Europe’s Hidden Gem
When I told friends I was taking a weeklong trip to Lithuania, many responded Lithu-what? I then had the pleasure of explaining that the country was located in Europe and bordered by Poland, Latvia And Belarus. They nodded in acknowledgment, but I could still sense a bit of bewilderment on their faces. I, too, encounter the same issue when I tell people my country of birth. Many respond, “Oh you’re from Ghana, how nice.” Then I have to reiterate “I’m from Guyana, which is located in South America, not Ghana, Africa.” Nonetheless, I feel your pain Lithuania. With no direct flights from the United States, it’s difficult for you to get your national shine on.
Before we dive into my trip, here are some quick facts about Lithuania. The capital of Lithuania is Vilnius. The country’s population of approximately 2.8 million people is largely made up of Lithuanians (85%), with Polish, Russian, and Belarusian ethnic groups rounding out the remaining inhabitants. The country is a member of the EU and its local currency is the Euro (€). As an american, you do not need a visa to enter the country.
Now let’s dive into my trip. For starters, I didn’t know what to expect. I usually read up on countries I intend to visit, but with a hectic work schedule, I did not get a chance to do so this time. My knowledge of Lithuania was limited to the aforementioned country facts. My Lithuanian friend that I was visiting was the first and only Lithuanian I’d ever met. Strangely enough, we met in New York City years back, and this friendship was what necessitated the visit.I booked travel via Finnair for the approximate 10-hour flight. As mentioned earlier, there are no direct flights from the USA to Lithuania, so the first leg of my trip, included a stop in Helsinki, Finland, where I changed planes. The initial leg of the trip took about 8.5 hours. The final leg from Helsinki to Lithuania’s capital Vilnius, took 1.5 hours.
Arriving in Vilnius, I expected to go through some form of passport control, but to my surprise, this didn’t transpire. My passport was only stamped in Finland. After retrieving my luggage from the baggage carousel, I was greeted by my friend. Glancing at my phone and then at my watch, I noticed that the time on my phone had adjusted on its own. My phone now displayed an 11:00AM (GMT+3) local Lithuanian time, while my watch read 4:00AM (GMT-04), New York City’s local time. Noting I was ahead seven hours, I wondered how I would adjust sleeping wise.
As we departed the terminal and walked to the car, the sun was shining and the weather was a summery 75°F (24°C) with a lovely breeze in the air. Exiting the airport, we drove towards central Vilnius; along the way, I noticed how remarkable the country’s infrastructure was. The highways and local roads were nicely paved, with proper signage and lit by LED street lamps. The streets themselves were sparsely populated, which I would later find out was in part due to the summer. Apparently, during summer months, residents retreat to their vacation homes on the weekends. These homes are generally on the outskirts of the city. And being that I arrived on a Saturday, it made total sense.
For the next several days, I would travel throughout Lithuania sampling local foods and taking in all the country had to offer. My trip commenced in Vilnius and would take me to the westernmost part of the country. For ease of reading, I’ve separated my trip by cities visited.
I spent the first day in Vilnius sightseeing and sampling local cuisines. My first stop was the Chapel of the Gates of Dawn in Vilnius. The chapel houses a well-known painting of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Mercy. This painting is often referred to as Vilnius Madonna. The painting is one of several found around the globe, where the Virgin Mary is depicted with dark features. The painting, which was done in the 17th century Renaissance style, using tempera on oak boards, and was later repainted in oil, can be seen through the glass window from the street.
Next, I visited Cathedral Square , a majestic Catholic shrine that sits in the heart of Vilnius Old Town. Although repeatedly destroyed and reconstructed throughout its history, Cathedral Square is now a key destination in everyday Vilnius residents’ lives. The square often hosts fairs, performances and concerts. Additional points of interest visited includes the Presidential Palace, which is the official office and eventual residence of the President of Lithuania and Vilnius University, which was founded in 1579 and is the oldest university in the Baltic States and the largest one in Lithuania. The university was an unexpected treat because it had a tower that you could climb. It also had an elevator, which I opted for instead of the stairs which were a bit too steep for my liking. The top of the tower provided 360° views of the city.
Navigating Vilnius was done mostly by foot, as most points of interest were not too far apart. Vilnius has a number of great restaurants. I sampled a few and they were all great. I dined on pizza at this amazing Italian restaurant called Užupio Picerija. I ordered a cheese pie with jalapenos, onions, red peppers, and Bolognese topping and washed it all down with a local beer. It was absolutely amazing.
Later, I dined at this French cuisine restaurant called Bistro Pranciškonai. This restaurant offers an eclectic menu. For an appetizer, I dined on Duck Heart. Yes, you read that correctly, Duck Heart. It was my first time sampling Duck Heart and this was the perfect restaurant to do so. All I can say is that it’s incredible. The meat’s texture is a cross between liver and steak. My friend selected Salmon Tartare as an appetizer. It was equally delicious.
For the main course, I dined on a lightly grilled Dorada Fish, while my friend opted for the Duck Fillet with Gratin. For dessert, we both selected the Panna Cotta. The meal was washed down with a lovely bottle of wine. To this restaurant’s credit, the owner spends the majority of his time at the restaurant and obsesses over the quality of food and service. He sources the wines himself and ensures that his staff is well-trained. I highly recommend dining at Bistro Pranciškonai if you visit Vilnius.
After departing Vilnius, I stopped in Trakai, a small historic city and lake resort, located west of Vilnius. It’s roughly a 30 minute drive from Vilnius. I visited the Trakai Island Castle, a 14th century stone castle that looks straight out of the Game of Thrones television show. According to Trakai’s tourism website, the name of Trakai was first mentioned in Teutonic Knights chronicles in 1337. This year is considered to be the official date of town’s foundation. Trakai is famous for the castles of Lithuanian Grand Dukes. One of them was built on the peninsula and the other one in the island of a lake.
After touring the castle, I stopped by a local restaurant to sample a baked pastry called Kibinai. These traditional pastries are filled with mutton and onions. It reminded me of my country’s beef patties for some strange reason.
While in Trakai, I also visited Užutrakis Manor Estate, an estate created between 1897 and 1902 by Count Józef Tyszkiewicz and his wife Countess Jadwiga Swiętopułk-Czetwertyńska. The Užutrakis Manor Estate features rentable space for weddings, concerts, galas and other events. Views of the Trakai Island Castle are visible from the Manor Estate.
Continuing the drive West, I stopped in Kaunas, which is the second-largest city in Lithuania. It’s an approximate 1-hour drive from Vilnius. While in the city, I visited the mid-14th century Gothic style Kaunas Castle. It was raining, so I did not get a chance to go inside the castle, but from afar, it looked imposing.
While in Kaunas, I also visited the Pažaislis Monastery. The Pažaislis Monastery dates back to the 17th-18th centuries and is a wonderful example of late baroque. Baroque refers to the monastery’s architecture, which is the building style of the Baroque era. This era began in late 16th-century Italy and is characterized by free and sculptural use of the classical orders and ornament, by forms in elevation and plan suggesting movement, and by dramatic effect in which architecture, painting, sculpture, and the decorative arts often worked to combined effect.
Still traveling west, I arrived in Klaipėda, which is an approximate 4-hour drive from Lithuania’s capital Vilnius. Klaipėda is the third largest city in Lithuania and is the only port city in the country. Dining in Klaipėda ranges from reasonably priced eateries to more upmarket restaurants. One such restaurant is Restoranas Meridianas. While I did not dine at this restaurant, I viewed it from the exterior and it’s worth an honorable mention. The restaurant, dubbed the Barquentine “Meridianas”, is actually a ship that was built in Finland in 1948. According to the restaurant’s website, the ship sailed the seas and served as a training ship for future sailors and officers for twenty years. The vessel was later decommissioned in 1968 and brought to Klaipėda and handed over to the then public trust of eateries, restaurants and cafés of the city. The vessel would later be refurbished and retrofitted for restaurant purposes and moored by the embankment of the Danė river, eventually opening as a restaurant in 1971.
A restaurant that my friends and I did dine at was Biblioteka Lounge. The restaurant is located in the lobby of the Klaipėda Art Hotel-Lūgnė. The decor is rather simplistic but yet efficient. Lighting fixtures were affixed to the ceiling by book encasements and the green and chocolate-brown suede tufted chairs blended well with the hardwood floors and wall colors. The restaurant’s name translates to library and it does a good job at evoking its namesake. It’s a quiet and peaceful environment. The menu allows the patron to essentially build their own meal, down to the type of sauce and accompaniment. I selected steak with a red wine reduction, dressed with sautéed potatoes and salad. It was extraordinary to say the least.
Following dinner, my friends and I walked over to the Amberton Hotel, where we enjoyed cocktails and views from the hotel’s rooftop. This was the perfect end to a wonderful evening. The following morning we would depart to Neringa.
Neringa | Nida
My final stop and intended destination of the drive west was Neringa. Neringa is a peninsula accessible via ferry. Drivers essentially drive their vehicles onto the ferry and do not need to exit their vehicles. It takes about 7-10 minutes to cross the water separating Klaipėda and Neringa. In terms of its designation, Neringa is a municipality of Klaipėda and is located in the westernmost part of Lithuania. It’s comprised of several villages in what’s known as the Curonian Spit. The Curonian Spit is 60 miles long, thin, curved sand-dune spit that separates the Curonian Lagoon from the Baltic Sea Coast. Its southern portion lies within Kaliningrad Oblast, Russia and it’s northern within southwestern Lithuania. According to the legend, the spit was formed a long time ago by Neringa, a girl giant who poured the sandy peninsula into the Baltic Sea to protect the peaceful bay from the stormy sea and create an embankment for fishermen to live.
Nida is a resort town located in Neringa and this is where I would spend the next three days. I stayed at Hotel Nidus , a 26-room hotel, which was a 13-minute walk from Nida beach. At the hotel, there were a number of Lithuanian guests, but I also heard French, Russian, and English (British) languages from a number of fellow guests.
In terms of cuisine, Nida has a lot to offer. I had one of my most enjoyable meals at the Neringa Hotel. The meal consisted of a goat cheese and clementine salad as a starter and was followed by a rack of lamb for the main course. Dessert consisted of a cheesecake. My friend’s main course consisted of duck breast and a berry tart pastry for dessert.
Following dinner, we walked over to In Vino Nida, which is a wine bar perched in an unlikely position above a block of flats set back from the main road. The decor is cozy and if seated outside, the rooftop terrace overlooks the Parnidis Dune, which I would visit on my last day in Nida.
Nida is small in size, so walking to restaurants and points-of-interest was not an issue. If you don’t feel like walking they’re taxis and even tuk tuks’ to transport you around. As mentioned earlier, there’s a beach in Nida and I did make it to the beach on two occasions. While not as brave as some of the other beach goers, I did manage to dip my feet into the Baltic Sea at Nida Beach, while many other beach goers were jumping in. I found the water to be on the cooler side and was told when I asked if the water ever gets warmer, that the average water temperature was around 65°F (18°C) this time of the year. Compare that to an average water temperature of about 85°F (29°C) in Miami, Florida during the same period and you see my dilemma.
As mentioned above, I spent my last day in Nida exploring the Parnidis Dune. The Parnidis Dune, which is included in Patricia Schultz’s book 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, features a granite sundial, built on the Parnidis Dune accurately depicting the time. The sundial is a 45 ft high stone pillar weighing 36 tons.
After returning from Nida, I spent my last day in Vilnius reflecting on my trip and all the amazing things I had seen and experienced. The many stops I made in between Vilnius and Nida. The many castles visited and my indoctrination into Lithuanian cuisine like Saltibarsciai, a Cold Beet Soup, usually eaten in the summer, served along side potato wedges. It’s an acquired taste, but I enjoyed it. Also, there were the Cepelinais, which are Potato-Meat Dumplings made of potato dough, stuffed with meat and generously drowned in rich creamy bacon gravy. I don’t even want to think of the caloric count, but it was amazing.
Additionally, as a traveler of color, and as someone who physically stands out in general, I’d be remiss not to touch on the following. For travelers of color, do not be deterred by the fact that you may not encounter people of color during your visit to Lithuania. I counted approximately 6-7 people of color during my weeklong stint in the country. As a black man, 6’6″ at that, I stood out tremendously. In the city of Trakai, a couple approached me and asked me to take a picture. Initially, I thought they were asking me to take a picture of them, but instead, they wanted to take a picture with me. The wife referred to me as exotica and my local Lithuanian friend and I both got a good laugh out of it. In the United States, I’m the furthest thing from exotic or exotica haha, but I digress.
Overall, it’s worth noting that you will receive stares, but it’s mostly out of curiosity. Not once did I feel locals resented my presence in their country because of my race or any external factors. If anything, I think they were blown away that I was in Lithuania soaking up their culture and history.
During my trip, I saw and did so many things that I hope I truly conveyed how wonderful a place Lithuania is. Whether you live in Europe and you’re looking for a weekend getaway close to home, or you’re a Westerner planning a multi-stop trip to Europe that combines, say, a culinary, art, and history-filled trip, Lithuania should definitely be on your list. And this is why Lithuania is Europe’s hidden gem.
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