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THE BUMPY RIDE THROUGH LITHUANIA

On Independence Square stands the Lithuanian Parliament and government buildings.Linking up the capitals of the Baltic states is a highway with the posh name of Via Baltica. It runs from Tallinn in Estonia through Riga in Latvia and then to Vilnius in Lithuania.  

For an inter-capital highway, printed broad red on road maps, drivers may be expecting a smooth motorway. But, as Reg Butler discovered, the reality is more like a country lane for much of the distance, rich in pot-holes for a bumpy ride.

On our coach-tour of the Baltic, all the passengers were car-drivers at home. But we were quite happy for Sean, our driver, to concentrate on the pot-holes while we admired the scenery.

The countryside is a green mix of woodlands, lakes and farmland. There are horse-drawn carts to admire, grazing cattle and timber barns and farmhouses. Little groups of farm workers trudge along with scythes and pitchforks, as though rallying for a peasants' revolt.

Travel Facts

 

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TRAVEL FACTS

For UK passport holders, no visas are required.

Lithuanian currency is litas, pegged to the Euro. Exchange rate. Leading shops, hotels and restaurants accept major credit cards.

The language is a headache, but visitors can usually get by with English, German or Russian.

Lithuanian Tourist Information Centre, 86 Gloucester Place, London W1U 6HP. Tel: 020 7034 1222. Email: tourism@lithuanian
embassy.co.uk
 

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A street is completely resurfaced with freshly laid cobblesEven the main city highways aren't much better than out-of-town. In the 2ist century, it's curious to see gangs of men re-laying a road with new cobbles. 

Tramlines don't actually match the level of the road surface, so it's like a test-bed for vehicle suspension. 

That's rather like Lithuanian history, which has followed a very bumpy ride over the centuries. At one time, Lithuania controlled territories from the Baltic to the Black Sea, mainly in association with Poland.

But for the past 700 years, the country has been buffeted around by its big-boy neighbours - the Teutonic Order, Poland, Russia, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Lithuania finally steered itself loose from Soviet occupation in 1990, and waved the last Russian soldiers goodbye in 1993. 

Since then, independent Lithuania has moved towards ever-closer links with the West, and aims to become a prime tourist destination. 
The 16th-century bell tower in Cathedral Square
The capital is Vilnius, with 576,000 population and an Old Town which is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Most of the centre is centuries old, and big efforts are being made to preserve the olde-worlde look and keep out concrete and glass for the suburbs. 

Medieval buildings are getting a face-lift, with a new sparkle to the old crumbling walls. Interiors are being upgraded to 20th-century standards. Elderly mansions have been converted into comfortable hotels and trendy restaurants, oozing with 'character'.

Obviously the most important buildings have had priority, with old timbers replaced. You can see the 'before and after' effects. Maybe half a church is completely renovated and repainted in bright pastel colours, while the other half is smoky grey beneath the scaffolding. 

Like any historic town, Vilnius is thick with churches. 

Among the highlights is the first baroque-style church, St. Casimir's, which has been converted several times. 

It started out Catholic in 1604, became Russian Orthodox with an onion dome in 1837, and turned Lutheran under German rule from 1916 to 1918. In Soviet times it became a Museum of Atheism, and returned to the Catholic fold in the 1980s. 
The Greek temple style of Vilnius Cathedral, built on the site of a pagan temple.
Lithuania was the last nation in Europe to adopt Christianity, in 1387. To mark their conversion, they demolished a pagan temple, and constructed a Catholic church in its place. Since then, the church has been rebuilt five times, with the latest reconstruction in 1784. During Soviet times, the building was used as a National Art Gallery, but was re-consecrated in 1989.

When the town was laid out, the medieval rulers didn't foresee a rosy future when tourists would want to ride around in tourist coaches. So visitors have to dismount and walk the narrow streets which are more like pedestrian precincts. It also makes it easier for shop-gazing at the little boutiques which have sprung up like mushrooms.

Most prices, except for imported items, are very attractive. The best tourist buys are amber and leather goods, and folk-art fabrics, pottery, wood-carvings and metalwork. 

Food and drink and transport prices are cheap by Western standards. Lithuania, like the other Baltic States, is a smokers' paradise, with Marlboro or Dunhill International available cheaply.  Although prices have risen since Lithuania's accession to the European Union, they are still below average European prices.

Consider these other Baltic destinations

ESTONIA - plenty to sing about

HELSINKI - go when the sun shines

LATVIA - Varied weekend in Riga


"Books to read - click on cover pictures" or click on the links below

Lithuania by Gordon McLachlan - Published by Bradt Travel Guides which specialise mostly in off-trail destinations, this is the best and most detailed guidebook devoted entirely to Lithuania and its history, culture and sightseeing. 

Lonely Planet: Estonia, Latvia & Lithuania - A collaboration of four authors to cover these three Baltic States.

Baltic Capitals - A perfect buy for a multi-capital journey that features Riga, Tallinn, Vilnius and the very off-beat Kaliningrad, and including a brief glossary for each language. 

Baltic States Insight Guide - a comprehensive survey, to be published from April 2005.


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