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About Me

Found 13 results

  1. It was another wonderfully sunny day when we woke up in Vilnius this morning. Our main aim for the day was to visit the town of Trakai, which is located slightly outside of the capital and is home to a beautiful castle on a lake. The trains to Trakai run quite infrequently though, with one departing around 7am and the next not being until 12.32. We definitely didn't want to be up early enough for the 7am one, so we had decided to spend the morning in Vilnius and travel to Trakai on the 12.32. We started our morning exploration of Vilnius from the Gate of Dawn, which is one of the old entrances into the city walls. As you enter the city, the gate looks quite plain... ...but once you've passed through it, the other side is very elaborate. From there we walked down one of the main streets in the city... ...past Vilnius's Orthodox church. There were lots of beautiful buildings... ...including, of course, lots of churches. We were soon at the square with the Town Hall... ...and from there it wasn't far until we could see Gediminas tower on the horizon again. We spent some time admiring the cathedral square again... ...before setting off on a path towards the side of the square, which we hoped would lead us towards the three crosses on the hill above the town. We crossed the river and soon found the tarmac road leading up the hill which we had discovered on our previous visit. It was a bit of a tiring climb up, but soon we were there. These crosses used to be a landmark of Vilnius until they were bulldozed during the Soviet occupation. They were reinstated after Lithuania became independent again. From the hill there is also an amazing view out over Vilnius. It was about 11am by this point so we decided to climb back down the hill to the cathedral square and begin the walk back to our apartment to check out. We made it back and collected our stuff in good time, with plenty of time to put our bags in a locker at the station and buy tickets to Trakai. The tickets cost an amazing €1.80 each, which wasn't bad for a train journey of over 30 minutes We got off the train in Trakai not long after 1pm and only had to walk a few hundred metres from the train station before we got our first view of one of Trakai's lakes. The castle is located about 2.5km from the train station and there are two ways of getting there; along the main road of the town or via a path around the lake. We decided to choose the lakeside path. It was really peaceful walking around the lake, and nice and shady too There was plenty of wildlife too; we saw swans, ducks and a little family of coots. Eventually we came to a bridge over part of the lake and decided to cross. It was a good decision, because from halfway across the bridge we got our first glimpse of the island castle. It was still quite far away, but we could just make out some of the turrets After exploring the lakeside a bit more, we eventually came to the bridge which leads across to the castle. The castle at Trakai was originally built in the fifteenth century as part of the defences of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. It fell into disrepair in the seventeenth century, before being restored during the twentieth. It cost €7 each to get inside, plus an extra €1.50 to be allowed to take photos, but when you've come all this way it seems like a price worth paying. Once we'd bought our tickets, we were able to enter the main courtyard of the castle. We climbed up the steps at the far end to begin our tour. There's a well-organised one-way system in place throughout the castle, with little signs to tell you where to go next. That's quite useful, because once you get into the centre of the castle, there are some rather steep and narrow wooden staircases to negotiate. There were lots of interesting artefacts from Lithuanian history inside the castle, including some nice pictures of the castle itself... ...and this rather scary-looking figure in armour. There was a large room with thrones... ...and some really beautiful stained glass. The worst bit of the castle was probably leaving it, which required going down this very scary stone staircase. Once outside, we were able to stroll around under the castle ramparts for a while. It was nearly 4pm by this stage, so we decided to leave the castle behind and go in search of something to eat. Trakai is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Lithuania, so while there were quite a few restaurants near the castle, they were all quite expensive, at least by Lithuanian standards. We eventually found a pizzeria, where the pizza was okay but the prices were significantly higher than in Vilnius. We were definitely paying for the location though Most of the restaurants were located on the side of the lake facing the castle, and this is definitely where you can get the best views from It was still a while until the next train back to Vilnius, so after lunch we strolled back in the vague direction of the train station, following the bank of Trakai's other lake. This part of town was home to some really colourful wooden houses, known as Karaite houses. Once in the main part of the town, we found a cafe which was more geared towards locals than tourists and were able to sit and relax for a while with wine, coffee and water at much cheaper prices than down by the castle. Tim did have to order them in Polish though Suitably refreshed, we went for a final stroll around the town to find the Orthodox church... ...before we caught the train back to Vilnius, and then another train from Vilnius to the airport. The airport train is a real bargain, with the tickets being a mere €0.70 each! We've had a wonderful weekend in Lithuania and feel that we've been particularly lucky with the weather, given the horror stories we've heard about rain and thunder in the UK this weekend. I have the feeling that we'll be back here for a longer holiday some day
  2. We've got some expensive holidays coming up later this year - most notably Iceland in September - so we didn't want to spend too much money on our Bank Holiday breaks. When we were browsing flights for Spring Bank Holiday and saw cheap flights to Kaunas from Luton, it therefore seemed like a really good idea to book. We'd had a fantastic week travelling around Lithuania in 2015 and decided that it was both a very beautiful country and a very cheap one It almost turned out to have been a dreadful idea, however, when a few weeks ago I read a news article saying that there were multiple strike actions planned at Luton airport over the course of the Bank Holiday weekend, which were expected to cause significant disruption. We've hardly flown from Luton at all over the past couple of years, and so it seemed like extremely bad luck that the one time we did book a Luton flight there was going to be a strike. Happily, it all blew over in the end and the strikes were, if not completely cancelled, at least postponed until after the Bank Holiday. Phew! Compared to our trip to Malta from Gatwick at the start of May, the flight to Kaunas was at the rather civilised time of 9am, which meant that we didn't have to leave home until 5am this morning. The drive to Luton was fine, although I was slightly concerned when we got to the long stay carpark that we weren't going to be able to find a place to park in because it was so busy! The airport itself didn't seem outrageously busy, though; security was a bit chaotic, but we were soon through and having breakfast in one of the few eating establishments in the departures hall. Our flight ended up being slightly delayed, perhaps because it was so misty outside, and so that, combined with the two-hour time difference between the UK and Lithuania, meant that it was around 2pm local time when we finally landed. Kaunas airport is one of the smallest we've ever been to, and Tim observed that our plane was nearly as long as the airport was wide. I certainly didn't get the impression that they had many flights landing per day, as they let us all get off the plane and walk across the tarmac any way we felt like, rather than having to keep to strictly marked-out pedestrian paths like at most airports! The benefit of it being a small airport was that it didn't take us long to get through passport control and out the other side. There is a direct bus which runs from the airport into the centre of Kaunas (bus 29), but it only runs once per hour and the next one was due at 14.25. If our flight had been on time then we would actually have had to spend quite a lot of time sitting around waiting for it, but as it was we pretty much walked straight out the door of the airport, found the bus stop and got on the bus. I thought Malta's buses were good value for money, but Kaunas definitely wins the prize for the cheapest airport bus; a single from the airport into the town was a mere €1 each, despite the fact that the journey took approximately 40 minutes. The bus actually terminates at Kaunas train station, which is a couple of kilometres from where we are staying, so we'd decided to try to be clever and get off the bus partway along the route, as some studying of Lithuanian bus timetables last weekend had revealed there was actually a stop on the same road as our apartment. I was a little bit dubious as to whether we were actually going to manage it, but it turned out that the bus had a helpful visual display announcing the next stop, and so we succeeded We'd notified that apartment owner that we would arrive some time between 3 and 4, so we set out to find the apartment. Lithuanian addresses can be a bit confusing, and the address of the place we were staying in was given as 16/10 on this particular road. A bit of googling revealed that this meant building 16, flat 10. We found building 16 quite easily, but it looked like there were some sort of local government offices on the ground floor so we didn't really want to go wandering around. Tim called the apartment owner instead and she said she would be with us in a minute. She was true to her word, showing us up some steps to a pleasant little apartment on the first floor. It wasn't the biggest apartment in the world but it looked fine for one night, and it was great value for money at only €36 The only thing which was slightly odd was the bathroom, with the toilet somehow being located in the middle of the floor rather than up against a wall! Oh, and the fact that we had no running water! The lady explained that the water had been turned off for the whole area between 9 and 3 today for some sort of work, but that it should be coming back on soon. We had seen some men doing roadworks as we walked up the road from the bus stop, so it looked like the work was running over a bit! She offered to bring us a bottle of water, but there was a shop just round the corner so we set off to get our own supplies. Once we'd stocked up on the essentials, we headed back out for a stroll around Kaunas. It was a beautiful sunny day here, and we enjoyed walking around the pretty little streets of the old town. There was one street in particular which we remember from our visit in 2015. This was L. Zamenhofo gatve, named after the creator of Esperanto, who apparently lived on this street at some point. It had taken us completely by surprise in 2015, because we had no idea it existed, but it was less of a surprise today Once we'd taken some Zamenhof photos, we continued on our way towards the main square. We soon found ourselves outside Kaunas' cathedral, which is rather unusual being completely made out of red brick. The main square is just across from there, with the town hall on the right and another, arguably more impressive, church on the left which we had initially assumed was the cathedral itself on our previous visit. We walked across the square and around the back of it, trying to find our way to Kaunas castle, which we were sure we had found somewhere around here on our previous trip. We soon came across this slightly scary statue, which definitely looked familiar... ...and then we were there. We didn't go into the castle itself, but followed a pleasant path around the edge of it, which leads through a park alongside the river. There were some lovely views back towards the centre of town... ...and we also found the place where the rivers Nemunas and Neris converge. It was getting towards 6pm by this point, so we decided to walk back into the city centre in search of something to eat. We found the long pedestrianised avenue which we remembered from last time we were here, where there are plenty of cafes and restaurants I had a nice pizza and Tim had a burger, though he wasn't entirely happy about the ratio of burger to salad/gherkins! We were feeling pretty tired by this point so walked back to the apartment to cool down and have an early night. Happily, by the time we got back we found the water had come back on and was running normally! We are travelling to Vilnius tomorrow, but our train isn't until 13.46, so we will have some more time to explore Kaunas in the morning
  3. 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
  4. Goodness me, yesterday was tiring. Thank goodness we had no reason to be up at all, since I'd informed the lady that we would be checking out at 11:30, the latest we were permitted. Unfortunately, things went awry. As often happens, I generated tonnes of my own heat, such that changing ends of the bed, sleeping on the floor and even opening the window and trying to sleep whilst standing next to it all failed. I'd even bought two USB fans (fabulous invention!) especially for this trip because I knew we wouldn't have any air conditioning, but unfortunately they both ran out of charge within a couple of hours and I couldn't find the lead in the dark. So, after walking 14km yesterday through woodland, marshes and even a desert, I would have to get through the day on two hours' sleep. And it was going to be a long one because our flight wasn't until 22:45. We'd be returning home, we calculated, at about 02:30. My state of involuntary alertness in the hourly hours meant I got to witness a torrential downpour. Unexpectedly, it turns out that July is the wettest month in Lithuania and so we, being on holiday in early August, had been extraordinarily lucky to have the heatwave that we'd been met with all week. This downpour stopped as suddenly as it had started, but it would be back later on. We left right on 11:30 with still a full day ahead of us, so we decided to rid ourselves of our suitcase using the lockers at the station. Whilst we were there we noticed a huge map on the wall with something novel about its appearance; it was written from Lithuania's perspective, and so that country was central and everything else seemed slighly distorted from what we were used to. We spent quite a bit of time planning future holidays whilst we were there. It looks as though Hungary into Romania might be an option for us next year, depending on what the train travel within Romania is like. We also revisited some of our previous holidays' routes on the map, until a cleaning lady asked us to vacate whilst she was polising the floor. We decided to head out to the Gate of Dawn, an entry to the Old Town. It's relatively inconspicuous compared to similar gates which we've visited elsewhere: Things suddenly appear grand as you walk through it though: Some of these buildings are astoundingly pretty: And the gate itself does seem to appear larger when you're on the inside facing out: Every building on the street seemed to be competing with its neighbours: All of a sudden we chanced upon the lovely pink building that we always pass. Usually we head to it from another street but it tranpires that the Gate of Dawn leads straight to it too: And so we were back on familiar territory: We knew were going to get a coffee, since we had so much time to kill. I spotted a bookshop right next to a coffee sign and I can never resist popping into one to see whether there's a local translation of Asterix the Gaul; I currently have copies of that one book - the first in the Asterix series - in six languages, though, curiously, not in the original French nor my native English. Whilst we were in the bookshop failing to located a copy of Asterix, this morning's torrential downpour returned. Fortunately for us, this bookshop also doubled as a coffee shop and we had just purchased a couple of frappes, so we were already seated and able to sit there whilst the storm passed before other people fleeing the rain got there first: The storm was determined to keep us rooted so I bought Clare an Apfelschorle and myself a Rhabarberschorle so that we wouldn't be thought as taking the mick. As the storm abated somewhat we headed out again, heading back round to the cathedral: Over Clare's shoulder you can see Gediminas's Tower. Given the weather and our heavy backpacks, we didn't expect to climb up to it: We did, however, walk past it to climb up the Hill of Three Crosses. On our first visit we'd struggled up a lengthy staircase only to notice once we had arrived that other people were coming from another direction. So this time we emulated them and took the easy route: And behind Clare you can see our friends Gediminas's Tower and the cathedral: Even with the dismal weather they look beautiful. You also get an idea of why we didn't want to climb up to the tower! Bear in mind that the Hill of Three Crosses isn't in the centre of Vilnius. It's at the edge, meaning that you can see all of Vilnius sprawling in front of it, rather than just a part of it with others behind. This gives an impression of Vilnius's size - remember that it's a capital city! Strange to think that for the Lithuanians themselves Vilnius is a metropolis. We'd visted settlements this week which consisted of just a few houses, so for a time it was for us too. Following from this, we decided to get lunch. We weren't particularly hungry at the time but we knew we wouldn't be eating later that day, so it made sense to stock up. Whoever thought tinned peaches would work in a salad? I wouldn't have, but for the second day in a row I ordered it. I'll be making my own at home too; it's a fabulous concoction. Although we were still 12 hours from our day ending, there really isn't too much to tell from this point. The rain was still threatening to return periodically and the sky didn't suggest to us there would be any respite, so we made the decision to head off to the airport early. At least we would be dry there. And so we took the train for its seven-minute journey between the station and airport (all for 0.77€, I think), settled down with out books and read for a few hours. Checking-in couldn't have gone any smoother, the security check was rapid, and a few hours later we were back in dismal Stansted on the bus to the car park. I can't say it was fun to be home; the Essex accent and customary aggressive scowl the locals all seem to adopt was a far cry from the pleasant sounds and friendly faces we'd spent the last week in the company of, and there's always a total idiot who doesn't realise that he's ringing the bell to stop the bus every few seconds, last night not being an exception. But we located the car and about a couple of hours later were at home, with our alarms informing us we'd be getting up in under four hours for work. A hectic end for us but what a lovely holiday. Lithuania's splendid and we'll definitely be going back.
  5. We didn't have a definite plan for what to do with today when we woke up this morning, so we decided to consult our Lithuania guidebooks. Both of them were full of interesting suggestions of places which could be reached as a day trip either from Vilnius, or from Kaunas which we knew wasn't too far away. The only problem was the train timetables. While our experiences this week have proved that Lithuanian trains are comfortable and efficient, they run to timetables which are rather sparse. Everywhere we looked at travelling to seemed to be served by one train in the morning, and one train in the late evening, making it difficult to plan a short day trip anywhere. In the end we opted for the village of Marcinkonys, to which there was a train leaving Vilnius at 10.46 and a train returning into Vilnius at 21.17. We chose Marcinkonys because we knew that it was situated in the Dzūkija National Park, a large area of protected pine forests to the southwest of Vilnius. We had really enjoyed our visit to the Aukštaitija National Park earlier in the week, so we thought it would be interesting to see another national park, and the guidebook suggested that there were a number of marked trails through the forest starting from Marcinkonys. The train journey to Marcinkonys took two hours. We arrived just before one to a pretty little station in the middle of nowhere. The station garden was really cool. The guidebook said that the village consisted of a long main street of 2km, partway down which would be the national park visitor centre, so we started walking. The first statue we saw didn't inspire me with confidence for a walk in the woods. The population of the village is around 800 people and it soon became clear that it wasn't a place with a lot of facilities. We found one cafe, which we mentally earmarked for future reference. The village grew up in the nineteenth century as the Warsaw to St Petersburg railway was being built through the forest. At the time, both destinations and all the points the train passed through were part of the Russian empire. These days, the original line is no longer used by trains travelling between Warsaw and St Petersburg, because the route involves crossing in and out of Belarus three times. Marcinkonys has been the end of the line for Lithuanian trains since Lithuania joined the EU and it became too cumbersome performing border checks with Belarus. Halfway along the main street we found a large building which we thought might be the national park centre, because it had a few information boards with maps outside. We weren't completely sure though, because when we took a closer look it appeared to be a huge empty building, and we couldn't see any signs of information inside! We stood looking at one of the information boards for a while, trying to work out where the signposted route started, and became aware then a man had emerged from the building and was beckoning us over. He proudly herded us inside what turned out to be a brand new state-of-the-art visitor centre, featuring what is possibly the only air-conditioning in Lithuania, but sadly devoid of visitors. He seemed quite excited to see us, particularly when he found out that we were from England (I'm not sure he'd had any English visitors before!). He spoke excellent English and provided us with a leaflet for the Zackagiris trail, a 14km circular path in the woods around the village. The leaflet was only available in German, but that was fine for us He advised that the walk would take about 5 hours. 5 hours sounded like a long time to walk 14km, but we knew we had 6 hours until our return train to Vilnius so that didn't seem like a problem. We set off enthusiastically. The route was waymarked by means of little white squares with red lines through them painted onto the sides of trees. The pathway immediately started leading us deep into the woods. Perhaps we should have known that the walk was going to be rather edgy when, within the first two minutes of setting off, we had to clamber over two fallen tree trunks which were blocking the path! And then we found this "bridge" across the river. Not quite my idea of a bridge. We walked deeper and deeper into the forest. The trees were amazing. We were very grateful for the little red and white squares marking the way. It felt like without them you could easily have got lost and walked in the forest for days before finding any sign of human habitation. We didn't meet any other people walking the same trail throughout the course of the next five hours, though we did come across some people canoeing in the river at one point. After about an hour of walking we came to a beautiful viewpoint over the river. There was a rare bench here so we stopped for a while to admire the view. Little did we know what was waiting for us around the corner! The path led us down a set of recently constructed wooden steps on the side of the hill towards the river, which we needed to cross in order to continue our route. This was the bridge; a log placed across the river, with a smaller log to use as a handrail. I wasn't very impressed, but I made it across in one piece. Phew! We continued walking on the far side of the river for a while. At times the path was quite overgrown. Perhaps not everyone made it across the bridge! We soon reached one of the sights which was marked on our map: a hollow tree which had been used for bee-keeping. It looked very old. As we stopped to consult the map, we realised that the path was about to lead us back over to the other side of the river again. Fingers crossed the bridge was going to be better this time.... No....seriously..... that can't be the bridge......! That was the bridge; a log across the river, but a narrower one than the first bridge, and with a handrail that had a strange kink in it, presenting an obstacle in the middle of the bridge when you were over the deepest part of the water. It looked like there might have been a second log involved at some point somehow, but this had now fallen away into the river. I didn't think there was any way I was going to get across it! It was rather traumatic, but I managed it in the end without falling in. It was either that, or turn round and walk back all the way we'd come, crossing over the other scary bridge again. The national park is beautiful, but I think that if they want to attract more overseas visitors then they need to do some serious investment in bridges! Thankfully, the walk became a little more sedate after that, leading us through some sunny clearings in the woods... ...and back into the dense forest. The ground was covered in places by a strange sort of moss or lichen. We soon emerged at the top of the main road in Marchinkonys, having completed the first half of the walk. We walked past the village church, entirely wooden but painted a rather striking shade of yellow. We walked through the village and back into the woods. One of the things which had struck us on the walk so far was how sandy the ground in the forest was. In a rather perplexing turn of events, given how far we were from any kind of sea, the next sight marked on our map was a sand dune. It was absolutely enormous. The leaflet explained that it was the only dune left which hadn't been successfully covered by pine trees and mosses. It was located in a windy enough spot for the dune to be able to fight encroaching plants off, burying them under fresh sand as soon as they attempted to grow. It was quite a surreal experience being there; a bit like being in the middle of the desert! We walked back into the woods, on paths that were increasingly sandy. After a while we emerged at a swamp, which the man in the visitor centre had proudly told us was known locally as the Bear's Bottom. Hopefully not because there were any bears in it. Parts of it were beautiful... ...but you could see that the ground was very wobbly and it wouldn't be a good idea to stray from the path. Bizarrely, right in the middle of the swamp there was a viewing platform with a bench. We stopped for a while to have a rest and sip some of our diminishing water supplies. We were pretty exhausted by this point, but there was still a fair amount of walking to go. Back into the woods again. It was slow going on the sandy forest roads and we could feel our shoes filling with sand. By the time we got back to Marcinkonys, we were covered with sand all over. The next highlight of the route was something referred to as "the Blind Lake". Fifty years ago it was apparently still possible to swim in this lake, but it's now been taken over by the forest so that you can hardly see the water any more. The bridge was a little primitive, but nothing compared to the ones we'd crossed earlier in the day. There was still a fair amount of walking to do (we were following the red dotted path and the blind lake was at number 6). The latter part of trail appeared to be less well-used and at times we had to fight our way through overgrown grass and bracken. There was one slightly scary point where everything was so overgrown that we lost the markers, but lucikly we found our way back onto the correct path within a few minutes. It was about 5.30 by this point and we were definitely flagging. We were now walking on a forest road which looked like it should ultimately lead back into Marcinkonys. We were just questioning where we were on the route and wondering how much further we had to go, when we went round a corner and realised we were on something which looked suspiciously like the main village street. We turned around and right behind us was the only cafe in the village. Yay! Luckily it was open and we went and sat in its nice shady interior to recover and get something to drink. We bought a large bottle of what appeared to be Russian water but unfortunately it turned out to be undrinkable because it was carbonated. Yuk! We had to resort to drinking beer instead. It wasn't actually beer, but something called "Beer mix" which was raspberry-flavoured and very nice. We sat there for an hour before it was time to stagger back to the station for our train. It might only have been 14km, but it was a very challenging 14km and we could see why the man in the visitor centre had advised that it would take 5 hours. The Dzūkija National Park is a beautiful place, but it's quite wild!
  6. Trakai was lots of fun earlier (and the postcard display suggests it's even better in winter) but the temperature here is surprisingly oppressive. Not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the Baltics. So we hid out for a couple of hours in our apartment before heading out for an evening stroll and in search of food. We headed into town along our usual route but headed a little further than we did yesterday, which meant we encountered a new building: That blue sky is as bright as ever: It became clear when we could hear a few English voices that we were in a tourist area. Well, of course we were; Vilnius is only small and we were on a main road. Although we could see a few restaurants we didn't want to risk any tourists arriving afterwards and sitting by us, so we decided to head to the back streets. They weren't unknown to us because we'd briefly stepped there previously after coming down from Gediminas's Tower on our previous visit. We soon saw some familiar sights, such as on old church: It made for a striking partnership when the upper part was viewed alongside the neighbouring church: The only problem with our plan to escape the tourists is that there didn't appear to be any restaurants here, so we decided to head round to the town's main road. En route we caught a glimpse of Gediminas's Tower: The tower by the cathedral still looks like a space rocket: But alongside the cathedral it makes for a good pair: We grabbed our meal at a chain restaurant, opting for a local speciality; some kind of ham pancakes: As often occurs on our jaunts the meal seemed very small; I suspect we're spoilt back home. And so we headed out still rather hungry, but encountering unexpectedly a series of hot-air balloons in the sky: Our route home took us past another pretty church which we'd seen before on our first visit: And after a lengthy stroll we saw the pink church which indicated we were almost back home. The same seemed true for the few remaining hot-air balloons: We're not yet sure what we're going to do tomorrow. We have all day plus most of Sunday in Vilnius. Given how cheap the trains are, I expect we'll decide to go to somewhere else tomorrow on the spur of the moment.
  7. Lithuania isn't generally a very popular tourist destination, but if there's one place in the country which does draw crowds then it's the small town of Trakai, located about 17 miles southwest of Vilnius. Trakai is home to another of Lithuania's national parks, but this one is different to the national park near Ignalina in that it's a historical national park. The highlight of Trakai is its castle, built on an island in the middle of Lake Galvė. We saw a photo of it online some time last year and instantly decided that we had to visit Trakai next time we came to Lithuania. Trakai is on a train line from Vilnius, although the trains aren't terribly frequent. We made a relatively early start to the day to make sure that we didn't miss the one at 09.48. The journey only took half an hour and cost a mere €1.68 each, which seemed like a bargain The train station is located a few kilometres outside the historic town centre, but there was a good map of Trakai in the Bradt guide to Lithuania, plus a steady stream of other tourists heading in the same direction, so it wasn't hard to find the right route. The town of Trakai is situated on a strip of land between two large lakes. Almost as soon as we got off the train we caught a glimpse of the first one. It didn't take long before we had found the second one as well We walked through the town, passing the church which was originally built by the medieval Lithuanian ruler Vytautas the Great, although it has been substantially rebuilt since then. It was so large that we struggled to fit it all into one photo. The church was surrounded by wooden carvings, which looked quite similar to the ones we'd seen earlier in the week in Palūšė. We continued walking and soon came across a castle, albeit not the one we had actually come to see. This was the Peninsula Castle, built in the fourteenth century on the peninsula between lake Luka and lake Galvė. Its aim was to protect Trakai, and also Vilnius, from attacks by the Teutonic Knights. It was later used as a prison, finally being destroyed during the Russo-Polish war in the seventeenth century. Some of the walls and towers are still quite well preserved. We clambered around the castle ruins for a while, before descending back down towards the lake. There are a number of bridges built across the lake, making it possible to walk between some of the different islands. Walking across the longest bridge, we got our first glimpse of Trakai's main attraction: the island castle. The island castle was built in Trakai during the fifteenth century to strengthen the fortifications of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania which existed at that time. No sooner was it completed, however, than Lithuania managed to decisively defeat its main enemy, the Teutonic Knights, at the Battle of Grunwald, meaning that there was no longer a real reason for the castle. It was used as a royal residence for a while, then as a prison, but fell into disrepair during the seventeenth century. Restoration attempts began in the early twentieth century, with first the Russians and then the Germans making attempts to reconstruct it. Major reconstruction work started in earnest after the Second World War and was substantially completed in 1962. Unfortunately Khrushchev wasn't terribly impressed by the restoration, complaining that it was glorifying Lithuanian history, so the finishing touches weren't made to the castle until the 1990's. From the bridge we also had a view back towards the church we had just walked from. We walked back around the lake to what we could see was the main tourist path towards the castle. There were a lot more tourists here than we have seen anywhere else in Lithuania, but still not large numbers compared to what you would expect in other countries There were a few tacky souvenir shops around the edge of the lake, but we were actually quite pleased to see them because it meant that we could finally buy some postcards, something which hadn't been possible at all in Ignalina We crossed over the main bridge to the island which houses the castle. The view was spectacular. We walked around the edge of the castle first, admiring the different towers and turrets. The style of the towers seemed quite reminiscent of some of those we had seen in the old town of Tallinn a few years ago. It's only a small island and almost the entire surface area is taken up by the castle. Everywhere we went we had a view of the lake. It cost €6 each to get into the castle, which seems expensive by Lithuanian standards but I guess not expensive for anywhere else. You were supposed to pay and extra euro or so to be allowed to take photos, but we may not have correctly understood that part of the sign... The first thing we saw when we entered the castle courtyard were the stocks! The hole was barely big enough for Tim's neck. Inside the castle are a number of very serious exhibitions about Lithuanian history. They're all helpfully translated into English, but we may not have managed to read them all. The castle is very well-organised though, with a one-way system of balconies and staircases ensuring that visitors don't have to pass one another in tight spaces. There were staff in each room making sure that people were walking in the correct direction (and telling them off if they weren't!) This was just as well, because some of the staircases were rather steep and winding. We made it down all the staircases in one piece and went for a walk along the opposite side of the lake, where there was the best view back towards the castle. This was the angle that we'd seen it from on photographs and postcards, and it was just as beautiful in real life. We stopped for a drink to cool off before starting the long walk back up the road to the train station for the journey back to Vilnius.
  8. There are only a handful of trains between Ignalina and Vilnius every day, with the first connection being at 12.48, so we were able to have a slow start to the morning in Ignalina. We decided to go for a walk around the lake at the bottom of our road, taking advantage of the fact that it was now daylight and there hopefully wouldn't be as many flies. The lake looked beautiful in the morning sunshine and we saw a heron, as well as a large congregation of ducks. It took us about an hour to walk a complete circuit around the lake. We made the most of our final walk through the forest, before heading back to the apartment to pack and catch the train back to Vilnius. The journey to Vilnius didn't seem quite as hot and sticky as it had on Tuesday, although it was still a very warm day overall. We arrived in the Lithuanian capital around 14.30 and had arranged to check into our apartment at 15.00. It wasn't a long way away from the station so it ought to have been easy to find, but the address details on the reservation were a little confusing. The address was given as "Šv. Stepono g. 8/11, Raugyklos g. 19/3" which was a rather baffling amount of numbers to work with. Šv. Stepono and Raugyklos were two small streets running roughly parallel to each other, so we decided to hang around the point at which they were intersected by a small side street and hope for the best. By 15.10 there was no sign of anyone waiting to check us in to an apartment on either street, so we decided we would have to contact the owner. We sent a text message to which we received an instant reply, saying that they were waiting for us on Šv. Stepono. We eventually found them... in a courtyard behind a locked gate, so it hadn't been immediately obvious that there was were we were supposed to be! It then turned out that the apartment we were staying in was actually on the other street anyway, so we had to trudge back to where we had started with the case. Once we eventually got inside, the apartment turned out to be nice, but definitely the smallest we have stayed in so far this holiday. It was mercifully cool though, which was a good start, and most importantly it had a working Wi-Fi connection We got to work posting blogs and photos from previous days, before going out for an evening walk in Vilnius. It didn't take us long to find our way into the old town. The pink town hall looked very familiar from Tuesday. We walked past the town hall and through the main square... ...passing this pretty church on our way towards the cathedral. We soon had a view of Gedminas tower... ...as well as the iconic white crosses in the background. We were fairly hungry at this point, having not had any lunch, so we walked back to a restaurant we remembered eating in last time we were in Vilnius. The service was a little slow - it seems to be acceptable in Lithuania to not serve everyone at the table at the same time - but the food was good, and cheap. Tomorrow we are hoping to visit the nearby town of Trakai
  9. When we checked into our apartment on Tuesday afternoon, one of the first things we noticed was that there was a useful information booklet entitled "Travelling in Aukštaitija National Park". This seemed to be a booklet which had been financed by an EU investment fund and, luckily for us, it was written entirely in English. It contained maps and instructions for a number of walks in the national park, as well as some cycling and canoeing routes. One of the walking routes was the Botanical Trail which we had tried yesterday; having read the booklet more attentively now, it appears that it's called the Botanical Trail because there are some interesting swamp plants, lichens and forest funghi! Seeing as we already knew the way to Palūšė, we decided to try a longer 10km route today which would allow us to visit a number of different lakes. The 5km or so to Palūšė seemed a lot quicker second time around and before long we were at the lakeside beach where we had started the Botanical Trail the day before. Following the instructions in the booklet, we walked around the shores of the lake, passing a number of rather strange wooden carvings. Apparently this was a sculpture park, with the carvings being made by artists from Ignalina and depicting characters from Lithuanian folk tales. Some of them looked quite scary... ...but some of them were quite cute. The sculpture trail took us from Palūšė to the neighbouring village of Meironys. It looked like quite a substantial settlement on the map, but in reality it was just a handful of houses and it wasn't long until we were back in the forests again. The forest road was taking us towards Gaveikenai. As we walked along it we assumed that the tyre tracks came from the odd forestry vehicle which passed along it, but when we reached the village of Gaveikenai we only just avoided being run down by the local bus as it proceeded to turn onto the track, having deposited two of the villagers and their shopping. It's not your typical bus route! Gaveikenai was another tiny place, full of wooden houses. The booklet instructed us to walk through the village and turn off onto a gravel path by the water mill. It was as we approached the water mill that our previously peaceful walk suddenly became stressful, as the barking of a crazed dog filled the air. There was a beautiful lake in front of us, with a gravel path leading to it, but between us and the water there was a large and very angry Alsatian. As the dog continued to bark furiously, we decided - more in a bout of wishful thinking than any geographical logic - that the booklet hadn't meant that gravel path and that instead we needed to continue walking on a smaller one back into the forest. We managed to entertain this illusion for a couple of minutes as the barking of the dog got fainter and fainter behind us, but as we failed to meet any of the upcoming specified landmarks in the rest of the route description, we were forced to the realisation that it had been that gravel path after all. Oh dear! We spent a while flicking through the other routes in the book to see whether there was a detour we could make that would negate the need to walk past the dog, but unfortunately the maps weren't in sufficient detail for us to judge. There was nothing for it but to return to the water mill. As soon as we approached, the dog started barking again. I personally thought that now might be a good time to turn around and walk back to Ignalina the way we had come, but Tim was feeling braver and went ahead to see what would happen as we got closer to the dog. I held my breath for a few minutes... but he returned with the good news that the dog was chained up! It was still rather nerve-wracking to walk past it, as he growled and barked, jumping and straining on the chain to get at us, but luckily it was a very sturdy chain and we made it past in one piece. Phew. The lake was beautiful when we were able to enjoy it in peace. After a brief rest we continued on our way. The path led us up onto a main road, which we were supposed to cross, following a track on the left hand side which would lead us back into the woods. The directions were a bit confusing and it took us a while to find the track in question. When we eventually did find what we thought was the correct path and tried to follow it along the side of another lake, we quickly ran into difficulties. The view was beautiful but the vegetation was growing quite high and it didn't look as if anyone had been along here for a while. We pushed through the long grass for a while, but eventually it became impossible to tell whether this was supposed to be a path or not. We turned around and retraced our steps to the main road. Luckily, the map indicated that it was possible to continue along the road and still end up in the next destination on the route, the little village of Strigailiškis. Although it was a road, there was hardly any traffic and we still had some really pretty views. Before long we arrived in Strigailiškis, also home to some rather noisy German shepherds, and also featuring its own lake. The thing which distinguished Strigailiškis from the other villages on the route, however, was the fact that it also had a restaurant. We were quite hot and tired by this point so we decided to stop for a drink at least and investigate the menu. The menu was fortunately translated into English and there was quite a wide selection. I had a margherita pizza, Tim went for beef stroganaff and managed to drink three beers. In addition to my Sprite and the jug of lemon water which we ordered, the entire meal cost us a mere €18. Wow. The only downside was that no one there spoke any English, but Tim managed to order everything with a mixture of Russian and hand gestures Leaving Strigailiškis, we managed to intercept the cycle path between Ignalina and Palūšė and so take a short cut back to our apartment for a rest. We've had a wonderful time here in the Lithuanian wilderness and suspect that when we head back to Vilnius tomorrow it's going to feel like a great metropolis, despite previously tying with Ljubljana in the award for sleepiest capital city we have ever visited
  10. It was another beautiful sunny day when we opened the curtains this morning in Ignalina. Our plan for today was to travel to the nearby village of Palūšė, which is the gateway to the Aukštaitija national park. Although the village is quite close to Ignalina, there isn't a regular bus service there and so the guidebook recommended that the best solution was to walk there. The instructions said to walk in a southwesterly direction from the main train station, where we would find a footpath/cyclepath to follow, and so we set off in the direction of the train station. On the way, we found what we think might be Ignalina's main square. It has a rather odd fountain. We also found the bus station, where the buses made us feel rather glad that we'd opted to arrive by train yesterday! We arrived at the train station but were slightly unclear about which direction southwest would be. We saw some other people following a small path alongside the railway lines and wondered whether that might be the correct direction. We followed them for a while, but stopped after a couple of minutes when we came to a large sign we couldn't understand in Lithuanian. It might have said "This is the way to Palūšė" or it could quite equally have meant "Danger of death". We decided to turn round, which was a good decision because shortly afterwards we found the cyclepath we were looking for. The path led us alongside a road and then up through a meadow and into the beginnings of the forest. We hadn't walked far before we got our first glimpse of one of the numerous lakes that the national park is famous for. We walked for about three miles, through the forest... ...and alongside the lake... ...until we reached the outskirts of Palūšė, where there is a larger lake with a sandy beach. A small track led upwards from the side of the lake. This was the start of a walk called the Botanical Trail, which had been recommended in the Rough Guide. The route was well-marked with little green arrows so it was impossible to get lost, although we were a bit confused about why the route was supposed to be "botanical" because as we walked it over the course of the next couple of hours, we barely encountered a single flower. There were quite a lot of mushrooms though, and we did pass the odd person out with a basket to collect them. Otherwise we virtually had the forest to ourselves. At times the pathway was a little overgrown... ..although admittedly this bit did open up to a viewing platform across one of the lakes. After a few ascents and descents, the path flattened off and followed the edge of the lake. The water was a beautiful colour in the sunshine. We briefly came out onto a road and then proceeded to walk down through the forests on the opposite side of the lake, ultimately arriving a few hundred metres from where we had started in Palūšė. The woods seemed very reminiscent of our trip to Sweden earlier in the year. Palūšė itself is a tiny place, although we did find a small cafe where we were able to get a drink. It's most notable landmark is its wooden church and belltower, which used to feature on one of the Lita notes before Lithuania joined the Euro. It was definitely a unique church, and there were some unusual woodcarvings in the grounds, some of which looked more pagan than Christian. There was also a wonderful view back towards the lake. There is a national park centre in Palūšė but it looked less interesting even than the one in Zernez, so we decided to give it a miss! We began our walk back to Ignalina... ...and within an hour or so we were there. We went back to the apartment to cool down and write up the blog. Unfortunately, the one catch of this apartment is that the advertised "free wi-fi" actually translates to "2GB of wi-fi" which we appear to have accidentally used up already. We're not too confident of finding an internet cafe in Ignalina, so we may not be online again until Vilnius on Thursday! Deprived of internet, in the evening we went out for another walk around the lake we could see from our balcony. 8pm probably wasn't the best time to have chosen to go for a walk beside a lake, as there were rather a lot of flying insects also enjoying the surroundings. Within no time we were deep within the woods again... ...and had a beautiful view back towards the metropolis of Ignalina. It was tempting to try walking all the entire way around the lake, but we decided we had better turn back before it either got dark or we got eaten alive by mosquitos.
  11. Today was a day of travelling. Our ultimate destination was Ignalina, a small town in northeastern Lithuania which is situated on the edge of the Aukštaitija National Park. It's about 100 miles from Kaunas, but our journey took most of the day because it's not possible to get there by train without going via Vilnius. Our train from Kaunas to Vilnius was at 11.00. We left the apartment with plenty of time to spare because, while we knew it was about a 45 minute walk to the train station, we didn't know how difficult it was going to be to purchase a ticket. It turned out to be remarkably easy; Kaunas station seemed bright and modern, there was hardly a queue at the ticket desk and the lady understood Tim's broken Lithuanian Best of all, the price of the journey to Vilnius was a mere €4 each! It remained to be seen, of course, what Lithuanian trains were going to be like. We knew from past experience that Latvian trains left a bit to be desired in terms of comfort, and so we were a bit apprehensive about what Lithuanian railways might have in store. We needn't have worried though, because the train to Vilnius surpassed all our expectations. Waiting on the platform was a modern, double-decker train of a standard that you would expect to find in Switzerland rather than Lithuania. The 90 minutes to Vilnius passed in a flash as we travelled across a flat, forested landscape, interrupted every now and again by small towns. We have been to Vilnius before, of course, and we're also spending the last three days of this holiday there, so when we arrived there around 12.30 our main priority was just to get some lunch, before catching our connecting train to Ignalina at 15.10. We had a rough idea of the direction of the old town, and assisted by some helpful signs we soon found our way to some places which looked very familiar. We remembered a lovely place where we'd sat outside and eaten pizza in 2013, so we headed in that general direction. We found it without too much difficulty, although it appeared to have changed hands and the menu was less pizza and more Eastern European variations on the theme of dough and pastry. I had something which was essentially a pizza-sized cheese burek, while Tim tried something which was a bit more doughy and involved meat and egg. Both meals were lovely, but extremely filling! After sitting in the sun for a while, we made our way back to the train station for our connection to Ignalina. This train was not quite as modern as the previous one and didn't benefit from any air-conditioning. This shouldn't theoretically have been a problem as it was possible to open the windows, so there should have been a nice breeze as the train sped through the countryside. Unfortunately, this wasn't a train which was going to do a whole lot of speeding. Vilnius to Ignalina is a distance of about 70 miles, which took the train the best part of two hours. It was a very hot two hours! The closer we got to Ignalina, the more forested the countryside became and we began to get some tantalising views of lakes and rivers. We arrived in Ignalina around 17.00 and made our way to the apartment we had booked, which was only a 10 minute walk away from the main train station. This one was a bit of a gamble when we booked it because it was a new listing without many reviews online. I don't normally go for anything that doesn't have a history of extremely good reviews, but Ignalina isn't exactly a tourist hotspot (although Lithuania is hoping it might become one) and so there wasn't a great deal of choice. It turned out to be an apartment in a rather dingy, Soviet-style tower block. The owner met us outside and let us up at least five flights of stairs at a swift pace. She didn't seem to speak any English at all, so as she showed us around the apartment we had to resort to communicating in Russian, an eventuality which we weren't really prepared for! We managed to grasp the basics; there was a lake down the road where we could go swimming, there were some teabags in the cupboard and she didn't need to see our passports. Phew. Luckily the apartment is really nice and spacious We've got two big rooms - a sitting room with two armchairs and a little conservatory/balcony.... ...and a larger kitchen/dining room with a bed at the far end. Somewhat bizarrely, we also have 11 potted plants! It's excellent value, at a mere €30/£21 per night and we even have a lakeview from our balcony. We had passed a supermarket on our way here, so we set out to explore Ignalina and buy some provisions. The supermarket was an interesting experience, with the food labels in a mixture of Lithuanian and Russian and far more jars of pickled things than seemed necessary. We managed to find some pasta and sauce, which was a relief Then we strolled down to the nearest lake to look at the view. It seems really pretty here and we're looking forward to exploring more and going for a walk in the forests tomorrow
  12. Yesterday was rather tiring so we didn't make a terribly early start to today, not heading out to explore Kaunas until nearly 10am. Luckily this didn't really matter, because the old town is literally right on our doorstep. The main street looked beautiful in the morning sunshine and today looked like it was going to be a much warmer day than yesterday. It turns out that this red-brick building which we walked past yesterday evening and assumed was just a normal church is actually Kaunas's cathedral! This church which we thought last night was the cathedral (purely on the basis that it was in the main square near the town hall and had the word "Dom" written on the front!)... ...actually turned out to be the church of St Francis Xavier. It appears to have had rather a chequered past, being originally built by the Jesuits in the seventeenth century, then converted into an Orthodox church under the Tsarist rule of the nineteenth century but returned to the Jesuits following Lithuania's independence in the 1920s, before being used as a technical school and a sports hall(!) during the Soviet years and finally returning to the Jesuits in 1989. In comparison, the actual cathedral doesn't seem anywhere near as exciting, although the guidebook says that it does have the honour of being the oldest Gothic church in Lithuania. Slightly more exciting (to me at least!) were the floral displays of ladybirds outside the town hall We walked round the corner from the main square... ...and found a rather strange sculpture of giant insects. One disadvantage of being in Lithuania is that it's pretty must impossible to understand any of the explanatory plaques on the monuments, so we have absolutely no idea what these were for! Round the corner we found a less disturbing statue of the Lithuanian poet Maironis, who lived in Kaunas. At the edge of the old town is Kaunas castle, believed to first have been constructed in the mid fourteenth century. This was the only place where we really found any evidence of other tourists in Kaunas; there was a coach party of elderly Germans listening to what sounded like a very dull lecture on the history of Lithuanian fortifications from their tour guide. There was another rather strange monument here, but we couldn't work out what it was commemorating. The flag in the background is the city flag of Kaunas. The castle is set in attractive grounds, and so we were able to escape the (admittedly small number of) other tourists and wander through a shady park overlooking the river. From there we were able to continue onto a riverside path beside the river Nemunas, passing on the way the church of Vytautas the Great. This is another one which has had a turbulent past, having been first built by Vytautas (a leader of medieval Lithuania) in the fifteenth century, and subsequently destroyed by floods, burned down by French troops in 1812, temporarily reopened as an Orthodox church in the nineteenth century, then used as a barracks and a warehouse in the twentieth century before finally being returned to the Catholic church. We walked along the river for quite some way, because I wanted to find a different church which I had caught a glimpse of yesterday on the bus from the airport to the railway station. This is the church of St Michael the Archangel, unfortunately slightly obscured by some ongoing road works, but nevertheless rather stunning. It was built in 1891, when Kaunas was part of the Russian empire, as a Russian Orthodox church for the use of Russian soldiers who were stationed at a nearby fortress. It was also supposed to symbolise the Russification of the city. It was converted into a Catholic church, which it remains today, during the interwar years, albeit having had a spell as an art gallery under the Soviets. Just outside the church is the start of one of the longest streets in Kaunas, Laisvės alėja (Liberty Avenue), which runs for 2km back towards the old town. The entire street is lined with trees, which makes it a nice shady walk on a sunny day, and there were some beautiful views back towards the church. This is the new part of town, where a lot of the buildings were constructed during the 1920s. Lithuania regained independence after the first world war, but was in the unfortunate position of having lost Vilnius as its capital, with that city first being occupied by the Bolsheviks and then annexed by Poland. Kaunas was therefore declared the "temporary capital of Lithuania" until Vilnius could be liberated. This presented Kaunas with a few practical problems, as it didn't possess all of the infrastructure which would be expected of a capital city. A big programme of building was undertaken to construct new government and administrative buildings, as well as a sewage system and a public transport network. Today Laisvės alėja is full of shops and restaurants, which was fortunate for us because we were absolutely starving. We managed to find a pizza restaurant whose menu had useful pictures, and settled down to eat with a nice view of the avenue. Tim had a chicken burger with a side order of sweetcorn, I had a hawaiian pizza and between us we had three drinks... which came to the startling price of €14, or about £10. Wow. After lunch we explored some of the streets parallel to the main avenue, finding a monument ot Vytautos the Great... ...as well as Unity Square, where there is an unusual war memorial. We had seen in the guidebook that behind this square there was a funicular running to the top of a small hill, where there was another interesting church. Lithuania is a predominantly flat country, so the guidebook did warn that the hill hardly seemed worth building a funicular up and that the authorities had considered closing the steps up the hill after the funicular opened to encourage people to use it! Just by chance we found the steps leading upwards before we found the funicular entrance, so we decided to try walking. It only took five minutes before we got our first glimpse of the church of Christ's Resurrection. This rather unusual-looking church was designed after 1918, when Lithuania wanted to build a new church to express its gratitude for independence. Kaunas was chosen as the location for the church in its role as temporary capital. Due to various difficulties with the funding and the construction work, the church was not substantially completed until 1940. This was rather unfortunate, as it was just on time for the Nazis to use it as a storeroom and Stalin to declare it should be used as a factory. Following the re-establishment of Lithuanian independence in the 1990s, work on the church continued and was finally consecrated in 2004. It's a truly enormous structure and difficult to fit all of it into one photo! The area around the church seems to be an affluent suburb, with lots of pretty wooden houses. We wandered around it for a while, looking for a park which we had seen on the map. It proved to be rather elusive and when we did get there it turned out to be more of a forest than a park. It was nice to walk under the trees for a bit though, and we did find a memorial to the Lithuanian aviators Darius and Girenas, who tried to fly non-stop from New York to Kaunas in 1933. They successfully crossed the Atlantic Ocean, but crashed and died in Poland, just short of their destination. We were getting tired by this point and had walked 10 miles, so decided to head back to our apartment for a rest. Kaunas is an attractive city with a really pleasant atmosphere and we would definitely come back. Tomorrow, however, we are heading to Ignalina, a small town northeastern Lithuania near one of the country's national parks
  13. When I ended up with a week's holiday in August, we didn't know where to go. There are lots of places which are nice at this time of the year, but we were conscious of how expensive flights and accommodation can be during school holidays in any country which is a popular tourist destination. This is where the new flight finder on the Ryanair website came into its own, enabling Tim to discover that flights from Stansted to Kaunas in Lithuania were surprisingly cheap despite it being high summer. We went to Vilnius in August 2013 as part of our tour through the Baltic states and absolutely loved it, commenting at the time that we would like to explore more of Lithuania one day, so it seemed like a good choice. We knew from our previous experience that Lithuania is a very cheap country for travellers from Western Europe (definitely the cheapest country in the Baltic), so a week in Lithuania would help to offset our rather more expensive trip to Italy and Switzerland in June on my holiday costing spreadsheet It was another early start for us, with our flight leaving Stansted at 07.55 this morning. We were parking in the Long Stay Carpark this time, which is a bit of a way from the main terminal, so we needed to be there for 05.30. We were slightly disconcerted when, having dragged ourselves out of bed and embarked on the long drive, the sat-nav persisted in taking us a very unusual route through the Leicestershire countryside rather than our normal route down the M1, which made it feel like we'd driven for a very long time without getting substantially nearer to Stansted. I'm assuming it knew about some motorway roadworks which we didn't, because it eventually brought us out on the A14 near Kettering and we were able to resume our normal journey. I was a little bit apprehensive about quite how busy Stansted was going to be on a Saturday morning in August, given the chaos we had experienced last time we flew on a Saturday morning in June, but actually it seemed slightly better rather than worse. There was the usual mindless crush at the Ryanair check-in, but we survived and got through security without any issues, even having time for some toast at Wetherspoons before it was time to board our flight. Not for the first time, I got confused when I was planning this holiday and discovered that our flight would leave Stansted at 07.55 but not arrive in Kaunas until 12.35. Was there some sort of Bermuda Triangle over Poland? Eventually I remembered that Lithuania is on Eastern European Time, so two hours ahead of the UK It still felt like a long flight though, and we were noticeably some of the very few non-Lithuanian people on the plane. There was plenty of clapping when the plane finally landed, rather bumpily, in Kaunas. Kaunas airport is small, although not the smallest airport we've ever been too; the passport control and the solitary baggage carousel are at least in separate rooms, which makes it bigger than Skopje or Split There were plenty of taxis waiting outside the terminal building, but I had read in the guidebook last week that one taxi company has a monopoly on the airport route and that the cost of a journey to the town centre would be around €18. That's a lot of money by Lithuanian standards! Luckily, the local bus number 29 also runs from just outside the airport to the main railway station in Kaunas. We made our way to the bus stop, passing other coaches and minibuses with exotic destinations like Minsk. The decision paid off when the bus arrived at 13.00 and we discovered that the fare into the city centre was a mere €0.70 each!!! The journey into Kaunas took about 45 minutes. I was surprised to hear a lot of Russian being spoken on the bus (unlike the other Baltic countries, Lithuania's Russian population is only about 6%) but most people got off at the bus station so possibly they were just passing through Kaunas on their way to Latvia or somewhere further afield. We had a walk of about 3km from the train station to the apartment we had booked, but it was quite a pleasant walk along the side of one of Kaunas's rivers. The weather had seemed quite windy and chilly when we first got off the aeroplane and it was clear from the big puddles everywhere that it had rained heavily recently. The day seemed to get progressively warmer and brighter as it went on though, with the clouds giving way to a bright blue sky. I was glad that I had my suitcase with its heavy-duty wheels as we started to make our way through the bumpy streets of the old town. The navigation went suprisingly well and we found the correct street without any problems. We'd arranged to meet the owner of the apartment at 14.30 and we were only about 5 minutes late, which seemed impressive when we'd travelled so far. The system of writing addresses in Lithuania is a bit unusual, so the addresss of our apartment was given as 33/7. We found number 33 quite easily but we were confused about what the "7" bit of the address meant. After a bit of wandering around we realised that there was a courtyard behind number 33 with a number of flats and the lady was there waiting for us She spoke excellent English and commented that people didn't normally manage to find it. She took us up to the apartment and it looked beautiful. We've got a nice little kitchen/dining room... ...and a lovely sitting room/bedroom. All this for the bargain price of €40/night, which works out as about £28/night with the exchange rate how it is at the moment! We were fairly tired after our early start and I accidentally managed to fall asleep until 19.00! When I eventually woke up we had some coffee and went out for a preliminary stroll around Kaunas. Our apartment is in a great location, just off what seems to be the main street in the old town. As we were walking along we found these rather cool Lithuanian phone boxes The street led into what we're guessing is the main square, with this large white building that looks like it might be the town hall. We were surprised to see quite a few buildings made of red brick, which seemed quite reminiscent of home. The cathedral was also pretty, though it looks liked the facade might be overdue for some restoration. Overall Kaunas seems like a really interesting place and we're looking forward to exploring properly with the guidebook tomorrow
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