Lithuania

Lithuania is fast becoming a popular destination for a broad range of travellers. Students of every nationality on the Inter-Rail route are now making the trip North from Poland (the route now excluding Belarus, making the journey somewhat less oppressive) and the new Ryanair route (linking Stansted, Liverpool and Dublin to Kaunas) has opened this untouched area of Europe to the new generation of web-fare happy travellers. This has led to a change from small run-down hotels and 'pensions' where spare rooms can be rented for a few pounds a night, to larger, more glamorous hotels and western style hostels offering at least some of the mod-cons backpackers have come to expect. Shops and facilities are following suit, but the country retains much of its traditional charm and is a refreshing change from the homogenised impression generated by the rapid development seen in the last 5 years in many post-communist countries.

Language

Lithuanian has been the official language since 1991 (source: www.bbc.co.uk), although those with a basic grasp of Polish or Russian should be able to get by, although speaking loudly in the latter may not go down very well. A command of English and a few Achoo's ('Thank You') should get most travellers around and between the major cities, a phrasebook may well come in handy but the pronunciation is such that you may find it more useful to point to the phrases rather than attempt to speak to anyone (try Lithuanian Dictionary and Phrasebook by Jurgita Baltrusaityte, Hippocrene Books).

Weather

Despite reaching up to 30°C in the summer, rainfall remains high and much of the country is subject to flooding. The summer however still provides many long pleasant evenings, and the Curanian Spit remains one of the most popular beach destinations of the Baltic. Winter temperatures can fall well below freezing but the rainfall is lower in these winter months.

Currency

Lithuanian Litas. Rate of 5 to the £, 2.7 to the $ and 3.5 to the €.

Attractions

Vilnius - On the streets of the capital Vilnius weekends see a lively mix of families, young hipster crowds and British stag-do parties. The Old Town provides more than enough to give you a stiff neck, although it is probably worth heading to the tourist information centre and obtaining a written tour or map rather than strolling off unguided. Vilnius’ proudest piece of architecture is arguably the world’s first statue, now one of two, of the legendary Frank Zappa.

Kaunas - The other major city, Kaunas offers a quiet and intimate view of the more cosmopolitan side of the country; the cobbled streets interspersed with ruins and green areas. The river provides some decent walks, although the signs of industrialisation are never hard to spot. There is a plethora of bizarre museums celebrating every aspects of the country’s history here, providing a wealth of information for those with a passion for the obscure, but could leave more traditional museum goers slightly baffled.

Built within the last few years the seaside resort of Pelanga appears to be a bizarre fusion of Legoland, Center Parcs, and Blackpool. This may sound like a strange nightmare, and the structural integrity of many of the structures which make up the purpose built strip appears dubious, but this merely adds to the sheer charm of the place. Holiday makers are made up of Lithuanian families or young couples from Kalinirussia. The target audience for the destination therefore appears unclear, but nobody seems bothered by the juxtaposition of family beer gardens and seedy nightclub/strip bars.

Even if you’re not lucky enough to catch a break in the clouds, you will no doubt need sunglasses to protect you from the sheer glow of neon shell suit. If the sun is shining however, the beach offers superb views of the Baltic flora and nature enthusiasts can catch a ferry to stay on the spit itself (details on how to visit at www.nerija.lt).

Hill of Crosses – It would be simpler to visit by renting a car rather than enduring the painfully slow bus journeys interspersed with long stops at fairly unfriendly bus terminals (which prove particularly testing for those armed with little or no Lithuanian), but either way the effort will pay off. The history of the area is well documented, although little can prepare you for the almost pornographic (to the non-Christian traveller) sight of this many crosses. There are two hills, covered with crucifixes of all shapes and sizes which really must be seen to be believed. The site appears in the middle of nowhere (it is a short taxi ride from iauliai) and there is no sign of a museum, although tours in English may be available depending on the season.

Shopping

Seeing as meat was not widely available to buy in shops until recently, Lithuania boasts a fairly impressive range of shops. There is little to purchase here however that you could not get elsewhere for cheaper, save local souvenirs, amber and (possibly counterfeit) cigarettes. Most of the larger towns have markets that are worth a stroll, if only to attempt to track down a replica of Lithuania’s most famous statue.

Nightlife and Eating Out

Host to a fairly cutting edge clubbing scene a few years ago that drew the likes of Boy George to DJ unpaid, the nightlife in Vilnius is still pretty far ahead of many other places in the country. The tone has however recently turned in to the British 'lads abroad' holiday with clubs taking moves such as replacing doors with giant Union Jacks, and groups of drunk males dressed in drag are not uncommon on a Saturday night. If this is what you’re looking for, many tour operators run relatively cheap breaks catering to those who like to fire automatic weapons for fun, stare at naked women and drink to excess (try www.lastnightoffreedom.co.uk). With a bit of common sense, this is easy to avoid however, with clubs like Gravity offering decent house music, reasonably priced drinks and a more refined atmosphere (www.clubgravity.lt).

Kaunas nightlife has a slightly more alternative feel. The bars tend to have more character than in the capital, with the student population more evident than in Vilnius during the summer months. Lively nights out may be harder to track down but many of the bars near the harbour seem relaxed on most things, including licensing hours. Pelanga caters for pretty much every taste in terms of going out. As you walk down the strip, the class of punter goes down and the price of a beer goes up. Care should be taken while speaking English in some of the less reputable clubs, as it can attract the wrong type of attention from both male and female visitors. The resort has much in the way of family entertainment, including bowling and family orientated bars with live shows running day and night.

Driving

Highways connect the major cities in and around Lithuania where seasonal speed limits are in place (130km/hr May to October and 110km/hr October to May). Smaller roads have limits of 60 to 90 km/hr. Speeding faces fines of up to 1000Lt, and drink driving up to 3000Lt or license removal according to blood alcohol level (>0.04% alcohol in blood). From November to March, drivers must drive with headlights throughout the day. Roads are generally wider and quieter than you would expect in the UK, but as always with driving abroad, care should be taken at all times as highways through the country may have a high proportion of elder and less aware drivers.

Food and Drink

Lithuania is famous for neither of these. Traditional food can be stodgy and bland to say the least. Those willing to try more adventurous dishes are however equally likely to be rewarded as punished. Most restaurants serve fairly inoffensive pizza or sausages. The culinary highlight may be the Chilli Pizza chain of restaurants which is often the place to be seen on the weekends in most cities, although they are certainly most successful with pizzas, and the smaller branches which double up as coffee shops in the mornings should certainly be avoided.

Beers are again, cheap and inoffensive, coming in a range of spectacular glasses of all shapes and sizes. No trip to Lithuania would be complete without a picture of yourself supping the local brew from a litre jug/glass with the brand name 'HORN' proudly emblazoned across it.

Tourist Information

A.Juozapaviciaus 13,LT-09311 Vilnius,Lithuania. tel. +370 (5) 210 87 96, fax. +370 (5) 210 87 53,vtd@tourism.ltwww.tourism.lt

Airport

Lithuania has three main Airports, Vilnius Airport, Palanga Airport, Kaunas Airport, that all fly to International Locations including England. See tourist information website above for further information.