The first official day of touring! We started early and took a bus ride to the southern end of the Old Town. Our first stop was at the Gate of Dawn and the Chapel of Mary. Built in the early 1500s, this is the only remaining gate and part of the wall that used to surround the city. Many people, from all over the world, come here specifically to worship at this shrine.
Today Lithuania is 80% Roman Catholic, but it was the last pagan country in Europe.
Much of what we saw today was a repeat from yesterday, but without the Jewish focus. Of course, our guide did cover the Large and Small Ghettos and the thousands of people who were killed during the war.
We passed many linen shops. Flax is a major crop, and Lithuanian linen is highly prized throughout Europe.
Also saw many intricate woodcarvings. That, too, is one of the local highly skilled hand-crafted products.
Yes...it was quite hot today! And in a bizarre juxtaposition, these kinders were playing right across the street from our next stop: the KGB / Genocide Museum. This building formerly housed a KGB prison during the Stalin and Khruschev years. Many political prisoners were brought here, and sometimes tortured before being sent to one of the gulags. We saw the cramped, cement-walled cells, and read about some of the tactics that were used. We left with two thoughts. First: the Lithuanians really don't like the Russians (see note below). Second: nothing changes. Some of the photos and descriptions reminded us of scenes from our own prison at Abu Ghraib.
We spent over an hour walking through the prison, and both felt it was something that could easily have been omitted from the itinerary.
Note: There are many signs around town celebrating "Lithuania 100". This refers to Lithuania's independence from Russia in 1918. Yes....it has been 100 years, but apparently they are ignoring the period when the Russians were back after WWII!!!!!!!!
After that it was back on the bus for a 45 minute ride west to the old (1300s) town of Trakai. This beautiful area is dotted with lakes and many of them contain islands. On one of these islands stands Takai Castle.
The building was besieged many times, but always stood its ground until the mid-1400s. It was then used as a summer residence for a few centuries (!!!) until it was abandoned in the 1700s. Restoration began after the War, and continues to this day. Currently it is used as a concert venue! What would old Kestutis think of that?
Then the long ride back to Vilnius. We had an option at that point to either go to the hotel, or partake in a beer-tasting session. As enticing as the latter sounded, we both agreed that it would be foolish to do that and then try to go to the restaurant we had reservations at. About a third of the group did go however. No word on how it went.
After freshening up, we headed out on a 1.4 km walk to our restaurant. We knew it featured "fresh fish from the Baltic" (note: Vilnius is on a river; it is nowhere near the Baltic!), and were very excited to try local specialties. Our waitress came over with the menus and said "You will see that our menu is very narrow". Uh oh! She was right! Here it is in toto: First course: Fish soup. Appetizer: Choice of fish with potatoes or fish with zucchini. Entrée: Bream ribs. Whoa! When she asked about our drink preference and mentioned that they do not serve beer, that was our cue to graciously grab our things and head for the door. This is not something we do very often!
So we headed back the way we came and looked at the menus of a few other places (one was a 7-course tasting menu. Um...no), and finally decided on Mykolo-4 (the restaurant our hotel had recommended on Tuesday!). They too had a 4-course prix-fixe menu (in addition to a full a la carte selection), and it looked so good we decided to share it.
First up was Baravyku pastelas su agurkais ir juoda rugine duona (Boletus - mushrooms - pate with cucumbers and black rye bread). Quite tasty, but pretty heavy (a lot for one person to eat! Glad we shared it.)
Then Kremine veziu sriuba (creamy crayfish soup). Our waitress suggested that we get an extra bowlful, as the one serving was pretty small to share. Good move, as this tasted like some of the best lobster bisque we've ever had.
Then the main course: Virtinis su troskintujaucio zandu jdaru, obuoliu ir saulegrazu daigu salotomis bei raudono vyno padazu (Dumpling with braised beef cheeks filling, apple and sunflower sprouts salad, red wine sauce). This was incredible! The dumpling was about the size of an empanada and was like a thick knish. It was dusted with beetroot powder.
We've realized that it is so far north here, that most of the vegetables they grow are root veggies: potatoes, carrots, beets, etc.
Finally, dessert: Vaflis (yes...waffles!) su plikytu kremu, sudyta karamele (!!) bei gervuogemis (waffles with crème patisserie, salted caramel, and blackberries). A great finish to a great meal!
But that didn't stop us from walking back to the main street and a final stop at Sopranos for gelato.
Tomorrow we have an early start as we leave this country and head to Latvia.
See you there!