Why The Partytrail Went To Lithuania
In 2008, while at the University of Southern California (USC), I was standing at the university’s fraternity row (for those of you not in the know, it’s a strip on 28th Street in downtown Los Angeles (L.A.) with some friends from Mexico when out of nowhere, I saw this girl elegantly approaching our group.
She was tall, had short blonde hair, accompanied with a well chiseled face. Her looks and swagger were uncharacteristic of most of the other girls I encountered at the university.
My friends and I knew she had to be foreign. About 10 minutes into our conversation with her, she told us she was from Lithuania (up to that point, all I knew of Lithunia was that it was a former Soviet state and a basketball powerhouse somewhere in Europe).
She would go on to tell us all about her country and their struggle to achieve independence from the Soviets.
She also let us in on the fact that while she loved L.A., Lithuania was where her heart belonged. I never saw her again but she left such an impression on me that I decided some day, if I got a chance I would visit Lithuania–a country that up until that point was a mystery to me.
I boarded a flight out of Belgrade and headed straight for Lithuania. I didn’t know what to expect, so I decided it was best to keep an open mind.
On arrival at the airport in Vilnius, I had my first encounter with a Lithuanian while trying to organize a cab ride down to the city center where my hostel was booked.
A middle aged man, approached me and asked: “What are you doing here? Are you lost?” I was taken aback by the question, not knowing if he was being rude or just inquisitive, I retorted: “No! Are you?” to which, he turned around and briskly walked away.
I got into the cab and wondered what that encounter was about. All I could do was ponder what point he was trying to make.
However, in the next two weeks of me spending time in his country, his aversion to strangers, while uncalled for, would somewhat make sense to me.
Lithuania is one of three Baltic states that used to be a part of the now defunct Soviet Union. It is bordered by the Baltic Sea, Belarus, Latvia, and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad Oblast.
The administrative capital of Lithuania is Vilnius, which also doubles as the economic epicenter of the country. Vilnius as of 2014 boasts a population of about 540,000.
After settling into my hostel in Vilnius, I decided to wander around the city a bit.
Vilnius truly shows itself in the summer as a really beautiful capital city, and for a country that some 20-odd years ago was holed up behind the Iron curtain, it was obvious Lithuania seemed to be moving in the right direction.
The main strip that holds most of the restaurants and coffee shops in Vilnius is “Gediminas Avenue”.
One of the things that stood out to me was the almost ubiquitous presence of Scandinavian and American businesses in Vilnius.
This to me was evidence of foreign investment into the Country. I also found that most people under the age of 30 spoke decent English.
Another location of note is the Old town hall, which was in the past a site of Lithuanian resistance to Soviet occupation. Twenty-four years later, streets adjacent to the old town hall are lined with outdoor cafes, restaurants, and bars.
At first glance, one would think Vilnius was an ethnically homogenous city but I would later find out that there is a good mix of Russians, Poles, native Lithuanians and expatriates who had chosen to make Vilnius home.
People in Vilnius also have a good sense of style and fashion; they portray the sort of looks that would make Anna Wintour of Vogue magazine feel validated.
As I wound down my first day touring the city, the word that bubbled up in my mind about Vilnius was “impressed”.
Vilnius for all its architecture, clean streets, outdoor cafes, and restaurants, struck me as a world class city.
The Russians Came And Took It From Them……
The next day, I decided I wanted to explore some more and went to rent a bicycle. At the bicycle shop, there was a tattooed gentleman with a Skrillex-style hair cut. He sat expressionless in his chair, looked up to see who had walked into his shop and without a bother, looked right back down into his computer screen.
I inquired about renting a bicycle to which he asked “Why? To tour the city?”. I had to decipher what he was saying through his thick Lithuanian accent, which made me a little slow to respond.
I told him I wanted to rent a bicycle, to which, he replied “Why don’t you visit Klaipeda or Kaunas? In my opinion those are more authentic Lithuanian cities.” Vilnius is all shiny because it has been polished up with European Union (E.U.) money.
He said “Besides Klaipeda is a port city and of great historical significance to Lithuania. It used to be a very German city until the Russians came and took it from them.”
“You definitely have to visit it,” he said. I paid the deposit on the bicycle and headed out. His comments about Kaunas and Klaipeda left me wanting to visit, so I planned trips to both cities in the coming week.
I would spend the rest of the week trying out local Lithuanian dishes like Cepelinai (which are potato dumplings) and hot borscht (which is beet soup).
The evenings saw me and newly acquainted travelers or expatriates head to local bars and clubs on Vilnius Street like Pablo Latino, Salento, Exit, and Cocaine all loathed by locals but very popular amongst Erasmus students and expatriates.
The one thing I took away from Vilnius nightlife is that it is quite tame compared to a lot of other European destinations.
If you are looking for a rager, Vilnius is definitely not a city you want to come to. Most bars are virtually empty during the week and close around 3 am on the weekends.
After a week, enjoying the architecture, local dishes and nightlife in Vilnius, I decided it was time to take the advice of the guy from the bicycle rental shop and head to Kaunas.
I took a bus from the Vilnius bus station and an hour later I was in Kaunas.
Kaunas was a much different city than Vilnius, first of all it was not as posh as Vilnius and it was a lot more telling of Lithunia’s Soviet past than Vilnius.
In Vilnius, one could see evidence of Lithuania’s tilt to the EU and “The West” in general.
The main strip that holds most of the bars and restaurants in Kaunas is called “Laisves Aleja”. It is one of the Longest pedestrian streets in all of Europe. Laisves Aleja virtually runs from the Kaunas city center all the way to 0ld town Kaunas. Amongst some of the must see landmarks in Kaunas are….
- Napoleon’s Hill
- The Lithuanian Aviation Museum
- City Hall Square
- The Akropolis Shopping Mall
- Vytautas the Great War Museum
- The Kaunas Castle
The nightlife in Kaunas is centered mostly around old town where you have Lithuanians sitting in outdoor cafes in the summer and hitting up clubs like The Basement, rePUBlic, the legendary Blue Orange pub, and Mojo Lounge.
While out in partying in Kaunas, I felt an over-arching sense of danger that I did not feel in Vilnius.
There was no shortage of macho guys wanting to pick a fight with any willing participants. I was never personally attacked or abused, but this was due to me being overtly diplomatic.
I did also see some ethnic tension manifest itself in the form of local Lithuanians getting into fist fights with their Polish and Russo-Lithuanian counterparts.
A piece of valuable advice for anyone visiting Kaunas: look out for these situations and to try as much as possible not to provoke or incite any unnecessary fights.
The city is safe enough if you keep your head about your wits. Kaunas also moonshines as a student city so that adds some foreign diversity to a population that is comprised of more native Lithuanians than Vilnius by a stretch.
This is Lithuania’s third largest city; it is also a port city as it has access to the Baltic Sea. There are two seaside resorts of note close to Klaipeda, one being, Palanga and the other being Nida.
The Curonian Spit is also a landmark worth seeing if one were to visit Klaipeda. The city of Klaipeda, because of it’s strategic location by the Baltic Sea has been the subject of foreign conquests ranging from the Teutonic Knights, the Third Reich and the Soviets to name a few.
In fact, if one were to visit Klaipeda, most of the architecture betrays the existence of its current Russo-Lithuanian inhabitants.
It was inhabited for a long time by Germans and from what I gathered, the population was more or less wiped out when the Germans lost the war to the Russians on the eastern front during the Second World War.
It was interesting to visit another former Soviet country and experience some of the changes that were occurring in the country post independence. Lithuania, from what I noticed, had experienced quite some agony in the past at the hands of foreigners.
From foreign opression at the hands of the Germans and Russians, to the unruly Turkish, Italian and British tourists who would later come and treat Lithuania like it was some sort of playground with cheap booze and quick flings.
It is no wonder Lithuanians have developed some sort of aversion to foreigners. By the end of my trip to Lithuania, I understood where the gentleman who inquired “if I was lost” was coming from.
Lithuania has had it rough to say the least; it’s small size and close geographical location to superpowers, like Russia and Germany, leave it open to the whims of foreign nations with ambitions of expanding their geopolitical and economic reach.
There are just about 3 million Lithuanians at the time of this publication. A sizeable number emigrated abroad after the collapse of the Soviet Union in search of better opportunities, while some decided to stay home and tough it out.
The wages in Lithuania are also low compared to other E.U. member states; there is an oversupply of educated candidates and not enough jobs to go round.
However, if one were to compare Lithuania today to what it was in 1991 when the Iron Curtain fell, one would see that this country has nowhere to go but up. Hopefully, I get to go back one day to visit Lithuania once it has achieved it’s Baltic promise.