June 2019. It is hot, almost painfully hot, a sunny, humid thirty degrees as I step off the plane at Vilnius airport. This is my first time in Lithuania, and I wonder if it is always this hot, I’m here to stay with my girlfriend, who is working as an intern at the Finnish Embassy in Vilnius. We agree to meet ‘at the airport’ which seems rather vague to me but then when you arrive at Vilnius airport it’s small arrival lounge makes it hard to miss anyone.
As we take the bus towards the old town my first impression is of a somewhat antiquated, run down city. It is only as we approach the old town quarter that I begin to see why it is fast becoming one of the most popular Eastern European tourist destinations. I am staying here for almost a month and since my girlfriend will be busy working the weekdays this gives me an excellent opportunity to explore some of the sights and sounds of Vilnius. Due to the unusual heatwave (not just in Vilnius) and the fact that it is a relatively compact capital (particularly the Medieval quarter), I decide the best way to explore is by foot.
I am immediately struck by the stunning architecture, a vast array of churches from Gothic, Baroque to Neo Classical persuasion, all within walking distance, and unlike other cities boasting such architectural delights all were relatively free from the usual crowds and queues of tourists, it seems it’s medieval town it remains still something of a secret.
The areas surrounding the old town also had many interesting examples of Soviet architecture which I’m sure would appeal to those interested in Socialist Modernism, however seeing how much there was to see in the Medieval quarter alone I decided to spend more time there.
Like other, more well known, tourist destinations, the city is full of delightful squares bustling with restaurants, street cafes and bars, I can’t say all the traditional fare, for example Cepelinai appealed to me but when in Vilnius….
What does excite me though is the presence of so many upcoming independently run establishments. There seems to me to be a feeling of new beginnings and potential at work here, exemplified by the wonderful ”Vijokliai Beer Garden”, with its rooftop bar, easy going spirit and warm and friendly owners, (a trait shared by so many people I met here).
This feels to me like a young and vibrant town, where anything is possible, perhaps this is in part due to the young people and their ideals being given freedom. Of course, a visit to Užupis (a self-declared separate republic), with its boutique shops and Bohemian chic is interesting, as are many on trend bars for young travellers and hipster natives, but I find these all a little exclusive.
To me the real spirit of Vilnius seems to be that of adventure and open mindedness, where anything is possible. Where the best of the old co exists with new beginnings, freedoms and hopes. Perhaps that’s a naive viewpoint, after only spending a month in Vilnius, but after making new friends there and sharing in their beliefs for better futures it is that memory, I shall take away most from my time there.
Text and photos: Jan Jay