Vilnius, Klaipeda, Smiltynes, Palanga
08.16.2012 - 08.19.2012 68 °F
I don't think I have enough fingers and toes to count how many times I was asked "What the heck are you doing in Lithuania?".. mostly from people who weren't even Lithuanian. So I answer as I usually do.. "Same reason you are, buddy!" But honestly, I almost had to ask myself the same question. In Vilnius, I only met one other American, which is pretty uncommon to find so few while backpacking.. and I met none in the other cities in Lithuania. Its so uncommon for the Westerner to travel this far over! But for me, meeting Americans.. its nice to talking to a little piece of home, but wouldn't I have just stayed in America if I wanted to meet new Americans every day? Precisely! So BAM, there we go. Lemme get some Lietuva peeps!
“I see my path, but I don’t know where it leads. Not knowing where I’m going is what inspires me to travel it.” — Rosalia de Castro
I was supposed to couch surf in Vilnius, but judging by my previous experiences, I decided to sit this round out. I booked a hostel for a night a few hours before arrived there. My friend, Jelle from Krakow recommended Jimmy Jumps House Hostel in the Old Town Square.. which I will now extend the recommendation to you! It seemed like a very upbeat hostel.. unfortunately I didn't get too involved in the hostel shenanigans since my time in Vilnius was limited. I arrived early in the morning, just before Vilnius was beginning to wake up. I did a bit of wandering around, found me a quiet coffee shop and finally hunkered in one spot for a bit. I swear, the only time during this whole trip that I would sit still and 'relax' was on a stupid bus. It was so nice to have some down time for once, especially since I was going to catch a free walking tour at noon and we all know.. that's where the friends are made!
Let me tell you something about Vilnius. There are SO MANY CHURCHES. After you've done a bit of traveling, sure, you see some pretty ones.. but after a while you realize.. if you've seen one, you've seen them all. So needless to say, my tour group was very grateful that our guide took us off the beaten path to some really interesting sides of Vilnius. We went to a district that was like a country in itself. They even have their own "constitution" that has the most random units.. like "One must always love their cat, if they so choose to have a cat". If only our constitution were so simplistic! Anyways, the tour guide took us to an old [cement?] greenhouse in the woods of the outskirts of the city center. After a climb to the top of the old abandoned building, the view of Vilnius was beautiful.. see picture above!
But the friends that I ended up sticking close to were a girl from California named Jen (I know what I said about Americans BUT.. shes been travelling for SEVEN MONTHS.. can you imagine?!) and two Belgian fellas named Antonie and Frederic. The four of us and one of the Aussies went to lunch at a highly recommended restaurant called Forto Dvaras. It an underground restaurant, like many of my favorite restaurants here in Prague! GO THERE. And get the cepeliinai. Its a Lithuania specialty.. a sort of happy medium between a thick pancake and dumpling stuffed with meat and cheese and/or veggies. It had a very interesting taste and texture.. worth a try! Sometimes just sitting around a table with people who are so different than you are some of the best memories during travel. I have never had much desire to visit Belgium in the past, until I met some very lovely new Belgian friends! Another perk of traveling: Meeting people that you can eventually stay with fo' free when you want to visit somewhere new! If you remember a year back, when I traveled to Paris.. I stayed with my Aussie friend Erica that I had met in Munich two years prior, who was a nanny in Paris. You never know how things will work out!
Later that evening, I met up with Jen for dinner past the Cathedral square. Its always so neat listening to other people's traveling experiences, especially when they've been to places you've never been before. Jen had traveled in Asia for three months before she began her European shenanigans. Trust me, I made notes of everything she had done! I was a bit bummed, however, when she told me about how amazing Tallinn, Estonia was.. sadly my budget wasn't going to be able to get me that far north.. which of course at this point, I had no idea Riga would be in the mix! After dinner, we wandered around the supposed 'night life' district and found a few busy bars in the area. We settled on a crowded Irish Pub, seemed to have a lot going on! Not five minutes went by when I was approached by a handsome blonde fellow, sounding as American as ever. The first thing has asks me is if I am Lithuanian.. interesting pick-up line, right? When I say no, he replies "Oh dang, I was wanting to meet some local girls". Haha, not really a good follow-up line either. Its the blonde hair, most of north eastern Europe is filled with blonde hair, blue eyed girls, a beautiful mixture of Russian, German and Polish heritage. Of course, the fact that I'm American didn't stop this new friend from spitting some serious game our way, which was more understandable once we found out that he was actually SWEDISH! My goodness, those Scandinavian men sure are smokin'! And apparently Lithuanian men are as well. Two Swedish guys were visiting their three Lituva friends, the latter being the most appealing to talk to. It was a very.. interesting evening with the Swedes, to say the least. Not only was I scrutinized for drinking whiskey at 22, I was also told that I'm not very good at acting 22. Haha. Nothing I haven't heard before I guess. Thankfully, at the Irish Pub, we happened to run into our two Belgian friends again! Absolute life savers. Very gentlemen-like guys. So they were our saving grace for the night.. and all four of us happened to be travelling to Klaipeda within the next couple days as well! Its always nice to see a familiar face in a foreign land. We'll get to that later.. twice actually!
“The great difference between voyages rests not with the ships, but with the people you meet on them.” — Amelia E. Barr
On the road again. Five hour bus ride from Vilnius to Klaipeda! I met a nice Lithuanian guy named Otto who was my age, on his way to visit friends and go to a festival in Klaipeda. As a girl who is traveling alone, any time a guy doesn't leave you alone, you always think the worst. All guys seem like creeps at first when you're traveling. But turns out, most of the non-native English speakers just want to practice speaking. Its sort of cool, especially now that I'm an actual English teacher. It's excellent practice for me because I have to constantly be conscious of my speech and talking speed in order to have an efficient conversation with people. So for a majority of the bus ride, I had a nice conversation/teaching session with a foreigner! Pretty awesome. I also learned that he was a plane mechanic at the Vilnius airport. And if anyone knows me, I LOVE airplanes and it made me miss my Wilmington Int'l family so much!
My couch surfing host Nedas and a friend of his met me at the bus station. We grabbed some grub at apparently the best Lithuanian restaurant Klaipeda had to offer. Standard eastern European cuisine.. meat, potatoes, random variety of chopped up veggies. But they were so keen on getting me to the Old Town of Klaipeda to see some sights! We met up with about six more of Nedas's friends and they were kind enough to take me on a little Klaipeda tour by night! It was a quaint little port town. There wasn't very much going on for a Friday night, I got the vibe that it probably only gets really crowded when a cruise ship is docked.. which I later learned is very true! As we were walking along the canal, we stopped at a bench on the water, looked down, and saw a girl sitting on an anchored sail boat, all bundled up, reading a book. She was a Polish girl who had been traveling with six other friends through the Baltic Sea from the coast to Klaipeda. She said they faced stormy weather and shallow waters along the coast.. I can't even imagine! She couldn't have been much older than me and that's her idea of a weekend adventure? Sailing from one country to the next through the Baltic Sea? That is indescribably awesome.
Turns out, my host didn't even live in Klaipeda at all! This actually turned out to be a little bit more annoyed than I would have expected because it meant that I had to solely rely on him to get back into town. We drove the 15 minutes to his residence in Palanga, another coastal village. It actually turned out to have more of a night life in the downtown area compared to Klaipeda and I now wish I would have been able to spend more time there! Next time, next time. Anyways, we made our way back to his house, which is actually his PARENTS house. Very strange, never imagined a couch surfing host to live with his parents.. I feel like that would be a very weird arrangement.. but oh well. It was a very nice house and they had a precious little dog that would hardly ever leave my side. Unfortunately, of course, it didn't speak a bit of English but I guess dogs love you no matter the language you speak! The other somewhat strange part about the house, however, was the pictures of Jesus EVERYWHERE. Apparently, Lithuanians are extremely religious, most Catholic, and they publicly display it throughout their house proudly. Not that I have any problem with this whatsoever.. I just had a little giggle when I went to go brush my teeth and there was a crucifix right next to the mirror, as well as next to every single plug in my bedroom! Oh, culture differences.
So. Word got out that there are PENGUINS in Klaipeda. Again, if you know me, you'll also know that I have a weird obsession with penguins (Not to the extremity of Jessica Alba in "Good Luck Chuck" but pretty close). So there is really no surprise when I say that the next day I made my way to the Lithuanian Sea Museum and Aquarium to hang out with some cute, furry friends! Going back to my previous statement, downtown Klaipeda was packed because at the end of the canal, there was a huge cruise ship docked! It was a really gorgeous sight.. then as I got closer to it, I realized it was the same cruise line as the one that bellied up off the Italian coast! Haha, oh dear. Anyways, as I'm walking down the main strip towards the ferry port, who do I pass none other than my awesome Belgian friends! Ah, the smallness of the world. Sadly they were on their way to catch a bus to Riga, so I had to bid them farewell.. until I actually went to Riga.. next blog!
I made my way onto the pedestrian ferry for the five minute ride to Smiltynes, an island off the actual Klaipeda coast that separated it from the Baltic. It really could not have been a more perfect Saturday, the weather was absolutely amazing. I just walked everywhere.. went to the aquarium and saw my favorite classy animals, learned a little bit about Lithuanian maritime history and walked down a few paths to see different accesses to the Baltic Sea! I literally felt like I was back at home, just standing on the crosswalk looking at the ocean. Now, when I look at maps of where I was, its such a strange feeling! From land I was looking NORTH. I've never looked straight out at a massive body of water and was looking north.. while being so far up north! Very strange indeed. That night, we moseyed on over to Palanga before heading back home. Travel tip for the coastal cities: Skip Klaipeda and go to Palanga! Its just as close to the sea with a ton more things to do and see. The main boardwalk was absolutely packed full of restaurants, bars, carnival games, souvenir shops, etc. It was a very cool atmosphere. We walked onto a very long pier, which at the end had a giant canvas where people have signed their name and homeland. Naturally, proudly, I carved my name in dark, bold letters right in the center! Courtney USA! When we arrived back at the house, we all enjoyed a nice campfire along with some Lithuanian wine and produce, exchanging stories of our every day lives and our hopes and dreams for the future. Perfect conversations with people you don't know because 1. They'll never know if you actually follow through with them or now and 2. the conversation is endless. You can never learn enough about someone's culture and lifestyle and what the possibilities to become of them are. Apparently, in Lithuania, when you graduate university, if you don't immediately get a job, you must join the military. It makes sense to keep the employment rate down and to keep the standard of their society at top notch but.. still, very strange. As an American, all I see of that is lack of freedom of choice to do what you want with your own life, but.. I guess it keeps you on the path of doing whats best for you rather than sitting on your lazy butt after graduation!
“Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.” — Andre Gide
Lithuania was the most culturally exquisite country I have ever been to. All of Nedas's friends also asked me why on earth I would travel all the way to little bitty Klaipeda.. but why not? It was a new adventure and I experienced a completely different culture than what I was immune to, not only in the U.S. but also in Prague as well. It was nice to have some down time in my constant go-go-go adventures. I was able to witness the post-communistic environment of the Baltic states, the Russian language still just as common as Lithuanian. Lithuania truly is a beautiful country and would certainly recommend it for someone who isn't solely looking for a place to get into shenanigans.. but for someone who is sincerely interested in learning about Cold War and post-Soviet culture.
And in a last minute decision.. I booked a bus to Riga, Latvia! Stay tuned for the last leg of my Baltic adventures.. thanks for reading!