Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Vilnius, Lithuania

It was an uneventful journey from Bialystok to the border town of Sestokai, in fact there was no one else in my entire carriage. The carriages were the traditional design of side corridor with several eight-seater compartments and it was a surprise to see a wheel-tapper checking the wheels. The connecting train to Vilnius was waiting at Sestokai and bizarrely left 15 minutes before schedule.

The Shakespeare hotel in Vilnius old town was another gem ( A glorious seventeenth century aristocrats mansion where they manage to make you feel like you're staying with rich friends rather than a commercial hotel. Shakespeare plays were apparently read there in the 1600's and this literary tradition is continued with rooms named and themed after authors. I was in Jane Austin with miniture portraits and literature while Hemmingway has his books and hunting memorbilia. Tea/coffee, fruit, a liquer, WiFi and bicycles are all complimentary - often extras in other hotels.

I thought Vilnius was merely a convienent stopping off point but it turns out to be a fabulous destination in its own right. The UNESCO World Heritage old town has a surprising Italianate Baroque style with red roof tiles, cobbled streets, alleyways, courtyards, street musicians and a thriving street cafe culture.

The whole city was in party mode on Sunday because it is the launch of the European Mens Basketbaall championship 2011 - being held in Lithuania for the first time since 1939. Basketball is Lithuania's national sport and 24 international teams are parading, a riverside concert is blaring, a world record attempt is underway with over 60,000 people dribbling a basketball at the same time, fireworks lit the night sky and a dedicated TV channel is covering every bounce of the ball.

Svyturys (lighthouse) is a great local beer, especially when accommpanied with a traditional snack of fried bread fingers smothered with melted cheese. My traditional dinner was Cepelinai (Zepplins) - dumplings stuffed with pork - a bit heavy on the dumpling; Balandeliai - stuffed cabbage leaves - very tasty and the Bulyviniai, potato pancakes with a bacon topping were a real treat.

Its an easy city to explore on foot but I still took a ride on the innovative Vilnius electric bike. They're a cross between a scooter and a limited mobility machine, really great fun although I was dubious about tackling street traffic on it. Got some great photos but the stupid blog still won't load them.

I wanted to stay longer but I've got to catch the night train to St Petersburg.

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