Vilnius in the former Soviet Union country of Lithuania is an unusual city but worth the short flight for those in search of an alternative European experience.
From the minute I donned my threadbare coat while being shouted at by Red Army soldiers and barked at by menacing dogs I knew this was not going to be a European cultural experience enacted on Merseyside. I was marched into the rank-smelling underground bunker where I was jeered at, made to put on a gas mask and spend a chilling twenty minutes with the KGB ‘doctor’. Not afraid to relive their painful past Vilnius has included this powerful psychodrama ‘Survival Drama 1984’ in its programme of cultural events for 2009. Held at a bunker in forest 25 metres outside the city the experience invites visitors to partipate in a taste of what life was like under Soviet occupation. Although intriguing – and realistic – this is not a taste of history for the faint hearted tourist who may prefer one of the fake fur Russian hats for sale on the street markets as a souvenir of Lithuania’s Soviet past.
Still shaking from my run-in with the KGB, I was delighted to find that by contrast, the city of Vilnius has been decked out like a bride with newly painted baroque buildings pristine in the sunshine. But nothing is at it seems in Vilnius. The cathedral looks like a Greek temple and the clock tower next to it looks like a lighthouse. The old town is picturesque; with cobbled streets and beautiful churches. Quaint woodcarver’s workshops where Pinocchio would feel at home stand cheek by jowl with designer shops that wouldn’t look out of place in Paris or Rome. The Gates of Dawn hold a miracle working shrine to the Virgin Mary and Cathedral Square boasts a miracle tile which is said to make your romantic dreams come true. One of the city’s monuments is, inexplicably, to the rock star Frank Zappa.
Vilnius is home to other quirky surprises, like Uzupis, a self declared independent ‘republic’ within the city which has its own constitution where fishes birds and people are equal and must respect each other. Artists set up camp here and engage in a range of creative projects which see children, old people, students and the disabled join forces to create unique works of art.
There is plenty of other things to do in Vilnius. I went line dancing, watched processions, heard biblical love poetry and popped into exhibitions at museums and galleries. Also on offer were fashion shows and a laser show, poetry readings and other artistic events in which European and local traditions are intertwined.
Bars offering Lithuania’s famous 100 types of beer are open throughout the night to sustain the crowds. Traditional Lithuanian cuisine is potato heavy and a half metre of eel snaking across your plate or a ‘pitchfork’ of meat is best shared with a group of hungry friends. But the city is crammed with restaurants serving food from every corner of the world so no one will starve. Even in the bunker we were given a tin of dubious looking food, washed down with the fastest shot of vodka I have ever knocked back
More information about Vilnius can be found at www.lithuaniatourism.co.uk