On Saturday I took a train trip to Trakai, which is about half an hour west of Vilnius. It is in the middle of the Trakai Historical National Park and was once home to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The town of Trakai is built between large natural lakes and has a fairytale island castle in the middle of one of them!
The lakes were completely frozen when I visited, making for some picturesque vistas, milling tourists, a traditional kibinai van (kibinai are a bit like small Cornish pasties), and assorted small children skating on the ice.
It wasn’t so much the lakes and castle that excited me, pretty though they were, but the journey there. You can get both the bus and the train from Vilnius to Trakai, but I was urged to get the bus as it goes more frequently. But it’s been nearly two years since I first took a train in another country and I was desperate for some foreign rail travel. Plus it meant I got a lie-in, so it was off to Vilnius Railway Station, another grand, high-ceiling-ed affair, the towering facade evoking anticipation of adventure.
Getting on a train is so straightforward, but has so many possibilities. Not so much in the UK, where train travel is cramped & expensive and distances short, but international stations are so atmospheric. From having separate local and international ticket offices to having distant destinations on the departure board, to the detail and grandiosity of the buildings – Vilnius station has a wolf (which legend says inspired Gediminas to build the city) proudly howling from one of its stuccoed buildings.
And then you step onto the platform and see the expanse of tracks and carriages, any one of them waiting to take you through obscure little towns to foreign cities. The platforms aren’t even raised, so there’s no barrier to getting to the platform you need – you can just walk across the tracks. Then you see carriages heave into view. Has that huge, unhurried train at the other side of the station come from Russia? Where is it going? Where will it stop on its way? How long have its passengers been on it? Who are they going to see? Who are they travelling with? As you watch them get off one of the longer sleeper trains, it’s clear there are a huge variety of travellers – families with kids on a Christmas visit to the city, perhaps for the Christmas festival or perhaps to see grandparents. Young men waiting nervously on the platform with roses for their girlfriends, people with huge suitcases coming home after some time away. Smokers who’ve been in the carriage so long between stops they first thing they do is smoke a cigarette of relief, standing with their luggage while they take in the comfort of a journey finished.
And then I get to set off on my short trip, through countryside unfamiliar enough to me that I could pretend for half an hour I was off on a much longer journey. My old Soviet train creaked into the station the insides of the carriage, clean, wide, comfortable, but riveted together in the most sturdy fashion.
We creaked out of the station, leaving the industrial and revolution-worn suburbs, then quickly we were creaking through the bleak forests I’d seen from the plane, dotted with ramshackle wooden houses – their bright colours faded with soot, with frozen lakes adjacent holding the remnants of their inhabitants’ summers:
Through snow covered tracks, we passed into tiny local stations,
and just as quickly we were back in industrial suburbs, driving past Cyrillic printed freight containers, concrete cooling towers – but all of it so refreshingly different to my eyes that it I had half an hour happily imagining a half day’s worth of escape to somewhere new.