The Amateur Traveler talks to Katie Aune from KatieGoingGlobal.com about her recent trip to Lithuania.
Katie visited Lithuania as part of a year of traveling through countries that were part of the former U.S.S.R. She spent much of her time in and around Vilnius, the capital. She visited in the Winter so she did not get a chance to visit many of the country’s 4,000 lakes.
Vilnius has one of the largest old towns in Europe. This small Baltic state was an important power in the 1300s as the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which stretched all the way from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea.
The tourism office of Vilnius has an audio guide you can rent that includes 70 different sites in the city. You can also get a museum card to get into a large number of sites. Katie recommends some of the sites like a museum of genocide and the Jewish Ghetto.
“I was surprised at how western it felt. People think of Lithuania and the other Baltic states as former Baltic states but the whole time they were part of the Soviet Union they felt they were being occupied by the Soviets. I didn’t really feel like I was in Eastern Europe.”
Katie Going Global
Five Favorite Things in Vilnius
Museum of Genocide Victims
National Museum of Lithuania on Wikipedia
National Museum of LIthuania
Hill of Crosses on Wikipedia
The Hill of Crosses
Domus Maria – TripAdvisor
Armenian Volunteer Corps
It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane … It’s a Planet? Pilot Mistakes Venus for Oncoming Airplane
‘More bang for your buck’: Airline uses Secret Service sex scandal to promote Colombia flights
Florida Entrepreneur Aims to Bring Back Windjammer Cruises
Chris: Amateur Traveler Episode 323. Today the Amateur Traveler visits a small green lake-filled former-superpower which of course can only mean Lithuania.
Chris: Welcome to the Amateur Traveler. I’m your host, Chris. Before we get into this week’s interview, I do have three news stories for you.
The first one is a story that actually is coming from January of last year. Apparently an Air Canada pilot took emergency measures because he thought he had an imminent mid-air collision and rapidly descended his plane, actually injuring 16 passengers and crew. And what he thought was another plane turned out to be the planet Venus, which it turns out was several million miles away.
And then speaking of bad news for airlines, Spirit Air, never one to shy away from controversy, has a new ad that is taking advantage of the hype surrounding a scandal where US Secret Service agents and military personnel had taken 21 prostitutes to a Cartagena hotel in Columbia. Their new ad for going to Colombia? “More bang for your buck”.
But in better marketing news, I was pleased to see that one of my favorite cruise lines may be coming back or at least one of their ships is coming back into service. A Florida entrepreneur has bought the Mandalay which is a sailing ship formerly part of the Windjammer Barefoot Cruises. It was actually built as a private yatch in 1923 for E.F. Hutton. It will again be plying the waters of Caribbean, carrying passengers on a sailing cruise. For links to all three of those stories check out the show notes at AmateurTraveler.com.
I’d like to welcome to the show Katie from Katie Going Global who has come to talk to us about Lithuania. Katie, welcome to the show.
Katie: Thanks for having me.
Chris: Now, Lithuania is not a big travel spot. In fact it took me a little while to find who could talk about Lithuania. So why did you end up in Lithuania?
Katie: Well, I actually ended up in Lithuania as part of a year of traveling through countries of the former Soviet Union and so being a former Soviet country, Lithuania was on my list. But I soon discovered there was a lot more to Lithuania than just being part of the former Soviet block.
Chris: Excellent. And if someone were to follow in your footsteps and go to Lithuania, what kind of itinerary would you recommend for them?
Katie: Well, Vilnius is the capital and I actually spent most of my time in Vilnius. I was there in December and so a lot of the natural attractions in Lithuania weren’t quite as attractive in the winter month. But Vilnius itself, I think out of the three Baltic states, out of Tallinn in Estonia, Riga in Latvia, and then you have Vilnius in Lithuania, I think Vilnius really has probably has the most to offer. It’s one of the largest old town areas in Europe and really has a lot of character to it and I think one of the things people don’t necessarily realize is that Lithuania was once sort of an European superpower back in the 1400s. It was actually the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and then they eventually partnered with Poland. So it really has a fascinating history and you get a really good sense of that in some of the surrounding areas.
Chris: And I would say I’m a student of history and yet “Lithuania” and “superpower” are two words that I have never put together.
Katie: I don’t think you’re alone in that respect.
Chris: And we should, I’m a little remiss here, we should put it on the map too. For those of us who are geographically-challenged, where would we find Lithuania?
Katie: Sure. Lithuania is towards the northern part of Europe. It’s got a small coastline on the Baltic Sea, but it borders Poland, Latvia, and Belarus.
Chris: Excellent. And so you were there in the winter time, first of all, which it sounds like you wouldn’t necessarily recommend as the best time to go to Lithuania.
Katie: Probably not the best time. I certainly found plenty to do. The weather was relatively mild. Temperature-wise it hadn’t started snowing yet at all and I had a few sunny days, a few rainy days. I think probably the ideal to visit Lithuania is probably in the summer, spring, and fall. Some of the things I didn’t get to experience were some of the national parks and I think they have about 4000 lakes in the country, so a lot of opportunity. If you’re into kayaking, canoeing, bird-watching, those types of things, are great in the spring, summer, and fall months.
Chris: Okay. So focusing in on Vilnius. What would you recommend we see in that capital city?
Katie: One of the things, and it feels a little weird to name it as a highlight, but it was probably one of the most interesting places that I visited, was the Museum of Genocide Victims which is actually housed in a former K.G.B. building that the K.G.B. utilized right up until 1991 when the Soviet Union disintegrated. And they have a really interesting exhibition detailing Lithuania’s history from the 1930s all the way up to its independence in 1991, both of Nazi occupation and then Soviet occupation. And then in the basement they’ve actually maintained the K.G.B. prison exactly as it was when the building was vacated in 1991, so you have a chance to see the interrogation room, the solitary confinement room, there’s a very, very sparse backyard area where prisoners were taken to be exercised. So it’s really a sombre experience, but I think it’s one of the most interesting places that I visited in Vilnius.
I think one of the other interesting things I did in Vilnius, the tourist office there actually offers an audio-guide of the entire city, so it’s similar to the type of audio-guide that you would pick up in a museum, has numbers for different sites, but they have actually put one together for the entire city which takes you through about 90 different stops in the old town area.
Chris: And you rent that or?
Katie: Yeah, you rent that. You pay a deposit that you get back and then the fee is fairly small, I want to say about 10 Euros or so. But they actually offer a 72-hour city card that includes entrance to multiple museums, and if you get the city card the audio-guide is included in that for free.
Katie: And that really highlighted a lot of sort of interesting stories, urban legends, things that you probably wouldn’t find out any other way. And for an independent traveler it was really the perfect way to go around the city because you were getting the benefit of a guided tour and all the commentary, but you could go at your own pace. So I was able to take a break when I wanted and get a snack, maybe take a little detour to see something, and then just hop right back on to the tour and continue along
Chris: Excellent. And the level of detail you found to be a good level? I could think of like the Prague Cathedral had a little more detail than we needed sometimes in the audio-guide.
Katie: Yeah, they actually set it up perfectly because they gave you the option to get more detail if you wanted.
Chris: Ah, excellent.
Katie: For example, there was one church where you stopped in front of and they gave you a very quick overview and then they push number 123 if you wanted to hear about the legend associated with this church. So there were several instances where you had that option. You could hear the basic detail, but then if you wanted to go more in-depth you had that option.
Chris: Excellent. And on that tour what were a few places that you wouldn’t have known about if you hadn’t taken that tour that you found interesting?
Katie: Well, several of the churches that it went by certainly were on the list of places to see, but I wouldn’t have really known much about what their importance was or why I should be seeing them. There was another stop it went through what was formerly the Jewish ghetto area of Vilnius and some of the streets associated with the Jewish ghetto that really don’t have any marking or anything identifying them right now, so I think that’s something that I probably wouldn’t have come across.
And then it also went up to a nice area where there are some ruins being reconstructed that offer a really nice view over the entire city. I mean it was sort of in an area kind of off to the side of the old town that I don’t think I would have discovered otherwise.
Chris: Okay. Interesting. What surprised you about Lithuania?
Katie: I was surprised at how western it felt. I think people think of Lithuania and the other Baltic states as former-Soviet Republic, but the theme that really came to me as I traveled not just in Lithuania, but in Estonia and Latvia as well, is that the whole time they were part of the Soviet Union they really felt that they were being occupied by the Soviets.
Katie: They never really felt a Soviet identity and so their Lithuanian identity is very strong and the Polish influence is fairly strong as well because they were aligned with Poland for many years back in the 14, 15, 1600s.
Chris: And that probably means they’re a Catholic nation historically?
Katie: Yes. And so I didn’t really feel like I was in eastern Europe. There was a lot of English being spoken, English was very common. I lot of the museums I went to, they had explanations not just in Lithuanian and English, but also Russian, German, Polish, so very multilingual and very diverse.
Chris: Okay. And I don’t know if you had a chance to see what the guidebooks were recommending for Lithuania. Were you using a particular guidebook for your trip?
Katie: I did. I used the Lonely Planet guide to eastern Europe which has fairly small sections.
Chris: A fairly small country.
Katie: Yeah, exactly. The way that it was written I don’t think there was anything that they really oversold, but Vilnius definitely has its share of museums. I actually visited I think eight museums over 72-hour period because I took advantage of the 72-hour pass they offered, and none of them are huge. I mean I easily got through some of them in half an hour. Some were more interesting than others. I think if you’re expecting something like The Louvre or The Hermitage in St. Petersburg you’ll be disappointed, but for the size of the city and for what the museums had to offer I thought it was a good value. Everything is still pretty low-priced in terms of entrance fees, so it’s a good value for what you get.
Chris: And with the eight museums, that’s a mix of history museums and art museums or what kind of museums were covered?
Katie: Yeah, they had really a good variety. I went to, like I mentioned before, the Museum of Genocide Victims. Also their National Museum is split into what they call the Old Arsenal and the New Arsenal and those really focus more on history. The Old Arsenal actually goes all the way back to prehistoric times and really focuses on the development of Lithuanian culture and then the New Arsenal focuses a little bit more recent, talks about some of the rural lifestyle, and it wasn’t a large museum, but one of the things I was most impressed with was they had brochures that you could take you in multiple languages explaining, for example, the Lithuanian tradition of cross-crafting which is really big in rural areas.
Chris: And I don’t know what that is.
Katie: Basically making crosses.
Chris: Okay. That’s what I would interpret that phrase to be, but wooden carved crosses?
Katie: Yeah. And actually that sort of a nice lead into I think one of the most interesting things that I saw in Lithuania which was the Hill of Crosses which is about three and a half hours outside of Vilnius, closer to the border with Latvia actually. And it’s a hill, not a high hill, but a hill about a 100,000 crosses.
Chris: Oh my goodness.
Chris: Crucifixes or crosses or a mixture of the two?
Katie: Really all over the board. Some are large, some are small. They think that people started planting crosses there sometime in the 1800s and it just sort of took off. A lot of them are memorial crosses. You’ll see a lot with people’s names on them and their dates of death.
Chris: But it’s not a graveyard? They’re not there?
Chris: Hmm, interesting.
Katie: And actually during Soviet times the Soviets tried to raze the hill several times and folks just kept coming back and kept putting the crosses back.
Chris: Hmm, interesting. Yeah, where religion is outlawed I could see that would be a point of contention let’s say.
Katie: Exactly. But now there’s they estimate a 100,000 crosses. When I was there the ones I saw were from all over the world. I saw some from the United States, I saw one from a family, I think it was the Brzezinski family from southern Illinois, there were some from Buenos Aires, from other places in Europe. They’re really all over the board. They have an area nearby where you can buy crosses and write on them and add them to the hill yourself.
Chris: Hmm, interesting. Who is the most memorable local you met in your travels there?
Katie: I met a woman, I took part in an excursion into a Soviet bunker which was an interesting story in itself. From that excursion, it was outside of Vilnius, and I got a ride back to Vilnius with a woman and her name is escaping me right, but she was probably in her late 20s or early 30s. She really impressed me with how knowledgeable she was about Lithuanian history. It put me to shame comparing to how much I know about US history. But it was impressive how much pride she had in her country and how much she knew about it and she was eager. Unfortunately our schedule didn’t match the rest of the time I was there, so we weren’t able to meet up again, but she volunteered to get together with me and show me around and very eager to show off Lithuania.
Chris: And besides a little Lithuanian history, anything you wish you had known before you went?
Katie: Not really. I think I went in with very few preconceived notions about the country, so everything was very new to me and I think that allowed me to really soak in the atmosphere and the history and really look at everything with an open mind.
Chris: Okay. Now, you said it felt very familiar, it felt very western to you. Were there two moments, one of which felt most like home and one of which felt furthest from home?
Katie: The most like home was probably just the fact that they had a McDonald’s.
Katie: You get off of the train station and right there on the corner is a McDonald’s which I always sort of cringe a little bit when I see that because I like visiting places with McDonald’s.
Chris: Okay. There goes my McDonald’s sponsorship right there.
Katie: You can edit that out. I think the furthest from home was this excursion that I did into a Soviet bunker which basically was sort of a theatrical recreation that I learned about when I got to Vilnius and it took place actually in an abandoned bunker I think about 20 or 30 kilometers outside of Vilnius in the middle of a wooded area and everyone who participated basically played the role of a former Soviet citizen. And so we were ushered in and out of rooms and up and down stairs and we had Soviet officers barking at us in Russian. We had to do a drill wearing gas masks. We were in an interrogation room where people were getting scolded and handcuffed and it was really surreal. I knew in my head that it wasn’t real, but it was still a little scary.
Chris: Interesting. Any recommendations on places to stay or places to eat?
Katie: Places to stay, I actually stayed a few nights in a hotel and a few nights in a hostel. The hotel I stayed at was called The Domus Maria Hotel and I think the location is great. It’s near what are called the Gates of Dawn which is one of the main entrances to the old town area, just inside the old town, but at the same time it’s within walking distance to the train station and the bus station. So it’s really a great location, reasonably-priced. I think probably the only downside was that their WiFi connection was a little sketchy at times, but the staff was very friendly, the breakfast was good in the morning, and the location couldn’t be beat.
And then I also stayed at the Fortuna hostel which is located just outside the old town. Very close to the train and bus station, probably about a five-minute walk from the old town, but still a pretty good location, and for an eastern European hostel I thought it was very good. I thought the staff was great, good facilities, very reasonably-priced. I actually stayed for over a week and they offered a discount for staying longer, so that was nice.
Chris: Excellent. And then recommendations on places to eat?
Katie: I’m actually gluten-intolerant, so I’m pretty [inaudible 00:17:36] in where I’m able to eat out. I tend to do most of my cooking in the hostel.
Chris: Is there any street food that is typical in Lithuania?
Katie: No, there’s really no street food to be found at all and I didn’t didn’t see any even fast-food type places. Even aside from like a McDonald’s, I didn’t really notice any like Lithuanian chain fast-food places.
Chris: And then you mentioned you were staying by the train and bus station, so I’m gathering you were getting around on public transportation.
Katie: The old town itself, Vilnius itself, is pretty walkable. I didn’t actually take a bus at all within the city limits, but there are several day trips that you can do from Vilnius. The bus and the train systems in the country really are excellent and they are very reasonable-priced. They have the schedules well-posted at the station and available to the tourist office as well. One of the things I would recommend people do as a supplement or even a replacement for a guide book is In Your Pocket offers a guide for Vilnius and you can download the P.D.F. from their website, InYourPocket.com, or sometimes the hotels actually offer the hard copy, and that usually includes a lot of the train and bus schedules in it which is really helpful. I know it included specific schedules for some of the day trips that I did which I found really helpful.
Chris: And speaking of day trips, you mentioned the bunker and the Hill of Crosses.
Chris: What other day trips would you recommend?
Katie: I would recommend, I took a day trip to Trakai which was probably the closest day trip I did, I think it was under an hour to get there, and that is basically, they refer to it as a fairy tale castle and it really does look a little bit like a fairy tale castle. It’s sort of the old red-brick motif. I mean it sits out on an extension into a lake. You see it as you’re approaching and then you would have to cross a drawbridge to get to the castle. And in terms of visiting castles, I think it was one of most substantive visits. They actually had a very good museum within the castle with a lot of good exhibits detailing both the history of Trakai and the history of Lithuania. It dates back to I think to about the 1400s, so really a neat atmosphere and you can kind of walk all over the castle see quite a bit of it.
And the other day trip that I did was to Kaunas, which I want to say is the second largest city, the second or third largest city in Lithuania. And that had a cute old town area as well as a nice pedestrian area and just outside of the city it had what’s called the Ninth Fort which is actually a fort that dates back to the 19th century that was built to fortify the Russian Tzarist empire and then was later as a death camp by the Nazis. So now it’s been turned into a museum detailing some of that history of the Nazi occupation in Lithuania and there’s a nice memorial. About 80,000 people were killed there and so they’ve got a nice memorial to the victims at that site. So Kaunas I though definitely worth a visit. That’s about just under two hours by train or by bus from Vilnius.
Chris: Excellent. Before we go to wind this down, I’ve got a few last questions I’ll ask you. Anything else we should know if we’re planning a trip to Lithuania?
Katie: I know a lot of people try to combine the Baltic States and hit Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia all in one shot. I definitely think Lithuania has a lot more to offer. I was there nearly two weeks and didn’t even get very far outside of Vilnius, so I would recommend people give themselves at least a week, if not more, and try not to squeeze all three of the Baltic States together because I think it’s doing a bit of a disservice to all three of them, but especially Lithuania, I think it really has a lot of offer.
Chris: Excellent. If you had one picture that you really think for you captures Lithuania, what would the picture be?
Katie: I think one of my favorite pictures I took was from the top of Gediminas Hill which is a hill in the old town area of Lithuania. Looking down at their main cathedral and the whole city and really just captured, you can see the tops of all the churches, which I think really reflects its religious history, and then Gediminas Hill itself is named after one of the very early founders of Vilnius, Prince Gediminas. And so I think that’s probably I’d say what captures it the most for me.
Chris: Okay. One thing that makes you laugh and say, “Only in Lithuania”?
Katie: It’s funny because there’s been places that I visited where I could easily answer that question. Nothing really comes to mind about Lithuania.
Chris: Okay. All the questions don’t always work.
Katie: Yeah. If you’d asked me that about Armenia I very easily could have answered.
Chris: Last two questions. Finish this sentence. You really know you’re in Lithuania when what?
Katie: It probably isn’t that amusing of an answer, but I think you really know you’re in Lithuania when you see a mix of Lithuanian and Polish everywhere. I felt like there was much more a Polish influence there than a Russian or a Soviet influence at all.
Katie: It really made it unique from some of the other places that I visited in the former Soviet Union.
Chris: And if you had to summarize Lithuania in just three words, what three words would you use?
Katie: “Historical”, “nature”, and “friendly”.
Chris: Excellent. Now, I have to ask, we’ve been ignoring the fact that there’s a party going on during the whole interview. Why don’t you tell people where you are at this time?
Katie: Well, I am in Yerevan, Armenia and I am in a bedroom in a flat of one of the staff members of the organization where I’m volunteering and they’re holding an Easter egg painting party.
Chris: And what is the organization you’re doing volunteer travel with right now?
Katie: I am volunteering with the Armenian Volunteer Corps which actually partners with a sister organization called Birthright Armenia. So the difference is that Armenian Volunteer Corps recruits volunteers of all ages and all ethnicities and nationalities. Birthright Armenia focuses on bringing back a diaspora Armenian, people who are of Armenian origin who were raised outside of the country. They focus on bringing them back to the country to volunteer. But the two organizations are very close and work together quite a bit and have a lot of overlap. They then place volunteers with different non-profit organizations within the country.
Chris: Excellent. And if people want to read more about your travels where can them find them?
Katie: They can read about my travels at KatieGoingGlobal.com and then they can also find me at Twitter at KatieAune which is K-A-T-I-E A-U-N-E.
Chris: Excellent. And we’ll have links to both of those in the show notes. Katie, thanks so much for coming on the show and telling us about your trip to Lithuania.
Katie: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Chris: I’ve got a comment from Kathy who’s still catching up on our Amateur Traveler episodes and was listening to episode 258 on Xi’an, China. “I love Xi’an and have visited three times, 1997, 2001, and 2004. I had no trouble getting into the Great Mosque in 2001 and 2004. It’s wonderfully atmospheric. I would also recommend the Taoist Temple to the Eight Great Immortals. It was rather shabby in 2001, but had been renovated by 2004 unlike the Great Mosque.” And Kathy also included a link to pictures from her trip.
Jim commented on last week’s episode on Puglia in Italy. “When I lived in New York City, my favorite place in Little Italy was called Puglia. So our secretary was from Bari. She pronounced it “bah-ree”. I didn’t get to see Bari, but did get to see a lot of Puglia on Rick Steve’s tour of southern Italy a few years back. We were the alpha test. It was the first time they ran the tour. We could not have been more welcome. We stayed a few nights at Vieste, a port town on the Adriatic at the north end of Puglia where we learned about sea caves and about strange constructs around the cliffs that looked like a fishing boat trying to escape from the cliff. I’ll upload a photo. We also visited Alberobello and saw the Trulli houses and had a wine and cheese tasting there. Seven pounds gained in 13 days. It was April and still a little cool and not everyone was ready for visitors, but it was a really fun place to visit. I enjoyed revisiting by the podcast.” Thank you so much, Jim.
With that I think we’ll wrap up this episode of the Amateur Traveler. I have a lot of things on my to-do list today, including getting this show out. If you have any questions feel free to send an email to host at amateurtraveler.com or better yet leave a comment on this episode at AmateurTraveler.com or on the Amateur Traveler community on Facebook, Facebook.com\AmateurTraveler. If you happen to be on iTunes, we love five-star reviews. And, as always, thanks so much for listening.
Transcription sponsored by JayWay Travel, specialists in Central & Eastern Europe custom tours.