Vilnius: The underground city that’s not just for cool people

I don’t usually pick my holidays on the strength of forum posts on Up the Clarets. As Neil and Dave have lived in Warsaw for several years now, planning a city break has usually revolved around finding out when Neil isn’t working and booking a £40 flight. We both love Poland, Chris especially. If he had a blog he would probably use it solely to extol the virtues of pierogi and the cost of premium lager. Having only visited Warsaw in November though, we decided to cast the net a little wider, whilst still focussing on that part of Europe. The problem with spending so much time in Warsaw is that then spending anything more than £60 on flights makes you wince, which immediately ruled Prague out. However Mr P spends a ridiculous amount of time on Burnley FC’s forum page. Within these posts apparently you can find out anything from information on player transfers, local road closures, kebab shop hygiene ratings…to Eastern European city break suggestions. And off to Vilnius we went.

I’d not done a huge amount of research but what I had seen indicated that it would follow a similar format, Old Town, river, hearty (stodgy) food and reasonably priced beer. I’d also heard it would be cold. We tend to do hand luggage only on these kind of trips, primarily because I’m practically a Yorkshire woman and would rather wear the same top all weekend and have more money to spend on food, and because Chris likes using his miniature toilet bag. One thing I’d say about Vilnius in April is that you will need a hat, scarf and gloves, all of which luckily we’d brought. You’ll also definitely need a waterproof as we arrived in rain on the Friday and unfortunately it poured it down for the majority of the day.

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We’d got the airport bus into the city centre, which takes around 20 minutes and costs 1 Euro each, which quickly made us realise that Vilnius was going to be an easy city to get around. Our hotel, Europa Royale was right at the far end of the Old Town within shouting distance from the Gates of Dawn. The Gates of Dawn mark the entrance to the city by the only one of nine remaining original entrances in the city wall. I visited mid morning on the Saturday when there were large groups of tourists on organised tours and several carts selling fridge magnets and replica gates. From there you can walk the length of the Old Town, which is just over a mile or so, and end up in to Cathedral square, a huge square which is home to a beautiful cathedral and the start of the walk to what remains of the castle. From there you can see the river, and over into the business and presumably less touristy district of the city.

Our plans for the weekend were to wander around looking at the architecture, visit the castle, stroll by the river and intersperse this with plenty of stops for food and drink.

A couple of things hampered this on the first day, firstly the rain, and secondly that everything looked deserted. Vilnius is seemingly a really quiet city. But by the end of Friday night when the rain had stopped and we’d persuaded several Lithuanian students and young couples into conversation with us, we realised that everyone is just inside staying warm and dry. And getting hammered. Apparently in the summer the cafes, bars and restaurants all spill out into the streets, and quiet cafes turn into lively clubs. In the winter you wouldn’t have a clue where anyone was from the outside of the restaurants and bars. But we found them, packed into dark bars eating potatoes and drinking craft beers, and it was absolutely brilliant.

We’re the kind of people who like to size up a place from the outside, weigh up how popular it looks and even try and catch a glimpse of a meal before venturing inside. Not here. You can’t see through some of the windows as they’re frosted, and those you can see through could look deceptively empty. Some of the best bars we went into looked practically closed from the outside. And this is how we found ourselves on a walking and drinking tour in some incredibly quirky bars, including…

Alaus Biblioteka (The beer library)

If you head a couple of streets off the main road in the Old Town, you will find this fantastic bar hidden above a pizzeria. It’s a blink and you’d miss it job, but there’s no need to ever miss a bar again now we have Google maps. Rows of books face shelves of craft ales, lagers and stouts. My main complaint with the craft ale movement of the last four or five years is that it can alienate the lager drinker and make us feel a tad unsophisticated. This bar however knows that there is more to lager than Carling black label. Very friendly and knowledgeable bar staff offered a range of around 10 draught beers both ale and lager, and there must have been 200 available on display by the bottle. We went for German Pilsner, Jever, and a Lithuanian corn beer which Chris cited as the reason he slept through breakfast. It was a busy bar but we managed to get a table, and some great advice about where to go over the weekend from a local couple.

The Meat Lovers Pub

When I’d finally got Chris out of the door on the Saturday, we went for a stroll round the Old Town. It had stopped raining and we had blue skies all day, with the exception of about eight seconds of snow that afternoon. It’s a predominantly Catholic country, and as we strolled round the streets looking at a number of beautiful churches we stumbled across the Meat Lovers Pub. We ordered dirty burgers and Lithuanian sausage, and I treated myself to a Bloody Mary. All I can say is, if I hadn’t fallen in love with Vilnius when we found the beer library, being served a Bloody Mary with a skewer of bacon as a garnish sealed the deal. Not dissimilar to what you’d pay at home for the privilege, but for a capital city it was excellent value.

Leiciu Bravoras

Leiciu Bravoras is just off the Town Hall square and is one of a couple of bars/restaurants run by a brewery that offer tasting packages. By the looks of the group we watched, endless jugs of different beers are delivered with an explanation of the beer’s origin and other useful facts, plus what looked like a considerable amount of beer snacks. We observed this from the table opposite, where we enjoyed our own personal tap to pour steins of home brew, whilst eating cured meats and exceedingly spicy horseradish sauce. If you have a real interest in beer itself as opposed to just its side effects, the tasting experience looked substantial and enjoyable. We were just after a livener at this point after an afternoon spent in the Museum of Genocide Victims, which itself is well worth a visit to understand some of Vilnius and Lithuania’s history from WWII onwards.

Beerhouse and Craft Kitchen

IMG_8611.JPGThis was possibly the most deceptive of them all. From outside all you could see were empty tables, but the couple smoking outside couldn’t rave about it enough, so in we went. We went down a flight of stairs, round a corner and into a series of underground cellars filled with tables and people enjoying a Saturday night out. People sat eating herring and drinking from yet another impressive array of beers, and all in what looked like a concrete bunker/railway station/brewery. It was fantastic.

Then we went to a club. If like us you’ve not been to a club since before they introduced late licensing in pubs, Vilnius is a good place to ease yourself back in. We ended our day of exploring in the Mojo Lounge, Vilnius’s number one nightspot and according to the guide book, a place where ‘it doesn’t matter how young or old you are’. It’s the kind of club you can get a Corona for 3 Euros, they’ll let you in wearing your big coat, and you can dance to Faithless.

Needless to say Sunday got off to a slower start, and off we went to Forto Dvaras to indulge in some traditional Lithuanian stodgy dishes to clear the cobwebs. It’s a chain, but its menu laid claim to the seal of approval from the Lithuanian culture board for staying true to traditional culinary values. It was yet another Vilnius labyrinth, with what felt like hundreds of tables below ground level in more caves. We ordered chicken kiev and cepelinai (commonly called zeppelins because of their likeness to the airships). Zeppelins are almost the Lithuanian pierogi, a huge potato dumpling stuffed with meat and drizzled with fat, lardons and sour cream. They might not be everyone’s cup of tea but Mr P ate them every day with no complaints.

After a short and easy hike up to the castle for views out over the city, including the Three Crosses monument, we ended our trip by retiring to Sky Bar at the Radisson Blu hotel. A couple of thoughtfully served cocktails in their gorgeous 22nd floor bar, endless bowls of peanuts and ambient dance music later, and I could have stayed in Vilnius all month.

We flew… Ryanair, £80 return from Leeds Bradford

We slept… Hotel Europa Royale, £50 a night for a huge double room and breakfast

We drank… beer ranging from 3-5 Euro a pint

We ate… anything with potatoes and stuffed with meat, prices varied a lot but you can get a decent traditional meal for around 5 Euros and be full and content

We bought… if your family are anything like mine and expect a fridge magnet from everywhere you go, you can pick these up at the airport for 3 Euros each (if you were too busy drinking cocktails to buy them in town)

We chatted… to anyone and everyone. The people were incredibly friendly and happy to share their tips of how to make the most of your Vilnius experience. Even if you were wearing anoraks

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