Sat in a taxi on the way into Vilnius city centre, the outskirts of the Lithuanian capital struck me as slightly bleak. Ramshackle houses stood side-by-side with traditional wooden dwellings, and broken wires hanging from telephone poles criss-crossed the endlessly grey sky.
Said the driver pointing at the royal blue building looming over the scene.
"Vilnius has the only IKEA in the Baltic region."
This was a fact we would hear a number of times during our trip.
The taxi dropped us off at our apartment rental, which at first glance appeared to be located in an English school. After trundling our suitcases into the school only to be met by two confused Lithuanian teachers, we finally located the door to our apartment in the basement of the building. This was followed by a half-hour wrestle with a key safe, which wasn't recognising the code we had been given by our hosts (it later emerged you had to enter the sequence backwards).
So far we weren't exactly blown away by our time in Vilnius. But then it started to snow.
Touring snowy Vilnius
Basketball, paganism and George W Bush
The next morning I took a free walking tour of the city, which looked extremely picturesque under its dusting of snow.
We met at the statuesque town hall at the heart of Vilnius, where our enthusiastic tour guide immediately addressed the pressing question:
"Why do Lithuanians have a love-hate relationship with former US president George W Bush?"
On the side of the building is a plaque embossed with the words:
"Anyone who would choose Lithuania as an enemy has also made an enemy of the United States of America."
A direct quote from a speech made by the then-president in 2002 at Vilnius town hall.
Our tour guide explained that the citizens of Lithuania were honoured by this sentiment and swiftly slapped the plaque on their town hall, only to find that Bush had travelled to Romania later that day and said the exact same thing to them - somewhat dampening the meaning behind the words.
As we set off on our chilly meander around the capital city, the snow now falling heavily, our guide informed us that Lithuania has a somewhat surprising "second religion" in the form of basketball. The country took home the bronze medal in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics - a huge achievement for a diminutive country with little sporting history - and ever since then the sport has been worshipped throughout the nation.
One of our first stops was Vilna Ghetto: a Jewish Ghetto, which was set up and operated by Nazi Germany. Now silent and under a thick blanket of untouched snow, the stillness made it hard to image the level of devastation that happened in that place. Yet, during the Second World War, over 200,000 Lithuanian Jews were murdered by Nazis and collaborators, while many others were forced to flee. As a result there is a significantly smaller Jewish population in Vilnius - and Lithuania as a whole - than there was before the war.
From there we explored some of the hidden courtyards and alleyways to see some of the fascinating sculptures and artistic installations sequestered around the city.
The group gathered around a pagan statue as our guide informed us that Lithuania was one of the last pagan countries of the Europe, before most of its citizens converted to Christianity in the 14th and 15th centuries. She explained that the church offered the Lithuanian people thick woollen shirts in exchange for converting. As the shirts were very valuable at the time, some enterprising individuals decided to get baptised several times, in different villages in the region, in order to acquire more clothing. The mass baptisms also led to whole villages being given the same Christian name - no doubt leading to extreme confusion.
Other highlights of the tour included Literature's Street, where writers with any link to Lithuania are honoured in the numerous quirky plaques pinned to the wall, and the stunning Church of St Anne, with its grandiose gothic architecture. According to legend, upon seeing the church, Napoleon was so blown away he said he would like to carry it back to Paris in the palm of his hand. Our guide noted, with a hint of irony, that it's likely Napoleon said this about a lot of buildings he encountered on his travels.
After walking around Vilnius for two hours in the falling snow, listening to stories about the city and enjoying the quirky landmarks we were taken to, I was absolutely freezing. I was also starting to be taken in by the offbeat charm of the city and its intriguing history. And then we visited one of the most fascinating places in the country.
The bohemian Republic of Uzupis
"Everyone has the right to be loved, but not necessarily."
Uzupis is a neighbourhood in Vilnius that has traditionally been home to artists and bohemians. On April 1st 1997, it rejected convention by declaring itself a republic. While it is not recognised as a country on the world stage, it does have its own flag, president, a cabinet of ministers, a quirky constitution and an army of approximately 11 men. But don't take it too seriously.
Crossing the bridge into Uzupis, you can get your passport stamped on the condition that you flash a smile. That sets the tone for the rest of the neighbourhood, which boasts plenty of strange rules and quirky artworks. The aesthetic is slightly rundown, with a decent covering of graffiti and a number of hidden gems including bakeries, restaurants and bars.
The main attraction in Uzupis is the republic's unique constitution, which is hung on a street off the main square in a large number of different languages, including Georgian. Georgia is friendly to the Republic of Uzupis, having installed a copy of the constitution in Vilnius Square in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi.
The constitution includes the republic's three mottos:
- Don't fight
- Don't win
- Don't surrender
As well as 39 other - sometimes nonsensical - articles. These include:
- Everyone has the right to celebrate or not celebrate their birthday.
- Everyone has the right to have no rights.
- Everyone has the right to be loved, but not necessarily.
Much like the Republic of Uzupis itself, the constitution does not take itself seriously and appears to be half tongue-in-cheek, half serious.
There are not that many things to do in Uzupis, but it's worth going to visit for lunch or a beer, just to soak up the bohemian atmosphere. We enjoyed a traditional potato-heavy meal in Prie Angelo, a restaurant named after the angel symbol of Uzupis.
Every country should have "snacks to beer"
Eating in Lithuania was a delicious - if massively unhealthy - experience.
The country's tradition of užkandžiai prie alaus, translated as "snacks to beer", meant that in the name of "cultural experience" we permitted ourselves to tuck into numerous plates of fried bread. This kepta duona is served with garlic dip and simply must be accompanied with a hearty pint of Lithuanian beer. Greasy, salty and filling, this particular 'snack to beer' certainly keeps the Baltic chill away.
Another popular Lithuanian dish is potato pancakes, which are served with sour cream. These blynai are extremely warming and hearty, and - like most Lithuanian cuisine - also taste incredible with beer.
Vilnius has a fantastic bar and restaurant scene, with chilled-yet-trendy establishments lining the streets. From upscale wine bars and fine dining restaurants, to hip bars with a wide selection of craft ale and cosy Lithuanian joints, eating and drinking in Vilnius was an unending joy, and should form the backbone of any tourist's trip to the country.
One of my favourite bars we visited was Vijokliai, where we enjoyed the indoor-outdoor vibe of the beer garden. Just outside this establishment is the iconic Trump-Putin graffiti, which has now become a stop on Vilnius' tourist trail. For a good selection of craft ale, hip Blusvne is a great option.
For Lithuanian food (and brandy) it is hard to beat Forto Dvaras, where you eat in subterranean stone chambers that are decorated with traditional ornaments and trinkets, and are somehow very cosy.
If you're looking for more of a cool, club-type atmosphere, Paviljonas Jazz Club - which looks like a giant greenhouse from the outside - serves up sweet cocktails and features DJs or live music most nights.
The most festive place on earth?
Illuminated by the twinkling of thousands of lights, Vilnius Christmas Market must be one of the most enchanting festive markets in Europe.
Starting every year in late November and running until the end of December, this Yuletide market has a unique set-up, with its stalls circling the giant Christmas tree in City Hall Square, and endless strings of lights stretching from the top of the tree all the way down to the market.
The rustic white huts are bedecked with twinkling angels and stars. Some contain a treasure trove of traditional Christmas gifts, while others offer artisanal sweets and chocolates, and there are also plenty serving mulled wine and mince pies. It is one of the most festive places I have ever been.
We spent an hour or so sitting under the giant Christmas tree sipping mulled wine, eating mince pies and soaking up the atmosphere. It was perhaps the most festive I have ever felt!
The verdict on Vilnius
A Baltic gem perfect for a festive break
By the time we were jetting out of Vilnius, I had to admit my first impression of the city had been way off. The stark scenery on the outside of the city had given way to ornate architecture, picturesque winding streets, and a plethora of cultural and historical highlights.
With plenty of cosy fireside perches in pubs, wide selections of ale and a twinkling Christmas market set against a backdrop of softly falling snow, Vilnius is the perfect destination for a European winter getaway. The city might be chilly, but it is also extremely cool, with an great bar and restaurant scene. If you want to re-discover the magic of the festive season, and return home full of hearty food and drink, it is ideal.
However, the Lithuanian capital provides so much more than picturesque winding streets and drinking opportunities in cosy surrounds. The people of Vilnius are warm and welcoming, and happy to help tourists embrace Lithuanian culture. The city's history and culture is as fascinating as it is quirky - and, given that Lithuanian history is not widely taught in the rest of the world - there's plenty to discover.