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Lithuania: A long weekend in Vilnius

Bold, buzzing and reborn — there’s nothing like a winter weekend in Lithuania’s capital, especially if you’re brave enough for a banya

Lithuania: A long weekend in Vilnius
The esplanade in front of the town hall, Didzioji Gatve. Image: Alamy

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“Vilnius is not a city. You can’t just go to it, walk around and tick it off your list,” says local musician Jurgis Didžiulis. “It’s the artists that spill onto the street; the people you stop and say hi to in the square; and it’s us sitting here now, soaking in the atmosphere. Not watching the clock but watching Vilnius.”

We’re in Chaika, a small, wooden house-like cafe. Tables are road signs; cups are from Soviet times; and local artists break out into song in between sips of chilli latte and exotic elixirs, and forkfuls of chickpea cake. It’s not your average coffee house, but it’s very much a product of this reborn city. “No,” continues Jurgis, softly shaking his head, “it’s not about seeing anything in particular, or how you make your way through this city.”

I see his point. Granted, the medieval old town can be a sight for sore eyes — with cathedral steeples and church towers puncturing the skyline, Vilnius can be a baroque beauty. But zoom in to the cobbled alleys and crumbling buildings, and scars of the past become visible. Reminders of the city’s agony are there, from the Museum of Genocide Victims to the ghettos where the Jewish community was once forced to live.

But Vilnius is a resistant and determined place, forging itself a new identity firmly built around its people. Chain shops are few and far between, and there’s a visible trail of microbreweries, independent jewellers, small clubs and sustainable restaurants opening up, building the community vibe Jurgis is evangelical about. If you take a look behind facades of the buildings, you’ll see their innards are repurposed to house the innovators of the city’s ever-growing cultural scene. And it’s this growing energy, rather than bucket-list sights, that’s attracting people to this Baltic capital.

Outsider art
The city has traditional galleries, but the best way to appreciate Vilnius’ arty side is out on its streets. Graffiti colours almost every inch of some buildings — check out Millo’s piece near Hales Market. There’s a bronze bust of Frank Zappa, too in the neighbourhood of Uzupis, (of which the late American rock legend is patron saint), while the city’s writers are honoured with mounted artworks and paintings in the open-air gallery that is Literatu Street.

A cheesy welcome
Artisanal cheese is a relatively new food for post-Soviet Vilnius, and the founders of Roots were some of the first to fill the void with gooey goodness. Everything in the shop is produced by local farmers with a selection of cheeses, meats, breads and wines. Talk to the staff to get the guidance on which local suppliers excel at what but be sure to try the ‘little pound’ cheese. Made near a swamp, it holds quite the aroma but tastes surprisingly good.

Three to try… Novel ways to get around

In the air
Wake up on a clear day in Vilnius, and chances are you’ll see a mass of hot air balloons sailing through the skies. Sign up for a ride over the city for stunning views that extend out to the surrounding forests. orobalionai.lt

On the waters
Take a kayaking tour, starting upstream at the source of the Vilnia River, in the village of Vindžiūnai, and you’ll pass the Užupis republic and Gediminas Tower before a calm ending on the banks in the city centre. evobaidares.lt

Inside your head
TeliaNemuziejus — a new virtual analogue museum — rounds up the city’s history in a 15-minute projection. Step into a room paved with an illuminated tiled-floor, put on virtual reality headsets and ‘walk’ or ‘fly’ around the city.

Autonomous atmosphere
Užupis is a self-proclaimed free-thinking republic and bohemian district with its own president, constitution, anthem and four flags — one for each season. Behind the doors, there’s a mix of artists selling their pottery, cafes and small pubs. The 41-point constitution offers an insight into the local character — point 13 declares that ‘No cat is obliged to love its owner’, while point 20 states ‘No one has the right to violence’.

Good taste
Head to pub Leičiai to take your pick of 10 locally brewed beers and savour hearty, traditional dishes like cepelinai (stuffed potato dumplings).

Rakstikas Pirtis sauna

Rakstikas Pirtis sauna

Eyewitness: Beauty Queen

Saline bubbles are racing down my throat. In a desperate attempt to calm the pounding in my head, and at the mercy of sauna master Eglė, I’m following her instructions to imbibe the salty drink that’s supposed to help me stay hydrated in a banya heated by stones that can reach a scorching 70C. It leaves a trail of magnesium coating my tongue.

We’re two-thirds into the three-part pirtis banya ritual and, drink or not, the heat is getting to me. We’re less than 30 minutes from the city, yet it couldn’t feel further from civilisation. Outside the simple wooden structure that we’re steaming in — deep in the pine forest of Anupriškės, thick with 100-year-old fir and pine trees — there doesn’t appear to be much life. Through the floor-to-ceiling window, I can see a wooden jetty stretching out into the shallows of Lake Gilušis. A mile-long swamp sits on the other side, through which we’d battled earlier that morning, frequently sinking waste-deep in the sludge, as our guide, Rima, waxed lyrical about its healing benefits for joints and muscles. As soon as we’d arrived at the banya, we wasted no time peeling off our mud-sodden clothes and heading for the baths.

“In Lithuania, we say you come to the sauna to sweat, bathe, do your laundry and see the doctor,” says Eglė as she brushes a bunch of herbal plants over my face, forcing me to inhale the vapours from the hot leaves.

The pirtis is a long-standing tradition in Lithuania but its popularity has dwindled in recent times, Eglė tells us. In the past, every house would have had a banya — less social than the Finnish sauna; more a place for bathing, with plants and herbs central to the experience.

Each pirtis has a queen — Eglė being ours. It’s the queen’s role to heal by whipping naked flesh with fronds of birch and herbal plants — a symbiotic relationship between man and nature, Eglė reassures me.

Having acclimatised to the heat, it’s time to melt into the outdoor hot tub (comparatively cool), before returning to the banya, where the temperature is turned up a notch, and birch, juniper and oak are employed to scrub our bodies. Eglė pours more water over the jadeite stones and tells us all about their anti-inflammatory and antitoxic properties. Dressed in a bikini and rainbow woolly hat, Eglė beams with contentment — clearly delighted to be sharing this tradition with someone new.

“This is a cold country,” Eglė puffs as she prepares her bath broom, “and it’s what we need; to completely cleanse and heat up the body at the same time. But we also need it for what this country has been through, to shake off negative thoughts and bad times.”

We lie on the sweating shelf one more time, as Eglė — now fully embracing the role of banya queen — pummels us with her bundle of twigs, sending leaves flying in the steamy air, some of which stick to our skin. Once more, my head and heart beat in unison as the heat reaches its peak.

The seconds stretch out until the ritual finally comes to a sweltering end and we stumble giddily to the lake (jumping into the icy water is the final, restorative step). With leaves plastered to my face and towering trees spinning above me, I bob about listlessly in the lake — limbs having lost most of their ability to move. It’s a silent ecstasy that’s just 30 minutes and a million miles from modern city life. tonyresort.lt

How to do it

Baltic Holidays offer a four-night Vilnius trip from €1,390 (£1,230) per person. The price is based on two sharing a double or twin room in a four-star hotel in the old town, including direct return flights from the UK and activities.

Published in the December 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)