I really love the ‘anywhere’ function on Skyscanner. One of my favourite ways to procrastinate at work is to put in a random weekend, choose anywhere as the destination and see what adventures are there for me, waiting to be planned.
This is how I ended up in Lithuania.
At £40 return, this remains my best flight deal yet. Turns out visiting unpopular Eastern European countries in the dead of winter, where the average monthly temperature in January is -5C, is not the most sought after getaway. A shocking revelation, I know. But honestly, for anyone who loves to adventure you can find fun anywhere, and I know I get an extra kick out of visiting a place that most people would never think to go. We made sure we packed enough thick socks and our winter coats (or, more accurately, piled on all our thick winter clothes for the flight so we were able to only take carry-on luggage) and headed off to the airport.
We flew into Vilnius (the capital, where we would be spending the weekend) around 2am on Saturday morning. This was my first weekend escapade and I learned a valuable lesson about the reality of your flight leaving London at 10pm UK time – you really do arrive in the middle of the night. I also wilfully ignore the realities of time and space when I travel, and presume that our landing time is essentially the same as the time we will arrive at our accommodation. Of course, even in a tiny airport, our 2am touchdown meant that we didn’t end up in bed until 3.30am.
To some, this might sound like a nightmare. To me, there’s something unspeakably special about arriving in the middle of the night in a totally new place, watching the snow fall gently. I knew that after I finished university I wanted to prioritise travel and adventures, and it felt so gratifying to think I’m in Lithuania at 3.30am, watching Jake muddle through a conversation with our Uber driver in their shared language of broken Polish while the snow comes down. These are the moments I wanted to have.
The feeling of arriving in a new place even makes the almost car accident we experienced, when our Uber driver was using google translate to tell Jake he thought they were ‘countrymen’ instead of watching the road, charming rather than terrifying. Everything’s got a shine to it when you’re exploring – everything’s a good story rather than an irritation (an attitude I try to bring home).
Fortunately, our Airbnb wasn’t somewhere we had to make a funny travel woes story about. Hours of endless googling had paid off and we’d found a tiny rustic room right by the Gates of Dawn, the entrance to Vilnius’ old town. This place felt like a small cabin in the woods, except that it was in an apartment building in the red light district (something we found out as we left two days later).
This was actually part of a sexy photoshoot Sophie requested, but phwoar look at that rustic woodwork
As this trip happened before this blog was even a faint speck in my brain, I don’t have perfect photo coverage or notes. What I do have is an unusually strong memory, a number of bank statements and an assortment of snowy pictures to put together as full as picture as possible of 48 hours in Vilnius.
We first headed off to a pancake place for breakfast. Something crucial to note about Jake (and me, though to a far less militant extent) is that we love to eat local food. I’m pretty sure Jake’s personal version of hell would be being forced to eat in a bland chain restaurant for every meal. Something crucial to note about Sophie is that, while she is one of the most daring and adventurous people I’ve ever met, she has the taste buds of a fussy, frightened child. I consider the many hours we spent in Southeast Asia trying to find her food in random rest stops and small villages that didn’t contain meat, fish, eggs, peanuts or mushrooms one of the truest tests of our friendship (though we did find some excellent vegan places in Vietnam). So while Jake and I tried the cottage cheese and strawberry pancakes and something that contained grated potato – everything in Eastern Europe involves potato – she side-eyed even the possibility of cheese at breakfast and stuck to something decidedly more familiar.
My first thought wandering around Vilnius was how… new it looked, despite this being the old town. So many of the buildings were enormously grand but looked almost like cartoons, painted bright pink or yellow alongside white. Given how sparse the people were given the time of year, the centre definitely had an eerie vibe, though was very pretty.
Our wandering was designed to lead us to the Museum of Genocide Victims. As the daughter of professor who has spent years researching human rights and genocide, I have visited an unusual number of major genocide landmarks and memorials, which is the subject for another post. No child of my father’s wouldn’t make time to engage with the difficult history of this country, something which I believe to be an integral part of understanding any new place with a turbulent past. The museum is situated in the old SS and KGB headquarters, making the information on its walls all too imaginable when you head down to the onsite underground prison. This a good museum, though obviously sobering, and one I’d recommend anyone in Vilnius visit.
After a morning of deep conversations, we switched to some light relief when we wandered past a beautiful snow-covered park and decided to head inside. It was clear within moments of entering the park that I had made a fatal error – I’d forgotten gloves. The ensuing hour of scrambling through snow and throwing snowballs was made less enjoyable (though no less photogenic) by the feeling that my fingers had ceased to be attached to my body.
Dinner was more potato, more beetroot soup and more dumplings (many, many dumplings. This is only a good thing.) The Eastern Europeans share my great love of carbs. Sophie ate plain brown bread with a dash of salt. We tried.
Breakfast the following morning was a similar scene as we headed to the nearby market. Excellent cheap Polish sausage (literally) in the bag to take home, we grabbed a few super cheap pastries and cakes. As Sophie eyed up a completely plain vanilla cupcake, we took bets on what possible issue she would have with this cake. One bite and disgusted expression later, she’d thrown the offending liqueur cream-filled cake at us and went hungry once more. Later, as we walked all over the city in the snow in minus degree temperatures for the specific Milka bar variety Soph swore she’d only seen in one particular random corner shop, I instructed Jake to “think of her like our errant child.” His response? “I would not allow a child to behave this way”. We never found the Milka bar but I gleaned some valuable insights into Jake’s future parenting limits. I’m conscious that this sounds a bit like we all hate each other. We were having a really good time – promise.
We spent most of our second day in the small community of Užupis – a hilarious, bohemian mini-republic inside the capital – and running away from our walking tour guide after we decided that three hours of standing still in the snow looking at buildings of questionable significance was far too intrepid for any of us. Switching to a walk through a random icy forest followed by baked goods was definitely a good decision.
This post has left out specific churches we went into and the many restaurants and cafes we stopped in (because even my brain can’t remember that stuff almost a year later). But really what stood out to me was potatoes, snow and the thrill of being in a place the most people will never think to visit. There’s something interesting everywhere – and how can you not want to visit somewhere that willingly came up with this marketing campaign?
Have you ever visited somewhere unusual or unpopular?