I’m having something of a Baltic moment right now. Perhaps it’s that the countries’ intrigue and flight prices are inversely proportionate; or perhaps I’m pursuing festivity. Either way, a mere fortnight after returning from Latvia, I found myself landing back in the Baltics; this time, the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius.
My dad arrived a day after I did, giving me a whole 24 hours to do that which he wouldn’t: namely shop and visit art galleries. I also took the opportunity to mooch in and out of coffee shops, snapping the shutter, people-watching and jotting down more notes in my bulging journal. I’ve often been ridiculed for my inclination towards solo travel (or “lonely holidays” as they’ve been called by one of my crueller colleagues), but I firmly believe there are few more therapeutic things than wandering alone through foreign streets, picking a café and sitting, drinking, thinking. It’s part of the reason I’m happy to do short, sharp trips; when that’s a priority of travel, it hardly takes more than a day or two.
As it happened, an old Tinder date (and now friend) was on the same flight as my dad. Whatarethefuckingchances. I’m delighted that the universe had the good grace not to have them sitting next to each other, forced into impassioned conversation about Brexit or worse, yours truly (though perhaps the lady flatters herself too much). Either way, James and I met up for breakfast the following day in Sokoladas, Pilies Street’s chocolate café. Yeah, that’s right. All chocolate, all the time.
It opens at 10am so, having arrived uncharacteristically early, I loitered outside. On my own. Waiting for it to open. Like some Apple fangirl. As Vilnius’ keenest chocolate lover that morning, I had the café to myself for a brief period and took the opportunity to explore. Even the artworks are made out of chocolate, though they perhaps tipped the cheesy scales a little too far when they played the back catalogue of Hot Chocolate (psst: their back catalogue is one-song-long).
But one thing’s for sure; these chocolatiers know their shit. Except for the blue cheese chocolate truffle. Not a fan.
A lot of your online sources might tell you to go to far cooler cafes like Strange Love, but Scandi hipster minimalism is two a penny in Europe nowadays. Embrace the kitsch over the cool and save the latter for London.
Incidentally, if you’re shopping, walk up Pilies Street (the main street from the Old Town) to find Ūmėdė, a little kiosk filled with (admittedly pricey) handmade goods from mostly Lithuanian designers. I do hope Google Translate has failed me, because the name translates to ‘fungus’… Its goods are far more attractive than its name. I bought a leather bag to fit my laptop and camera equipment, and a china bauble for my London grotto. Had my funds and suitcase allowed it, I’d have bought a lot more – it’s one of the most beautiful little stores I’ve been to in recent memory.
As it was only a E5 Uber ride away (!), I went to pick daddio up from the airport and took him back to Restaurant Lokys, which came to me via a personal recommendation from a friend who had “enjoyed their beaver stew”. Undoubtedly a bit of a tourist trap but an enjoyable one nonetheless, the restaurant is entered through tiny medieval passageways and our table was in a candlelit nook. I’d heartily recommend the “Quail, beloved by charming Lithuanian ladies” and reading the menu’s anecdotes for a little pop-history. Opposite, you’ll find Bambalyne, a basement bar with 80 beers on its menu (and local vodkas, meads, and any other tipple that tickles your fancy).
Although we hadn’t originally planned to visit the heralded Palace of the Grand Dukes, we were lured in by perfectly tiled giant doorways. And I’m so glad we were; this was one of the most outstanding parts of our trip. Terrible traveller that I am, I knew very little of Lithuanian history (beyond that which I’d learned from the Lokys menu) and in a few hours, was able to immerse myself in a crash course of keepers of the realm and their Machiavellian relatives. The history is darn juicy – it makes the British throne look positively dull – and to learn about it in the Palace, amongst millennia-old items and stonework, is quite a treat.
…Almost as much of a treat as seeing La Traviata at the Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre. There are five tiers of ticket prices and I went to check out what the view from the E7 seats was, and it was hardly different to ours. I would, however, recommend not turning up in muddy Nike Air Force Ones unless you’re comfortable with dastardly looks being shot at you by Lithuanian ladies. Doesn’t Vilnius know I’m too glam to give a damn?
If you’ve read Arts End of Nowhere for a while, you’ll know of my penchant for particular neighbourhoods within cities. It’s the Londoner in me; I know all too well that two trips to the same city can be wildly different if you fail to visit certain neighbourhoods. In London, I dwell mainly in Camberwell and the south east. In Seoul, you rarely find me outside of Hongdae.
If staying in Vilnius, I have a sneaking suspicion I’d spend a fair amount of time in Uzupis, which roughly translates to “the other side of the river”. Its bohemic and laissez-faire vibes have attracted artists who reached boiling point in terms of artiness on April Fools Day in ’97, when they declared Uzupis an independent republic… Which is not recognised by any government around the world.
With an army of 11 men and a 39-point constitution (how many places can say they have more than three times the number of constitution points than soldiers?), its three mottos are “don’t fight,” “don’t win,” and “don’t surrender”. Now that’s a philosophy I can get on board with.
Having only had a few days in Vilnius, I wasn’t able to get out and explore the country. With the stunning Baltic coastline and lush forests and lakes, this small republic is a paradise for the outdoors, so hopefully I’ll be able to take another trip in the warmer months. But I mustn’t lament too much; Vilnius itself is an enchanting artists’ pocket of timeworn streets and baroque churches, all with a nod to a recent and dark past. My second Baltic city visit was a resounding success, and one I’m excited to repeat.