VILNIUS, Lithuania — Looking down at Lithuania’s capital city from a hot air balloon was a lot like studying the growth rings on a tree.
At the center, the charming medieval Old Town of Vilnius was tightly packed with time-worn buildings sporting clay tile roofs. As the radius expanded beneath me, the architecture began to evolve with Gothic, Renaissance, and baroque splashes.
The rings changed dramatically outside of Old Town. First with a slick new downtown district, followed by blocks of utilitarian concrete Soviet-era apartment buildings that possessed the charm of a rusty can.
As the hot air balloon moved past the blocky apartments, it hovered over new suburban neighborhoods with swimming pools and lovely yards until finally reaching the pine forests and farms, where it gently touched down as the sun set far to the west toward the Baltic Sea.
Gliding over the capital of Lithuania in a hot air balloon on a balmy Friday night was not how I planned to spend my first night in Vilnius, a city of about 500,000. I had come because I read that several of Lithuania’s Soviet-era bunkers and fallout shelters had been converted into clubs, restaurants, and even Airbnbs.
I was ready to go underground and party like it was 1959.
But by the time I got to Lithuania this summer, many of these businesses had closed. The one bunker bar I found had been converted into a rather uninspiring beer garden. It didn’t take long to figure out why these reminders of Soviet Cold War domination didn’t stick around.
Decades of Soviet occupation are still raw. It’s a wound that’s still healing. In 1990, Lithuania declared independence from Russia. There are still many generations of Lithuanian families who lived through the loss of relatives and friends as hundreds of thousands were deported en masse to Siberia, or, worse, killed by Nazis or Soviets throughout the 20th century.
By the end of my week in Lithuania I realized that reliving the darkness of the Soviet occupation, even in a colorful club or restaurant, is something residents are probably not eager to do. I felt like a dolt for thinking there was fun to be had in fallout shelters.
On that note, let’s go back above ground, shall we?
Lithuania was put on my radar more than a year ago by a co-worker who forwarded along pictures of beautiful beaches, hip restaurants, and fun nightlife. I think she was secretly on the payroll of the Lithuania Tourism Council because she continued to champion the country for nearly a year. She charmed me into it.
Other benefits: Lithuania is not (yet) overrun with American tourists, it has beautiful architecture, great beaches, and it’s incredibly inexpensive. I stayed in a gorgeous new boutique hotel called Hotel Pacai that was housed in a restored 17th-century Baroque palace for less than $200 a night. And that was one of the most expensive hotels in Vilnius.
What all of this means is that soon Lithuania will be a fixture on those omnipresent lists of hot new travel destinations. I suggest you think about visiting before that happens.
The restaurant scene is quickly growing. Lithuania had a huge lead on the farm-to-table movement. It wasn’t a trend, it was a necessity during the years of food shortages during Soviet occupation. At the time of my visit everyone was out foraging for mushrooms. It’s a bit of a national sport. A skill handed down over the years. At Dziaugsmas restaurant there were mushrooms on the menu, but I opted for a small plate of tomato with pistachio cream, cheese, and raspberries delicately sliced and arranged in the shape of a heart. Dessert was elderflower ice cream with strawberries, whipped cream, and elderberries.
My meal at Sweet Root restaurant was perhaps the most inventive chef’s tasting I’d ever experienced. Instead of a menu I was handed a list of ingredients, the trick was to figure out which ingredient was used in which dish. Because I have the discerning palate of a chipmunk I was unable to piece together the entire puzzle, but what I ate was sensational.
For those of you who arrive in Lithuania as completely clueless as I was, allow me to impart some useful trinkets of information. Lithuania is not in Eastern Europe. It is the geographical center of Europe. It’s part of the EU, the currency is the Euro, and it’s part of NATO. The residents were quite proud of the country’s European affiliation, primarily because they were clearly tired of being invaded by other countries.
Being located in the geographical center of Europe has one big disadvantage — it seems everybody wants to occupy you.
When I wasn’t busy filling my face on farm-to-table cuisine in Vilnius, I was playing the dutiful role of tourist. My first stop was the bohemian neighborhood of Uzupis. This is the artistic side of Old Town. It’s like the Montmartre of Vilnius. It's so quirky it even has its own constitution with 38 articles such as “A dog has the right to be a dog” and “People have the right to be unhappy.” There were also more conventional touristic pursuits, such as the city’s castles, towers, and, of course, churches (please put the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul at the top of your church list).
When I visited these attractions, their histories had one thing in common. It began with the phrase “In Soviet times . . .” and went on to describe how the Soviets had turned churches into weapons factories, museums into movie theaters, or palaces into offices. Since gaining independence in 1990, Lithuania has been working to restore its historic and religious past, most of which was destroyed by the Soviets.
What the Soviets did leave was the mammoth concrete TV Tower. At the top you can find a revolving restaurant which is campy as all get-out, but the tower itself is a sacred site. More than a dozen people died while peacefully demonstrating outside the tower when the Soviets tried to reoccupy Lithuania in 1991.
Lithuania is celebrating 100 years of independence in 2018. However it’s a bit of a misnomer. Yes, it’s true that they escaped Russian rule in 1918. But in 1920 Poland seized Vilnius and areas south, forcing the capital city to move. By 1939 Lithuania was carved up by the Germans and the Soviets. In 1944, it fell under Soviet rule for more than four decades. Before that, Russia had ruled the country for 120 years, even trying to eliminate the Lithuanian language. Book smugglers and home schooling kept the language alive.
If you’re thinking this sounds more like a history lesson than a travel story, you’re partially correct. However, history is important for planning your trip. For example, I went to the Atomic Bunker Museum in Kaunas, the Cold War Museum in Ploksciai, and the Genocide and Resistance Centre of Lithuania in Vilnius. After seeing KGB spy equipment, gas masks, KGB prisons where detainees were held and tortured, and a former Russian underground missile base, I realized my excitement for visiting these attractions had been fueled by watching one too many episodes of “The Americans.” Just one of those three activities would have sufficed.
But there was one absolutely bonkers Cold War relic I could not miss — Gruto Park. Located in the southern part of the country, not far from Belarus, the park is the unofficial resting place for Soviet-era sculptures that were put out to pasture after the country regained its independence. It’s often called Stalin World or Lenin Land. Here, once imposing sculptures of key Communist figures now watch over pine trees rather than town squares as children frolic in a playground or run around one of the trains that were once used to deport Lithuanians to Siberia. Propaganda signs are placed in the mini zoo. Intentional or not, Gruto Park comes off as a big (fill in your profanity of choice here) to the Russians.
I was able to do all of these things outside of Vilnius because unlike many tourists, I took a week to explore Lithuania rather than add the country to a tour of the Baltic states. I road tripped to see the Art Deco architecture of Kaunas, which temporarily served as the country’s capital through the 1920s when the Polish invaded. I went for spa treatments in Druskininkai, a town that is known for its wellness hotels. I made it to national parks and forests where Lithuanian pagans once worshiped nature gods.
I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect of Lithuania, but it certainly wasn’t the beauty of Palanga, a charming beach town where I wish I had spent more time rather than seeking out musty old fallout shelters. Had you asked me a year ago if I would consider taking a beach vacation in Lithuania, I probably would have thought you had put bath salts on your Cheerios. Now I would answer you with a solid yes.
Like Vilnius, Palanga is an inexpensive escape. The chic Vila Komoda hotel was less than $200 a night with a hotel restaurant that produced pieces of art on a plate. Vila Komoda is on the high end of hotels. There are plenty of other hotels and rentals for those with tighter purse strings.
About two hours south of Palanga is the Curonian Spit, a thin finger of sand that juts out into the Baltic Sea. It’s a UNESCO World heritage site with miles of dunes, parks, and streets lined with summer homes.
At the end of the trip I went north of the city of Šiauliai to a hill covered with more than 100,000 crosses, all placed by visitors to remember loved ones. There is a feeling that seeps into you at a place like the Hill of Crosses. At first it seems like the perfect place to take pictures. But after a while I stopped taking pictures and just started to absorb it. This hill could be the ultimate symbol of Lithuanian independence. As the locals would say, “In Soviet times, the crosses were forbidden.” Now, free of impediments, the crosses have spread into a forest. I’m quite sure it was the most spiritual and inspiring forest I’ve ever experienced.