Ausflüge study abroad

The Unforgettable Capital Cities of Slovenia and Lithuania (Part 2)

The amazing Vilnius, Lithuania

Hello hello! Nice to have you on my blog=)

If you have read Part 1, or the introduction to this blog, you would know that I attended Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia and majored in German. Yes, I said “attended” because I have already graduated! I graduated summa cum laude with Advanced Honors as well as an overall GPA of 4.10 and a major GPA of 4.17.

Not only did I finish my major coursework here in Germany by doing online courses with my home university, but the summer semester has also ended in Erlangen. The semester seemed really short and there were many holidays. It started in April and ended mid-July.

My next trips are to Budapest and Prague before I finish packing to leave my 11-month stay in Germany and travel to Ukraine to do a homestay while attending an intensive Russian-language course. It is bittersweet to leave because by the second semester, I really had a routine here, started opening up more and had better classes. Plus, summer is a great time to be in Germany! But, I know that I will return someday and it’s time to bring all the wonderful and challenging experiences I’ve had here back home and touch base with my loving family and friends. I have been a bit Germanized so it will be an adjustment being back home in Georgia, USA. So enough about my finished studies and future plans let’s talk about the amazing Vilnius, Lithuania!

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Street art gives a city more character

But before I get into my trip there, I want to share a bit of information about the country Lithuania and its capital Vilnius:

Lithuania is one of the three Baltic States located east of Denmark and Sweden in northern Europe. The population is estimated to be just under 3 million. It shares borders with Latvia, Belarus and Poland.

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The official language, Lithuanian, is one of only two living languages (along with Latvian) in the Baltic-branch of the Indo-European family. Fun fact: Among Indo-European languages, Lithuanian is conservative in some grammatical and phonological aspects having retained archaic features otherwise only found in ancient languages like Sanskrit or Ancient Greek. It is therefore an important source for reconstructing the Proto-Indo-European language.

Lithuania is a member of the European Union (including the eurozone and Schengen Agreement.) Here is a short timeline of the country’s history:

  • The shores of the Baltic Sea were inhabited by various Baltic tribes for centuries.
  • The Kingdom of Lithuania was created in the 1200s. Kind Mindaugas unified the Lithuanian lands and declared the first unified Lithuanian state.
  • In the 14th century, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was the largest country in Europe. Present-day Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine and parts of Poland and Russian were territories of the Grand Duchy.
  • There was a two-state union between Lithuania and Poland in 1569 (the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth), which lasted for more than two centuries until the Russian Empire annexed most of Lithuania’s territory in the late 1700s.
  • Around the end of WWI, Lithuania’s Act of Independence was signed, founding the Republic of Lithuania.
  • During WWII, Lithuania was occupied both by the Nazis and the Soviets. By the end of the war, the Germans had retreated and the Soviet Union reoccupied Lithuania.
  • In March of 1990, a year before the Soviet Union formally dissolved, Lithuania declared independence and became again the independent State of Lithuania after 50 years of Soviet occupation.

Vilnius is both the capital and largest city in Lithuania with more than 570,000 residents. The city is in the southeast of Lithuania. It is the seat of the main government institutions of Lithuania and is on a global-scale both economically and culturally important. Architecture in the Old Town was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994, and, in 2009, Vilnius was declared the European Capital of Culture.

The Old Town, with well over 1,000 buildings built over several centuries, is the historical center of the city. Vilnius is primarily classified as a Baroque city, but there are examples of Gothic, Renaissance and additional styles of architecture. Following are some of the highlights of the Old Town.

Vilnius University
Vilnius University
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The Gate of Dawn, one of five original city walls, which has a painting of the Blessed Virgin Mary inside
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The Blessed Virgin Mary is said to have miracle-working powers
Literature street - Vilnius
Literature Street with over 200 tiles to commemorate authors who have lived in Vilnius or foreign authors with a connection to Vilnius and Lithuania
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17th century Baroque ~Church of St. Peter & Paul ~
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Inside are more than 2,000 stucco figures

Travelling to Vilnius, Lithuania: My friend and I had actually planned to do a trip with a travel group but the tickets were sold out after we tried to purchase ours. She searched for cheap flights and we ended up booking two trips: one to Vilnius and the other to Thessaloniki, Greece. In the end, we saved money on these trips and got to do and see a lot more. Before our trips, we met up and watched some travel videos about our destinations and we both researched sightseeing to have in mind while exploring the new cities. I would recommend spending at least 3 days in Vilnius and maybe even up to 5. I’m not saying you would be bored after 5, but you would have had plenty of time to see major sites without being so rushed. We were there for 2 days, which was still very nice but I really felt at home in Vilnius and, looking back, there were a few more things that I would have liked to have seen.

Day 1: We had a very early flight, which meant that as soon as we arrived, the exploration was to begin. From the airport, we took a bus in the city center. We didn’t get off at a specific point but decided we could walk from there to the areas we wanted to see. We had coffee and started to take in the new atmosphere. Two of my first impressions were: how well-dressed and fashionable the women were and that most workers spoke good English. Some of the older people, who had outdoor stands for example, also still spoke Russian.

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Excited to start exploring Vilnius!

Our first destination was an alternative district of the city with an interesting history: Užupis, which means place beyond the river.

It used to be one of the more run down districts during the Soviet era, but it is now home to bohemian artists and their many galleries and workshops. It was declared an independent republic on April Fool’s Day in 1997.

We were able to catch one of the “free” tours (meaning only tips for the guide and no set price) in Užupis and learned some little details we wouldn’t have known otherwise.  It has its own flag, currency, president, cabinet of ministers, constitution, an anthem, and an army (numbering approximately 11 men). It’s not recognized as a Republic by any government, so it’s hard to tell how serious it’s meant to be taken.

By the way, you can get your passport stamped there. Here’s an informative video from Deutsche Welle if you’re curious for more: Uzupis. Supposedly, prices are really rising in this area and housing is no longer as affordable as it once was for local artists. The district is definitely worth a visit though.

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“place beyond the river” (one of nine bridges)
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This mermaid is said to attract visitors from all around the world. Those who surrender to her charm stay forever.
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Just a man walking his cat xD

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See his backpack? it’s a statue dedicated to travelers
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Try connecting with the cosmos here ~

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symbol for artistic freedom

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After the “free” tour, we had lunch and decided to find some Kvas. Kvas is a traditional Slavic and Baltic drink made from rye bread. It is classified as non-alcoholic and I think it’s delicious! It’s similar to soda/fizzy drinks but has a unique taste.

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Happy about the Kvas

I suggest doing a tour with a local guide to learn some interesting facts and not miss out on some cool areas of the city. It didn’t feel too large though and we were able to navigate fine with Google maps.

We went to the main square, climbed the tower and enjoyed the beautiful view before we climbed the hill to the Three Crosses. Between the square and the hill is a castle (actually on another hill), but due to renovations we could not climb up there; however, the view from the hill of the Three Crosses was incredible. We didn’t feel cheated by not having seen the castle. If you need directions, don’t be afraid to ask locals –like I said many speak very good English and seemed friendly enough to answer a few questions.

It’s always nice travelling with someone who has similar interests so that you’re in agreement about what to do. It also makes for a nice atmosphere when you can exchange impressions of a new place with someone who you connect with. We really felt at home in Vilnius and loved the city. One thing that we didn’t expect was to get lucky with shopping. We went to a mall and several different stores and I found some great items that you wouldn’t find where we live in Germany. It’s a fashionable city with good selection!

The rest of our day was spent eating good food (both sweets and a nice dinner), exploring more of the city, finding a hotel room and checking out the city again at night. Here a few snapshots of our shenanigans.

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Lithuanian National Drama Theatre ~Feast of Muses~ Muses of Drama, Comedy & Tragedy

Day 2: Since we had seen so much on the first day, we took it a bit easier the next day. We started with an amazing breakfast. With more delights of East-European cuisine like buckwheat porridge and tea with raspberries.

Our next stop was the Vilnius Museum of Genocide/KGB prison. Many parts of the exhibit are written in Lithuanian and/or Russian, so a tour guide would be helpful; tours are available in English and Russian. At the museum, you can see authentic cells of a former KGB prison and former offices of KGB officials.

The museum was established in 1992 and is a symbol of the Soviet occupation of Lithuania–a time that was both hard and tragic for Lithuania and its people. Lithuania lost its independence and was brutally repressed, but in the museum you have the chance to discover that many Lithuanians were self-sacrificing and persistent in their fight for independence. There is also an exhibit about the Nazi occupation and the Holocaust in Vilnius.

After the museum, we did more shopping, exploring and spent some time at the river after grabbing snacks from a super market. That is something I recommend for tourists in a new city. It’s cheaper than always eating out and you have a better idea of what natives buy, cook and eat on a regular basis.

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Lithuanian cuisine: Cepelinai, a potato stuffed dumpling with ground meat, cottage cheese or mushrooms
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Lithuanian deserts

Well that’s pretty much it about our time in Vilnius. We caught the bus early the next morning to the airport. I loved the city and I think you will too. Since it’s not so well-known, I found it necessary to add some facts about the country and Vilnius itself =)

For more information about what to do and see in Vilnius, check out:

With love,

Stephanie

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