Lithuania

Despite all the ongoing drama with my career, I find myself back at work! This time I have a contract with the same employers via their ‘bank’ of temporary staff, rather than working for them as an external contractor. That means that while I get paid far less per hour, I get to work continuously through to 31st December, attend training sessions and go to meetings. It also means that I can apply for any internal NHS positions that come up. So, while I anticipate my first diminished pay installment with fear combined with morbid curiosity, I’m content to settle in and play the long game.

Anyway! On the 16th of July Jim and I jetted off to Lithuania. Why Lithuania you ask? Well, in Amsterdam I bought one of those world maps where you to scratch the gold top layer off where you’ve visited. One night Jim was helping me scratch out countries when he accidentally got rid of Lithuania. Clearly, this was a sign we had to go there immediately, and further to that we decided it would be my 30th birthday present to Jim. After a quick google search to make sure we weren’t likely to get hacked to death upon disembarkation, I bought us two return tickets. Jim was both excited and perplexed by this random act of spontaneity, and after some initial comments that I was possibly suffering from bipolar disorder, he really got into it! The most in-depth piece of research we did was to buy Lonely Planet’s guide to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. We purposely avoided finding out too much in order to fuel our curiosity and our belief that this would either be the ‘best, or worst holiday ever’. Jim told his Lithuanian work friend that we were going to visit her homeland, and her response was ‘WHY?!’ After Jim explained that it was basically due to geographical ignorance, she shook her head and gave him a dire warning not to eat potato dumpling. Mysterious!

The beginning of our trip was marred for me by receiving a phonecall just before the plane started taxiing, informing me that I hadn’t been successful in a job interview I’d done that morning. Argh! Again, it was one of those ones where I had done really well, they were tossing up between me and another person…and in the end the other person had answered the questions better. It was a Youth Offenders role and, more so than after any other interview I’ve done, I was gutted I didn’t get it. For the first time after one of those calls, I cried. I cried, in fact, for the entire duration of our flight to Vilnius. I just had time at the end to calm down and have a glass of red wine before landing. Personally I wouldn’t have served me alcohol, but I guess Ryanair are pretty despo for cash. In the end I’m glad I ‘got it all out’ as I was able to compartmentalise everything and leave it behind when we got off the plane. No sooner had we landed than I was hungrily exploring everything exciting and alien.

The gaggle of men waiting with single red roses for their sweethearts in Arrivals gave me a good first impression. The building also gave us a taste of the Baroque architecture to come, with peach walls and stucco decorations lining the numerous archways we walked through to get to the exit and the taxi rank beyond. I think a vital part of visiting a country is catching a cab. If you manage to communicate where you’re going and finish your journey without being ripped off or getting into an argument, you’re all good. If you manage to have a little conversation, even better! Too far the other way is just as bad though. If there’s anything worse than a ‘chatter’ in your own language, it’s a chatter in one that you can’t understand. Our dude was a guy whose stern demeanour, sharp haircut and high cheekbones made him look exactly like a Bond villain. He was slightly bemused when I said ‘Hello’ and showed him my iPhone with our hostel’s address on the screen. He said something confirmatory in Lithuanian and moved to get into the car, but first I had to ask whether he would turn on the meter. After some wild gesturing suggesting numbers rolling over (similar to the one for ‘travel’ in basketball or netball), repetitions of the word ‘meter’ and several emphatic points towards the centre console of the car, he nodded and we all climbed in. To my relief he turned it on.

We stayed at Down Town Market Bed & Breakfast just outside the Old Town borders, close to the bus and train stations. I loved the old wooden doors that opened up to the dark creaky staircase, with sensor lights that only came on after you had tentatively edged your way up a few steps. Our stay in a double room with ensuite was really comfortable, and as there was no communal dining area they brought breakfast to our room. Great coffee! Although it was late when we arrived we ventured out for a cheeky stroll to get an idea of Vilnius’ scale. It was wonderfully creepy not knowing whether you were on the right or wrong side of the tracks, a feeling that was intensified outside the Old Town by several abandoned/ruined buildings with gaping holes leading to their pitch black cellars. Mega spooky. We ended up at a very cool looking indie bar attached to the contemporary art museum. Typical. Although we could see hints of columned buildings around the corner, we decided we’d come far enough and contented ourselves sitting in the dark drinking box wine and realising how hot everyone is in Lithuania. On the way back we came across lots of cosily lit wine bars and restaurants that we promised ourselves we’d come back to and never did. The next day we stumbled across the absolutely breathtaking Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which was stripped back to its bare bones and in a state of (dis)repair. It didn’t look like much from the outside, but I’ve never walked into a place with such stark beauty…the dust in the air capturing the light flooding in through the windows and a simple crucifix hanging above the altar in a style I’d never seen. The kind of testament to faith that makes even an undecided agnostic want to believe in something bigger than themselves.

We decided that as we’d had a gasp-worthy church experience (that stupidly didn’t even rate highly on Lonely Planet’s guide), we didn’t need to seek out any more. Instead, we found the fantastic underground cellar bar Bambalyne, whose advert Jim spied on the edge of our run-of-the-mill map provided by the hostel. What a find! They boasted 88 different DELICIOUS Lithuanian beers and it was quiet enough to be intimate but popular enough to have atmosphere. And the beer was DELICIOUS. An afternoon nap saw us sober up enough to head out for dinner. A friend I met in Lisbon recommended checking out a neighbourhood called Užupis…which has actually declared itself an independent state. They even have a manifesto! The history is too much to go into here, but we had a great time looking around despite it pouring with rain. We had a delicious porky feast at a restaurant there, which was hilarious because of the meat-fatigue it caused and the fact that the power kept cutting out. We got back late, soaked, but happy.

Užupis

Slightly sore-headed the next morning, it was time to catch our train to Klaipėda, to be followed by ferry and bus to Nida. Where Vilnius is in Eastern Lithuania, Nida is on the far West coast, at the far end of a glorified sandbar called the Curonian Spit. Although our departure was fraught with Jim’s ‘being early anxiety’, and we somehow got those seats on the train that don’t actually match up to any windows when I had daydreamed about inspecting Lithuania as we clickety clacked through, we were still in high spirits when we arrived in Klaipėda 6 hours later. After an awesome lunch including pig’s ears, herring and pickles, we boarded the ferry over to Smiltyne. The ferry was as disappointingly unromantic and practical as they always turn out to be. On the hour or so bus trip from Smiltyne to Nida the fatigue finally kicked in and we slept like logs as we were propelled through the pine forest. Thankfully Hotel Jurate (which I think means ‘mermaid’) was smack bang opposite the bus stop and we were able to fall straight into bed. The building had another use in Soviet times and one of the remnants is the super stylish glitter cement on the corridor walls.

Glitter cement in Hotel Jurate

We roused ourselves about an hour before sunset and took a stroll along the concrete promenade. Pretty little houses and stalls selling amber clashed with the huge bar/restaurant on the pier spewing forth Eurovision-worthy pop. Ahhh, the serenity. Luckily we found a nice beer garden upwind with a view of the gorgeous ‘Golden Dune’, which sloped steeply down to where its extreme angle met the sea. I was particularly in awe because it reminded me of a recurring dream I have that involves me fleeing from a tidal wave up a loose, sliding, steep-as-hell sand dune at an agonisingly slow pace. There are always other people struggling alongside me. Sometimes I make it, sometimes I don’t. Always the dread is worse than the submersion. A few years ago my friend El and I realised that we were having the same recurring dream…weird! While in Morocco a few years ago I had the experience of trying to run up a huge sand dune in the Sahara, and it was hard…real hard. Terrifying. Anyway…the beer garden had several racks of smoked fish that the area is known for, and the smell from the smoking ovens was mouth-watering despite the fish looking like something from Saw. We sat on beanbags in the fading light and ate a plump, juicy smoked mackerel with crusty bread Ahhh, sweeeet.

Smoked fish in Nida

Looking back I wish we’d bought more amber from Lithuania…funny how you take things for granted when it’s available by the truckload in whatever country you’re in. But really, who wouldn’t want a piece of ancient amber with an ant stuck inside?! That’d be one to show the Grandkids. I have to go back! We got an early night, prompted by the only English channel switching to Playboy at 10pm. WTF?! Breakfast in the hall the next day felt a bit like a communist The Shining, but again the coffee was delicious. After the lady in the tourist office laughed in our face when we said we wanted to see elk, we caught the bus to nearby Juodkrante, walking a couple of kilometres out of town to see the slightly less exciting largest heron/cormorant colony in Europe….oooo! Upon first sighting we were a little underwhelmed, but after a while the sheer breadth of it was quite impressive. On the walk back to town we decided to duck into one of the overgrown dirt tracks leading into the pine forest. I knew the spit was only 1.5km wide at that point so even though it got a bit spooky we decided to keep going to see the Baltic Sea. I kept an eye peeled for elk, but alas the closest we got to fauna was seeing a slow worm that a Lithuanian Granny was showing some kids. When we reached the beach we thought it was odd and kind of stupid that people were picnicking on the black dirt on the side of the dunes NOT facing the beach, but as soon as we reached the crest we realised why. The wind howled and whipped the sand into our legs to the point where broken skin was feared. However, we couldn’t just leave without dipping our toes into the infamous sea – ‘Man it’s freezing!’…’Yeah, Baltic!’ – so down we ran to the water’s edge. As predicted it was pretty damned cold, and to add to the horror, when I tried to collect some of the brown rocks at the tideline I realised they were BUGS. A whole beach of bugs…sand made of bugs flying in our faces! Grrossss! After taking some parting snaps we left the crazy Eastern Europeans to continue freezing their bollocks off in the water, found our way back through the forest trying desperately to see some elk, before getting the bus back to Nida.

We’re all going on a…summer holiday?!

Our last night in Nida was spent pigging out on cheese, ham, bread and wine in our hotel room while the weather took a turn for the worse outside. That’s enough for now…more next time!

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