Every year in December my birthday rolls around. Some of my friends and colleagues grumble about adding another candle on the cake, but some years back, I discovered a foolproof way to enjoy myself as the years pile on.
I absolutely love to travel. I plan it. I look forward to it. I have fun when I’m exploring new places. So, each year I decided to give myself a special birthday present – a gift of a trip for my husband, my kids and me to a new destination.
I’ve broken the novelty destination rule a couple of years, because, well… who can resist yet another visit to the Christmas Market in Vienna or seeing London with all the Christmas lights? But in general, I stick to my self-imposed new places to discover rule.
And it works! Each year, I look forward to my birthday and the excuse it gives me to explore a place I’ve never seen before.
We had enjoyed a past visit to nearby Riga, Latvia and were curious to visit another Baltic capital. Admittedly, winter this far north means you are experiencing a daylight-hours-deprived city.
Still, we enjoyed decent weather, saw the city covered with a dusting of snow and appreciated visiting at a time when fewer tourists were wandering Vilnius’ picturesque streets.
This impressive architecture dates back to 1387, when Lithuania and Poland joined a dynastic union, bolstering Vilnius’ wealth, culture and prestige over the next centuries. Its lovely university dates back to 1579, and was an important seat of learning in northeastern Europe.
Absolutely not to be missed is the Lithuanian Museum of Genocide Victims . The Baltic States suffered tremendously during the 20th century, first under Nazi occupation, only to be ‘liberated’ by the Soviets.
The museum building served as both Gestapo and KGB Headquarters and houses an impressive and informative collection documenting KGB activities in Lithuania, deportations to the gulags, partisan actions, and the lives of the prisoners. The underground prison torture chamber and execution room have been preserved in their pre-1991 state and serve as a chilling reminder of Lithuania’s painful history.
It also houses an interesting museum – with explanations in English, German and Russian, in addition to Lithuanian – that provide a comprehensive history of the region during the time of the Polish Empire.
We enjoyed the underground rooms displaying the clay pots full of coins that were discovered underground in the area. In medieval times, when various invaders arrived and plundered, the locals would bury their savings in clay pots.
As evidenced by the findings, many did not make it back to collect their savings, which are now on display for visitors.
The Lithuanians have certainly devised every possible way of preparing their favorite vegetable – from “Zeppelins” – a potato-based dumpling stuffed with meat, Bulvinių kukulių sriuba – minced potato balls, blynai – delicious crepes mixed with grated potatoes, and the list goes on and on.
The Lithuanian alus – beer- is excellent and pairs well with their meat and potato specialties.
Vilnius was a great discovery and an enjoyable place to turn a year older. We’ll look forward to another visit – in warmer weather, next time! – to explore the surrounding countryside.