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Trip Report Bruce and Marija go to Zielona Gora, Vilnius and Rome

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Zielona Gora?!

Not many foreign tourists have stumbled on this charming Polish city whose name translates as green hill, or if they have, they didn’t leave their footprints on the web. One possible impediment to the spread of Zielona Gora’s fame is its difficult to reach location: three hours by car from Berlin, the nearest international airport. (It can also be reached by train in roughly the same amount of time if the train tracks are not under repair--in which case it can take three trains, a bus and a one-hour car trip from Frankfurt an der Oder.) It’s unlikely you’re going to find yourself in Zielona Gora on the way to anywhere else: you have to really want to get there. We had to get there since Bruce was attending a conference at the University of Zielona Gora. That was our reason for heading to Europe in July, not our favorite season to travel.

Zielona Gora boasts a very nice hotel, the Hotel Srodmiejski located in the center of the pedestrian-only old city. At the tourist information center you can pick up a brochure for the 18 important sites of Zielona Gora which at a fairly slow pace you can see in about 3 hours. There are many outdoor beer gardens, good solid Polish food and lots and lots of ice cream vendors and coffee shops. While Bruce attended meetings I paced the streets of Zielona Gora for five days. I will spare you the details, since it’s unlikely that many will visit this quaint town, but if you do you’ll enjoy your stay, just make sure it’s not too long… (Now when someone googles “Zielona Gora” they’ll have a little more info than I did!)

After the conference we found our way back to Berlin, spent the night at the Mercure Tegel, a really great airport hotel at 59E and took off the next morning for Vilnius, Lithuania on an 11 E (plus 44 E taxes) flight on Air Baltic.

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    Vilnius, Lithuania

    This was my third trip to Lithuania. The first was in 1975 when strong Communist restrictions were in place: only a 4 night stay in a designated hotel in Vilnius equipped with eavesdropping equipment; all unescorted travel within a 10 mile or so radius of Vilnius; no foreign books or periodicals. The Soviets meant business and straying from the rules could result in immediate expulsion. Together with my teen-aged siblings, I arrived in the heat of summer wearing a slip made out of woolen scarves, a very desirable commodity on the black market and hence bearing a restriction of only three allowed per person. I had $100 bills carefully sewn into the hem of my dress, as well as numerous suitcases stuffed with gifts. This was our first meeting with our paternal grandmother, 7 aunts, 2 uncles and 13 first cousins for whom the loot was intended. Both of our parents had died recently and we were following our mother’s instructions to present ourselves to our grandmother who had last seen her son when he fled Lithuania during the Second World War.

    Our second trip was in the summer of 1992 to a Lithuania that was once again independent and free and experiencing the hottest summer in its recorded history. Now there were nine of us traveling since we had acquired two spouses and three children. We rented a van and driver and made our way across Lithuania visiting my grandmother and all of our cousins and their families. Lithuania was free but the stores were empty; restaurants which served only three items closed for lunch and dinner so employees could eat; there were shortages of so many common items, including items as simple as bandages and adhesive tape; public bathrooms were disgusting. The currency was still the ruble and a US dollar had incredible buying power- we carried around a shopping bag full of rubles- but there was nothing to buy. We came laden not only with woolen scarves but with super-soakers, Barbie dolls, and so many Western goods that we could barely fit into a 12 person van.

    Preparations for the current trip were considerably simpler. Only two of us were traveling and we were traveling light, having been assured that all consumer goods are now plentiful. The airport in Vilnius is new, equipped with ATMs and currency exchanges. Before heading out of the airport we even stopped for espresso at one of the airport cafés. What a change from the concrete auditorium that greeted tourists in the past.

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    We rented at apartment in the old city of Vilnius for a week but it wasn’t available for the first two days of our stay so we headed for Birstonas, a renowned resort town on the banks of the Nemunas river, about an hour from Vilnius. One of my cousins and his family live in Birstonas and one of my three surviving aunts lives on a nearby farm, so it was a great stopping point for us. We stayed in a large comfortable room with private bath and balcony at the major health spa Versme, www.versme.com. It’s a well equipped and run enterprise featuring all kinds of therapeutic services at very cheap prices. Bruce had a couple of massages and spent 45 minutes in a salt room, inhaling fumes in the halochamber, www.versme.com/index.php?751559329. Mud baths are available as well. (After escaping unharmed from a particularly vigorous massage in China, I’ve given up all massage treatments.) If you’re exploring Lithuania and want to stay in a sleepy beautiful town between Vilnius and Kaunas this is a great destination with many scenic walking paths. If you’re looking for “action” skip Birstonas.

    The countryside around Birstonas is remarkable. Not far there’s the equivalent of a national park where undisturbed by anyone but your own companions you can watch storks and listen to the calls of the cuckoo and nightingale. Under a wayside cross in the surrounding forest, we found a patch of wild strawberries which provided a delicious snack. If you have a car you can find many isolated scenic places, deep lakes, wonderful old churches and farmsteads that date back many years. In July all of the linden trees are in bloom and the sweet fragrance lingers in the air. (In Lithuanian July is called “liepa” which means linden. ) On our way back to Birstonas we stopped at a recently built guesthouse where we couldn’t politely decline the smoked pig ears. (They’re quite chewy and need to be washed down with beer! More on beer later.)

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    Enjoying your report of a place that is not often discussed on this forum. DW's grandmother emigrated from Vilnius to Havana as a girl around the time of WWI. Most of the family that remained behind perished in the holocaust. I am looking forward to learning more about the city.

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    Eating in Vilnius

    There’s no shortage of reasonably good places to eat in Vilnius although if you want to sample Lithuanian dishes you must abandon low-carb diets and cholesterol concerns. We generally eat local dishes where ever we go and stuck with Lithuanian food except for an incredibly fine authentic dinner at Sue’s Indian Raja (more later) and a light lunch at Saint Germain. Traditional Lithuanian food is heavy on the potatoes and you can feast on many potato based dishes. One of our favorites is cepelinai, also called didzkukuliai, ground meat stuffed into a grated potato covering slathered in a sour cream and bacon sauce. There’s also vederai (mashed potato sausages), kugelis (a delicious pudding of grated potatoes), bulvyniai blynai (potato pancakes) , Kedainiu blynai, (potato pancakes stuffed with meat), and zemaiciu blynai (a smaller version of Kedainiu blynai).

    Blynai also play an important role in Lithuanian cuisine. They’re crepe-like pancakes which are stuffed with a wide assortment of fillings: cheese, meat, mushrooms, berries (but not potatoes!). There are places called “blynines” where blynai are the primary menu item. They’re a good bet for a quick tasty inexpensive meal. “Koldunai” are ravioli filled with the usual culprits: meat, cheese, mushrooms.

    A popular Lithuanian soup is “barsciai,” a borscht equivalent eaten with warm boiled potatoes which are dunked into the soup. Barsciai which are served cold and have buttermilk, dill, cucumbers and sour cream added are called “saltibarsciai.” Though the color is lurid the soup is great.

    July was the beginning of the chanterelle season (called “voveraites” in Lithuanian, pfefferling in German) and they were sautéed and served on top of mashed potatoes, baked potatoes and other beds of potatoes. Don’t pass them up. Beer food is also important in Lithuania since a lot of beer is consumed. One of the more unusual beer accompaniments, besides the smoked pigs ears, are large stacks of fried bread covered with a garlicky cream sauce.

    Lithuanian beer does not disappoint. Bruce was pleased to find three excellent lagers widely available, to tide him over until we re-entered wine country: Utenos (“OO-ten-os“), Kalnapilis Grand (Kal-NAH-pilis Grahnd), and Svyturys Ekstra (“SCHVEE-tur-ees EX-tra”). He emerged from a grueling series of tastings with a preference for Svyturys Ekstra. He notes, sadly, that bottled Lithuanian beer from our local distributor does not taste as fresh as the bottled or draft beer did in Vilnius.

    At any rate the generally sound principle of trying the local beer, wherever you are, works wonderfully well in Lithuania. And drinking Lithuanian beer, wherever you are in the world, will not lead you astray.

    When we didn’t have to be anywhere before 10 in the morning we had pastries and coffee at Poniu Laime which was at Stikliu 14/1, across the street from Stikliu hotel which is a Relais and Chateaux property, supposedly the best and most expensive place in town. There’s a coffee bar chain called Double Coffee which is all over Vilnius. The coffee is OK but the prices are very steep, $3 for a cup of coffee. (Espresso is very mediocre.) The ones close to us opened at 8 in the morning so we were forced to patronize them if we had to get an early start.

    Although eating at an Indian restaurant in Lithuania sounds like a terrible idea even before the trip we had decided to patronize Sue’s India Raja after reading a review about how authentic the food was and how it was much too adventurous for the Lithuanians. We gathered up some of the relatives, showed them a short video about our recent trip to India, and then took them to Sue’s Raja expecting to be somewhat disappointed but determined to show support. The food was amazing, on par if not better than that we ate at top hotels during a month in India. Of course the food was too far out for the older relatives but they nibbled at different things and enjoyed the culinary novelty. So when the potatoes get to be too much don’t head for the Mexican or Italian joints, go to Sue’s!

    We had a light dinner outdoors at Stikliu Alude, in front of the Stikliu hotel. (The main dining room is very pricey. ) The chanterelles over a baked potato were excellent. We also sampled traditional food at Amatininku Uzeiga, above which we lived, and at Forto Dvaras on Pilies Street. Both offered decent food at reasonable prices. The only place we had subpar dishes were at Aula, Pilies 11. Not only didn’t they bring everything that was supposed to be on the “potato dishes for two,” but what was there wasn’t good.

    A more upscale place to eat is Medininkai, not far from Ausros Vartai (the Gates of Dawn). In a lovely quiet courtyard setting they serve international as well as Lithuanian dishes. Unable to resist more potatoes we had potato pancakes and cepelinai as well as saltibarsciai. One afternoon we had a very satisfying, though not cheap, lunch at Saint Germain (Literatu 9/32). I was constantly amazed at how easy it was to eat well in Lithuania now. Sixteen years made a big difference!

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    I believe the last time I read, you were on a tiger safari in India. Before that, in my beloved Serengeti. My you two do get around.

    Enjoying this very much and looking forward to more, especially as I'll be taking my mom to Rome next holiday.

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    Marija - Very much enjoying your trip report - and contrasting your 3 trips to Lithaunia over the years is a nice and creative twist, especially since there were quite a few years between your visits.

    A combined trip to Vilnius and Tallinn top our short list for potential destinations for 2009, so this is quiet timely.


    Anxious to read more!

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    enjoying your report. We visited Vilnius last year (I posted a report last summer, debs, if you're interested) and really enjoyed it. We also spent two nights outside of Vilnius on Lake Trakai, but found that little English was spoken there. Luckily, my husband knows a tiny bit of Russian, which helped us get by! Wondering if you found the same thing once you left the city, although perhaps you speak Lithuanian?

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    forgot to say that I also liked reading your impressions on three visits. My husband also had been to some of the cities we had visited during Communist times, so it was interesting for him to see the changes. It was interesting to walk the streets and see those that were fully restored, and those that still were not, and imagine what the city might have been like during the hard times. Did you go to the former KGB headquarters, now a museum? That is not to be missed.

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    Thanks for reading. I'm going to add one more part on things to see.

    basingstoke2--
    You may find this interesting if you haven't seen it yet:

    http://travel.nytimes.com/travel/guides/europe/lithuania/overview.html?scp=3&sq=lithuania&st=cse

    Leely2--
    We love to travel! In the last 3 years we've been to China, Kenya, Tanzania, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, South Africa and India, not counting this latest trip. I'll start a new thread with Rome info. Rome is a real favorite of ours. We stayed for 10 days in an apartment this time. I'm sure you and your mother will have a great time.

    skatedancer--
    Yes, we went to the KGB museum. I'll post about that next. I'm surprised you had trouble with English at Trakai since so many young people speak quite good English now. I am fluent in Lithuanian so perhaps I overestimate how much English is spoken, though I sure heard a lot of English spoken between Lithuanians and tourists.

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    Sightseeing in Vilnius and Kaunas

    Although we were in Vilnius for a week we didn’t get to spend as much time exploring as we would have liked since we had family obligations. (These did result in our visiting some minor sites, such as the second largest rock in Lithuania.) One of my goals for this trip was to learn to identify the churches in the old city of Vilnius but I didn’t even come close. My only consolation was that even my relatives who live in Vilnius weren’t familiar with some of them. There’s good reason Vilnius is sometimes called “little Rome.”

    One of the highlights of Vilnius is cathedral square which contains the historic cathedral, bell tower, and an under construction “Royal Residence.“ The cathedral now sports replicas of the original statues on its roof which were destroyed by the Soviets. The baroque chapel of St. Casimir, the patron saint of Lithuania, is one of the most striking features of the cathedral. Note that St. Casimir’s chapel is a favorite location for weddings and christenings so you may be denied access on busy weekends.

    Ausros Vartai, the Gates of Dawn, is one of the most important religious shrines in Lithuania. A small chapel built into the city wall, it contains a striking golden image of the Virgin Mary which is reputed to possess miraculous powers. Sixteen years ago when we visited the stairs leading up to the chapel were congested with beggars and religious pilgrims making their way on their knees up the staircase. This time there were neither beggars nor devout pilgrims on the stairs. Maybe we picked an unpopular time for our visit; it’s unlikely that the supplicants and beggars have all been satisfied .

    A trip to Vilnius isn’t complete without a visit to Gediminas’ hilltop castle, from which you can get panoramic views of Vilnius. (The 14th century Grand Duke Gediminas is thought to have been the founder of Vilnius.) You can take a funicular to the top. Walking wasn’t an option for us since the walking paths were under repair, so the funicular provided the only access. Once you reach the castle you still have to climb several flights to get to the very top of its tower. The lower floors contain a small museum of castle-related items.

    We enjoyed a short stroll through Uzupis, a whimsical break-away republic within Vilnius. With its own constitution and an April 1 independence day, it has visions of becoming the Montmartre of Vilnius. Returning from Uzupis we admired the lovely little late-Gothic church of St. Ann (sv. Onos baznycia). Legend has it that Napoleon was smitten by this church and wanted to take it back to Paris “in the palm of his hand.” It was under restoration and visitors weren’t permitted entry.

    The buildings of Vilnius University are right off the main drag, Pilies street, which connects the cathedral and the town square. The Gothic church of Sts. John (plural: the church is dedicated to John the Baptist and John the Evangelist) adorns one of the main courtyards. For a small fee you can have a guided tour of the university, the library and its many elaborate courtyards.

    The most interesting and haunting museum that we visited was the Genocide Museum, also known as the KGB museum (www.genocid.lt/muziejus/en), now located in the former KGB headquarters. The charter of the museum is to document the 20th century physical and spiritual genocide against the Lithuanian people. You see rooms in which prisoners were questioned and tortured, photos and mementos of Lithuanians who were sent in cattle cars to work in the Siberian tundra, exhibits from the lives of freedom fighters who fought for Lithuanian freedom against hopeless odds. Names of the partisans are inscribed on the building walls. If you go to Vilnius, this museum should be at the top of your list.

    Since this was our third trip to Lithuania and it was quite short, we didn’t revisit some of the big tourist destinations which we had seen previously: the castle at Trakai (Traku Pilis), the outdoor ethnographic museum (Rumsiskes), the hill of crosses (Kryziu Kalnas), and the seashore resorts (Palanga and Nida). For a first trip the castle at Trakai is a great excursion from Vilnius. Rumsiskes is reminiscent of the open air ethnic museums in Scandinavia.

    We did take a day trip to Kaunas, the second largest city in Lithuania. (The trip from Vilnius to Kaunas by non-stop bus took about 90 minutes and cost $10 or so.) Unlike Vilnius which has benefited from large influxes of money and good leadership, Kaunas has remained fairly stagnant. The main pedestrian street -- Laisves aleja -- is quite deserted, with many storefronts for rent, although Bruce found an excellent café at its lower end. Evidently a large shopping center, Akropolis, has recently opened and siphoned off shopping from the traditional area. In Kaunas we also visited the newly expanded -- and remarkable -- museum devoted to M.K. Ciurlionis, Lithuania’s most acclaimed composer and painter, http://www.muziejai.lt/Kaunas/ciurlionio_muziejus.en.htm

    Of somewhat less interest was the Devils’ Museum
    http://www.muziejai.lt/Kaunas/velniu_muziejus.en.htm
    which boasts the world’s largest collection of carved and sculpted devils.

    Kaunas has a well preserved old town with the remnants of a once-great castle and many churches. Unlike Vilnius it has remained pretty much the same since independence. It’s a great day trip from Vilnius -- but be sure to take one of the non-stop busses.

    We enjoyed an interesting outing from Vilnius to Gruto parkas, final resting place of many of the large Soviet sculptures that were scattered throughout Lithuania. The park, privately owned and constructed by a savvy mushroom magnate, was a very controversial project. Many thought that such a project was disrespectful to the hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians who suffered and died during the Soviet occupation and that all reminders of this era should be destroyed. Fortunately the mushroom man persevered and the park is a well designed and managed museum documenting very painful years in Lithuanian history.

    Not far from Gruto park in Druskininkai is the home of Ciurlionis which houses a small museum. Go to Kaunas and see the real stuff, not the copies shown here.

    From Lithuania we headed to Rome for 10 days. I’ll start a separate thread for that.

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    Apartment in Vilnius

    Upon your arrival in Vilnius you should buy the latest issue of “Vilnius in your pocket “ ($2.40) from any newsstand. Not only is it full of great advice but its dry British humor is amusing to read, and it contains up-to-date information on everything that’s happening in Vilnius as well as suggestions for daytrips.

    In Vilnius we rented an apartment for about $100/night for two of us, including the cleaning fee (Apartment #4 now called “Baltic“ on the website) www.vilniustravel.com

    I have mixed feelings about the apartment. On the positive side it was very clean, centrally located and large. The downside is that the area is noisy late into the night (it’s above a bar, Amatininku Uzeiga, that’s open until 5 AM in the summer and next to a nightclub). The weather was reasonably cool during our stay so it wasn’t a problem to just close the windows and shut out the noise. (We tried sleeping with open windows one night and couldn’t.) There was also no place to unpack into--no chest of drawers, shelves, nothing. We ended up piling our clothes on an unused futon. (I looked at their new website and photos indicate there’s a closet in the laundry room which was occupied by sheets and towels drying when we were there. ) The bed was large and reasonably comfortable; the bathroom was good sized with plenty of hot water. There’s also a TV, couch and chair but the seating was quite uncomfortable. The kitchen didn’t have any type of coffee maker so we were forced to go in search of coffee every morning. We should have just bought a cheap coffee maker but by the time we thought of that it wasn’t worth doing. For an apartment that claims to be your “home away from home”, it certainly lacked charm and simple conveniences. The apartment did come with fresh flowers, a bottle of Lithuanian champagne, orange juice, fresh fruit and some bread and cheese for the first breakfast. Since we used the apartment only for sleeping and were able to shut out the noise it served its purpose.

    The Rome part is at
    http://www.fodors.com/forums/threadselect.jsp?fid=2&tid=35149468

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    Hi marija,

    thank you so much for posting this most interesting and well-written report- for some reason I'd missed it til just now.

    I've been looking for somewhere to take DH as a surprise at Christmas [I've given up waiting for him to spring such surprise on me] and Vilnius might just fit the bill.

    what is it like in Winter?

    regards, ann

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    Ann--

    Cold! But it could be an interesting winter destination. Thanks for reading and welcome back from Iceland. Thanks also for the tip about the Miracle Players we really enjoyed them in Rome.

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    Hi again,

    I'm so pleased you enjoyed them. we try to get to some sort of dromatic or musical performance everywhere we go, but they were a bit short on the ground in Iceland.

    i'm going to look at your rome report NOW!

    regards, ann

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    Marija, I was returning to the board to finish posting info about dining in Northern Spain, and found your Rome report. That led me to look for this one. So sorry I missed it the first time around. My husband was born in Riga, Latvia and his family has return experiences that sound a lot like yours. We've not traveled there yet, waiting for the food to get good, but I think that has finally happened and I've become very interested in the Art Nouveau buildings there, so we'll likely be making a trip to all three of the Baltic countries in the fairly near future. Thanks for the info on Vilnius and other parts of Lithuania. A really interesting report.

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