I spent the week prior to this holiday looking into the blank faces of people at work when I told them I was flying to Vilnius on Saturday. They could be divided into roughly two camps; those who immediately exclaimed "Where?", quickly followed by "What would you want to go there for?!" when I explained that it was in Lithuania, and those who smiled politely and said "Oh that will be lovely", before sitting down at their computers to Google it. I started to get a little apprehensive about the holiday myself when I refreshed my memory of the map and realised that Vilnius was actually pretty close to Poland, the only country I've visited that I would never go to again. The weather forecast suggested that the Baltic would be cold and rainy, while the guidebook implied that there would be nothing to eat except potatoes and fatty pork, neither of which circumstances seemed conducive to a particularly enjoyable week away. Nevertheless, this was our shortest holiday and an opportunity to have adventures exploring three new countries.
We flew out with Wizzair from Luton, an overall more enjoyable experience than travelling with Ryanair. We weren't made to pay for the cheap price of the ticket by listening to prerecorded announcements about buying scratchcards to help sick children, the baggage allowance was an impressive 32kg and the in-flight magazine was the most amusing such publication I have ever seen, featuring a plethora of advertisements for IVF in Poland, dental work in Hungary and plastic surgery in Romania. I did manage to confuse myself slightly the previous week when I noticed that what I had assumed would be a two-hour flight left the UK at 07.30 and didn't arrive in Lithuania until 12.10, but it transpired that this phenomenon could be explained not by a lesser-known Bermuda triangle having opened up over the Baltic, but rather by all three countries being two hours ahead of GMT.
Our first impression upon landing in Vilnius was that it was small. Our plane was almost the only one on the tarmac and it didn't look like the airport was expecting another aircraft all day. Helpful signs with pictures of trains on led from the terminal building towards what the guidebook had described as a railway station, but when we arrived there we found a single train track with a platform the length of one carriage. There were a handful of other people waiting, which reassured us that we were in the right place, and sure enough when our train did arrive it really was just one carriage, presumably making the ten-minute journey between the airport and the main train station multiple times a day.
We were staying in the Hotel Telecom Guest, a somewhat strangely named establishment which nevertheless turned out to be very pleasant and conveniently located, being just a 15-minute walk from both the train station and the Old Town. We settled into our room, had a brief nap in an attempt to recover from getting up at 3am, and spent the evening wandering around the city centre and getting a feel for the place. We were lucky that not only was it unexpectedly sunny but we quickly found an outside restaurant serving pizza and cheap wine. Potatoes and pork fat were postponed for another day!
Due to a slight malfunction with setting the alarm, we slept for the best part of 12 hours and so it was after 10am before we headed out for a proper exploration of Vilnius the following morning. As we left the hotel and began to walk downhill towards the town centre, we had an enticing view of domed churches set against a backdrop of densely forested hills.
The hotel had helpfully provided us with a town plan, but we soon realised that the centre was compact enough for us to stroll aimlessly without running the risk of getting hopelessly lost, so we wandered wherever the fancy took us, turning down side streets whenever we spied a particularly attractive building. The most striking thing about the centre of Vilnius was probably the sheer volume of churches (both Catholic and Orthodox) and how uniquely decorated each one was.
We soon came to the main square, which was home to an impressively large cathedral, complete with tower.
Behind the cathedral, a cobbled stone pathway led uphill towards Gediminas Tower.
The stones were incredibly uneven in places and walking required a lot of concentration on feet to avoid tripping over! Having made it to the top, we climbed some even steeper staircases within the tower itself and emerged out onto the ramparts to be rewarded with a magnificent view out across Vilnius.
One of the sights which caught our attention were three white crosses standing atop of one the wooded hills to our left. We had read in the guidebook how these crosses had been a landmark of the city until the Russians had bulldozed them in 1950. The crosses had been rebuilt since the end of Soviet times, although the demolished remains of the old monument were still visible. It was a fascinating story and looked like it ought to be a pleasant walk from where we were, across the river and through a nicely shaded forest towards the crosses, so off we went. What I hadn't bargained for was quite how high the hill was going to be and how steep the pathway was...
Following a sandy track through the forest, we came to a series of wooden staircases built into the side of the hill. They were reasonably sturdy, with only a handful of places where the steps had broken, but there was no handrail and very few landings where you could pause and catch your breath. The layout was slightly deceptive so that when you arrived panting at what appeared to be almost the top, the staircase turned a corner and revealed at least as many steps yet to go. My tactic on the way up was to keep walking and not look down, the thinking being that hyperventilation was preferable to vertigo. We made it in the end and got our first glimpse of the broken crosses lying on the hillside.
From there another staircase led relentlessly upwards towards the restored monument.The crosses were absolutely enormous, which I suppose makes sense given that we had been able to make them out from such a long distance away, and it was so sunny that it was difficult to look up at them without being blinded. Having successfully avoided being trampled by a party of Russian schoolchildren (who appeared to have arrived via a much easier tarmac path!) and spent some time admiring yet another beautiful view across Vilnius, it was time to climb back down again.
This was where the trouble began! What had just been arduous on the way up became absolutely terrifying on the way down, when we were faced with a staircase stretching downwards as far as the eye could see. It was difficult to do justice to its magnitude in a photograph because it was far too long for more than a fraction of it to fit in one photo. I don't know how many steps there were, but our pedometers later gave us credit for climbing 56 normal-sized staircases, so there were certainly several hundred. I managed to make it down about 15 of them in an upright position before vertigo took over and I inched down the next hundred or so on my bottom.
We made it in the end and enjoyed a much more pleasant stroll along by the side of the river (where we encountered some Lithuanian ducks!) and back into the town centre. In need of some sustenance, we found a nice Italian restaurant and took advantage of Lithuanian prices to enjoy two tagliatelle bologneses, a glass of wine, two beers and a bottle of water for an unbelievable £14