Lithuania hopes membership of the EU will open the floodgates to Western visitors. Joan Smith finds that wonders both natural and man-made await

It is 2am and I am dancing to Turkish pop music in a Latin bar on the edge of the old Jewish ghetto in Vilnius, capital of Lithuania. The eerie baroque perfection of the old city prompted Unesco to declare it a World Heritage Site in 1994. Beyond, branches of McDonald's and Benetton make foreign visitors feel at home. Welcome to the new Europe: Lithuania joined the EU four months ago, 13 years after rising up against the Soviet Union, and is marketing itself as a new holiday destination for millions of people from Western Europe.

It is 2am and I am dancing to Turkish pop music in a Latin bar on the edge of the old Jewish ghetto in Vilnius, capital of Lithuania. The eerie baroque perfection of the old city prompted Unesco to declare it a World Heritage Site in 1994. Beyond, branches of McDonald's and Benetton make foreign visitors feel at home. Welcome to the new Europe: Lithuania joined the EU four months ago, 13 years after rising up against the Soviet Union, and is marketing itself as a new holiday destination for millions of people from Western Europe.

It is certainly easy to get to, with direct flights from London to Vilnius in just under three hours. Lithuania is a small country, with a population of 3.6 million, and easy access between its main towns and the Baltic coast. Accommodation is up to Western standards, especially in Vilnius, where it is possible to stay in a 16th-century red-brick town house converted into a luxurious hotel. Mine was on cobbled Pilies gatve (Castle Street) in the heart of the old city, and breakfast was served in its vaulted Gothic cellars.

A third of the country is covered by pine forests, it has hundreds of lakes - watch out for mosquitoes - and much of the rural population still lives in painted wooden houses. (These are something of a fire hazard, as burnt-out shells attest.) Domestic flights with Lithuanian Airlines are cheap and it is possible to get from Vilnius, in the south-east, to the main seaside resort, Palanga, in under an hour and for around £50 return.

Palanga has superb sand dunes, even if its main street has the cheap souvenirs and fried food I associate with Spain's most over-developed resorts. A pine forest lines the beach and the town's amber museum, set in a park which is popular for wedding photographs, explains how the Baltic coast came to be such a plentiful source of the fossilised resin.

Amber is on sale all over Lithuania, ranging from my favourite, the black amber we seldom see in the UK, to the pale yellow that is the most expensive. But the outdoor amber market in Palanga is the best place to buy it, made into everything from necklaces and bracelets to pipes.

The other great buy in Lithuania is linen, woven into fine shawls in gorgeous natural colours and costing only about £15. Vilnius now has the usual designer shops, but the most interesting clothes come from the little boutiques on Stikliai gatve (Glass Blowers' Street), where tailored suede and satin jackets are to die for - especially when you see the prices. It is also home to the splendidly named Ladies' Pleasure Café, which serves good coffee and fabulous cakes.

The old centre is a startling visual feast, dominated by churches and other baroque buildings in glowing pastel colours - pink, yellow, blue - that give it the air of a film set. The cathedral, on the site of a temple to Perkunas, the Lithuanian god of thunder, has now been restored to its pristine white magnificence after being used by the Soviets as a picture gallery. Lithuania is a Roman Catholic country but it was also the last pagan stronghold in Eastern Europe, embracing Christianity only in 1387, and plenty of traces remain of its earlier allegiance.

Vilnius is beginning to attract British stag parties, although nothing like on the scale that has become such a problem for Prague and Barcelona. Beer and food are cheap, and plenty of pizzerias and bars make visitors unfamiliar with this part of the world feel comfortable. But Western tourists are still outnumbered by visitors from Lithuania's neighbours, with a quarter of all tourists last year arriving from Russia. Fewer than 10 per cent came from EU countries, a situation the government hopes will change now that all three Baltic states - Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia - have joined, making travel easier and doing away with customs restrictions.

In that sense, now is the perfect time to visit, before the globalising tendency represented by McDonald's golden arches has too much of an effect. Lithuania has fascinating cities and the second largest, Kaunas, is still being renovated, its deserted main square reminding me of some sleepy town in Central America. When I mentioned this to Sigitas Sidaravicius, the director of tourism in the Kaunas region, he was speechless - then invited me to dance with him in a traditional Lithuanian restaurant, Berneliu Uzeiga, where the owner likes to belt out Elvis songs, accompanying himself on an electric organ.

It was in Kaunas that I encountered cepelinai, huge Zeppelin-shaped meat-and-potato dumplings, as well as beer made from bread and honey. Lithuanian food is typical of the peasant cuisine of Eastern Europe, with excellent black bread and vast quantities of animal protein from cheese soup to meat.

Fortunately, mushrooms are highly prized too: one of the best meals I ate was in the café at a private outdoor museum created by Viliumas Malinauskas, known in Lithuania as the King of Mushrooms. Malinauskas has ploughed some of his mushroom millions into collecting relics of the old Soviet regime and setting them up in a pine forest near the spa town of Druskininkai, not far from the borders with Poland and Belarus.

I have a photograph of myself in Grutas Park, dwarfed by a monumental statue of Lenin, although I refused Malinauskas's invitation to taste a typical Soviet meal: a rectangular plate of sardines, onion rings and a glass of vodka. (If I had consumed the vast quantities of vodka I was offered during this trip, I would have missed my flight home.)

I stuck to imported wine and champagne, the latter drunk in an outdoor hot tub at Akmenine Uzeiga, a country club near Trakai, the old capital of Lithuania. Trakai has a picturesque (and heavily restored) red-brick castle in the middle of a lake, but it has a theme-park air to it - youths in mediaeval armour patiently wait to be photographed with tourists. I much preferred sharing salami and gherkins with friends in the open-air hot tub, although I wasn't so keen on the water massage I tried in Druskininkai.

The town is busily converting the clinics that used to be popular with Soviet apparatchiks into health clubs, but the one I visited reminded me of something out of a novel by Milan Kundera. A woman in a white coat ordered me to stand against a tiled wall and shouted instructions as she played two high-pressure hoses over every inch of my body, which may not be quite what Western visitors want - it is pretty painful, apart from anything else.

Nor do I imagine that many foreign tourists will want to make the journey to the geographical centre of Europe, a monument on a solitary hill 15 miles north of Vilnius where I was bitten to pieces by mosquitoes and turned down yet more vodka from the site director. But it occurred to me that the place neatly sums up Lithuania's dilemma, as it tries to build a travel industry almost from scratch.

At some point, the government will have to decide what kind of visitors it wants to attract. Lithuania is fortunate in being cheaper than France or Italy, but it is nothing like as cheap as Turkey, which may spare it the attentions of the chicken-and-chips brigade.

What it has to offer is culture and history, although ideas about how to present the latter to visitors - and whether to do it at all - have provoked controversy.

Grutas Park initially ran into opposition from people who feared it would become a shrine for old Communists, although it now seems to have allayed those fears. But the generation of Lithuanians now in their 30s feel caught between the old Lithuania and the new; they grew up during the Soviet occupation, joining the Communist youth organisation Komsomol at school, yet have now become enthusiastic Europeans.

Inevitably, the notion that Western visitors might want to know about the Soviet period prompts unease. Yet there is no getting away from the fact that Lithuania was occupied for most of the 20th century: by Poland, the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and then the Soviet Union again. More than 200,000 Lithuanian Jews were murdered by the Nazis, while the Russians deported hundreds of thousands of people to Siberia and the gulags after the Second World War.

The old KGB headquarters on what used to be Lenin Square (now Lukiskiu Aikste) in Vilnius is now a macabre museum, where visitors can see the cells where people who resisted the Russians - army officers, intellectuals, priests - were tortured and dispatched by firing squad.

What ordinary Lithuanians may not appreciate is the impact of this mostly unknown episode on Western visitors. I left the KGB prison shaken and distressed, but also immensely moved by the resistance this small country put up to the might of the Soviet Union.

Now that Lithuanians can finally call themselves Europeans, the rest of us have a chance to discover not only their beautiful architecture and unspoilt beaches but their heroic history.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Joan Smith travelled to Vilnius and Palanga with Lithuanian Airlines (01293 579900; www.lal.lt), which offers return flights from Gatwick to Vilnius from around £100.

Where to stay

Double rooms at the Hotel Narutis, Pilies Str 24, Vilnius (00 370 5212 2894; www.narutis.com) start from €174 (£124), based on two sharing, including breakfast.

Further information

Embassy of the Republic of Lithuania (020-7034 4980) or go to www.tourism.lt.

Comments