I only had five days in the Baltics since I had to return to Berlin for a special event. Okay, they are all small, so I thought it would be manageable. Of course, I would only have enough time for their capital cities. Even so, I still tried to be flexible. I did not make any hotel reservation. Maybe I would prefer to stay in Vilnius or Tallinn longer and in Riga (I heard it is the most touristy one among the trio) for one night.
Arriving in Vilnius, I immediately made my way to the bus stop. This is a small airport, with only one terminal and two baggage claim belts. I still had a hard time finding the bus stop (at the left of the arrival hall entrance, Let's Go East Europe was never too clear about!).
To save time and money, I stayed at Old Town Hostel, near the Vilnius bus and train stations. It is also only a few hundred meters south of Vilnius old town's "Gate of Dawn". Though the location is great, this hostel felt a little crappy. It was hidden in a courtyard of an old building. Let's Go does warn about it – cramped, no lockers. Even in 2006, two years after Lithuania entered the European Union, Vilnius still did not have a good selection of budget accommodations. I guess this was the best I could find. I decided to pay for one night.
I started my sightseeing right away. Walking through "Gate of Dawn", I was immediately in the old town. The Gate is more than 400 years old and it’s the only surviving part of the city wall. It has been a pilgrimage site for Eastern European Catholics for many years. Above the Gate, a gold-laced portrait of the Virgin Mary is on the second floor. This portrait is said to have miraculous powers. The late Pope John Paul II visited here in 1993 – a plaque commemorates that visit.
Walking deeper into old town, I saw more churches and old houses (many of them were turned into jewelry shops selling amber). I wandered around, felt happy to be in a new city for the first time – forgot to eat lunch!
The sights are relatively spread out, so it takes a while to see most places of interest (including the only Frank Zappa bust in the world – overrated). I did not finish sightseeing until around 7:00 p.m.
I found a vegetarian restaurant, White Elephant, an Indian eatery with a good selection. Vilnius was more sophisticated than I expected – maybe I should stay an extra night
I didn't sleep much at the hostel. The room was cramped with eight beds. Some of my roommates came back at four in the morning, drunk and loud.
Sometimes I wonder why I stay at youth hostels – at my age. Yes, it is cheaper than a regular hotel. As a single traveler, I would need to pay (sometimes a lot) more for a single room. I have a better chance of meeting other travelers, exchanging travel stories, maybe even receiving some emotional support so I feel less lonely. I see now why youth hostels are for me.
I could have joined a tour group like Intrepid, GAP, or Dragoman, as I did before. Their itineraries did not appeal to me, though. There is a lot more freedom when traveling independently, as most readers on the BootsnAll website would agree. Freedom does have its price.
I checked out of the hostel and took an overnight bus to Tallinn, Estonia. Because it was a ten-hour drive, I had enough time to sleep, plus I'd save on a night's lodging. I hoped the bus would not be too crappy (no bedbugs like those Chinatown buses between New York and Washington, DC).
I still had a full day in Vilnius. I decided to take a trip to Trakai Castle, 29 kilometers west of the city. It is built on an island in the middle of a lake. Sounds nice, but I had my fill of castle viewing. I went instead to Europos Parkas, European Park. It is said to be the geographical center of Europe. It is a sculpture park with works by many famous sculptors, especially InfoTree – a labyrinth made of nearly 3,000 television sets, certified by the Guiness Book of World Record.
Oops! Where was the television labyrinth? I wandered to an area that looked like it used to be a labyrinth. There was a lot of shattered glass around. At a closer glance, only 20% of the labyrinth walls still had television sets (many with broken screens). What happened? Had someone destroyed them? Were they under renovation? With only Lithuanian on the posting, I was not sure if it was under renovation or permanently gone. Darn. I guess the clerk at the entrance was trying to warn me when I was buying the ticket. Not speaking Lithuanian, I couldn't make out what she was saying.
This was just some frustration you encounter when traveling independently. If I were with a tour group, I would have probably been forewarned by our guide. Then again, I would never have even made it to this park. I might have ended up in Trakai Castle, like most other tourists do. For me, it is still better to travel independently, even in a country where you cannot understand its language.
Saricie Kuo is a college professor and public health researcher from Taiwan. He is also a part-time novelist and film critic. He took most of 2006 off from his career and traveled in Europe and South America. He made a wish when he was 18: to visit more than 100 countries before he turns 40. Currently in his mid-30's, Mr. Kuo is glad he has only 10 countries left to reach that goal.