Travel: Baltic beauty blinking in the light

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The Independent Travel
I came to Vilnius from the coast, through Klaipeda and Kaunas, moving through Lithuania's cities in ascending order of size. In Klaipeda I found little but the Baltija Hotel, surely the world's worst, a yellowing, tumbledown tenement where the concrete halls have potholes, the water smells of cod, and the fearsome mosquitoes, I swear, buzz to the tune of 'Ride of the Valkyries'.

In Kaunas I found what appeared, bizarrely, to be a giant Central America theme park. The local policemen wear gaudy uniforms and zapata moustaches and drive around in khaki Jeeps. The river runs through lush green grass dotted by wooden shanties. The streets are wide, lined with trees. Churches crumble white plaster over cobbled squares filled with people in batik shorts and floral T-shirts. I kept expecting to see Clint Eastwood appear around a corner, looking inscrutable on a donkey, or 10,000 US marines come falling out of the sky, shoot a few locals and several of each other and fail to make a dope bust. In Vilnius, I found the most precious of Eastern Europe's lost treasures, a city as pretty as Prague, as raffish as Naples, as mournful as Bucharest.

First impressions are not promising, however. The bus rolls through suburbs of crumbling Soviet stack-a-prole apartments before arriving at the chaotic terminus, packed with carpet-bagging citizens of the late Soviet Union. Many of them are coming from or going to the gigantic ramshackle bazaar on the city's outskirts, derisively known as 'Chernobyl Market' by locals.

Vilnius's old town is astonishing, the largest in the Baltic states, outdoing those of Riga and Tallinn for chocolate-box opulence. Block upon block of baroque pastel-coloured buildings sit along paved roads on which reckless cars and casual strollers mingle with blithe abandon.

These streets boast pretty much the ideal quota of self-consciously bohemian underground coffee houses, full of young folk with eccentric facial hair and berets. The restaurants are apparently determined to make up in decor what they lacked on the menu: at Juodna-Raudona, absolutely everything is black and red except the food; Bociu and Medininkai are both dark, melancholy former monasteries.

As the street-lights shine through the evening fog of mist and grit, Vilnius looks like the set for a thousand moody black-and-white films about idle youth, rather than the backdrop to some of the most sickening events in this century's history.

Vilnius never quite lets you forget its sorrows. Stalin's Socialist-Realist statues of starry-eyed Soviet youths still gaze toward a socialist utopia on each corner of the Zaliasis Tiltas (Green Bridge), and the remains of the concrete barricade that stood around the new Parliament House for two years are still there, preserved as a memorial to the struggle for Lithuanian independence. The blocks are heavily covered in graffiti; on one, a crocodile labelled 'Russia' is swallowing a sun marked 'Freedom'. In the Soviet war memorial in Antakalins cemetery, four cement soldiers hunch over an eternal flame like Easter Island statues at a barbecue, and nearby are the graves of the 14 unarmed civilians killed by Soviet tanks at the TV tower in January 1991.

On the morning that I visit the graves, they are being tended by friends and families, and two groups of local schoolchildren are being conducted around them by their teachers. During a lull in the activity, I step forward, shrugging and nodding to a curious parent in an attempt to convey admiration and respect, and lay my flowers among the many at the foot of the huge crucifix that watches over the row.

Vilnius is still a city unused to attention. Western tourists are a curiosity, but one generally regarded with the detachment of city-dwellers; anyone yearning for incessant pursuit by hordes of jabbering children should visit one of the small towns nearby (Trakai is a good bet, as you can hide in the castle). English is recognised, but not often spoken. Actual conversation - beyond the usual pidgin-English exchange of names and birthplaces - is difficult to find, and when found can take some eccentric tangents.

The driver of the bus which took me from Trakai spoke perfect English. Thrilled beyond reason, I attempted to learn more about living in a state as precariously poised as Lithuania. Equally delighted, all he wanted to talk about was Blackburn Rovers. I saw him again, two nights later, at Zalgiris Stadium, when I went to see the home side play Panerys Vilnius. 'Not Ewood Park, my friend,' he sighed, as an excruciating 0-0 draw ground to a halt.

Hotels are something of a lottery - some are new, Western-owned and comfortable, others are the old ex-Intourist places trying desperately not to appear as decrepit as they are. You pays your money, you takes your choice. Any dealings with banks should also be avoided: an advance of US dollars against a credit card involved visiting three different buildings and took most of an afternoon.

What Vilnius does have to aid the visitor, and which is worth any number of proper tourist offices, is Vilnius In Your Pocket, a remarkable, locally produced city guide available in English and German that regards the city it is supposed to be promoting with a blend of mischief and withering satire. As well as rewarding good restaurants with stars, it admonishes bad ones with badges of Lenin, 'for those remaining true to the past'. Its hotel listings are similarly candid. Of the Gintaras, the notorious Soviet relic near the bus station, it notes '204 rooms with shower, TV, radio and telephone, if they haven't been stolen'.

The last page is a guide to Soviet Vilnius, written in Russian, the idea being that you show this and dollars 5 to a cab driver, and he will drive you to Vilnius's most ghastly housing projects, most appalling architectural monstrosities, most polluting factories, most pointlessly bureaucratic government departments. It is a fine way to spend an afternoon, although my driver appeared rather perplexed - it is like coming to London and asking for a tour of Docklands - and insisted on showing me also to the gorgeous church of St Peter and St Paul, a baroque fantasia upon whose ceiling more than 2,000 sculpted angels, cherubs and demons cavort beneath the glare of a big bloke with a beard. .

Vilnius, like all the Baltic capitals, is a city blinking in the light, struggling to come to terms with itself as a European city after decades as a reluctant sentinel of the last empire. There are no certainties in Vilnius: no way of knowing whether the water will be hot in the morning, whether the money in your wallet will be worth anything tomorrow, whether this city will become as popular as Vienna and Budapest, or will become another Dubrovnik, sucked down by Eastern Europe's undercurrents of intolerance and resentment. Vilnius, geographically and politically, is Europe's final frontier.

Using the Independent/ Lufthansa two-for-one promotion, two people can travel from London, Birmingham, Manchester or Glasgow to Vilnius for a total of pounds 553. Tickets to the other two Baltic capitals - Riga and Tallinn - are also available, both priced at pounds 592.

(Photograph omitted)

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