite its outward location. In fact, I found the food more fulfilling having struggled to find the place in the first place.
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A combination of the warmth, the lack of sleep, and the beer, meant I was dropping off over my empty plate. However, I was determined not to end the night there.

A short walk back to my tram stop ended in an quick arrival of my tram. Once I found a set I dozed off quite dangerously. Yet, I woke up in time for a stop n the old town. I intended to stop off to stop off at a bar that I had been recommended by another local, but it was shut. In fact, Riga does nt seem to be a late night destination, from what I’ve seen anyway. Instead I sat naved my way back (impressing myself) to a bar next to my hostel before taking a Riga brewed beer back to my hostel before awaiting the next day. Riga has been fantastic today. It is certainly unlike anywhere I’ve been before and holds the same authenticity I felt in Venice. I highly recommend it as a trip to see something quite different in Europe.