A Baltic adventure
There are many beautiful and fascinating elements to Lithuania – stunning landscapes, buzzing galleries and its preservation of Soviet art, writes SÉAN Mac CONNELL
LITHUANIA IS well worth a visit if for no other reason than to see how a country handles its colonial past and struggles to find its way into the uncertain future we all face. It is also a very pretty place.
It was the first of the former USSR-dominated states to break away and declare independence on March 11th, 1990 and the pride the people have in this is evident everywhere.
It was quite amazing to find an entire park set aside for the preservation of statues and art from the Soviet era. Even in the centre of the capital city, Vilnius, four Soviet style statues dominate one of the main bridges, the Green Bridge. (It also has a genocide museum, but more of that later.) These statues were preserved not so much for their artistic merit but as an educational tool for generations to come.
The religious statues that were removed during the long period of domination have now been returned to the churches, and the relics and other precious icons hidden from the Russians and the Nazis have been placed back where they belong.
There are 3.2 million Lithuanians living in the southernmost Baltic state, which has borders with Latvia, Belarus, Poland and Russia – from where it gets its vital natural gas supply, which is needed to heat homes for eight months a year. Temperatures average from 18 degrees in July to -5 degrees in January.
Vilnius, with a population of roughly 550,000, is a three-hour journey by air from Dublin and is a clean, well laid-out city with a mixture of all the influences that shaped its turbulent past. Its streets are safe to walk and it gives off the relaxed air of a university town, which it is.
Now in the EU but not in the euro, Lithuania provides great value for money for the traveller with an exchange rate in the region of 3.4 Lt (litas), the local currency.
Unusually, the price of hotel bedrooms falls at weekends. For instance, the Holiday Inn where our party stayed charged up to €150 for bed and breakfast mid-week but reduced prices to €125 at weekends. This happens because most of the visitors to Lithuania are business travellers and come mid-week, so the hotels have much lower occupancy at weekends – something that will change, no doubt, as the country builds its tourism profile.
It is also the land of 100 different beers and these can be sampled for less than €3 a litre, even in the most expensive venues. Wine is more expensive and is more or less at Irish prices.
Our party was taken to the old town, via the 600-year-old cathedral, which lies at the centre of the city. There is a strong Italian influence dating back to the 16th century when the Grand Duchess of Lithuania, Bona Sforca of the Medici family, invited Italian architects and craftsmen to the city.
We climbed to the highest point in the area, the Green Hills which provide a wonderful view of the city. There, too, is the Hill of Crosses, a place of pilgrimage for many of the country’s large Roman Catholic population. Nearly 80 per cent list Roman Catholic as their religion and you will meet pilgrim groups on the streets led by priests.
The city abounds with museums, art galleries and theatres and over the summer more than one hundred concerts are played in the city and adjoining towns organised by the world famous Lithuanian National Philharmonic Society.