Travel: A short break in Vilnius

With its winding streets, courtyards and churches, the Lithuanian capital is ideal for exploring, and, as Declan Pratt discovered, visitors are welcomed

The capital of the Baltic republic of Lithuania is a wonderful city in every sense: elegant, vibrant, cheap. And although some east European capitals have been overrun since the fall of Communism, Vilnius remains refreshingly low on tourists.

When to go

Spring and summer are the best times to visit, although July and August can be wet. Winter days are short and may be very, very cold - but there are plenty of cosy bars to warm up in.

Vilnius's cultural events are spread throughout the year, although the summer calendar is busiest with both Catholic and pagan festivals. Most important of these is Midsummer's Eve (23 June), a night of singing and dancing, bonfires and little sleep.

Music is an important part of the national psyche, and events such as July's Vilnius Summer Music Festival, a week of street theatre, music and masked parades, are very popular. This year's biggest musical celebration will be the Baltika Folklore Festival, held in each Baltic capital in turn and this year in Vilnius in late June.

Getting there

A variety of airlines offer scheduled flights from all over Britain to Vilnius. The best deals are with British Airways (tel: 0345 222111) which flies direct from Gatwick five times a week. Return fares in coming months start from pounds 179, plus pounds 31 tax.

What to do and see

Like many east European capitals, the real star is the city itself and the true heart of Vilnius, spiritually if not geographically, is the Old Town. Most points of interest are within easy walking distance, and wandering the narrow streets is definitely the best way to get to know this city. Start your explorations at the southernmost point of the Old Town, at the Gates of Dawn.

This is the sole surviving city-gate and it has been a tiny chapel since the 18th century. It is home to an allegedly miracle-working icon of the Virgin Mary and is a major east European pilgrimage destination. It is usually crammed full of women in identikit headscarves. Wandering down Ausros vartu, you will encounter a host of churches - indeed, every street of the Old Town has a view of a church, many extremely beautiful.

Visit as many as you possibly can, beginning with the Russian Orthodox Church of the Holy Spirit. In the darkened interior, worshippers kneel before the sparkling icons while more scarved women polish relentlessly. In the centre of the church lie the preserved remains of Saints Anthony, Ivan and Eustacius, swathed completely in a plush velvet bedspread, save for their feet which peep out in pristine white socks and matching velvet slippers.

Nearby is the crown-topped St Casimir's Church, named after Lithuania's patron saint and a fitting symbol of the country's struggles: under the Tsars the church became Orthodox, its distinctive crown replaced with an onion dome; during the Occupation of the First World War, the Germans converted it for protestant worship; and finally, in Soviet times, St Casimir's became the Museum of Atheism and the History of Religion. Today it is back in Jesuit hands and once more open for worship.

Running north, Ausros vartu opens out onto Didzioji - the main square of the Old Town - before narrowing once more as it becomes the stall- lined Pilies gatve, where traders sell good, cheap souvenirs including the star buys: amber, Soviet memorabilia, and miniature paintings.

The Baltic region is one of the world's chief sources of amber, or "Baltic Gold". Take a quick detour along nearby Sv Mykolo to the free Amber Museum which has great information and displays, and even cheaper jewellery on sale. Equally good value is the memorabilia - everything from Tank Commanders' headgear to Moscow Olympics badges are eagerly snapped up at this busy "free market". Lenin must be turning in his grave. Local artists line up across the street, catering specifically for tourists but offering great cityscapes from just pounds 2.

Further down Pilies you will pass the back of St John's Church. Its exterior is a fairly subdued baroque but its interior is a riot of cherubs and gold leaf.

Stepping out at the Old Town's northern end, you find yourself facing the Gediminas Hill where the city of Vilnius began. Climb to the top for the best view of today's city. At the summit stands the last remaining tower of Vilnius castle, flying the tricolour national flag, while at the base of the hill, the huge neoclassical Vilnius Cathedral dominates the open expanse of Katedros aikste. Reconsecrated in 1989, it was used as an art gallery during the Soviet era.

In the distance can be seen the TV Tower, where 14 unarmed civilians died in January 1991 attempting to protect the station from Soviet tanks.

Vilnius's main shopping street, Gedimino prospektas, leads away from the cathedral, a largely soulless avenue of cinemas and the usual ubiquitous international outlets. At number 40 is the Museum of the Genocide of the Lithuanian People. Visiting this former KGB prison is a truly disturbing experience, but also a "must-see" for any visitor to the city. The basement cells remain as they were when they housed Lithuanian dissidents, as recently as 1990. Information boards in English tell the terrible story and bring the past horrifically to life. Admission is free but most visitors leave a donation.

Stalin and Lenin can still be visited, but now they are residing in somewhat less salubrious surroundings. Stalin's statue, his famous moustache chipped and his neck bearing suspicious hack-saw marks, lies forlornly in the side-lot of an out-of-town warehouse, at Dariaus ir Gireno 25, on the main road to the airport. Alongside are other socialist-realist statues, including one of Stalin with his old chum Lenin - both headless.

Where to stay

Vilnius has accommodation to suit every budget, and prices are very reasonable by western standards. The following hotels are all located in the charming Old Town, where you will inevitably want to spend most of your time.

Grybas House, Ausros vartu 3 (tel: 00370 2 619695). A small luxury hotel in a courtyard just yards from the Gates of Dawn, privately run by Mr and Mrs Grybai themselves. Doubles start at pounds 65, singles pounds 50, including breakfast.

Narutis, Pilies gatve 24 (tel: 00370 2 222894). A very good hotel in a 16th-century town house. You can choose between a large room on a lower floor or a smaller top-floor room with fantastic views over the Old Town's red-tiled roofs. Doubles from pounds 50, singles from pounds 40, including breakfast.

Rudninku vartai, Rudninku 15 (tel: 00370 2 613916). Another Old Town courtyard hotel with bright, simple and spotless rooms and the usual warm Lithuanian welcome. Singles and doubles start at around pounds 45, including breakfast.

Litinterp, Bernardinu 7 (tel: 003730 2 223850). This is your chance to stay with a Lithuanian host: Litinterp arranges private b&b in the Old Town and around the country. Around pounds 12 for singles, pounds 20 for doubles.

Food and drink

Lithuanian cuisine is not merely an extension of Russian or Polish cooking. One of the Lithuanian dishes that you must try, cepelinai are zeppelin- shaped pureed potato, usually stuffed with meat and drowned in a cream and onion sauce. Quite unlike anything you've ever tasted. Also excellent are balandele (cabbage leaves stuffed with rice and meat) - as tasty, filling and cheap as most food in Vilnius.

Gabi, Sv. Mykolo 6 (tel: 223643). A popular non-smoking bar/restaurant a few doors from the Amber Museum, ideal for a quick pit stop or a more substantial Lithuanian meal. The zeppelins here are arguably the best in town (pounds 1.50).

Lokys ("The Bear") at Stikliu 8 (tel: 629046). Hidden away in a maze of cellars in the heart of the Old Town is one of Vilnius's best-known eateries, where a large stuffed bear presides over the proceedings. The menu features all kinds of wonderful game - if stewed beaver with prunes (pounds 4) doesn't take your fancy, try hare in chocolate sauce (pounds 3.50). Whichever main course you choose, don't leave without trying the fantastic chocolate pancakes (90p).

Amatininku Uzeiga, Didzioji 19 (tel: 617968). Another Old Town bar with a cosy interior, good beer and great Lithuanian snacks such as black garlic bread. Lunch for two from pounds 6.

Afrika, Pilies 28 (tel: 617190). Excellent coffee as well as great soups, salads, and savoury pancakes in this popular cafe. The cheerful yellow decor attracts a lively young crowd. You may have to fight for a seat. Meal for two from pounds 6.

Nightlife

Despite the appearance of plenty of up-to-the-minute clubs, the Vilnius "scene" is very much bar-dominated. There are good ones dotted all over the city, especially in the Old Town. Be warned that the Lithuanians are very keen on themes, so don't be surprised to find yourself drinking in what appears to be a cowboy saloon or a medieval dungeon.

If you fancy a boogie with added irony then party on down at Naktinis Vilkas, Lukiskiu 3 (tel: 224751), open 7pm-6am, admission pounds 1-pounds 2. A Vilnius institution/club fully kitted out with tongue-in-cheek Soviet kitsch: the loos even play Brezhnev's speeches when you flush.

Out of town

For a breath of clear country air, take the 30-minute bus ride to Trakai, briefly the Lithuanian capital itself in the 14th century. Today, the area is popular for its lakes and two lovely castles, notably the fine Gothic castle on an island on Lake Galve. Reconstructed since the Fifties, the red-brick Island Castle, now housing the Trakai Historical Museum, is linked to the shore by a footbridge. In summer you can hire a boat and row around it, in winter the lake freezes over so thickly that you can simply walk or, of course, skate around it.

Deals and packages

Eastern Europe specialist Regent Holidays (tel: 0117-921 1711) offers a variety of group tours and individual itineraries that include Vilnius. An excellent-value three- night break over the summer, based on two people sharing, with British Airways flights, b&b accommodation and transfers, costs pounds 315 per person.

Further information

The main tourist offices in Vilnius are in the Old Town at Piliesgatve 42 (tel: 00370 2 620762), and at the railway station (tel: 00370 2 693003).

Also, grab a copy of the invaluable Vilnius In Your Pocket guide, available in most bookstores and hotels for about 75p, or free online at www.inyourpocket.com.

Although there is no tourist office in London, it is worth contacting the Lithuanian Embassy, at 84 Gloucester Place, London W1H 3HN (tel: 0171-486 6401), as they can provide you with some useful information.

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