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One of Europe’s Forgotten Capitals – Vilnius, Lithuania

One of Europe’s Forgotten Capitals

Vilnius, Lithuania

A dilapidated backstreet apartment building
A dilapidated backstreet apartment building
It was little past six in the morning as I struggled down the dark, deserted, seemingly desolate street. Every bone, muscle, ligament, cartilage, tendon, capillary, pore, skin cell, nucleus and microscopic bacteria particle was screaming against the weight of a massive backpack, filled to bursting point with essential travel items such as ipod and portable mini speakers, which I’d spent most of the previous night cramming in at the last minute.

It’s a tricky task to reduce your worldly possessions into fitting a space smaller than most car hatchback compartments. Finally, exhausted and sweating underneath heavy winter garments, I crashed down onto the perforated metal bench at Chiswick train station and hastily relieved myself of the excessive weight, swiftly sweeping away several empty cigarette packets and other assorted detritus. My shoulders were burning and felt like they wanted to give in, despite the fact walking this distance had taken barely ten minutes. A vigorous saleswoman had talked me into purchasing some kind of deluxe carrying system the previous day, which she claimed was designed to minimise physical strains and optimise the lugging experience. It certainly didn’t feel like that right now and the prospect of heaving this cargo round half of Europe during one of the coldest predicted winters on record wasn’t exactly appetising.

The train at least arrived less than ten minutes later and I got off at Clapham Junction, hauling the monster along before boarding another service to Gatwick Airport. I took a moment to appreciate that this could be the last remotely reliable public transport system I set foot on for the rest of 2005.

Once I’d completed the formalities of checking in and handing over the booty for ruthless battering in the cargo hold, it was time to explore Gatwick’s departure lounge. Indeed, I had considerably more time to do this than anticipated, since my flight to Vilnius got delayed by a good half hour. Sometimes I think they do it deliberately, to try and force frustrated passengers away from starting blankly at the announcement screens and into the shops around them (it’s no coincidence to find a dearth of seating around the TV update points), with the vague hope we might erupt into a panic attack, thinking we’ve forgotten something, and rush to hastily replace it with an overpriced substitute – before arriving at the destination and realising the original had been there all along. Thankfully it didn’t happen to me on this occasion, I just slumped down into the first available seat, situated at a remarkably bad angle for viewing the monitor, and thought about nothing in particular until the gate number finally came up.

My travelling companions were a motley collection of Lithuanians, Brits and the kind of miscellaneous Euro-trash which can be frequently found on such ventures, along with the usual array of Doctor Who lookalikes and confused bearded people who don’t seem to know where they’re flying. One of these anonymous random entities, a tall woman with a terrible dyed hairdo, somehow managed to sneak through the security gate without anyone noticing and trigger a wailing alarm on the door leading to our aircraft’s boarding jetty. Once the shrill, repetitive squealing had begun it was a good few minutes before a BA staff member, immaculately attired in double-breasted suit jacket with mismatched beige trousers, had the initiative to actually go and find out what was wrong, arriving at the scene to find the mysterious lady still grappling with the door in her bid for freedom and ignoring the siren which everyone else was being driven mad by. She turned around and ran away down the corridor as she saw him approach and proceed to fiddle with the mechanism with no apparent effect, swiping cards and punching codes to his heart’s content.

When, after around five minutes of this, he realised nothing was going to change, two colleagues were called in as backup and the process repeated to no avail. It was a faintly amusing spectacle at first, especially in the context of a dull airport waiting area on a grey Monday morning, but once the alarm bell had been blaring out for ten minutes the humorous effects quickly disappeared. Eventually, after more extended periods of fooling around with the control panels and doors, the stalwart staff members appeared to give up on rectifying the problem and we were left to enjoy the noise. I could see British passengers quietly tutting to each other, in the well-practiced and time-perfected national manner, trying in vain to ignore what was going on by shielding themselves with complementary copies of The Daily Telegraph.

After all that excitement, the flight itself was comparatively boring: I slept for most of it, basking in the luxury of having three seats in row 19 all to myself and making the most of this chance to catch up on lost hours. However, my fondest visions of being able to create cakes with my hands by magic vanished from thought as I was rudely awoken by a stewardess and half-consciously took in a babbled patronising explanation that we were about to land and I needed to put my seatbelt on. Out of the window, the Lithuanian countryside was looking very natural and small buildings were dotted about, making the whole thing look like a moving model village. This miniature vista of civilisation grew steadily larger and we had a traditional bumpy landing. Air journeys just aren’t complete without one of those, which give the always moan-happy British another thing to viciously tut at, threatening mutiny or cockpit invasion because little baby Romeo was abruptly roused from peaceful slumber.

And a fancy government office just down the road
And a fancy government office just down the road
Going through the motions of entering Lithuania was pretty routine as well, with no major sticking points even for the seasoned British complainer. I was one of the last to come out, mostly because the surly passport officer was quibbling and blundering around with a minor issue regarding someone else’s documents, but the upside was that my Tyrannosaurus Rex of a backpack was floating along on the conveyer belt waiting to be collected when I finally got through, mercilessly poised to once again greet my back muscles with customary anguish.

Could any destination be worth this hellish horror story of a travelling experience? In my opinion, yes, because it wasn’t actually all that bad and Vilnius is really very interesting. Wandering around the city, I found it similar to Tallinn in that there is a clearly visible contrast between old and new. Architecture dating back centuries is in close proximity to towering plasma TV screens (well, actually just one, on top of the opera house) and garish riverside lighting features. However, one big difference I noticed was in the general standard of maintenance. Rundown apartment buildings with glassless windows, peeling paintwork and walls of cracking cement lie within yards of imposing government ministry offices, one of which had a very new-looking large pointless sculpture directly in front and rows of shiny cars parked neatly around it.

Nearly all the other vehicles I saw were dusty and dirty, one with a rear windscreen mended by excessive amounts of heavy-duty brown sticky tape and bumpers sagging to the ground. A couple of others were giving off alarm sirens for no apparent reason (as if I hadn’t had enough of that already), including a battered jeep containing a perplexed and bewildered canine occupant. Stray cats skulked around the dilapidated structures and a couple of what might have once looked like authentically-designed churches were surrounded by scaffolding.

By contrast, popular tourist spots – such as one tall bell-tower resembling a lighthouse – glow monotonously as dusk settles and a tackily illuminated Christmas tree in the town square threatens to induce epileptic fits from oblivious onlookers. But surely something needs to be done to preserve the everyday heritage of this historic city? Venture even a small distance away from the main streets and you’re greeted by a chorus of decay and despair from sites which should be well looked-after.

Vilnius doesn’t seem as dependent on tourism as Tallinn is, probably because it doesn’t get as much. There are far fewer souvenir shops – only one was listed on the hotel’s information computer, believe it or not – and there seems to be more of a self-sustainable local economy based on small businesses. Take away the tourism and there could well be problems, but at least there isn’t total reliance on that particular form of income. Lithuanians work to serve each other, not only foreign visitors, and that’s important in small European states looking towards progress and development.

One of the forms of public transport in Vilnius is what I would describe as a strange hybrid of bus and tram. Known by locals as “trolleybuses”, these vehicles are identical to buses but also similar to trams in that they have overhanging cables. So it’s a bus with the extra cables or a tram without the tracks. I’ve never seen anything like it, but apparently they’re better for the environment than normal buses. On my final night I had to catch one in order to reach a large supermarket and unfortunately was fined the princely sum of 15 litas (£3) on the return journey for not having a ticket (had got away with it the first time). I tried to pretend I was Spanish and didn’t understand the clearly visible notice of “validate your ticket immediately on boarding the vehicle” in Lithuanian, Russian, French, German and English, but the inspector wasn’t having it. Annoyingly it happened just as I was about to get off, but I know the penalties would have been 200 times worse in London.

Another time when I did actually use public transport, rather than stare at it, the experience was a crazy one. On Saturday evening I decided to visit the European Park with two friends, Artem (from Ukraine) and Jan (a Slovak). The park is situated in a forest and contains sculptures and other forms of modern art which were, according to Jan, illuminated at night. He had a timetable from the internet of when the bus service operated and a map of where to catch one from.

Walking from the hotel to our designated destination gave me a new sense of the contrasting nature of Vilnius. After heading away from the city centre for about ten minutes, it was surprising to discover that civilisation seemed to evaporate – the modern homes, offices and other buildings were gradually replaced by wooden shacks and log cabins. Roads were empty of cars and pedestrians alike. It was as if we had somehow gone off course or travelled back in time and ended up in a rural village.

This experience got even stranger when, after passing through this undeveloped area just outside the city centre, it became urbanised once again. The streets were more populated and structures of a newer design. There were many bus stops and we became somewhat confused as to which was needed. Eventually we worked it out though and the bus, number 92, arrived without delay at roughly 4.30. According to the timetable, we would be able to catch one back at 6 p.m.

It was actually more of a mini-bus, with about 20 occupants at most. The fare was two litas, around 40 pence, and we sat at the back. Other passengers included drunks, chattering ladies eating chocolate and suspicious characters in large coats, who gave us strange glances because we were speaking English. Lithuanian music was playing quietly in the background and not much heating was provided – at first it was as cold inside as it had been outside.

The horrible Christmas tree and popular belltower in Vilnius town square
The horrible Christmas tree and popular belltower in Vilnius town square
We were soon to abruptly find out our plans were not as simple as we first thought. The important lesson here is: if you can’t have a native, always have a Russian speaker with you when travelling in Lithuania. We needed clarification on when to get off and at what time the bus returning to Vilnius would arrive; within a few minutes Artem had found out the one we were on would be turning around after the last stop and was the final service of the day. It did not operate so often on weekends and the timetable we had was obviously outdated. So we were faced with the prospect of a wasted evening, in which all we would have done was sit on a freezing bus.

However, after more enquiries an alternative route was discovered. There was another bus which would leave from a stop within walking distance of the park at a later time, so the plan was back in motion. We got off at what seemed to be a location in the middle of the forest and found the park’s entrance.

We then discovered it to be closed. The ranger was about to drive away as we arrived, explaining it closes at dusk and there is no nighttime illumination of the sculptures. As we heard this information, the bus drove off and it appeared we were marooned in the middle of the countryside, surrounded by snow and trees, without a clue in the world about how to get back.

It was our lucky night though, as a car approached out of nowhere and Artem negotiated a free ride back to the bus stop, so we could catch the same one we’d arrived on after it turned back to return in the direction of Vilnius. To walk here would have probably taken nearly an hour, so we’d have missed it, and the weather was also incredibly cold. Being in the middle of dense, snowy woodland in the winter darkness wouldn’t exactly have helped either; things could well have ended very differently.

So, the moral of this story is to always have at least a Russian speaker with you when in Lithuania, especially if a Lithuanian isn’t possible. Although most of the young people can speak decent English, older generations did not learn it – so Russian is the only option unless you happen to speak the native tongue, which is apparently the oldest language in Europe. And who would have thought Lithuanians were the ones who invented strings of cheese?

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