Lithuania owes much to the rich cultural currents of central Europe: it once shared an empire with neighbouring Poland that stretched from the Baltic Sea almost to the Black Sea. Its capital Vilnius boasts a Baroque Old Town that is the largest in Eastern Europe and praised as the ‘New Prague’.
Any country that gives pride of place to a memorial statue of singer Frank Zappa has got to be worth a visit. The Lithuanian people are regarded as much more outgoing and less organised than their Estonian and Latvian counterparts; you’ll make many friends.
Lithuania owes much to the rich cultural currents of central Europe: with neighbouring Poland it once shared an empire stretching from the Baltic Sea almost to the Black Sea. The Lithuanian people are regarded as much more outgoing and less organised than their Estonian and Latvian counterparts, and most still practice the Roman Catholicism which sets them apart from their Baltic neighbours.
Although small and less than spectacular, Lithuania boasts attractions ranging from the intriguing Curonian Spit and the strange Hill of Crosses to the urban pleasures of Vilnius, the historic, lively capital.
Lithuania’s capital city has an international flavour, partly due to the influence of the big Lithuanian diaspora and partly because it has always been exposed to influences from central Europe and beyond. In the 16th century, Vilnius was one of the biggest cities in eastern Europe; it played a part in Poland’s 17th-century ‘golden age’ and became an important Jewish city in the 19th century. Germany, Poland and Russia have all played pass-the-parcel with Vilnius this century. Post-WWII, with the Poles and the Jews mostly gone, Vilnius developed into the chief focus of Lithuania’s push for independence. Particularly dramatic and tragic events took place here in January 1991, when Soviet troops trying to destabilise the situation stormed the city’s TV installations, killing 13 people and injuring many others.
Vilnius lies 250km (155mi) inland from the Baltic Sea on the banks of the Neris river. It’s in the southeast of Lithuania, just a stone’s throw from the Belarus border. The centre of the city is on the southern side of the river, and its heart is Cathedral Square, an open square with the cathedral on its northern side and Gediminas Hill rising behind it. The Old Town, the largest in eastern Europe, stretches south from Cathedral Square. A church spire can be seen from every one of its winding streets, which, coupled with its countless hidden courtyards, make it intriguing to explore. Other landmarks include Vilnius University, the President’s palace, an observatory and the old Jewish quarter and ghetto. Restaurants, pubs, nightclubs and cafés abound. Three Crosses Hill overlooks the Old Town and is a long-standing landmark. Crosses are said to have stood here since the 17th century in memory of three monks who were martyred by crucifixion on this spot.
The New Town lies 2km (1mi) west of the Old Town and was mostly built in the 19th century. The city hall is situated here, as is the Museum of the Genocide of the Lithuanian People, housed in the former Gestapo and KGB building. The guides here are all former inmates and will show you round the cells where they were tormented. South of the river there’s a bronze bust memorial to American rock legend Frank Zappa. Vilnius’ Soviet-era suburbs are north of the river. There are plenty of accommodation options in and around the Old Town; this is also the best place to nose out a good restaurant.
In the historical museum of Druskininkai, which is helping to commemorate the town’s 210th anniversary this year, there is an old advertisement for the town hanging on the walls. In frame one, a man is lurched over a set of crutches, hobbling along the street. In frame two, he stands steadfast and tall. The caption reads, “I spent just one day in Druskininkai. And you see, gentlemen, what a change!” And so goes the story of Lithuania’s most famous resort town, Druskininkai. It is a place to go to and get well. The town is, in itself, a sanatorium, named one of Europe’s top ten health resorts in 2003 by Newsweek magazine.
It is located a short 130km from both Vilnius and Kaunas, and is widely accessible via public transportation. Buses leave almost hourly, cost 14Lt and take two hours to reach the sanctuary. It is a slightly quicker ride via minibus or car. No matter how you opt to get there, the saltiness of water and general focus on wellness treatments and spa therapy mean that you will be pampered upon arrival. As one Lithuanian aptly put it, “having spent the entire weekend getting treatments, we were all too relaxed to even drive back home.” If you think you will be prone to the same type of massage-induced malaise, take the bus or hire a driver.
If you are a big fan of the restaurant and nightlife sections of In Your Pocket guides, it is important that we reiterate the meaning of the word sanatorium. As defined in several dictionaries, it means a place that provides medical treatment and rest, often in a healthy climate, for people who have been ill for a long time (Read: You will notice the lack of nightlife). However, on our last visit to the town, we shared the city’s prominent hotel with the Russian Women’s National basketball team, prepping for the Athens Olympic Games… and they were looking quite healthy.
Even without the ample partying
that typifies Vilnius, Druskininkai is a great place to spend a day of recuperation, or if need demands, longer. For the sake of our day-trippers to the salt of Lithuania, we propose the following itinerary.
Depart Vilnius via bus or car around 10:00, and plan to arrive near noon which is the perfect time to check-in to a hotel. If you arrive by bus, the station is about 500m to the main street in town, Čiurlionio. For our excursion, we passed the large city square, featuring the city’s largest church, Šv Mergelės Marijos Škaplierinės,
and headed straight to the Druskininkai hotel.
The hotel has been around for some time, but has been completely revamped and now features the most modern and comfortable rooms in town. It is on the top of the price range for hotels in the city, but the differences in price are marginal compared with what you will get. The first thing you should do before going to your room is to have the staff call the Afroditė Spa to check on availability for that evening (or you may wish to call in advance from Vilnius). There is often a lengthy wait for appointments during the busy season.