Friday, 20 December 2013

Europe Summer Series: Vilnius, Lithuania (Part 1)

Through December and January, I'm running a series of my previously published print articles on Central and Eastern Europe. Welcome to Lithuania...


There’s a dumpling on my plate the size of a miniature football.

In fact, it’s the shape of a football - which is why it’s called a cepelinas (zeppelin), after the famous airships of a century ago. The pale, doughy exterior is made of potato, and it’s wrapped around a meat filling. On top is a sauce involving sour cream and pork crackling.

It may not be the lightest meal I’ve ever ordered, but it is one of Lithuania’s most distinctive dishes, so it would clearly be an unforgivable international snub not to try it.

Actually, accompanied by a stein of local beer, it tastes quite good - though I suspect my doctor would advise me to eat them only in moderation.

On my way back from the restaurant to my hotel along the cobblestone streets of central Vilnius, I encounter a busker singing a capella near a beautiful baroque church in the twilight.

I stop, unexpectedly entranced by his voice. The music is haunting and indescribably beautiful, giving an impression of a language intriguing, deep and very old.

It’s a delightful introduction to Lithuania’s capital, especially since I know very little about the former Soviet republic.

Its cuisine may not be set to sweep the world, but Vilnius’ beautiful UNESCO-listed Old Town is grabbing the attention of an increasing number of visitors from Western Europe and beyond.

Fortified by my zeppelin encounter, I decide to stroll off some of the calories through the Old Town, starting at the Gates of Dawn.

It’s a beautiful sunny day, though cool in the shade, and this remnant of the medieval city walls stands out attractively white against the blue sky.

Passing through, I spot a carved wooden dwarf set back from the street, and am drawn by curiosity into a beautiful compact courtyard dotted with shady trees.

In a corner sits a white-haired man in a bandana, oiling a violin. I step past him into an art gallery, whose doors are studded with curious wooden sculptures resembling hands and insects.

The interior reveals more of these rough-hewn carved pieces, mostly resembling folkloric figures: animals, mythical creatures, stars, and villagers.

There’s something very appealing about their simple, primitive look. I’d read that Lithuania was the last country in Europe to give up pagan worship, and these figures seem to be a link to an era of belief in spirits and nature.

It’s something to ponder as I enter St Teresa’s, an extravagantly decorated church a little further on. Vilnius is famous for its numerous baroque churches, and this one doesn’t disappoint.

Outside it’s impressive, inside it’s spectacular. Gilt paint is lavished everywhere, especially on the elaborate frames highlighting statues and paintings of saints.

As I sit and take it in, visitors come and go, each footstep echoing through the cavernous space.

To my left, a small group of women, some wearing colourful headscarves, are making a procession from one statue to the next around the walls, chanting as they go.

The combination of the chanting, the natural light and the gilt splendour is surprisingly moving, and I’m surprised how calm I feel. I’m not at all religious, but I can see how this atmosphere aids a meditative state of mind.

But the material world awaits just down the street...

[Next post: Passport pouches, a miracle tile, and the den of the KGB...]