Well I’ve been here 36 hours and I still haven’t seen Vilnius in the daylight. Oops. I’ve spent most of today snoozing – it feels like I’ve not had a proper nights sleep for a week but I feel nice and refreshed now. To make up for my day of laziness I went for a walk to a viewpoint that Lina, our hostel host, recommended especially at night, on top of the old town walls.
Now I don’t like to whip my map out too much in public as I hate looking like a tourist and thus a potential target. So I had a good look before I left and did the route by memory up until I came across what I thought was my turning, which was quite a narrow road, not as well lit as the main ones. Most of the other pedestrians were turning left instead of right down this side street, so I opted to follow them, and my nose and see if I could manage to take the scenic route to the town walls. They do say that the first thing you should do to explore a new city is get lost in it..
So for my next sight, I came across a large floodlit church (St Bartholomew’s), beyond which was a (snow-covered) green, a river and some pretty houses with twinkly Christmas lights. As I was surreptitiously trying to take photos of said twinkly lights without looking like a tourist, I realised I’d found the suburb of Užupis, and it had taken me hardly any time to get to, despite it looking quite a trek on the map. Vilnius, I am discovering, has quite a compact old town, so it’s nice and easy to explore.
On my wander round, I passed several cosy-looking bohemian eateries and a rather impressive statue called (I later found) the angel of Užupis, a depiction of the archangel Gabriel blowing his trumpet heralding the rebirth of artistic freedom in Eastern Europe. Or so the legend goes. It certainly engenders that kind of portentous feeling in the observer, at least with the atmospheric uplighting!
Užupis is interesting because it’s not actually part of Vilnius or indeed Lithuania, or so its residents would like everyone to think. This is the Independent Republic of Užupis! It was in fact the old Jewish quarter and since the second world war has been home to a variety of the displaced, which in turn attracted bohemians and artists as a haven from the Soviets, and in 1997 they declared themselves independent, complete with their own constitution (which I’ll put in my next post), currency, flag and president, although no-one is quite sure how serious all of that is. It seems to be more a statement of personal freedom and cultural harmony, and perhaps a reminder we shouldn’t take life so seriously anyway.
I crossed back over the river Vilnelė (the river which gives Vilnius its name no less) and noticed that the ironwork on the bridge was crammed with padlocks and the occasional ribbon. Puzzled I thought this must be some bohemian statement, but Lina explained it was more universal than that and that it is a tradition at Lithuanian weddings for couples to “lock their love” with a padlock (inscribed with their names) to a bridge near their home, often as the groom carries his bride across (the Lithuanian threshold perhaps!). Which I thought was really lovely, even the rusty ones that had weathered the ravages of time.
I then made it up the snowy hill to the town walls, although I’m not sure if I found the right bit as the lovely views were a bit obscured by the walls themselves:
But to finish off the day, Lina took me to her favourite traditional cafe bar, as she’d been craving some sauerkraut soup all day (an excellent hangover cure apparently). I was keen to try the famous Zeppelin potato dumplings and Lina kindly ordered 2 for me without me realising! Man they were good, but there’s no way I could eat two – I was struggling with one. Not only are they basically massive sausages of minced pork wrapped in massive thick wads of potato dumpling, they come (at least at this place) doused in a creamy bacon sauce and a portion of herbs and seasoning. Absolutely delicious, perfect comfort food, and Lina has promised to give me her mother’s recipe for them to take home!
The bar also did some really good beers, some of which were from the local micro brewery. Now I’m not a big fan of beer, or ale, or anything related, but Lina suggested I try “Gira”, which she described as “bread beer”. It’s non alcoholic and quite sweet, with a hint of burnt caramel or honey. She wasn’t sure what went into making it but we both agreed it hit the spot! And after all that stodge, I think I’m ready for bed again and some more well-earned sleeping!