And now for something completely different. I’ve mentioned before that my travels have become much less adventurous since having kids. Instead of exploring remote and little known destinations we’ve been sticking to the more popular family friendly tourist spots. But that doesn’t mean I don’t miss my early travel days and dream of taking the family to lesser known destinations. The great thing about getting off the beaten track is finding some travel gems in unexpected places. And one of those amazing destinations that rarely makes the top ten list is Lithuania.
I visited Lithuania on my third backpacking trip back in 1998 and while I’m sure it’s changed quite a bit in the last 15 years the list of attractions even back then was impressive. I was travelling that summer with my brother after my third year of university. He had started his trip before me, but I had to wait until the end of my semester in May. I had flown to Helsinki, then met him in St. Petersburg and from there travelled through Estonia and Latvia to Lithuania. We started our visit in the coastal city of Klaipeda. It was a port city with an interesting history and a lively market, but wasn’t terribly remarkable in itself. The one thing I do remember about Klaipeda, however, was the aquarium, which was on an island just off the mainland. I wasn’t expecting much when I went to visit and the tanks and exhibits were okay, but the dolphin show absolutely blew me away. Maybe it’s because North American aquariums would never allow keepers to do such risky stunts, but I’ve never seen a more acrobatic show with dolphins propelling men in wetsuits 20 or 30 feet straight out of the water, often three or four at a time, dolphins doing triple and quadruple flips in the air, people flying through hoops or balancing on the backs of two dolphins at extremely high speeds. I’m not sure how the show would stand up to scrutiny from animal rights activists, but it I found it remarkable that the most thrilling Sea World type show I’ve ever seen was in a little aquarium in a little country that many people have not even heard about.
From Klaipeda we travelled seven hours east by train to the capital of Vilnius. Once again, I didn’t really have any expectations of what we might find. While the suburbs were typically dingy, post Soviet neighbourhoods, the old town had been beautifully restored with cobblestone streets, lovely cafes and brightly painted buildings. Another backpacker described it as a sort of “mini Prague” and after visiting Prague later in the trip we found that we agreed with him. And the best part was that it was cheap! Even on a backpackers budget we could eat what we wanted and go where we wanted. We found an amazing restaurant in a subterranean room underneath an old building with tables scattered between huge arching stone support pillars that dated back to who knows when. It was incredibly atmospheric and the service and food was excellent. Another highlight was a piano concert in a concert hall that had previously been a church. It had no air conditioning and was incredibly hot and stuffy, but no one in the hall made a sound as they fanned themselves with programs and listened intently to an Israeli pianist playing Rachmaninov, the only rustling in the crowd happening when the pianist had to stop every ten minutes or so to wipe the sweat off the keys so he could keep going. At the end there was the Eastern European equivalent of a standing ovation with the applause of the crowd evolving into a rhythmic, coordinated clapping.
We liked Vilnius so much we stayed a few days longer than we had planned, but we did manage to make one excursion from the city to the castle complex at Trakai Island. This huge, red brick castle sits on an island in a lake about an hour from Vilnius and was built in the 14th and 15th centuries. It was restored in the 19th century and today looks very much like a classic fairy tale castle with round turrets and high walls surrounded by the water of the lake. It is connected to the shore by a long bridge, but you can also hire rowboats to take you around the lake and get great views of the castle from the water.
So why am I reminiscing about one of my favourite backpacker destinations on my family travel blog? Well, to me Lithuania is a perfect example of a place that has a lot to offer, but isn’t big or flashy enough to get on many traveller’s radar. I would love to take my family there some day, but I don’t know if it will every happen since there are so many wonderful destinations and only so many chances to travel. But one thing I know for sure, if I ever get the chance to go to Lithuania again, I’d go in a heartbeat.