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  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. 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
  3. 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.
  4. 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!
  5. 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.
  6. 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
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