Russia: Bags of baroque in the Baltics

THERE aren’t many places where, as temperatures plunge below freezing, you’d feel overdressed in your smalls – let alone in a hat, scarf and gloves.

But late at night in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, it became a struggle to find a drink that wasn’t served by a waitress who kept her tips inside her knicker elastic. When asked to recommend a nightspot to our party, locals seemed to think British visitors were all after the same thing – nasty thrills in raunchy clubs and the cheap beer that have made Vilnius’ neighbouring Baltic capitals of Riga, and Tallinn, so popular with stag parties.

But for most visitors to the Lithuanian capital, it’s a different story. The city isn’t overrun by hordes of tourists hell-bent on hedonism, and that’s one of its attractions.

“Vilnius is the least publicised and the least commercial of the Baltic capitals,” said Baltic Holidays managing director Phil Teubler. “The attractions, such as arts and crafts, are actually there for the local people.”

Vilnius, home to just over half a million people, has an Old Town packed with baroque architecture, museums and churches, alongside the city’s more commercial central district. It’s easily navigable on foot, and has a main cathedral square. The old town also has many shops and market stalls selling amber products.

“Vilnius has attractive buildings and impressive baroque churches. The city has a very Mediterranean feel to it,” said Neil Taylor, author of the forthcoming Bradt Guide to Vilnius. He suggests agents sell the city as part of a wider tour of the country, as clients can book city breaks on the Internet.

It is almost 15 years since the Lithuanian communist authorities were overthrown, and nowhere is the contrast between past and present more apparent than on Gedimino, Vilnius’ equivalent of Oxford Street.

Packed with brand-name outlets Gedimino could be any other shopping street in Europe. But it’s a plain building just set back from the main thoroughfare where most tourists head: the former KGB headquarters.

Now a museum, the building offers a bleak and fascinating insight into the conditions under which those who dared to defy the authorities were once held. Standing inside a cell as the heavy iron door slowly creeks shut is frightening – a grim reminder of the political struggle some have endured.

Nowhere is Lithuania’s new-found self expression visible more than in the suburb of Uzupis, just over the river from the city’s Old Town.

A breakaway bohemian republic with its own constitution drawn up by artists wanting to exercise their right to laid-back living, it’s a vibrant quarter packed with galleries, quirky bars and restaurants. Come April Fool’s Day, visitors may find themselves passing through a mock immigration point, with clowns ready to stamp their passports.

Uzupis also houses one of Vilnius’ best restaurants, called Tores, which has panoramic views across the city. Also recommended is Avilys, a small brewery on Gedimino.

Granted, one restaurant in the Old Town boasts 12 different types of dumpling, but generally the food is excellent – particularly the seafood – and eating out and drinking is good value, with three courses and wine coming in at under £10 per head.

Vilnius’ quirkiness – it also has the world’s only statue of Frank Zappa – is matched by beautiful architecture, history, culture, good food and shopping.

What’s more, compared with its more expensive western European counterparts, these kind of thrills also come cheap.

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