Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Old Town Vilnius and Trakai Castle, Lithuania

Tuesday July 30, 2019  Old Town Vilnius, Lithuania

The buffet breakfast provided by the hotel is lovely and in addition we have cooked to order eggs over easy.  Navigating to the center of the old town is easy and we find the tourist information office and join the 10:00 A.M. “free” walking tour. Our tour guide sets a brisk pace as she leads 25 of us along cobblestone streets of the old town. 

Travelers wait for the start of the free walking tour
Faux hot air balloons and colorful flags span several of the picturesque streets lined with boutiques, café bars, restaurants and tourist shops selling amber and linen. 

A colorful street in Old Town Vilnius
Old Town Vilnius

We cross the bridge into the Uzupis district, an artist community past a bend in the river.  We are greeted by a few vibrant and colorful murals but the outdoor sculptures feel dated; like something I have seen and might have been trendy in the 1980’s. I try to take into consideration that Lithuania has only been independent for 29 years and they are doing a good job of catching up after soviet rule.

The river dividing Vilnius and the Uzupis art district
Uzupis art district

Colorful mural in the Uzupis art district
Mural, Uzupis art district

Our tour ends at the main square below the castle. We talk with a quiet man from Washington D.C. and after the tour, invite him to join us for lunch at one of the local restaurants recommended by our guide. We sit in a back courtyard and try to find something on the menu appealing. We pass on the pig’s ears and the sausage ring.  Art orders a chicken kabob and I choose what I presume to be a vegetarian potato and mushroom dish. Our guide had recommended mushroom dishes as a specialty but my plate arrives mixed with tiny pieces of ham and what I surmise to be canned mushrooms. I pick at my food but enjoy the Lithuania beer immensely. We are slightly jet lagged and return to our hotel for an afternoon nap.

Baroque church in Vilnius
City gate, Vilnius

Wanting to cycle into Lithuanian time, we force ourselves to get up at 5:00 P.M. and set out to explore the city again. Our hotel is at the edge of the old town and everything is within walking distance. We wander past baroque cathedrals and decorative old world facades and end up back in the main square as the sun is setting. 

The sun setting on a ruined castle above Vilnius 
Young men skateboarding 

Young men skateboarding

Young men are skateboarding on the plaza which delights me and makes me a bit nostalgic. When traveling with John, he would sometimes bring his skateboard and join in which was always a good ice breaker. The sun casts a rosy glow on a castle above the plaza.  We eat dinner at a touristy restaurant where we can try cold beet soup and we can sample the local potato dumplings stuffed with various fillings. We share a roast duck plate and have entirely too much food. The beet soup is tasty and not overly laden with cream but the potato dumplings are heavy and one is supposed to pour a sour cream and meat sauce over them. We share one and imagine our arteries hardening.

Cold beet soup and potatoes
Potato dumplings and roasted duck

We circle farther afield taking new streets on our return to our hotel. I would like an after dinner drink but we see only beer drinking establishments. When we come to a trendy and intimate cocktail bar, I suggest we go in for a nightcap. We sit at the bar and peruse the many pages of Mixology’s cocktail menu.  We are underdressed and that the patrons are all half our age but the handsome tattooed bar tender is gracious and speaks fluent English. He serves us beautifully prepared cocktails and during a lull, talks for some time with us about his life in Vilnius. We are tempted to order a second round simply to enjoy further conversation but decide to spare him and walk the many blocks back to our hotel.

Cocktails at the Mixology Bar, Vilnius
Wednesday, July 31, 2019  Vilnius to Trakai Island Castle.

We are staying an extra night in Vilnius and we must change hotels. Before moving, we enjoy the ample breakfast at our Hotel Rinno and walk to the bus station for the 30 minute trip out to the Trakai Peninsula. 

Vilnius bus terminal

Square across from our new hotel

The countryside is lush and I am surprised by the surrounding woodland forests. We arrive in Trakai and walk the two kilometers along the peninsula towards the castle. The peninsula is surrounded by lakes and historic wooden houses, painted in Easter egg colors, line both sides of the street. It is a lake resort area with many quaint bed and breakfast accommodations and overall too bucolic for my tastes. 

Trakai Peninsula

Trakai house

Wooden Trakai house

Along the way, we visit a small uninspired museum and eventually arrive at the bridge to the restored castle. Before crossing to the castle we hurriedly choose a café for lunch and once again find ourselves facing a heavily meat laden menu. We share a Greek salad which is fresh and undressed. Art orders two stuffed pastry pies and for lack of other options, I choose the potato pancakes. Two thick and greasy pancakes arrive accompanied by a mound of sour cream. I eat one and push the plate aside. Art picks the filling out of his pasty pies. Disappointed, we pay the bill and walk the bridge to the castle as clouds roll in and rain threatens. 

Art surveying the Trakai Castle mote
Marty crossing the Trakai Castle bridge
Drawbridge to Trakai Castle

Trakai Castle courtyard
Trakai Castle courtyard

The castle has been fully and overly restored. It feels like we are entering Disneyland instead of an historic site. I try to get past the artificial feel as we wander the many rooms curetted with historic treasures. It is not a great collection but there are a few  intricately carved bone pipes that are as detailed and intriguing as Japanese netsuke’s.

Vaulted ceiling, Trakai Castle
Detail of porcelain

Castle room filled with taxidermied animals
Bear skin rug

Bone pipe carving
We cross back over the castle bridge to the peninsula about and find a decent café for a beer and cider before catching the trolley back to the bus stations for our return trip to Vilnius. We arrive in Vilnius at 4:00 P.M and after an hour’s rest; head out in search of dinner. Our usual pattern is to walk miles and read countless menus before choosing a restaurant but Art demurs to my choice and we choose a bistro café and enjoy a lovely meal. Art orders the octopus salad and I choose a Dorado and lentil dish and we each enjoy a single glass of fine white wine. 

Bistro dinner in Vilnius, Lithuania
We consider returning to the Mixology Bar but decide instead to walk back to our hotel.  It is cold outside and we pop into the tiny bistro bar at the corner for a quick drink. The plump matron immediately pours us two shots of sweet mead, presumably on the house and plunks them on our table. Although she instructs us to down it in one gulp, I need to sip the cough medicine tasting liquor. It warms both our bodies and our spirits and I switch to shots of silver tequila. Art continues with shots of the mead accompanied by a bowl of cold beet soup. The bill is minimal with the drinks less than 3 Euros each but the matron seems pleased to have had us as late night customers. 

Cold beet soup and warming shots of liquor
A shot of a local liquor

We stumble a block to our hotel and float into bed.  Much of what I love about traveling are these unexpected back street adventures.  

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Leaving on a Jet Plane to the Baltics'

July 28th, Santa Cruz to S.F.O. to Frankfurt and onto Vilnius Lithuania,

There is a Wharf to Wharf run between Santa Cruz and Capitola today and I suggest we leave our house to catch the Highway 17 bus 45 minutes early. Chuck arrives early but I am often overly neurotic about scheduling and Art tells us we will leave in 15 minutes. We lock the front door 30 minutes ahead of time. After loading our luggage in the prius, the key fob to the ignition dies. Chuck quickly jogs to his house to borrow his mother’s sedan. In the interim, I try to open the back prius hatch and it is frozen in the locked position. For a panicky minute, I am afraid that our luggage is locked inside of our car and imagine needing to call a locksmith and ultimately missing our flight.  Art struggles to remove our bags over the rear seats and he tosses them into the back seat of Chuck’s idling car. (Strangely enough, the fob to the back hatch of his car is also not working.) Ten minutes gone but we should still be O.K. time wise. That is until we reach Soquel and the traffic is bumper to bumper. My adrenaline surges and Art instructs Chuck to turn around and take the Park onramp to the freeway. Wrong decision! Chuck quickly makes a second aggressive U-turn and we move painfully slowly along Soquel. We will likely miss the bus at the Pasatiempo stop and the backup plan now is that Chuck drives us over Highway 17 to the San Jose Diridon train station. Chuck careens along, taking a few back street short cuts and when traffic clears, speeds along the freeway. He takes the Pasatiempo off ramp and Art hops out to check the time table printed on the sign. We look up to see the bus pulling in behind us.  We haul our suitcases from the back seat of Chuck’s car and board the bus with 20 seconds to spare!  The air conditioned express bus is cool and we chat with a man about our age also going to the S.F.O. airport and traveling to France. 

Caltrain to S.F.O. Airport
Diridon Train Station

I use the bathroom at the Diridon station and listen anxiously to the paranoid monologue coming from a woman in the adjoining stall.  Exiting I take a photo of the old school neon lit news stand and an intimidating young man growls “you’ve got to be kidding,” as he brushes past me.  The adventure begins!

This commute train takes us past the back side of many of the affluent Silicon Valley cities along the peninsula. The train stops at all of them; Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Menlo Park, Burlingame etc. Being Sunday, there is plenty of room on the train and I relax into travel/vacation mode. We get off at Millbrae and Art feeds money into the BART ticket kiosk and after several tries, two $5 tickets spit from the machine. We are at the S.F.O. airport in less than 10 minutes with ample time to check in and go through security. After eating mediocre and overpriced Vietnamese noodle bowls we play the waiting game at our United Gate. Art will turn 67 somewhere over the Atlantic and I promise him a German Birthday Beer during our layover in Frankfurt Germany.

After boarding I check my phone one last time and receive a text from my friend Dorothy in Southern California asking if I am O.K? She is watching the unfolding news of an active shooter at the Gilroy Garlic Festival and knows that I always do the festival. I quickly check the news on my phone and am horrified to see what is unfolding. I text a friend who is always represented at the festival. She is not personally at the show and has not yet heard about the shooter but within a minute she texts me back and tells me that Rhona is on the ground at their booth taking cover. The P.A. announces again that all phones must be turned off and I anxiously follow instructions and our plane lifts off. 

Marty, Alisha and Molly at the 2018 Gilroy Garlic Festival
I applied and was accepted to this years Garlic Festival but one morning in late June, Alisha comes to work and tells me that she has made a huge scheduling mistake. Her brother in law is getting married in Mendocino and her whole family is attending. Molly will be the flower girl and little Sterling will be the ring bearer. I have a very even disposition but I am angry with Alisha for making this scheduling mistake. Applying for shows is considerable work and this year I was categorized as a commercial vendor which doubled the entry fee for an already expensive show. I made many phone calls to have my work re-evaluated and was eventually put back in the craft category.  Because I cannot do the festival without Alisha's and Molly's help, I called and canceled the show This was awkward and embarrassing for me. The following week, I begin planning for a trip to the Baltics' and to Russia.  

The onboard meal is awful and I rinse it down with two glasses of generic red wine. I am anxious to know more about the shooter at the Garlic Festival and worried about my friends but must turn off my phone. Two movies and half an Ambien make  the 11 hour flight between S.F.O.  painless enough.

Monday, July 29, 2019.

As soon as we touch-down in Frankfurt, I turn my phone back on and am flooded with messages from concerned friends, thinking that I had a booth at the Garlic Festival. I spend much of our 5 hour layover anxiously communicating with friends.  Art has turned 67 in the air but today is his actual birthday. We find a German restaurant, share a wiener schnitzel and have an Aperol Spritz toast to his birthday before boarding our Lufthansa flight to Vilnius, Lithuania.

An Aperol Spritz toast to Art's birthday at a layover in Frankfurt, Germany
We land in Vilnius at midnight; our taxi pick up from the airport to our hotel is holding up a sign printed with my name. 15 minutes later we are deposited at the three-star Rinno Hotel on a cobblestone back street of the Old Town. Our reservations are in order and we wheel our suitcases to our spacious first floor room. When we open our door we feel as if we may be starring in the film Bad times at the El Royal Hotel. The room is decorated in brown with old world furnishing and floor to ceiling windows opening onto a leaf strewn courtyard. The room is fine but odd and Art ponders if there is one way glass?  The cavernous bathroom is intended to be luxurious with a huge soaking tub, bidet and heated towel racks, but all feels a little surreal at 1:00 A.M. in the morning.

Our bathroom at Hotel Rinno, Vilnius, Lithuania
Old world decor, Hotel Rinno