Weekend in Mostar

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Bosnia and Herzegovina or BIH to those in the know,  was a place that I had been curious about ever since I developed an interest in the Balkans. It’s also a place that I associated with terrible news stories of the Bosnian war which appeared on the TV news in my late teens. On my return from Montenegro last year, myself and mum started looking at other countries in the region, and before we knew it, we had booked flights into Croatia and buses onward to this beautiful, mountainous war warn country.
ARRIVALS If you are planning to travel from the UK then you will have to get creative, as there are currently no direct flights into BIH from any airport in the UK. Sarajevo Airport has a number of daily flights from Istanbul, Munich and Vienna among other places, so you could go via there, the smaller but developing Mostar Airport has flights coming in from Dusseldorf and Stuttgart with more destinations being added soon I believe. Most people will travel overland like we did, coming in from the neighbouring countries such as Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro and Slovenia. The country is set up well for bus travel, with many daily options available from popular places such as Dubrovnik, Kotor and Llubjiana. You will be crossing land borders, so make sure you have some spare change if you want to put your bag in the hold and have your passport ready for the border crossing. I have used Get By Bus a number of times now without any problems and this was no exception. On this trip we based ourselves in Mostar, which is not too far from the Croatian and Montenegro borders, we took the bus from Dubrovnik to Mostar for €16 taking 3 1/2 hours (not including the 2 hour delay on departure) and then went home via Split in Croatia (it left on time!) which took just over 4 hours. Trains are limited in BIH, but it is possible to travel between the capital Sarajevo and Mostar, rail cc website is probably your best bet for further research. Both the train and bus stations are a short 10 minute walk from the old town.

 

HISTORY BIT Phew, well, its complicated that’s for sure, and I am definitely no expert on the region. Visiting Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia prior to this trip I have learnt many different perspectives on who did what and why regarding the recent wars and I’m still pretty confused even now.  Located along the Balkan peninsula, the Bosnia Herzegovina area has had settlements here since 10,000 BC, its been part of the Roman and then Ottoman Empires with Germanic and Slavic tribes all laying claim at some point. It was in 1929 that the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was formed of which Bosnia and Herzegovina were a part of, and remained until 1991 when the country started to fall apart and the many resulting conflicts started. The Bosnian war lasted from 1992-1995 and from what I can tell speaking to locals and visiting a few museums in the area, the Serbians and Croats both tried to lay claim to the region with the Bosniaks stuck in the middle, a peace agreement was finally agreed and signed in Paris at the end of 1995.

There is still a complicated political structure set up today, and while BIH functions as one country, its kind of divided up into 3 provinces with the 3 presidents rotating duties every 8 months, or at least that is the current situation but elections are due later in 2018, so it could all change again.
SIGHTS The star of the show has to be without question the Stari Most or the Old Bridge, rightfully it has been given UNESCO world heritage status and is the reason for the name of the city as ‘most’ means bridge. Originally built in 1557 this stone bridge took 9 years to build, connecting the two sides of the Neretva river with massive towers or ‘bridge keepers’ flagging either side. An iconic image of the country, in 1993 the Croatians blew up the bridge and it became an even more important landmark once it was rebuilt in 2004, using the traditional Ottoman techniques with local stone. We walked over the bridge many times on our explorations of the town, taking care not to trip over the staircase like steps that are built into the walk way and the views of the valley and surrounding hills are stunning. There are many restaurants and bars that line the side of the river, affording great views of the bridge day and night as well as a great picture and vantage point a short walk south on the west side of the river. We got stopped by an ‘official guide’ on our first morning, who showed us his tour guide laminate, so he must have been official right? He took us to a scenic photo spot, gave us some ‘facts’ about the bridge, took our picture and then promptly wanted about £20 from us, luckily my mum firmly told him no, gave him some change and he reluctantly walked away, next time we should just bring our selfie stick! That was the only time on our trip to BIH that we ever had any issues, everybody else was friendly, welcoming and not trying to make a fast buck. There is also a Museum of the Old Bridge which is spread over 5 floors inside the Tara Tower on the east side of the river, covering the stories of both the original and restored bridges.
The Old Town of Mostar is just a joy to walk around, full of history, beautiful repaired buildings, lots of cafes, restaurants and shops selling lavender, clothes, pottery and gorgeous copper tea sets. I really had to resist my usual restraint of not buying souvenirs, but did weaken to buy a BIH Football shirt, which I am wearing proudly as I write this. There are lots of restaurants and cafes serving inexpensive local dishes and the most amazing thick Bosnian coffee which you can drink right by the river as you take in the breathtaking views and soak up the atmosphere.  Whereas some popular tourist spots rip you off for having the experience of a glass of wine or coffee right in the heart of the action, the cafes and bars along the River Neretva especially those with great views of the bridge were all decently priced and we never felt rushed to finish up and move along. Just wandering along the cobbled streets, drinking coffee and chatting to the local shop keepers was a real highlight of our trip.
You cannot fail to hear the many calls to prayer that calmly ring out across the city 5 times a day from the 30+ mosques in the city.  The most prominent and largest being the Karogoz Bey Mosque which is open to the public, as is the 2nd largest Koskin-Mehmed Pasha with a tower you can climb up for epic views across the city. Although we managed a good look around the grounds, the mosque was closed for prayer when we arrived to climb the tower and we didn’t get time to return, at least on this visit . Both mosques are situated in the old town and easy to get too by foot, just a short walk from the bridge.
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However you enter Mostar, via train, car or bus, one thing that is bound to catch your attention, are the war torn ruins of the many buildings that have either so far failed to be rebuilt or are purposely left as a stark reminder of the war that only finished less than 30 years ago. It makes for a thought provoking walk that’s for sure, there are free walking tours that can take you to many of the important sights, but you only need to walk a few streets away from either side of the river to get a good idea of just how ravaged this beautiful town was not that long ago.
Sniper tower is hard to miss, a former 8 storey bank, this pointed granite building looks out across the city, look for the hole blasted into the wall right at the top, this was the snipers look out point. Across the road from the tower is Spanish Square, now a popular meeting place, it was built in remembrance of the Spanish troops who died in the war, the impressive Moorish gymnasium on the corner of this main street provides some colourful relief from the other burnt out buildings nearby. A few streets back from this busy intersection is Santica Street which was the front line of the Bosnian war, Croatians on one side of the street and the Serbians were on the other, there is evidence everywhere of the full destruction of the past, but it also shows just how far this country and its people have pulled together to rebuild.

Biscevic House is one of many traditional Turkish Ottoman houses of which there are many throughout the region. This particular house is held in high regard in the country and even mentioned in poems and songs.  Dating from the 1600’s this house is now a museum and national monument and open to the public daily, we missed the opening times due to a packed Bosnian schedule, but its on my list if I am lucky enough to return some day.

Crooked Bridge As you wander through the town, look out for the mini Stari Most, which was built as a prototype about 8 years before the main bridge.  Overlooking the Radobolja River, locals set up stalls nearby and there are some nice little bars and cafes alongside it, it’s the perfect place to stop and chill.

If you fancy some more history about this wonderful country, its archeology, costumes and customs, then head to the Museum of Herzegovina open daily until 2pm. I have yet to visit a traditional Hamam (maybe when I finally make it to Turkey?) but if you want to learn more about this Turkish tradition of bathing, then the Hamam Museum is the place to do your research (closed on Mondays).

Coffee and Cake. Our first morning we sat outdoors at the Koski Basta Caffe in the fresh morning light right by the entrance to the Old Bridge as a sign advertising ‘Bosnian Coffee’ caught our eye. Located on the west side of the bridge, we were served the most delicious thick coffee with a small pastry, on a traditional copper serving dish all for about €3. Our second morning in the town we were tempted by the ‘sweet bosnian breakfast’ on the menu of Moon Star Cafe and Pizzeria right by the Hamam Museum. It was delicious, and a little cat came to join us for some of the bread we were eating. It had comfy outdoor seating with great views of the hills in the distance. For cake, on our first night we visited Caffe Amir as it was close to our hotel on the south end of Adema Buca Street. A lovely family run cafe that has been there since 1978, they do a great selection of coffee and teas and an amazing array of cakes with lots of outdoor seating, it was a great introduction to Mostar life.

 

Eats Our first nights choice was given a glowing report by our Herzegovina tour guide who used to work there, so we headed over to Hindin Han. This restaurant is based inside a restored mill, with an outdoor terrace overlooking a little stream. They offer local Mostar beers and wines and a great selection of cheeses served with delicious bread, there is a good selection of traditional dishes and its inexpensive and friendly, it was a good decision. We also visited Restoran Lagero this place has an outdoor terrace looking over the River Neretva with a great view of the Stari Most, we ordered a bottle of Bosnian wine and had home made date cake, although rather rich, it didn’t stop either of us from eating the lot.

Extras If you like an adrenalin rush (so not me then!) you can pay €25 euros to dive off the Stari Most, or if you just prefer watching other people doing daft stuff, then Red Bull hold a bridge diving competition in Mostar every year. Mostar is surrounded by hills, many accessible by road, Hum Hill is easily spotted from all across the town as it’s the one with the large cross on the top and can be hiked if you have the stamina. We were lucky to be driven to the top of Hill Fortica by our Herzegovina tour guide, which I will write more about in my next post, but the views back down to Mostar, the historical significance of the hill top and hair pin bends up the side of the mountainous road where rather unforgettable as was the whole Mostar experience and I can’t wait to return.

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Always be polite ‘Thank You’ – ‘Hvala’  ‘Hello’ – ‘Zdravo’ ‘Please’ – ‘Molimo vas’ ‘Beer’ – ‘Pivo’

Belgrade birthday trip.

After successful trips to Montenegro and Greece, I’ve started to develop at taste for the region known as the Balkans. Often when travelling into smaller airports, I like to take note of the onward destinations available, places that I wouldn’t normally think of. Whilst in Tivat (Montenegro) I noticed that other than Moscow, the other place you could fly onward too was Belgrade. Before long I had booked a return flight back to Tivat and then with only a 4 hour wait between flights, I booked a connecting ticket to Serbia for country number 46!

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Arrivals I live in the North West of England, and so there are no direct flights to Serbia from here, or anywhere in the UK other than London. The direct flights are offered by Wizz Air and Air Serbia, but if London isn’t convenient, you may need to get inventive if you still fancy a trip. Due to a previous trip to Tivat with Easyjet, I knew that Air Serbia made multiple daily flights to Belgrade from Tivat that only took about an hour, I landed mid morning from Manchester and so booked on the afternoon flight to Belgrade, just enough time for a Montenegro lunch.

Otherwise, its worth checking the Belgrade airport website to see which other cities you could fly to Belgrade from, such as Prague or Sofia, so if you can get a cheap flight there, you could then book an onward flight to the Serbian capital. There is always a way!

Buses are a great option too, I couldn’t get a flight from Belgrade that would get me back to Montenegro in time for my return flight to Manchester, so I booked an overnight bus with Get By Bus which allowed me to arrive back in Tivat in plenty of time for my flight home. Just a quick search shows direct buses from Budapest and Zagreb, but im sure there are more. Trains could be an option too, your best bet is to check the best train website there is Seat 61. One word of warning, it’s not particularly recommended to cross the Kosovo – Serbian border, as its unstable and some reports say a Kosovo passport stamp isnt looked on too favourably, so if you are planning to visit many countries in this region, maybe leave Kosovo till near the end.

You can’t get Serbian Dinar from the UK, but don’t worry, there are lots of cash machines at the airport and there are banks and currency exchanges all over the city, so as soon as I passed through immigration I withdrew money with my UK bank card. Getting to the city centre is easy and you have a few options, there is the A1 bus which leaves from downstairs outside the arrivals area, but I took the 72 bus which leaves from upstairs by departures, purely because its final destination was the closest to my hotel. You can buy a ticket beforehand if you can find the kiosk, but I paid about £1 from the bus driver and the journey took about 40 minutes. The main bus and train stations are pretty close to the city centre and so if you arrive this way, it shouldnt be too far to walk to get to where you are staying.

History Bit The origins of the country are somewhat disjointed and confusing for a novice to the region like myself. Descended from the Slavs tribe, they migrated to the region now known as Serbia from at least the 6th century. The current country and its borders within the Yugoslavia region, have only existed since it separated from its neighbour Montenegro in 2006. The whole area has been ravaged by war and internal conflict for many years, most recently when the Yugoslavia communist leader Tito died in 1980 and regions started to split apart. By the mid 1980’s Slobodan Milošević started to gain influence and by 1989 he was the President of Serbia and in 1997 became President of the Republic of Yugoslavia. By the end of the civil war, the only countries left in ‘Federal Republic of Yugoslavia’ were Montenegro and Serbia, until they too went their separate ways.

Translated as the ‘white city’, people have been found to inhabit the area known as Belgrade since 7000 BC. It has been an important area especially due to its position at the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers but this has meant its been involved in 115 wars and been destroyed 44 times.  It was the capital of Yugoslavia for the entirety of its existence and then retained its role as the capital of Serbia once it became a solo country.

Sights I arrived on a Sunday afternoon and was to depart late Tuesday evening, upon realising that most of the museums were closed on Mondays, I planned my Monday daytime around all the free and open sights, leaving museums until the Tuesday.

Kalemegdan Park was an absolute delight on a bright Monday morning as it was full of dog walkers, joggers and friendly stall holders lining entrance at the east end. Situated at the top of the old city, right where the rivers Sava and Danube join together, the park affords great views as you climb upwards toward the fortress that has survived many attempts to be destroyed over the years, but still stands proud toady as an important landmark of the city. There is a lot to discover here within the park, there are fountains, a zoo, restaurants, coffee shops, memorials and one of the most popular tourist sites the Belgrade Fortress . Built into what looks like a cliff looking out across the park, I spent a good hour wandering up and down, peering around the walls, crossing interlinking bridges and getting a selfie with a tank outside the military museum. But the real surprise was accidentally finding the most beautiful little chapel built into the fortress walls close to the Charles VI gate, Saint Petka’s chapel a tranquil little orthodox place of worship, full of beautiful mosaics inside, definitely seek this out when you visit.

Next I headed down to the water’s edge where the rivers Danube and Sava meet. There is a nice promenade you can walk along, and although it was quiet and peaceful on the Monday morning, there were signs of life, like some bars and restaurants and I can imagine at weekends and at the height of summer it’s a really cool place to hang out.

After a break for lunch I decided to visit one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world, the Church of Saint Sava. Like most orthodox churches both the inside and outside are spectacular and this one is no different, and make a point to look up high at the glistening dome inside. There are at least 2 other churches that should be on your itinerary St Mark’s Church with incredible fresco paintings and Church of Alexander Nevsky which was once was a hospital and built in honour of Russian soldiers, again its interior is breathtaking.

The remainder of the day and the previous evening was spent exploring the pedestrian area around Knez Mihailova Street, around here you can find souvenir shops, cafes, coffee and cake shops, tourist information, bars, restaurants as well as craft and high street stores.

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Up early the next morning, I set off for a nice birthday walk and breakfast in the Dorćol region. It’s the oldest part of town, and a really interesting neighbourhood has developed, with a good choice of cafes, shops and cool street art dotted around every corner. Dont miss Salvador Dali corner, recognisable by the curved street sign, it’s a place where an art collective used to meet, in fact there is lots of art to see around this part of town and if I had more time I would have booked onto an art tour, but you always have to have a reason to return to a place right?

Next up I wanted to explore the green market Zeleni Venac, which is where I had gotten off the bus a couple of days before. It has a great atmosphere, a place where you can mix with the locals for a real taste of Serbia whilst shopping for produce such as nuts, baked goods and fresh juices. Close to here are the main bus stations too, so I did some research and located the platform where my bus was to leave later that evening whilst I was still fresh after my breakfast and coffee.

So as it was Tuesday all the museums in the city were open and there were two that I had set my sights on visiting. It’s a bit far over on the South side, but I really wanted to learn more about the history of this region, so I headed over to the Museum of Yugoslav History. It’s about a 45 minute walk or you can catch trolley bus 40 or 41 for about 90p (€0.75). Located around a park full of statues and great views across the city, there are 3 main areas to visit here, the House of Flowers, the ‘May 25th” museum and the Old Museum, all for the entrance fee of just under £1.50 (€1.69). A large area is dedicated to the memory of Josip Broz also known as Tito, the communist Yugoslavian leader who is buried here and where visitors can pay their respects at his mausoleum, as well as a room full of gifts given to him from dignitaries all over the world.  There is an exhibit hall full of artifacts collected from all over this historic region that was once consisted of 6 separate socialist states, it’s really fascinating stuff and it was here were I also learned about the Blue Train, which Tito had built to travel all across the region whilst hosting visits from many important politicians and heads of state from all over the world.

After a well-earned break for lunch, I negotiated the ridiculously busy area around Slavija Square, where trolley buses, cars, buses, trams and pedestrians all try to negotiate themselves safely across this huge interesection, centered around a large roundabout and fountain. My afternoon was to be spent learning about Serbia’s favourite son and for whom the city’s airport was named after – Nikola Tesla. The museum opened in his honour is a small but informative place, filled with clothes, letters, drawings and diagrams from the engineer as well as small working models of many of his inventions. Every hour there is a free guided tour in either Serbian or English depending on the visitors, luckily I got an English tour, which includes a short video on the life of Tesla and then live demonstrations of some of his experiments, I was there around 3pm and it was very busy, so get there well before the hour if you want a good view.

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I then wandered back slowly towards the centre of town past Manjež Park and the Yugoslav Drama Theatre towards the pretty cool modernist style skyrise known as the Albania Building. This was the first skyscraper to be built in Southeast Europe and it is from this point that all distances are measured within Serbia and interesting fact, a 2 million year old mammoth skeleton was found buried beneath the building, and is now housed in a museum in the city.

I still had time for some birthday cake in one of the many gorgeous cafes back around Knez Mihailova Street and a glass of local wine, before heading to the coach station for my overnight bus across the country and into Montenegro for my flight home. Perfect birthday trip 🙂

** If you are travelling by bus from the main Belgrade bus terminal, you need to get a separate ticket first from the ticket office (as well as your bus ticket) before you are allowed to enter the platform to board your bus.

Coffee and Cake. To start with there is a pretty decent coffee chain called Coffee Dream, they are dotted all over the capital and offer none dairy options as well as a selection of cakes and pastries.  Like most places in Serbia you can smoke indoors which felt gross as I sat there with my morning coffee next two a couple puffing away, urgh. It only takes a quick internet search to find many unique independent coffee shops all across this city and for my birthday breakfast in Dorćol I found a cool coffee place called Aviator Coffee. It’s a nice big space, comfy seating, none dairy milk options, and a good selection of teas and pastries, the only downside, smoking indoors again. If you love cake, you’ll love Belgrade, there are some really modern cake shops dotted around the city, on my first evening, I was tempted into the ground floor of the Art Hotel to the Avgustin Waffle and Ice Bar I resisted the hot Belgium waffles though and treated myself to what can only be described as a giant orange pill, which was actually a biscotti mouse cake and was to die for! The other dessert cafe I visited was located not far away from Avgustin and was called Edisan Pastry Shop with its huge windows and tonnes of seating its perfect for people watching across Republik Square, there is free wifi too, which you can cheekily log into even from the outside, which I did on my first afternoon when I needed to use my map to locate my hotel.


Eats There are loads of traditional places to eat in and around the pedestrian area Knez Mihailova Street and Republik Square, but not many options for the vegetarian and vegan travellers. One place I did find one though for lunch and I went to twice in my 3 day visit, was a place called Jazzayoga, an almost vegetarian cafe serving delicious sandwiches, soups, cakes and juices. One visit I had the Tantra sandwich which was pumpkin seed, celery, sunflower seeds, carrots, cabbage, hummus and more, and it was delicious and cost about £1.10. For dinner one night I had a veggie pizza sat out in Republik Square and the 2nd night I made it to the much recommended veggie/vegan place Mayka its got super cosy seating, friendly staff and an inventive menu with many local dishes reinvented meat free. One charm about Belgrade is the many small bakeries dotted around the place selling traditional sweet and savoury fare for as little as 40p, so of course I bought some for snacks on my overnight bus ride and they went down a treat. As it was my birthday I fancied a little treat before I left the city, so spent my final hour in Il Grappolo wine bar, sampling some local Rose wine, I found a window seat with handy USB sockets to charge my devices and savoured my last bit of time in this intriguing, memorable city.


Extras- Serbia’s 2nd city is Novi Sad, it’s about 90-110 minutes on the train from the capital, so totally doable as a day trip. There are lots more museums in Belgrade such as the Ethnographic Museum and the Aviation Museum and if you don’t get seasick head to 22/44 a nightclub situated in the middle of the Sava River.

Always be polite Thank You – Hvala vam  Hello – Zdravo  Beer – Pivo 

Day trip to Kaunas

Arrivals – Lithuania’s second largest city and just over 60 miles from the capital Vilnius, trains regularly leave the capital and take between 60-90 minutes, costing less than €6. You can easily buy your ticket on arrival at the station and there are lots of daily options, but if you have a particular journey in mind or are travelling in from other towns or countries such as Poland, you could book online – Lithuanian Railways.  There are great inexpensive bus routes all across the Baltic countries, so you can travel into Kaunas from many other cities and towns, such as Riga in Latvia or Warsaw in Poland. I have used Lux Express to travel in this region, but other bus companies in the area are Eurolines and Ecolines.

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History Bit – Legend has it that the Roman duke Palemon fled Rome with his 3 sons -Barcus, Kunas and Sperus. After his death, the land he inhabited was split between his 3 heirs and Kanas got the land which became known as Kaunas. This part of Lithuania has been important for hundreds of years though, mainly because it is located at the spot of the 2 largest rivers in the country, the Nemunas and the Neris. Many wars, uprisings, the Black Death, great fires and for a while during the early 19th century, it was the temporary capital of Lithuania while Vilnius was under control of the Russians and Polish.

Sights – Full of green spaces, long leafy streets full of shops and cafe’s, beautiful orthodox churches and a historic old town with a picturesque castle at the heart, I am definitely glad I layered up and caught the train from the capital for the day.  Heading straight out of the train station, I stuck to the main road and headed up Vytauto Prospektas towards the Cathedral of the Annunciation, then past the Ramybes Parkas a snow covered park (well, it was January) full of interesting and undecipherable monuments due to my poor  (none existant) Lithuanian language skills. Continuing up the same street I excitedly came across a very interesting orthodox church known as St. Michael the Archangel’s Church unfortunately it was closed, which was a disappointment as the more chance I get to explore these ornate religious buildings and see the insane golden fresco’s inside, the more I want to visit them. But by this time I was starting to lose the feeling in my fingers as I had spent quite some time wandering outside, so it was time to head on and I ventured down what appeared to be the main pedestrian street of the city, Laisves Aleja.

It was indeed pedestrian, regardless of the fact that in the UK, the amount of snow on the roads would have rendered it impassable anyway, and I was pleased to see my favourite Baltic coffee chain – Coffee Inn in the distance. I made a beeline for its orange sign and warmed up over a coffee and probably, maybe some cheesecake as well. There are lots of shops, cafes and restaurants along this street, so you can easily spend an hour meandering down it, exploring whats on offer, if like me you still like sending postcards (I know!) the main post office is located here too.

Walking straight down this long pedestrian street takes you to the center of the medieval old town, its well signposted, so its not hard to get your bearings and find your way around without too much trouble. There are lots to keep you occupied in this part of town, with the castle, town hall square, churches and the Kaunas National Cultural Centre all close together and all worth visiting. The gothic Kaunas Castle, stands proud on the bank by the river and when I visiting in the winter it was absolutely picture post card perfect. As well as exploring the castle there is an art gallery inside the round tower, but its worth noting, it’s closed on Mondays.  Also visit its neighbour the gothic St George the Martyr church, although its not much to look at, because of the distruction it has been subjected to over the years, it plays a long and important part in the history of this town and is luckily being renovated.

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Before you get to the castle though, you’ll more than likely walk through the town hall square, you wont miss it, as right in the heart is the town hall itself with its 53 metre tower, known as the white swan. This building has had an interesting history since the original hall was burnt down, reconstructed in 1542 its been a trading post, prison, ammunition store, home for Russian Czars, a firemans office and theatre. Nowadays its a popular place for weddings, as well as being home to a ceramics and history museum. It was a busy place when I arrived and I saw at least 2 couples pull up outside to get married and take pictures, which made for some great people watching.

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If you need a place to shelter from the cold, or want to learn more about the history of this town, then the Kaunas City Museum is a short walk from the town hall, also closed on Mondays! If art is more your thing, then the National Museum of Art which is one of the largest and oldest art galleries in the country and close by too. There is also a lovely park called Santakos Park which I only briefly explored due to the freezing temparatures, but can imagine in warmer times its a great place to picnic and admire the views of the 2 rivers which join here.

I stopped for some traditional food as I made my way back along Laisves Aleja, I cant quite remember the name of the place, but they did big plates of dumplings for about €3.50, before I grabbed an upstairs seat on the early evening train back to Vilnius.

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Always be polite  – Thank You is Ačiū! (pronounced almost like Achoo)  Please is Prašau (prasow)

 

Vilnius two ways . .

I have experienced the capital of Lithuania twice, once in the freezing -10 snowy conditions in January after scoring some rediculously cheap Ryanair flights, and then again in the summer months, when I was going to use it as an inexpensive gateway to Belarus. If you only plan to visit the capital once and you want to make the most of its outdoor spaces  and dont have any thermals, then I would recommend the summer option, but if you like adventure, empty museums and warming up with coffee every 40 minutes, then take a chance and head over during the winter, it made for some amazing memories.

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Arrivals. You can fly direct from many UK airports to the capital Vilnius (VNO), including Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield, Birmingham and Belfast. From Edinburgh and Bristol you can fly into Kaunas, which is a beautiful city in itself and only a short direct train journey from the capital. If you are already over in mainland Europe a great way to see this part of the globe is by bus, as well as flying into Vilnius I have used the overnight Lux Express Bus from Warsaw, and have also flown with Air Baltic for other trips in the region. Trains aren’t that great at the moment in this part of the Baltics, but there is a direct train from the Belarus capital Minsk to Vilnius that leaves daily.

Getting into the city centre from the airport is easy too, there is a airport train that travels 16 times a day between the airport and the main train station in Vilnius, from there its a short walk or taxi journey to your destination. The translation of airport is Oro Uostas which may be handy if you plan to use one of the  local buses that regularly leave between the main bus station (Stotis) and the airport, you could hop on the 1, 2 and 88, all costing €1 or another more direct bus option is the Micro Bus that also costs €1.

History Bit. The area that is now Lithuania has been inhabited by tribes in the Baltic region for thousands of years with the first king of Lithuania being crowed in the 1200’s. By the 1400’s, Lithuania was one of the largest countries in Europe as it encompassed parts of present day Belarus, Russia, Poland and Ukraine.  Many wars and famines caused unrest, migration, uprisings and coups pretty much off and on until 1991 when it gained its independance from the Soviet Union after WW2. The capital Vilnius itself was first recorded in the history books in 1323 and has always played an important role in the history of the country. It was here that over 200,000 people demonstrated against Soviet rule in the late 1980’s culminating in a bloody battle that resulted in the Republic of Lithuania finally being recognised as an independant country once again, free from foreign rule.

Sights. Awarded UNESCO status in 1994, the Old Town is a great place to start with the beautiful Cathedral Square making a central point in which to visit a lot of the historic sights.

 

Here you can find the impressive Bell Tower which acts as a beacon across the old town ringing out every 15 minutes, and you can climb to the top for a small fee for an even better view of the city. Opposite the Bell Tower is the most important catholic building in Lithuania, The Cathedral of St. Stanislav and St. Vladislav, definately pop inside to see the stunning interior, frescos and the crypt, guided tours are available on certain days too, should you want to learn more.

The other important and must see building here in Cathedral Square is the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania, now a national museum. The original palace was demolished in the 19th century, but its now rebuilt and hosts official and public events, with the museum part of the building showcasing the history of the country including architecture and folklore.  When I visited in early January, I pretty much had the museum to myself, but it is a v popular tourist attraction and looked a lot busier when I walked past a few months later, so time your visit well, again guided tours are available. Cathedral Square itself is a lovely place to explore and people watch, surrounded by benches and green spaces, notable highlights are the markets that spring up at various times of the year like at Christmas, the statue of Gediminas the famous ruler of Lithuania and the lucky stebuklas tile that is said to grant wishes. Its also here where the New Year Eve celebrations take place.

IMG_0037 Sunny day chilling by Cathedral Square

Gedinimas Hill and Tower – You cannot fail to miss this impressive 15th Century tower looking down on the city and with 360 views afforded from the top of the hill, its the reason I have been up in both in the winter and summer. It is definately easier to walk up the path in the summer than in snowy conditions, but a €2 funicular ride is available around the back should you fancy a more sedate journey upward. Once on the top there are ruins to explore, a history museum inside the tower (currently closed for renovations) and just epic views across the capital.

 

Summer and winter views.

Gedinimas Avenue – If you head across Cathedral Square away from the hill and bell tower and cross over the road, you walk down what is essentially the Oxford St of Vilnius. The main street of the city is full of shops, restaurants, theatres and government buildings, if you walk far enough you end up at the Parliament. Keep an eye out for the Feast of Muses sculpture outside the Lithuanian National Drama Theatre and Vinco Kudirkas Square which is named after the author of the National Anthem, as I was travelling on a budget I bought some food from a local supermarket, then found a bench and ate here watching the locals pass by.

 

Ausros Vartu Street – Where Gedinimas Avenue has all the shops and cafes, Ausros Vartu Street has the history, religion and architecture. There are lots of churches to explore here, St Cazimir, St Teresa and the Holy Trinity as well as the original city defensive, the Gate of Dawn built in the 1600’s, its even more important now that the other 9 gates have been destroyed. I really enjoyed just wandering up and down here and peeking my head inside the various churches and interesting buildings.

 

The Republic of Uzupis – Not long after the country gained its independance and freedom back from the Soviets, a small bunch of artists wanted to test the idea of independance to the max and so in 1995 decided to set up a partly tongue in cheek republic of their own, so they did and 15+ years later, its still going strong. Uzupis means ‘other side of the river’ and its only a short walk over a small bridge (over the river!) about 10 minutes from Cathedral Square to this quirky, neighbourhood inside the capital. There are cafes, restaurants, some really cool bohemian shops and art galleries as the place is still inhabitied by many local artists. Make sure you visit the angel statue, the multilingual welcome sign as you enter and pick up a copy of the constitution which includes – Everyone has the right to love and take care of the cat and Everyone has the right to be happy, which I think should be on everyones constitutions dont you?

 

 

The Museum of Genocide Victims. Housed inside the former KGB headquarters this haunting building and reminder of past atrocities will stick with me forever. I am not sure if it was due to the winter weather so I pretty much had the place to myself that made it more eerie, but im pretty certain due to the subject matter, its most definately is a place for stark reflection due to the horrific nature of what occured here. The museum serves as a living reminder of the terror from when the Nazi’s and then Soviets took over this imposing building that once was a gym. Spread over a number of floors, the museum takes a no holds barred approach to telling its story. Culminating in the cells, torture and execution chambers, I needed some quiet time to take it all in once I left the museum, but I’m glad I visited as I learned a hell of a lot, but be prepared to need a little recovery period afterwards.

 

Ensemble of St. Anne and Bernardine Church. Standing out due to its red brick exterior, St Annes church at over 500 years old its worth a visit as is its neighbour the Bernadine Church. I visited these on the way to the Bernadine Garden, which when I visited in the January was a snowing wonderland of children sledging and ducks skating on the frozen river, quite beautiful, there is a botanical garden, fountains and a monastery here too, so make sure you give it enough time.

 

Once I had explored the park, I was still feeling energetic and not too cold, so I crossed the River Vilnelė and climbed the many steps up the Hill of the Three Crosses for spectacular views across the snow covered city. Originally at the summit were 3 wooden crosses said to be the site where Franciscan Friars were beheaded hundreds of years ago. These crosses eventually perished, were rebuilt, only to be torn down during Soviet rule, with a new and improved version finally being erected in 1989 once the country became independent again. Now a prominant monument of the city, its a popular spot for both locals and tourists and i’m glad I made the effort to climb up to the top, it involves a bit of a climb and a lot of steps, so bare that in mind first.

 

Town Hall Square, Vokieciu Street and Pilies Street are all areas I explored at length, both in my summer and winter visits. The tourist information centre is located inside the Town Hall Square, which was one of my first stops to load up on a local map and grab a few tourist leaflets, off from here are loads of shops, cafes, interesting buildings and intriguing alleyways. In the winter is was definitely quieter but there were still outdoor market selling wooly hats and local crafts, returning in the summer the cafes opened their doors and put tables outside and there was much more of a buzz, understandably as it wasnt -10!

 

Coffee and Cake – Coffee Inn located on Didzioji and Laisves al are just two of many locations from this Baltic coffee chain, but don’t think because its a chain its all sterile tasteless coffee and uncomfortable seating. Im pretty sure each Coffee Inn is run independently and each one has a unique vibe and style, one I visited had a bookshop inside, another a record store, and all seemed welcoming to a solo English traveller, they serve soy milk and their cheesecake was insane! Another caffeine gem I found was Second Cup which is also a chain, although this one goes further than just the Baltics, with cafes in Iraq, Ghana and soon the UK apparently. Again, friendly comfy seating, with plenty of places to charge devices, they had a really great menu of regular and flavoured coffees with soy milk options too and lots of cake!

 

Eats – For my first night I wanted to eat Lithuania 101, so I headed to Amatininky uzeiga a friendly restaurant serving local beers, delicious beetroot soup and stodgy potato Zeppelins which I devoured after a snowy sightseeing afternoon, then followed it by the recommended and ginormous apple pie. If you fancy something slightly less meaty, but still with massive portions, the vegan restaurant Gyvas Baras was a place I visited for lunch and dinner and then returned for another meal on my summer return. I found it a really friendly place, relaxed, and not just serving the typical falafal, but the menu included amazing burgers, mexican food, insane desserts and local beers.

IMG_0052  Cheers!

Other sights to see – Explore the Jewish ghetto around Dominikonų and Vokiečių Streets, head out of the Old Town to the tallest building in Lithuania, the TV Tower for epic views of the city, and take a train for a day out in Kaunas the 2nd largest city and less than 90 minutes by train (thats a whole other blog post!)

Always be politeHello is Sveiki and Thank You is Ačiū! (pronounced almost like Achoo)