A festive trip between Lithuania’s two largest cities
On the online travel forums that deal with Lithuania (population: 2.79 million), there seems to be a debate over which is the better city to visit: Vilnius, the capital (population: 544,000) or Kaunas, the second city (population: 295,000).
Ryanair has flights (just under 3 hours) to both cities direct from London Stansted, yet as they are only 100km apart and linked by frequent trains, it is quite possible to see both cities even on a short visit. In late November 2022, looking to soak up some festive cheer and learn something of Lithuania’s history, we visited them both.
We decided in the end, based on the flight times, to fly to Vilnius first. Part of the airport itself dates from the early 1950s. Now used only for arrivals and threatened with closure, it provides a fascinating glimpse of the past.
The place is more akin to an old railway station than any airport I have ever seen, but it is cosy and compact. The Soviet-era design is quite well adapted to modern use, although it is very easy to imagine the large hammer and sickle emblem that no doubt once adorned the exterior.
Vilnius is served by excellent public transportation, basically a network of buses and trolley buses. A bus from the airport to the centre costs just one Euro and takes around 20 minutes. When we arrive, there is already snow on the ground and the temperature is hovering just below freezing.
Our starting point to explore is the Cathedral Square. Overlooking it are the remains of Gediminas Castle. It is named for the Grand Duke of Lithuania who founded the city back in 1323. Vilnius thus celebrates its 700th anniversary next year and there are signs of preparations of the forthcoming celebrations all over the centre.
The Catholic cathedral stands at the centre of the square and is separated from its bell tower. Its neoclassical façade is striking although its interior is more traditional. It is the burial place of many famous figures from Lithuanian history, perhaps most prominent amongst them is Vytautas the Great (1350-1430), Grand Duke of Lithuania at the time of its emergence as a great power in union with Poland.
There is a big statue of Vytautas inside the Lithuanian History Museum a few minutes’ walk away from the Cathedral. At the height of its power in the 15th century, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was the largest country in Europe and its territory stretched as far south as modern-day Ukraine.
The museum is excellent and tells the story of how the union with Poland eventually became the more formal Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 16th Century. It lasted until it was partitioned into the Russian, German and Austrian empires in the last decade of the 18th Century.
The exhibition continues the story of how Lithuania fared as part of the Russian Empire from 1795 until the beginning of the First World War, and the various failed attempts to reassert Lithuanian independence that were made during that time.
Knowing a bit of the history is good preparation for a walk around the old centre. The city flourished in the 17th and 18th centuries and architectural styles include Gothic, Renaissance, and Classical, although the predominant style is Baroque.
We find walking around the old centre easy and pleasant. It is compact and its medieval layout of streets is now home to shops, cafes and restaurants. It is freezing outside so it is a great feeling to enter the warm shops and shelter from the cold for a while.
Before it became part of the Russian Empire, Vilnius grew up with influences from different cultures, religions, and languages. There are churches here of different dominations including Orthodox and Lutheran as well as Catholic.
The once large Jewish population, almost wiped out in the Holocaust, is commemorated at the site of the great synagogue and in and around the former ghetto.
We make several little trips around the old centre during our time in Vilnius. We pass through the snow-covered Bernadine Gardens, we experience the self-proclaimed ‘Republic’ of Užupis (the city’s Bohemian artistic district), we inspect the pro-NATO displays in front of the Town Hall, and we gaze at the Bastion of the Defensive Wall, before returning each time to the Cathedral Square.
A Train Ride
Vilnius station is a good 20-minute walk from the old centre. It was originally opened in 1861 but had to be rebuilt after destruction in the Second World War. The current building dates from 1950 and its style reminds me of countless such stations I have seen in other parts of the former Soviet Union.
There are a couple of little kiosks inside the station selling drinks and snacks, whilst just outside there is a bar housed in the old postal building. Surprisingly it has a giant model of Tony Soprano in front of it, standing looking out from the former platform in his shorts.
The station building is also home to the Lithuanian Railway Museum; on the opposite side of the tracks the extensive outdoor annex houses a collection of steam and diesel locomotives, old carriages and other exhibits.
Back in 1861 the station was opened as part of the construction of the St Petersburg to Warsaw railway. Most of the country’s (currently 1190 mile) network was completed during the Russian Empire period prior to 1914. Vilnius became a stop on the line from Moscow and Minsk, with trains continuing towards Eydtkuhnen just over the border in what was then East Prussia. From Eydtkuhnen trains ran on to Königsberg and Berlin.
Today, the borders have long-since altered: what used to be Eydtkuhnen is now Chernyshevskoe and it is inside the Russian exclave based around Kaliningrad, former Königsberg. Trains travelling from Moscow via Minsk (now Capital of Belarus) to Kaliningrad still must pass through Lithuania; route shown in purple on the map below.
It used to be possible to board passenger trains on the Moscow to Kaliningrad route at Vilnius; the facility was suspended during Covid and has not restarted since because of the war between Russia and Ukraine. The trains still make a service stop in the station but there is no way to alight from them or join them.
The Lithuanians have attached pictures of what is happening in Ukraine to the fence which creates the barrier around the platform where these Russian trains stop, apparently there have been loudspeaker announcements criticising Russia too.
Our journey today will take us about 100km west along the main line to Kaunas. The service (one way tickets from about 7 Euros) is roughly hourly and whilst the fastest expresses take just 70 minutes, our stopping train is scheduled to take 90. Most of the services to Kaunas are in the hands of double-decker three-car electric units manufactured by Skoda in the Czech Republic.
We get a seat on the upper deck; the train is relatively full but not too crowded. Our upstairs seat is comfortable and spacious. It affords us a fine view of the “winter wonderland” we are soon passing through.
As we travel towards Kaunas, we notice a significant amount of freight traffic coming in the other direction. Judging by the Cyrillic markings I make out on the wagons as they pass by, I assume that these trains are transiting between Kaliningrad and the Belarusian border.
Following the invasion of Ukraine in February, the Lithuanians introduced a total ban on freight traffic, but this has now been amended and trains are running again. Although, recent estimates put the figure for such shipments through Lithuania at around 500,000 tons a month; 50% of the same figure a year ago.
The scenery for much of the journey is forest, looking particularly picturesque in the snow, and only just before Kaunas is there much sign of civilisation. The train plunges through Lithuania’s only railway tunnel and soon after we arrive at the platform.
The station here is a bit smaller than Vilnius, there are a couple of memorials on the platform, one to commemorate the forced deportation of Lithuanians by the Soviets and one to recognise the efforts of a Japanese diplomat, Sugihara Chiune, in saving the lives of thousands of Jewish refugees in the 1940s. The museum that tells the story of his time in the city is our first stop today.
Kaunas as Capital (1918-1940)
It is about a ten-minute walk to the old Japanese consulate building that houses the Sugihara Museum. There is a little less snow on the ground here, but it is still very cold, and we are glad to find the museum is open and warm inside.
There is a 5 Euro entry fee, and it seems today we are the only visitors. The young lady in charge welcomes us and explains that the museum is in two sections, the first part upstairs in the old living quarters sets the scene for the story and includes an introductory film.
In 1918 Lithuania, which was by then still occupied by the defeated German Army, finally gained its independence from Russia. However, as Vilnius and its surrounding area was annexed to become part of the new Polish Republic, Kaunas became the provisional capital of the country. The map below shows the interwar situation with the current borders of Lithuania and Poland superimposed in red and green respectively.
The fledgling Lithuanian republic with Kaunas as its capital remained intact for the rest of the interwar period. Then in October 1939 the Red Army, enacting the secret Nazi-Soviet protocol, invaded the eastern part of Poland and offered to return Vilnius to Lithuania. This intervention came at a price; the Soviet–Lithuanian Mutual Assistance Treaty resulted in Soviet military bases being set up all over the country, effectively neutralising potential resistance.
Lithuania’s independence was then formally ended in June 1940 when it was annexed by the Soviet Union. Although later captured by the Germans and held for more than 2 years, it would be eventually retaken by the Red Army and remain part of the USSR until 1990. In the short period between the outbreak of the Second World War and its absorption into the Soviet Union, Kaunas became a hot bed of espionage. With its fully functioning embassies of the various warring powers, the city became what the displays in the museum call “the Casablanca of the North”.
The second part of the museum, downstairs in the old consulate itself, takes up the story of the arrival in 1939 of Sugihara Chiune (1900-1986). Sent to spy on both Germany and the Soviet Union, the diplomat found himself in a city rapidly filling with Jewish refugees fleeing a Poland dissected and occupied by the Germans and Russians.
The problem was that whilst independent Lithuania provided temporary sanctuary, there was no effective way of leaving the country for the refugees. That changed in June 1940 when Dutch Honorary Consul Jan Zwartendijk began providing passes to Surinam and Curaçao, a Dutch colony in the Caribbean that required no entry visa.
Sugihara’s role was to provide the holders of the passes an effective way out: via Japan. In the summer of 1940 until his departure after the Soviets closed the consulate in September, he provided an estimated 2,000 visas. He worked long hours each day issuing the documents and acted essentially without asking the permission of his superiors in Tokyo. The recipients of the visas travelled along the Trans-Siberian railway to Vladivostok and thence by ferry to Japan.
From Japan they dispersed around the world. An estimated 6,000 people were saved, with around 100,000 of their descendants alive today. In 1985, a year before his death, the State of Israel honoured Sugihara as one of the Righteous Among the Nations.
Walking away from the museum towards the historic centre we pass along Lisves Aleja the long pedestrianised boulevard that forms the central axis of the newer part of the city. Dating from the interwar period, it is filled with modernist and Art Deco architecture.
As we approach the old town, the decorations for Christmas get a bit more intense. There are little Christmas trees adorned with lights everywhere. Kaunas was named European Capital of Culture in 2022; perhaps the place is making an extra effort to look good as a result.
Our walk into the centre, about 2 miles from the Museum, finishes in the Town Hall Square. Here there is a massive Christmas tree surrounded by a small market. The stalls here are of a modern “plastic igloo” design and each one of them is selling something different; there are souvenirs, handicrafts and toys for sale. The one with the longest queue is selling mulled wine.
We join the queue for the hot wine and then walk around the square sipping our drinks soaking up the atmosphere.
Occupations and Freedom Fights (1941-1990)
Back in Vilnius, we visit the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights. It is housed in the former KGB headquarters and tells the story of the suffering of the Lithuanians under the Soviet regime and their resistance to it. The museum presents the story well and most of the explanations are translated into English.
The first part, on the ground floor, tells the story of the mass deportations of Lithuanians to Siberia. This had started before the brief period of German occupation and continued from when the Soviets re-established control until the death of Stalin in 1953.
The story continues with displays on the guerilla warfare waged by the independence movement between 1944 and 1953. Over 50,000 partisans took up the fight against communism in the forests of Lithuania; more than 20,000 died for their cause.
The second floor of the museum deals with the comparatively more peaceful period following Stalin’s death through to 1990. It documents the levels the KGB went to maintain surveillance over the population. The various tools of their trade including disguises, secret cameras and phone bugging equipment are all on display.
The most chilling part of the whole experience is walking along the long corridor of basement cells where political prisoners were kept. Particularly harrowing is the execution chamber; a video of the executions conducted there is on continuous loop and there are bullet holes still visible in the walls.
Whilst almost all the museum is given over to the Soviet era, there are one or two of the cells in the basement that deal with the story of the persecution and murder of the Jewish population of Vilnius during the Nazi occupation, when the building was also used as the headquarters of the Gestapo.
Outside the building there are more explanations. There is a large graphic which tells the story of the 1972 unrest in Kaunas; the names of those killed there are engraved on the wall alongside those of other martyrs of Lithuanian independence.
Given all this history, it is no surprise that there is currently a lot of pro-Ukrainian feeling in the city. The entrance to the museum is displaying a Ukrainian flag. In its garden there is an extensive display about the current conflict; alongside is a makeshift shrine adorned with flowers.
As we walk around the city, we see Ukrainian flags everywhere. The destination indicators on all the buses flash “Vilnius heart Ukraine” and there are similar stickers on many of the shop doorways.
We visit an art exhibition that is trying to raise money for humanitarian aid for Southern Ukraine, and we also witness a light show which features moving displays in blue and yellow set to Ukrainian music.
Food & Drink
Apparently Lithuanian cuisine has some resemblance to Scandinavian cooking. During the trip we enjoy wild boar and reindeer meat and I see some similarities.
A lot of dishes are served with košė (buckwheat); the supermarket shelves are lined with several different versions of the stuff.
We tour the “Hales Turgus”, the old market hall in Vilnius, and watch the locals do their daily shopping. We get some delicious rye bread from one stall and enjoy it later with some local cheese from Sūrio Džiugas Namai, an excellent cheesemonger that doubles as a patisserie and coffee shop.
Cepelinai (Zeppelins) are one of the most distinctive Lithuanian dishes, potato dumplings made from grated potato and then stuffed with meat or cheese and accompanied by a thick mushroom sauce. Tasty comfort food and perfect for winter.
Kibinai are little pasties, not dissimilar to the Cornish ones, with savoury fillings like chicken and mutton. They are associated with the city of Trakai, which is just outside Vilnius and famous for its castle.
The supermarkets are also full of bright yellow tree cakes. Called Šakotis, the layer cake is one of the country’s most important desserts and popular at Christmas and other celebrations.
The local craft beer scene is pretty developed in Lithuania too. It has its roots in farmhouse brewing which goes back several centuries.
We spend a couple of evenings visiting a few of the bars in the old centre of Vilnius. It is a great feeling after trudging around in the snow in minus temperatures to enter the cosy warm bars and enjoy some excellent beer.
To go with the local brew is Zirniai su Sonne, peas with bacon, a wondrous combination of taste. Terribly fattening, no doubt, but an excellent accompaniment.
In the evenings we continue our walks around Vilnius, wrapping up well to keep out the cold as it heads well below freezing.
On 11 March 1990, the Act of the Re-Establishment of the State of Lithuania was passed. Lithuania was the first Soviet republic to proclaim its independence, a year before the USSR itself ceased to exist.
Today the country is a member of the European Union, the Euro, Schengen Agreement and of course NATO.
The place also feels very developed. On a purchasing power parity basis, Lithuania is the richest of the three Baltic states. Its per-capita income is also considerably higher than neighbouring Poland.
Vilnius looks good lit up at night. Most of it seems to be for Christmas but there are illuminations in preparation for the big 700th birthday party next year.
There is also a big sign outside the Presidential Palace. Linkėjimai is perhaps best translated as “Seasons greetings to everyone”.
Our visit to Vilnius coincides with the opening of the city’s annual Christmas Market. The main festivities are centred around the Cathedral Square.
In fact, there isn’t as long a tradition of Christmas Markets here as in many other European countries; the Vilnius market is relatively new and draws on other countries for its inspirations.
Nevertheless, the organisers seem to ensure that the Christmas tree in the middle of Cathedral Square is always spectacular; it often makes its way onto the “best in world” lists.
This year is no exception and given that it is the city’s 700th birthday next year, it has been designed in the style of a big white cake, the actual tree is almost hidden in the middle of it.
We wander from stall to stall soaking up the atmosphere. There is nothing remarkable here, just the usual gifts and souvenirs mixed in with local food and drink. Yet the snow on the ground and the low temperatures, coupled with the knowledge it is almost 10 degrees centigrade back at home, make it feel a bit more special.
Karštas vynas is the local hot mulled wine and we enjoy a few cups of it whilst heading between the stalls.
Although the main attractions are in Cathedral Square, there are more stalls in other places in the city. To connect all the places up there is a brightly lit road train. It has become an annual tradition itself.
It goes by the name of “Vilnius Christmas Train”.