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.  

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