Trakai – The castle on the lake (followed by a visit to Uzupis republic

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Would you believe that this tiny, picturesque town used to be the center of Lithuanian politics for a brief period in the 15th century? At first thought it doesn’t make any sense why the Medieval rulers of the country would spend most of their time in a small village instead of nearby Vilnius, but when you get off the local bus and step on this wondrous place, their motives begin to get visible. It takes a stroll from the bus station to the castle for the history and beauty of the place to unfold before your eyes.

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The first thing to notice is the lake. It shapes the place and constitutes its nucleus. It gives the area a tone of relaxation, it actually shouts loudly that this is a place for recreation and that is actually emphasized on the town’s founding myth, according to which after a hunting excursion, Gediminas, the Grand Duke of Lithuania discovered a wonderful lake and decided to have a castle built on the spot. Since then, the area’s beauty attracted lots of people and Gediminas’ grandson spent a great amount of his time there, once he became the Grand Duke.

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The next thing you notice, is the town’s multicultural identity. We spotted a small Russian church, which although didn’t look much on the outside, was brilliantly and colorfully decorated in its interior. We also spotted a wooden synagogue and a restaurant that was run by Karaites, that specialized in a fish dish, while we also heard that many Poles live in the area. We wanted to have a taste of the Karaite cuisine, but it was too early to have lunch and we approached the town’s main attraction.

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The island castle of Trakai, connected to the mainland by a narrow wooden bridge, which was under renovation at the time. The pink-colored, stone structure bonds in harmony with the lake and seems as if something one would see in a dream. The interior doesn’t seem as impressive though, regrettably, it seemed to us as a sloppy tourist trap, since the courtyard was planted with replicas of medieval torture equipment. Still, that could not diminish our adoration of this place.

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Charmed of this wonderful corner of the country, we left Trakai to return to Vilnius and spent the rest of the day there until our nightly bus ride to Warsaw. We had already seen most of the places on our list over the past day, so this exploration was going to be a rather casual approach to this city. That laid-back approach started with a rather large pizza accompanied by a bottle of beer. We had visited this great place last evening and it so happened that we got hungry the minute we got past outside its door.

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Great choice once more and as we felt regenerated with that tasty break, we advanced for a walk to Bernadinai garden, which seemed pleasantly crowded at the time – we even spotted several people canoeing in the adjacent river. The trees provided a cool shadow from the – incredibly burning considering how north we were – sun rays and we even spotted a mini free library, a box where you could freely take a book and leave one for someone else to enjoy.

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Having rested on the park, we advanced once more into my favorite St Anne’s church, but this time we didn’t pay a visit to the site, we decided to have a coffee at a Café situated by the river next to the orthodox cathedral, at the edge of the Republic of Uzupis. The Café was situated on a great spot, as it allowed access to the river, where a swing was set, hanging from a small bridge over the river. It was a huge attraction with girls walking into the shallow water eager to swing and have a cheerful shot taken while sat on it. It made us feel buoyant ourselves. We enjoyed some laughs as the waiter – quite joyful herself happily – tried to serve us our coffee as per our instructions.

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I have to say, sometimes I think that we may appear weirdly eccentric to waiters who take our order on these demands of ours to prepare a coffee as per our instructions. It originally began as a need to enjoy this coffee after spending many days without its taste, but it has now become a favorite oddity, as we anxiously await for the way it will be presented to us, or the taste. This time they got close as we were offered espresso, ice cubes and warm milk. Had they shaken cold milk with ice cubes, everything would be great, but we never complain. Besides, we got to have a view at the Uzupis mermaid.

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The Uzupis republic is a self-proclaimed republic within Vilnius. This small but lovely neighborhood is the artistic heart of the city and currently celebrates its 20 years of independence.  The neighborhood has its own constitution, which was sooooo awesome! I mean come on! Article 13 proclaims that a cat is not obliged to love its owner, but must help in time of need! If you think about including cats in a constitution you must be a genius! The constitution is attached on a wall in various languages for everyone to read and although downtown Vilnius is great and laid back, this side of the river is an even more easy going place.

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We even spotted a small bookstore, where I bought an English book about Lithuanian pottery and a cute cat sleeping in a box of books outside the store. We walked around the neighborhood for a while and as we were about to leave, we stumbled upon an open kitchen, which featured tastes from all over the world, but sadly, we were too full of pizza to even have a bite. That cheered us even more, before returning back to the old town, where we made a brief stop to rest on the park by the cathedral.

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As we began to slowly drag our steps towards the bus station, we also came across a place where Adam Mickiewicz resided for a while, but as our appetite returned, we sat on a place we had spotted during the previous day’s walk and ordered some pancakes. Once more, food in Vilnius proved to be simply great and even though pancakes seem more of a breakfast thing rather than a dinner choice, it was just what we needed at the time. Eventually, we returned to our hostel, where we had left our luggage for the day – we can’t thank the people there enough for that service and reached the bus station.

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While on the premises, we chatted with a Lithuanian guy, who described the effects of the introduction of euro in the country’s economy. It was exactly like listening to a Greek describing what happened at the currency’s first steps when introduced. “Bread used to cost 2 (?) litas/ 100 drachmas and then it went to 1 euro (thrice up the price)”. Don’t get me wrong, I am strongly pro euro, but these small things contributed up to a point to the bad economy. While boarding the bus, we had some laughs as the driver faced our old-fashioned Greek I.D. cards with a justified puzzled look (It actually took Catherine a few minutes to board the bus, as our documents are an oddity). Once aboard, we made ourselves comfortable for the overnight trip back to Warsaw, watching movies, sleeping and having coffee. After all it was a ten hour ride…

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Vilnius is one of the liveliest cities you ever did see

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The ride to Vilnius proved to be rather cozy and we enjoyed the spectacle of the sunny Baltic countryside. The bus station was also conveniently located near our hostel, which in turn was comfortably positioned next to the Gate of Dawn, the last remaining city gate of Vilnius. As it was almost noon, we dropped our luggage in our room and approached the illustrious gate to enter the old city of Vilnius.

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The Gate itself doesn’t look much from the outside, but its inner view is truly a memorable sight. According to the 16th century practice, a religious icon depicting the Virgin Mary is placed in a chapel inside the gate, acting as the city’s guardian against enemies. We could discern the influences of orthodox art on the finely crafted painting and it was pleasing to see such a familiar pattern in such a distant place.

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After this gratifying first taste of Vilnius, we realized that we should pursuit some Lithuanian flavors as we hadn’t eaten anything since morning and it was lunch time. Subsequently, we found a place by pure chance. And what a great chance that was! We don’t even recall how on earth did we spot the place as it didn’t seem to have an entrance on the main road. Kitchen is a restaurant nested on the first floor of a building that provides a great view of the town hall and the streets. The interior was elegantly modern, the food and the service were excellent and they were also photo-shooting a beer commercial when we got there. The time we spent there eradicated the last shreds of fatigue and enabled us to keep enjoying Vilnius and to further explore this fun city.

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The next building we encountered on our way down town was the St Nicholas orthodox church, which we entered to find out that a ceremony was taking place and Catherine half-mistakenly, as she wanted to light a candle, participated in this Russian styled rite, as she found herself among a group of women that were lining up for a priest to place some oil on their foreheads. Ah! The priests must have been the rock stars of the Middle ages.

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After Catherine was blessed by the priest, we continued our walk towards the principal attraction on our Lithuanian bucketlist. St’ Anne’s Church, the greatest church building we have viewed so far, a gothic styled monument of 15th century flamboyance, an architecture I couldn’t stop taking shots of and I wished to spend there as much time as it would be possible. I had heard that Napoleon had marveled at the buildings beauty and that he actually expressed a wish to carry it back to Paris with him and I could sense why.

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The inside seemed rather empty, but still all that space actually made the church look enormous and yet there were many interesting corners, where you could discover elements of the country’s past. I was mostly impressed by a sizable head made of stone that bore a cross right on its top, with its sides coming out of the statue’s ears. I am probably mistaken, but it seemed as if the head once belonged to an ancient Lithuanian god and the overcoming new faith modified it to enlist it in its own religious service.

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Having crossed that exquisite place of our list, we made one more stop to loosen up over a cup of coffee. We had done so much sightseeing over the past days and we wouldn’t mind if we just quit it and laze out for the rest of the remaining time on that trip over coffee, beer and snacks. Yet, this voice inside our heads kept pushing us to get up and experience more of Vilnius and we concluded that we should come to some sort of agreement between this sightseeing pixie inside our souls and our lethargic bodies. Therefore, we spotted an ice cream and desserts shop near the small cafe we were nested and vowed to every dessert there that we would return.

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Driven by that dessert pledge, we marched to the Vilnius Cathedral, another massive religious building, that is built where a temple to the Lithuanian god Perkunas used to stand. The place is in close proximity to the palace of the grand dukes and next to a pretty park and allows a great view of the imposing Gediminas tower that tirelessly guards over the city. At the time of our visit some events regarding the Olympic games were taking place on the Cathedral’s square and many children were having fun participating in this affair. I was a bit envious of some youngsters that were playing basketball and I even considered asking them to join in, but at the thought alone I swear I could hear my knee snap.

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Besides that, the sky was filled with colored hot air balloons that lifted everyone’s spirits as they rose up in the sky. We took some shots and walked a little further away from the Cathedral, right in front of the national museum where we fell upon some polynesian looking statues, that might have been some more images of the country’s old gods.

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We felt we had exceeded the limit set for sightseeing and true to our word, we returned to the pastry shop we had spotted earlier, to get a sweet taste of Lithuania. It was truly a great choice and we savored it happily, before moving on to explore more of the city. I also added a copy of Kristijonas Donelaitis’ Metai on our library and we also visited a rather small bookstore, that was also a cafe, where I looked around for some more books while Catherine was enjoying a refreshment.

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During our walk around town we spotted many kids playing music – which puzzled us a bit, but they didn’t seem to be begging, let alone many of them played admirably, while we also spotted an event where many people were dancing to Latin music in an open space. The city was constantly crowded with all sorts of people, parents enjoying a walk with their kids, young couples, tourists and lots and lots of young people. We made another stop a cocktail near the Cathedral and as we felt it was too early to call it a night, we also hanged out for some pizza and a couple of beers. Thankfully, so far our choices on food and drink proved to be excellent and even though we were feeling a bit tired, the city was so vibrant and vigorous that kept tempting us into more fun. Finally, as the streets begun to drain of crowds, we returned to our hostel to rest. According to our itinerary, on the following day we would make a brief visit to Trakai and spend the entire day on the roads of Vilnius, before catching a night bus back to Warsaw, to complete our trip.

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