Vilnius - A Baltic Surprise
Getting prepared and motivated for Lithuania
I am an enthusiastic traveler by nature and a dedicated historian by vocation. So, whenever I can, I am trying to combine my both passions and I also encourage my students to do so. As always in the last few years, when I start talking about the Cold War and the USSR in class, I notice that my freshmen seem to be lost in all these dates and terms such as totalitarianism, GULAG, KGB, which do not seem to make much sense to most of them. That is why, I always try to correct this situation by immersing my students in the Cold War atmosphere with relevant trips. This is what I also did in March 2016, when I took a group of my International Relations students to a short Cold War trip to Vilnius, Lithuania. The most exciting part for me was that even though I was born in Eastern Europe, in socialist Bulgaria, I had never been to Lithuania before! So, once I had a list of all the wannabe explorers of Cold War Vilnius, I got to work. I booked direct flights with Ryan Air Madrid-Vilnius-Madrid for less than 100 euros per person and then accommodation at Hotel Telecom Guest, conveniently located near downtown Vilnius with amazing prices. A single room for 25 euros per night and a double room for 40 euros per night.
My main goal was to visit some of the most emblematic sights of the Cold War period and to try the Lithuanian, Armenian, and Georgian cuisines, which would allow me to tell my students a few words about the culture and history of the two former Soviet Caucasian republics Georgia and Armenia as well.
Museum of Genocide Victims - The Dark Side of the Cold War
At the Vilnius airport, we bought immediately Vilnius City cards which gave us 72 h of free transportation, free museum visits and discounts across the city.
After we settled in the hotel, we had a quick lunch and went to the Museum of Genocide Victims, which was founded in 1992, one year after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the former headquarters of the KGB. The prison was created with 50 cells after the occupation of the then Polish city Wilno by the Soviet invaders. We were so terrified by the solitary confinement cells, the execution room and the cells designed to torture the prisoners or literally to make them go crazy that after the visit, my students were not able to see anything else.
A peek into the rich history of Vilnius
Thus, I just took them for a walk around the city center and the pleasant winding streets of the Old Town full of amber souvenirs. The Baltic countries are known for their high-quality amber, so I recommend you to buy something made of amber if you are looking for an original local handmade souvenir.
On the next day, we visited the memorial of the fourth Lithuanian President Jonas Zemaitis (1909-1954), who was the leader of the armed anti-Soviet resistance and was caught and executed on the orders of the sinister KGB boss Lavrenty Beria. Then, we headed to the Vilnius TV Tower, where on January 13th, 1991, the Lithuanians defended their newly proclaimed independence. The Soviet army surrounded the unarmed civilians and 13 peaceful Lithuanians were shot. The following day, brought, however, 100,000 Lithuanians who surrounded the parliament and built anti-tank barricades. The Soviet forces were forced to retreat. Lithuania was free and independent again! We could clearly feel the great Lithuanian spirit and aspiration for freedom there!
We did not miss of course the major cathedral downtown, the university and of course the beautiful and well preserved Vilnius Old Town. It looked even more beautiful with the falling snow. We were all very happy to see some snow since we practically never see this white magic in Madrid.
Local People and Local Food with some Armenian and Georgian flavors
We found the local people to be very helpful and the city to be very safe, clean and walkable. People who were older than 40 usually spoke only Lithuanian and Russian but the younger generations were either fluent in English or at least had a level that was good enough to converse with us. The movies in the local movie theaters were also shown in their original version, which allowed me to enjoy a couple of Hollywood hits in the evening of our third day.
Of course, I can’t finish this story without telling you a bit about the local food. As you can imagine, it is strongly influenced by the Russian cuisine. One of the Lithuanian popular treats is the borsht, which is known in Lithuania as barščiai but in reality it is the same soup that can be found in Russia or Ukraine – a soup with beets, cabbage and sometimes with meat. The zeppelins are a typical local meal. The zeppelins are oval shaped balls made of mashed potatoes with a filling of boiled meat. The potatoes are heavily used in Lithuania. You can have potato pancakes and even potato sausages! If you want to try the traditional Lithuanian food and beer on very reasonable prices, I recommend Zemaiciu Asotis restaurant, where we enjoyed our Lithuanian dinner. Our second dinner was in an Armenian restaurant called Ararat. The Armenians are known for their tasty and spicy cuisine heavily influenced by the Ottoman Turkish and Persian culinary traditions. We were delighted to have Armenian skewers, eggplant rolls with walnuts and of course Armenian baklava. Our real culinary discover, however, would happen on our third and last evening in Vilnius when we visited the Georgian restaurant Tbilisi. The traditional Georgian dish of bread filled with cheese or ground beef, peppers, leeks, and a lot of coriander and other pungent spices, the various eggplant rolls and dumplings quickly made us devoted followers of the Georgian culinary tradition! After this unforgettable evening, which also included amazing Georgian wine, I can proudly announce that the Georgian cuisine is one of my favorite ones!
Vilnius is worth visiting, especially if you like to see some elegant architecture in the Old Town, interesting Cold War sights, buy some original amber souvenirs and expand your culinary horizons!
© 2020 Chris Kostov