Trakai just got served
Today we had a late morning once again, with some of us checking out flea markets and wrapping up the last Vilnius’ old town. At 2:30pm we left for the bus station (a 10min walk away) for the 20min bus for Trakai.
This is where things got testy. When we asked to buy tickets (1.70 euros) for the bus to Trakai, we were told at the information kiosk that we could buy them on the bus. We felt uncomfortable about this given the size of the group so we asked again to reserve them but once again was denied (“You can buy tickets on the bus!”). Shrugging our shoulders we headed to platform 28 for the 3pm bus, which was already boarding. There the driver told our group that he was already at capacity and 11 of us could not fit on the bus. Understandable.
We waited another 40 minutes for the 3:40pm bus and once again, as an empty bus pulled in and us at the front of the line, we were again told by the driver we could not board because this time: “You need to buy tickets beforehand to get on.”
An international war between USA, Spain, Italy and Lithuania then ensued; Spanish and Italian bystanders who had pre-purchased tickets tried to push us out of the way while we stood our ground and argued that it was wrong to have been told by the information kiosk earlier to buy tickets on the bus. So the commotion continued on from the bus back to the Lithuanians at the information kiosk where we demanded to speak to the manager…which of course got us nowhere but utter indifference and eyerolls. Either way, we ended up hailing taxis to take us to Trakai for 30 euros a car.
While the 20 minute drive gave us time to calm down, we then let it all go when we pulled up to Trakai:
Considering choosing the bus vs. the taxi, opportunity costs can be factored: It’s a 30 minute walk from the bus station to the castle, while it’s about a 5 minute walk to the castle from where the cabs drop you off.
The admission fee is 6 euros a person to get into the castle, although we “shock and awe-d” the ticket agent with enough student IDs to get the whole group the student price of 3 euros a person.
Once you walk in, you’ll come upon the main square where many concerts take place. For us, a “medieval rock/metal” festival was going on, which…sort of…contributed to the atmosphere. Otherwise, multiple activities for family fun abound here:
Handmade wooden swords
Keep walking past the square and up the stairs to the second part of the castle:
Here you can shoot airsoft guns, a bow & arrow, or a crossbow for 2 euros for 6 pellets/arrows.
At the very back of the castle is the museum portion, with basic exhibits on period pieces and the way of life way back in the 14th-15th centuries.
It’s a straightforward exhibition, taking about 15 minutes to breeze through all of it (although you’re welcome to stay hours here if medieval living is your thing).
At 6pm the group gathered for one last meal overlooking Trakai at sunset at the magnificent Apvalaus Stalo Klubas restaurant:
Thyme Panna Cotta with Mango Puree
Mini Chocolate Cake
We then end our day with one final night together, led by Teja, a waitress I met a few weeks ago back in NYC who just happened to be visiting her home in Vilnius the same time we were, and accompanied by Judith, another Lithuanian visiting Vilnius for the weekend.
Teja Aleksandravičiūtė…for first running into each other when you were serving at my friend’s birthday brunch; chance would have it that you would be in your hometown of Vilnius at the same time we were and that you would join your new family of New Yorkers onstage for shameless karaoke renditions of “Bad Romance” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” before your aghast countrymen. Moments were beholden to magical coincidence that night as you learned that coincidence = preparation + opportunity. And opportunity certainly came. So may many more coincidences and opportunities await you at LSE; you are more prepared than you think. 08/24/15.
That night we showed off our karaoke chops (killing it with “I Want It That Way”, “Bad Romance” and “Bohemian Rhapsody”) to the entirety of Vilnius on a surprisingly lively Sunday night, and capping off the final day for many of us; 5 of us continue onwards tomorrow to our last “unofficial” extension day of the trip in Minsk, Belarus while 8 fly home from Vilnius. We miss you all already.
Vilnius at night
I can’t think of a better karaoke hit to end our last night together:
Or a hookah bar that Teja and I found together at 5am in the morning as she, nary a better guide I could ever ask for, showed me around the Vilnius only she knew, . . . .
Now Dave, who didn’t make any travel plans after our trip, is all alone in Vilnius.
- At time of posting in Trakai, Lithuania, it was 26 °C -
Humidity: 34% | Wind Speed: 10km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy
Cathedral Square just got served
Our group once again took advantage of Eastern Europe’s relatively laxer gun range laws and spent a whopping 3 hours shooting things we would never have a shot at — no pun intended — back in the USA. But more on that later…
We woke up to a beautiful late morning in Vilnius and started off our day with a long blynines (An eastern european version of pancakes) breakfast at Gusto Blynines:
While part of the group left early to check out the 2.5 hour free walking tour, the rest of us spent 2 hours trying to see everything in Vilnius’ Old Town on our own, starting off with the triad of castles near the Gate of Dawn.
Most notable is St. Casimir’s Cathedral, which was once a church of atheism when Lithuania was under Soviet control and still a fine example of baroque architecture:
Walk a bit more north and you can explore the former Jewish “ghetto” in the center of old town:
On the eastern part of Old Town across a short bridge is Užupis, a self-declared “breakaway” republic consisting of off-the-grid artists and bohemians (similar to the Christiania district in Copenhagen) living in a laissez-faire atmosphere. The neighborhood has its own constitution (posted on a street wall in multiple languages), president, laws, and even its own tongue-in-cheek passport stamp which you can get at a local bar/restaurant.
The district declared itself an independent Republic of Užupis on April 1st (get it?), 1997.
Crossing the bridge to Užupis
The Užupis Constitution
It takes about 20 minutes to walk around Užupis:
Before leaving, you can get your Užupis stamp at this restaurant/bar right across the bridge from the main old town:
Returning to the main part of old town west of Užupis, we went to check out the Orthodox Church:
…and St. Anne’s Church complex…
…and finally St. John’s Church:
At 2:45pm a friendly Lithuanian soldier picked us up in his van to take us to an outdoor gun range 25 minutes outside of Vilnius. Unlike in our gun instructors in Tallinn, this guy taught us how to start from scratch, including loading bullets in our own cartridges, and locking and loading on our own.
We started off with 4 types of pistols, including the Glock-17, the SIG Sauer P226, a Colt, and a Makarov PM pistol with a shoulder stabilizer:
Then we put our Glock-17s in a submachine converter with laser sight:
After that, the classic H&K MP-5 submachine gun:
The Thompson “Tommy” Gun:
The Defender 1300 pump-action shotgun:
And finally, the assault rifles:
I started off with an H&K G36:
I then got the chance to finally lock and load my own M4A1 Carbine with a silencer:
And finally the last 2 were variations of AK-47s:
AK-47 tuned with laser sight
All in all, we had a very educational afternoon:
And yet none of this grabbed our attention more than our instructor’s brave 6 year old son, who was fearlessly driving a motorbike the whole time we were shooting our guns mere yards away.
After cleaning up our instructor was kind enough to drive us back to the old city:
He dropped us off at the foot of Gediminas Hill so we could watch the sunset with the rest of the group.
It takes about a quick 8 minute climb up Gediminas Hill. At the top is Vilnius’ 3 Crosses Monument, a memorial to 7 Franciscan friars who were beheaded on top of this hill.
The city views here at sunset are a must:
A memorial to all the Lithuanian bishops and priests who were persecuted and executed in Vilnius
After the sunset, we climbed back down the hill…
…and swung by Cathedral Square nearby:
At this point we happened upon the end of the all-women’s 5K that was taking place right around the corner:
After cheering them on, we had a long, lazy dinner among the quaint cobblestone streets along Vilnius University:
- At time of posting in Vilnius, Lithuania, it was 16 °C -
Humidity: 63% | Wind Speed: 6km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear
After an eventful night and saying goodbye to Teresa and Vivian early this morning, we packed our bags and planned for our most ambitious day yet: Take an international bus from Riga, Latvia to Siauliai, Lithuania to visit the Hill Of Crosses, before heading onwards by train to Lithuania’s capital city Vilnius by nightfall.
Leaving the hostel at 11:45am, we walked about 10 minutes south from old city to Riga’s bus station for a 12:15pm Ollex Express Bus to Siauliai.
We arrived at around 2:45pm into Siauliai‘s bus station, which is conveniently attached to a high-end mall.
After orienting ourselves with the bus schedule, storing our left luggage for a cheap 0.60 euros at the bus station, and getting some food at the mall, we got on the public bus on Platform #12 (0.86 euros fare). We traveled about 12km north of Siauliai for about 15-20 minutes, before getting off at Domentai.
From there we walked another 15 minutes towards the Hill Of Crosses.
The Hill Of Crosses in the distance on the right
After 15 minutes of walking down a dirt path, we finally came upon an incredible, awe-inspiring sight.
For the many of you unfamiliar with what this place is, the Hill Of Crosses is a pilgrimage site in Northern Lithuania famous for Lithuanians leaving crosses on a hill since the 1800s. Despite multiple attempts by the Soviet empire and other powers trying to bulldoze the site, Lithuanians have risked their life and limb to continuing the practice and going as far as planting the crosses in the cover of darkness as a demonstration of “peaceful rebellion.”
The Hill Of Crosses remains to this day a beautiful testament of the will and faith of the Lithuanian people for their beliefs. The exact number of crosses is unknown, but it has been estimated that there have been about 100,000+ crosses placed on this hill.
Follow the path of crosses until you arrive upon the main, central clearing at the foot of the hill:
From there you can walk up the stairs and lose yourself among a forest of crosses.
There are multiple paths around and through the sides of the hill you can take, all eventually leading back to the top.
A few panoramas of the hill:
You can either easily spend more than an hour here and not want to leave, or see everything in under 30 minutes.
Some crosses are not even planted into the ground, but simply placed in a pile of other crosses:
After about 45 minutes there, we all elected to take a cab back to Siauliai instead of waiting another hour to take the return bus back. A one way journey by cab should cost about 20 euros.
Seeing that we had already taken buses, cars, ships, ferries, and flights on this trip, the last mode of transportation left to experience was a train. So instead of taking an evening bus back to Vilnius, we picked up our bags at the left luggage station in the bus terminal and walked about 8 minutes towards the train station northwest of the city.
Lithuania has a funny system of not allowing tickets to be pre-purchased/reserved outside the country, so unlike the overnight buses and cruise ships we’ve been taking the past 2 weeks, we had to buy our train tickets on the spot (for those of you running large groups like us can rest easy, however, that it is very rare for these train tickets to get sold out).
A pretty church close to the train station
Unlike the bus terminal, the train station is spartan with not much availability for anything but a waiting area.
We then got on the 6:15pm train for Vilnius.
… and we arrived into Vilnius at 8:30pm.
Vilnius train station
From the train station we walked about 9 minutes towards Vilnius’ Old Town, coming upon the Gate of Dawn:
The Gate of Dawn
Our hostel, Hostelgate, is located only a few steps from the Gate of Dawn inside Old Town. We checked in quickly, and then went out exploring the neighborhood at night.
After a decent dinner at Atelier Grill, we turned in for an early night.
- At time of posting in Siauliai, it was 14 °C -
Humidity: 82% | Wind Speed: 10km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear