x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Vilnius: Lithuania's Baltic escape

Macabre museums and blackly comedic theme parks are as much a feature of a visit to this former Soviet state as its impressive historical landmarks, finds Nicholas Holmes.

A bird's-eye view of the Old Town in Vilnius. The mix of architecture, cultures and languages tells the story of the Lithuanian capital through different periods in history. Getty Images
A bird's-eye view of the Old Town in Vilnius. The mix of architecture, cultures and languages tells the story of the Lithuanian capital through different periods in history. Getty Images

The Soviet soldiers were the last thing I expected to see as I walked across the river into the centre of Vilnius for the first time. One cradling a sub-machine gun, the other clutching a pair of binoculars, they stood at the side of the city's Green Bridge, eyeing passers-by with suspicion. Lithuania has been an independent country for more than 20 years now, but even atop a pedestal and cast in iron, the ghosts of this city's past are impossible to ignore.

For many people, the Baltic countries (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) are still an unlikely holiday destination, despite the fact that they are moving forward at an astonishing pace.

Indeed, the only reason tourists are able to come face-to-face with the soldiers is that the Green Bridge is one of the few Soviet-era monuments deemed important enough to be preserved as Lithuania's capital transforms itself after decades of communist rule. Take one look at a typical Vilnius Old Town street, though, and it's clear that this isn't the first transformation the city has undergone.

"Change?" asks my guide Jolita with a wry smile, as we begin our tour of the city. "Vilnius is always changing!"

She points at the flagstaff at the top of the city's Gediminas Castle and Museum, an intricately restored medieval vantage point that is now easily accessible to tourists via a funicular railway. Today, the Lithuanian flag flutters proudly in the wind, but that wasn't always the case.

"This place has a symbolism for Lithuanians," she explains. "It wasn't always our flag - it could have been Soviet or German or Polish. Now, the colours are ours again; the yellow of the sun, the green of the hills and red - the colour of martyrs."

Lithuania's first restoration to independence after 120 years under the Russian Empire came in 1918 during the closing days of the First World War, I learn. Although much of the country prospered during the inter-war years, Vilnius was occupied by Poland until 1940, when the country became the scene of a brutal tug of war between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. In 1944, the Red Army won out and Lithuanians lived behind the Iron Curtain until 1990, when the nation once again declared its independence from Moscow.

As we wander the uneven footpaths and narrow lanes that make up the city's historical centre, Jolita tells the story through Vilnius' Baroque, Gothic, Neoclassical and Renaissance architecture, showing how each period left traces that have turned Vilnius into a curious mix of cultures, languages and buildings. Our stroll takes us past the pastel buildings of Vilnius' medieval university, elaborate Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches from the 19th century and grey Soviet monstrosities constructed during Soviet rule. That city planners could erect such buildings without regard to the architectural beauty of their historical neighbours is anathema to me, but Jolita just shrugs. "That's just the way it was," she says.

It's a sense of acceptance that characterises the response of most Lithuanians when asked about their country's years of communism - always a subject of fascination among the steadily growing number of western visitors.

Popular tours around Vilnius' darkest building, the former KGB headquarters and now a "genocide museum" (Auku Gatve 2a), regularly end in tears, Jolita says. In the dank basements, where the cells, solitary confinement rooms and an execution chamber have been preserved since their use in the shockingly recent past, it's easy to see why. The story of Lithuania's bitter struggle for freedom told on the upper exhibition floors is fascinating, but it took days to get the disturbing image of a grim padded cell, complete with a strait-jacket hanging ghost-like from the ceiling, out of my head.

Tourism officials are keen to underline that, as Lithuania progresses as an independent country, the capital offers more to tourists than ever. This helps to explain its soaring popularity - in the first half of this year, arrivals rocketed by 30 per cent to more than 300,000 tourists. An increasing number of European carriers, many of them low-cost, now serve the city's tiny airport, which lies only 6km from the city centre.

As a result, Western-dominated modernity in this city is now palpable - on several occasions during my stay, I had to dive out of the way of an oncoming group of Segway-mounted tourists, a phenomenon commonly seen in other European capitals such as Paris or London. Visitors are now as likely to hear English spoken around them as they are Russian, once the lingua franca of the region. And there are no fewer than four tourist information centres dotted around the small city centre, each offering a selection of sightseeing suggestions and tours that could easily fill a month. Jolita tells me that the majority of her tours are still part of Baltic excursions that also take in Tallinn and Riga, but it's evident that this is changing rapidly.

Trying to get my head around street names that are almost as complicated as the country's history, I follow Jolita from the boutique-lined backstreets of Stikliu and on to Rotuses Square, the start of a wide boulevard of cafes and shops where Western luxury brands such as Emporio Armani and Hugo Boss have moved in. I notice that the billboards outside the stores are plastered in advertisements for cultural events, a symptom of a scene that is earning Vilnius a place on the tour schedules of internationally recognised names. The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and acclaimed conductor Valery Gergiev have both visited in recent months, I learn. For those of an artistic persuasion, the Contemporary Art Centre (Vokieciu Gatve 2), the largest modern art venue in the Baltics, offers a world-class collection of items displayed across five exhibition halls, although it's worth visiting just to hang out with Vilnius' arty types in the cafe.

In the evening, Vilnius belongs to the young. This is a student city, and the bars and restaurants along Pilies Street in the heart of the Old Town are packed with a mix of both locals and tourists, something fairly unusual in major European tourist destinations. On the terrace of popular Lithuanian chain Forto Dvaras, couples tuck into traditional cepelina (zeppelins), large potato-based dumplings stuffed with minced meat or mushrooms and served with sour cream. I can only manage one of the two on my plate, resorting instead to a bowl of Šaltibaršiai, a hot pink Lithuanian borsch that is served cold. It's a leisurely meal, not through my own choosing, but the slow service in Lithuania is somewhat made up for by the exceptionally low prices. The bill, when it finally arrives, comes in at around 30 litas (Dh43) per head.

As the temperature falls, I take the recommendation of a friendly group of revellers and make for the Fluxas Ministry (Gedimino Prospektas 27). From the outside, things don't look promising - it's another ghost, a grotesque concrete block covered with protruding bits of rusting metal that served as the former health ministry. But in the vein of former London factories, Berlin warehouses and New York lofts, the dereliction has been turned into a canvas for creatives; a home for anybody who wants to stage a concert, exhibition, play or reading inside its crumbling shell. Tonight's candlelit jazz performance is packed with a friendly crowd, some of whom will be staying in the limited hostel rooms on offer, although I have to admit being thankful for my room in the altogether more up-to-date surroundings of the Holiday Inn, a 15-minute stroll away.

The next morning I'm up early in search of salt, but not of the food kind. I'm heading to Druskininkai, a small spa resort close to the border with Poland which has been one of the few constants in Lithuanian tourism since the Grand Duke of Lithuania first declared it a watering place in 1794. Approximately two hours away from Vilnius by bus (less by car), Druskininkai is well known through Russia, Poland and the Baltics as being the source of extraordinarily salty water, a haven of lakes, holiday homes, walking paths and rich mineral springs for those in need of rest and recovery.

Warm mud baths are a popular pastime here and within an hour after arrival, I'm up to my neck in one at the town's main health resort, (part of the Hotel Europa on Vilnius aleja 7), which was built by Russian Tsar Nicholas I. The mud isn't naturally warm but is mined from a nearby village, sifted, heated to around 38° Celsius and then mixed with the town's famous water. I'm a natural sceptic, but a sense of warm wholesomeness pervades my afternoon stroll along Druskininkai's peaceful river, and it's not just the autumnal palette and subtle pinewood scent of this charming town.

Druskininkai, like Vilnius, is changing fast and, sadly, the walk is punctuated by pneumatic drills, although I'm assured that they're temporary. A championship golf course and indoor ski park opened this year, and several major enhancements to the "spa park" in the city are underway.

There are no ghosts here, though - they've all been moved to Grutas Park, a bizarre, blackly comedic museum-cum-theme-park of Soviet statues about 10km outside the city. It's a gem, and just reinforces my conclusion that modern Lithuania really isn't short on much - including, it seems, a thick sense of irony.

If you go

The flight

Return flights to Frankfurt from Abu Dhabi on Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) cost from Dh2,810. Return flights to Vilnius from Frankfurt on Lufthansa (www.lufthansa.com) start from €179 (Dh906). Prices include taxes

The hotel

A double room at the Holiday Inn Vilnius (www.holidayinn.com; 370 5 210 3000) costs from €140 (Dh697) per night, including breakfast and taxes. Double rooms at the Narutis Hotel (www.narutis.com; 00 370 5 212 2894) costs from €210 (Dh1,046), including breakfast and taxes

The info

Visit www.travel.lt for details