Man patinka Lietuva

I like Lithuania – a visitor's point of view


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10 Years since University Summer School in Kaunas and I remember it well

After several visits to Lithuania starting in 2005 I decided it was time to brush up my knowledge of Lithuanian culture and improve my language skills (my weekly language lessons in England were useful but I wanted to immerse myself on a day-to-day basis).

I applied to Vytauto Didžiojo universitetas  in Kaunas (VDU), found myself a flat on K.Donelaičio street and and headed off for a four week course. I was one of three “oldies” in the first couple of weeks with a veteran called Greg from America and a lady called Renata from Canada.

Greg had a flat next door to me, so that was nice, and the 30 or so Erasmus students from Poland, Germany, Czech Republic, Italy, Austria, Turkey, Latvia, and Russia, were kind to us as well.

The Summer School generated some publicity in the media although at that stage none of us could speak enough Lithuanian to make sense of a radio interview.

Apart from the language lessons – after taking a test I scraped into the intermediate class based on my tuition in England, although it was still a challenge – we visited various cultural sites including Vilnius, Trakai, Anykščiai, Rumšiškės and Druskininkai.

Apart from that there was the day-to-day life; trying to understand when you actually cross a zebra crossing, discovering the area heating wasn’t working for hot water, and lifts never seeming to work – it was 60 steps up to my apartment and several floors at the university to the language lab.

The shock of Greg having his lap-top stolen out of his hands as we sat in the street  in a wi-fi-zone. (The police officer we reported it to laughed when he found out where I was from “So all our criminals haven’t gone to the UK then?”).

I’ll never forget seeing a bride dunked under water in a lake by her bridesmaids. I was already in the lake fully clothed so didn’t have my camera to hand.

Each day I attended lessons which were interspersed with lectures, the language laboratory, and films. These were quite dark, mostly about life in occupied Lithuania.

I remember in particular the “The Children at the American Hotel‘ about teenagers who wanted to be rock’n roll stars attending a concert by rock band Ant and others surrounded by armed soldiers. It didn’t end well for them!

There was one humorous called “Nut Bread” and one about musicians in Bremen

Dievu Miskas” (Forest Gods) was about a prisoner’s life but the most horrific was “Vilnius Getas” about life in the jewish ghetto during the Nazi occupation. I was so moved by these last two I bought copies to bring home.

The last one we saw was a moody psycho-drama called “Whisper of Sin”. 

Much as I love Vilnius I also enjoyed my time in Kaunas. Walking up Liberty Avenue (Laisvės alėja), the longest pedestrian street in the city, to the blue church  of St Michael the Archangel (Orthodox in early Russian times – which is why some locals still call it the “garrison church” or Sober from when it served Kaunas Castle garrison – then Catholic, then a storehouse in soviet times, then back to Catholic). And at the other end a statue of the pagan god Pan. Entirely appropriate considering Lithuania was the last European country to convert to christianity! 

Enjoying the coffee shops and the local cafés – the Reval, the Metropolis, the Brothers,  and one called the crazy house and all the restaurants had free wi-fi.

I ate a lot of cold beetroot soup – šaltibarščiai – and Balandėliai, cabbage leaves with a meat filling, (which is just like the Ukrainian Goluptsi I enjoy at church in England when I meet my Ukie friends). It means pigeon as the folded cabbage leaves look like one.

In Lithuania they also use it to refer to couples as love-birds!

We certainly enjoyed our food and the local beers – especially Švyturys made in Klaipeda.

And there was lots to see in Kaunas itself: the beautiful Town Hall called the “White Swan, and the beautiful church of St Peter and Paul and the nearby seminary.

There is also world’s only Devils’ Museum founded by Antanas Žmuidzinavičius . The museum contains a collection of more than 3,000 devils: creations of fine and applied arts, souvenirs and masks not only from Lithuania but from around 70 countries

Vytautus the Great War Museum in Unity Square where veterans held parades around the square and clock tower on Sundays. The square has statues of people involved in the 19c revival of lLithuania

Thunder House was not far way and reminded me that that’s where the old border with Prussia used to be.

Kaunas castle (which was being refurbished at the time) and used to be the home of the Russian garrison in the days of the Empire.

It’s a medieval castle  and evidence suggests that it was originally built during the mid-14th century, in the Gothic style. Its site is strategic – a rise on the banks of the Nemunas River near its confluence with the Neris River.

The Kaunas hotel 55 Bar (named after the strength of home-brwd vodka or Samahon) where I used to go and listen to a singer with his guitar.

Trips to the local Rimi  store (like Tesco) and the big Akropolis hypermarket, all within walking distance.

And everywhere there were statues. Some quite bizarre ones among the more serious sculptures.

We also visited some more memorable places – in a battered old bus with no air-conditioning (which explains why I jumped in a lake fully clothed when I got the chance) which had the habit of breaking down on distant highways – some of which I have already posted about.

Among our trips were:

A visit to the local linen factory, near the burned out barracks. Linen is big in Lithuania and I have several linen scarves I brought back (and I like linen blend shirts too). You can see the proprietor in traditional dress who made us very welcome with some snacks of cheese and Gira, the fermented rye bread drink, as she described the process of producing linen.

The 9th Fort at Kaunas and the  museum that was the office of the Japanese Consul who was Lithuania’s own Schindler. These were two contrasting examples of what happened in occupied Lithuania.

To Vilnius to Uzupis and the Hill of Three Crosses – both places I already knew quite well from my trips to Vilnius.

And trips to the famous spa town of Druskininkai (to drink the foul-tasting water among other things) and Gruto Parkas to see soviet sculpture at its best(or worst depending on your taste).

The horse museum in Anykščiai (Arklio muziejus) with all the wooden carvings, traditional crafts, old dwellings and a chance to actually sit on a horse.

The outdoor ethnographic museum at Rumšiškės with the amazing wood carvings.

And let’s not to forget the International Party!

When our graduation party arrived it was a sad day. Although happy to be going home I knew I would miss my fellow students and the support of the wonderful staff at the VDU.

I have been back since with my colleague and I would recommend a visit any time.

 


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Bars we have lost but won’t miss!

I’ve written about Lola’s bar and the wonderful ambience. We actually found it accidentally.

My colleague and I had been working at the university delivering a workshop and one of the lecturers dropped us off at a bar a little further up LStokuos-Guceviciaus g. at the Tappo D’Oro Vynine.

We went in and it was packed out with locals. We managed to get served and enjoyed the cuts of cold meat. But we couldn’t find anywhere to sit.

Whenever a table became vacant and we sat down the staff moved us on saying it was reserved – despite there being no reserved sign. They seemed to favour the locals

We were pretty fed up by the time we squeezed into a corner and when someone nudged my arm as I was sorting out some change for a tip and it went all over the floor I left it there. As we left we noticed Lola’s further down the street and said we’d try that next time. And we did, several times until it sadly closed.

We never went back to the Tappo D’Oro again and some time later that too was closed down as the area behind it was redeveloped. It was as if it never existed.

Unlike Lola’s bar, we didn’t miss it.


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Bars we have loved and lost – Lola’s Bar

There was a definite something about Lola’s bar which led me to it most nights I was in Vilnius a few years ago. Just off the Old Town on L.Stokuos-Guceviciaus g.

The slightly shabby chic decor with hand written letters from South America, the mis-matched furniture, the decent wine and the pineapple carpaccio!

And the owners were very hospitable. Saule and Indre always looked after us very well.

While my colleague was off at the opera or the theatre refreshing his high-brow tastes I was hanging out in this bar with a bottle of good red wine listening to the music waiting for him to join me.

Oh that playlist: I remember Ray Charles, Cab Calloway (singing Minnie the Moocher which you might remember from the Blues Brothers film) and the neo-tango Spanish/Argentinian collaboration called Otros Aires.

Then he would come in to enjoy the rest of the evening and more wine before we staggered back to our hotel, The Shakespeare, for a final nightcap.

But when we returned on our our next visit in June 2013 we found it was no more! It was being redeveloped as a boutique!

 

 

 

 

 

Musical footnote:

Otros Aires say it is “an electronic-archeological project created between Barcelona and Buenos Aires airports.  It mixes the first tangos and milongas (fast tangos but also used to describe places where these are danced) records of the beginning of the last century with electronic sequences, melodies and words of the 21st century”

Read more about them here at Otros Aires.


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Beer restaurant on Gedimino pr. in Vilnius …. plus ça change

One of the first restaurants we visited in Vilnius over 10 years ago was the beer restaurant on Gedimino pr. not far from the cathedral square. You couldn’t miss it with the statue in the entrance. Was it the pagan beer goddess Ragutiene?

You had to go down the steps, past the microbrewery paraphernalia on your left to enter the main room with smaller side rooms off to the left where we preferred to eat, usually at lunch time.

Not only did it serve a great range of beer from its microbrewery but also good food including beer soup!

 

We also liked the ambience with all the beer posters on the walls in the side room.

The main room is big and one evening we were there hosted a NATO conference meal for delegates at the Lietuva Hotel (now Radisson Blue) along the riverside (somewhere we used to stay until we found the Shakespeare Hotel in the Old Town). I’ve never seen so many top brass, gold braid and fancy hats.

There are so many restaurants to choose from in Vilnius so we don’t notice until a few years later that it had changed its name to Prie Katedros i.e. near the cathedral. Fortunately it was still serving the same kind of food and beer.

 

 

Then last year a new sign appeared: “Craft and Draft” obviously cashing in on the demand for craft beer. And all the signage was in English, a trend I noticed in a few places in the city.

I also noticed the statue had disappeared – perhaps too raunchy for the artisans crafting the beer. A shame really and I didn’t get a chance to check if the food is still as good. Perhaps next time?

 

My earlier posts on beer


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Tastes change in Vilnius

A few years ago I enjoyed visiting “A taste of Lithuania”  (Lietuviškas Skonis) just off the cathedral square near the Amberton Hotel on Odminių g.

It was a family run cafe bar which made very nice fresh food, provided free wi-fi and sold some nice souvenirs. (See my earlier post on it). They also had a shop at Vilnius airport for a while.

Last year when I went it was nowhere to be seen. Now there is a spa and massage parlour in its place.

Whether it will still be there next time I visit is anyone’s guess.


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Goodbye Piccolo Canopi and sėkmės

You’ve probably gathered from my last post that we like our food in Lithuania. And one of our favourite places was the little cafe round the corner from the Shakespeare Hotel in Vilnius, Piccolo Canopi. I hadn’t been to Vilnius for a couple of years but a fellow blogger posted a review in February this year so I knew it was still there.p1010244

The cafe was opened in October 2010 by Tadas and Karolina Zukauskais and it coincided with Tadas’s birthday. So as I was there in October I thought I’d pop in and wish him happy birthday as my colleague did on a previous trip when I couldn’t make it.

p1030937But it wasn’t there! Gone. Replaced by a linen shop.

The lovely lady who ran the shop, Ūla, didn’t know where they had gone. But she was happy to tell me that she and her Ukrainian husband Vitaly were planning to move to the UK. So everyone’s moving.

Wherever you have gone , Tadas, Karolina and the twins, Good luck for the future. I enjoyed your lovely restaurant and appreciated your kindness.