We move around a lot. And we don’t have a house. For several months this was a bit exhausting. Every few weeks we found ourselves somewhere where everything is different: climate, culture, food, language, currency, traffic rules, timezone. When we landed in Warsaw back in July, we found something had changed. Without noticing it, we were operating in a different language context, with a different currency, in a city we didn’t know, several time zones from our last one. But we had acquired a natural routine somehow that wasn’t dependent upon our fixed location. Our routine was now moving around with us.
In a way we feel like ghosts, moving almost unseen among crowds of people. We’re in the world, but not of it. And we like it this way. We travel for a purpose other than entertainment, so we naturally float outside of the tourist infrastructure, dipping in when we need or want to, then fading back out. We don’t stay at hotels, and we don’t go to bars or restaurants. We often stay for a long time, often at least ten days, so we have the luxury of not needing to rush out to see the top ten things. Sometimes we make no effort to see anything on the usual visiting list. We just hang out. We find a good grocery store and a vegetable market. We spend a few hours exploring in the early morning, while most people are asleep. Morning is, for us, the best cut of the day.
Morning on the Hill of Three Crosses. One of Vilnius’ most prominent monuments overlooking the city.
At first, we thought maybe it was just Poland. It’s an easy place to be. But upon our arrival at the Vilnius bus station, we immediately just found our way in a new context, new language, a new currency, a different home in another new city. We found a grocery store, a fresh market and even an amazing vegetarian restaurant that makes us kale smoothies every day. The thing we miss the most is a Vitamix – yes, seriously. So when we find a place that’ll make veggie smoothies the way we like ‘em, we binge while we can. The point is, we’re finding our routine is becoming naturally mobile. We just slip into a new place and we make it our home. This time we’ve even settled into a regular exercise routine that we can do indoors anywhere. We add this a few times a week to our daily routine that involves several kilometres of walking.
Kale smoothie Mecca: The Urban Garden in Vilnius.
With all of that said, Lithuania makes our travel life very easy. Some places are hard to be no matter how long you’ve had to adjust. Delhi or Jakarta will never be great places to walk and just hang out. Vilnius however is a spectacular place to live quietly. We got lucky. We’re staying in an historic neighbourhood courtyard, in a house built about 500 years ago. We did a walking tour of Vilnius’ Old Town. An hour into the tour, our guide led our small group up a narrow street and then turned into the very courtyard of our house. This was actually great timing because I had to use the bathroom, so I excused myself to our guide, showing him our little skeleton key. He was shocked. This is a courtyard visited every day by groups of tourists. Our neighbours are mostly elderly Lithuanians and family with young children. From our window, we watch the tourists taking photos of our house. They’d probably be disappointed to know the local eyes watching them include those of Canadian tourists.
The Baltic states have never been high on a list of places to explore. The sole reason we chose to come here is to conduct a 10-day Vipassana course. We had met a young couple a few years ago in the UK, who had asked us if we would ever consider coming to do a course. Lithuania doesn’t have its own centre and so it can be difficult to find teachers available to come here. In 2012, we were at the end of our last sabbatical and were not able to do it, but we kept the idea in our mind and when we were planning our service schedule, Lithuania was always on it.
Lithuania is an important place with a fascinating culture and history. A lot of its history is tragic. Vilnius, for one thing, was home to one of the most important Jewish communities in the world. Not many places have earned the right to be called ‘Jerusalem’ in their description. Vilnius’ Jewish community was several hundreds of years old and home to one of the largest and greatest synagogues in the world. Over time, it was known as the Jerusalem of the North. Of course that all changed during the Holocaust. We’ll explore Lithuania’s Jewish history in our next post in a couple of weeks. It deserves a post all to itself.
Outside of its Jewish history, Vilnius remains a fascinating place. Like a lot of places in Europe, particularly in places that lived under Czarist or Soviet control, Vilnius has had a tough and complex history. Yet it has one of Eastern Europe’s most prestigious universities. The campus is a gorgeous architectural monument to the 17th and 18th centuries. It was founded by the Jesuits during the Reformation in order to weaponize the Enlightenment in the war against Protestantism, but in the process produced some great intellectual achievements. Among the many great intellectuals who studied and taught here in Vilnius was the astronomer Marcin Poczobutt. There is a crater on the Moon named after Poczubutt.
The Observatory Courtyard. The Observatory (centre top) is now home to the Faculty of Asian Studies.
In fact, Poczobutt is the family ancestor of our friend Ania. So obviously we devoted an evening to finding the observatory square and locating the large carved plaque dedicated to him. They actually charge a small fee to explore the University courtyards. We would have gladly paid too, but the two young women guarding the entrance told us it was closed. When we told them why we wanted to go into the observatory, they chatted briefly to each other in Linthuanian before turning to us and saying we could just go in. Without paying. Our local guide was also impressed when we told him about Poczubutt and Ania’s family history. He had been telling our group about the Observatory (now home to the Asian Studies Faculty). Ania’s ancestor and our search for his dedicatory plaque earned us a little local street cred. Thanks Ania. And Marcin, wherever you are.
Vilnius is a picturesque city with beautiful cobblestone streets and spectacular baroque architecture. Though it’s been in existence as a settlement for thousands of years, it wasn’t a city until relatively modern times. The first mention of Vilnius is in the 14th century. It would have been a very small place, a mere startup city in comparison to the ancient metropolises of London, Barcelona, and Rome, or Kiev, Yerevan and Tbilisi. By the twentieth century most of Vilnius’ citizens were not even ethnically Lithuanian. They were Polish, German, Jewish or Russian. From its medieval beginnings, Vilnius was designed as a multicultural city. Upon its founding by the Lithuanian Grand Duke Gediminas, he issued letters of invitation across Europe to Germans and Jews encouraging them to settle in his new capital. A dynamic economy required the trading and artisanal skills of foreigners. For most of its existence, Vilnius – along with the rest of Lithuania – lived under the control of expansive neighbours: Poland, Germany, and Russia. It’s first modern chance at independence happened in 1918 following the end of the First World War and its consequent defeat of Germany and the collapse of Tsarist Russia in the Bolshevik Revolution. Though the Soviets tried to re-take Lithuania in 1919, it was defeated. Lithuania remained independent for a brief period until its annexation by Poland in the early 1920s. It was then invaded and occupied by the Soviets in 1939, and Nazi Germany after that until 1945. After that it was re-invaded by the Soviets and remained a formal part of the Soviet Union until 1991. Lithuania has had a hard road.
Today, this is a beautiful and modern European city. Lithuania is fiercely and proudly independent. It’s a very clean and green city. Vilnius reminds us of Vancouver in a way. You have to squint really hard and try to unsee the beautiful centuries-old architecture and the ancient, narrow cobblestone streets. But the air and the trees are very British Columbian. We like it here a lot. It’s quiet and walkable. Intimate and sophisticated.
Built as a Catholic church, Czar Nicholas II turned into an Orthodox church. The Soviets turned it into an atheism museum. It’s now a catholic church again.
The usual irritations associated with clumsy attempts to create a tourism economy are all here. The most ridiculous being Dinner in the Sky. Though it’s difficult to believe, there are people willing to pay (a lot) to sit around a platform and eat dinner suspended from a massive crane that sits in front of the historic Town Hall. Wow. The stupidity of tourism can be bottomless. A nearby restaurant is some kind of California bar. And there seem to be far too many Italian restaurants. But on the whole, there are few tourists here to annoy you. And it’s very easy to avoid them.
Otherwise, Vilnius has a lot to offer. Lithuanian culture is very present here. No one is trying to be something they’re not. And people here are incredibly warm and friendly. We’ve enjoyed exploring this city.
We’ve spent our time here eating healthy food, getting some exercise, working and resting before we head on to another Vipassana course. We could not have chosen a better place to relax.
We head out tomorrow and will return to Vilnius in a couple of weeks. In our next post we’ll talk a bit about Vilnius’ Jewish heritage and what we consider the most interesting aspect of this city’s history.