Knocking back a beer in an open-air cafe on Vilnius’s main square as the temperature hits 30C it’s not hard to imagine you are 1,000 miles away in a Mediterranean hot spot.
As the summer sun beats down on the Lithuanian capital’s fine Baroque churches and exquisitely restored pastel buildings, the city has a decidedly Italian or Spanish feel to it.
In terms of tourist potential, Vilnius is being dubbed the new Prague. Like Prague it has a Unesco-listed old town that blends historical sights with attractive shopping and good restaurants.
But unlike neighbouring Riga in Latvia and Tallinn in Estonia, Vilnius has yet to attract the UK’s city-break operators, who claim the air fares are too high and hotel choice too narrow.
Kestutis Ambrozaitis, head of tourism in Vilnius, admitted: “Vilnius needs more hotels for tourists, especially at two to three-star level. We have plenty of hotels with 10 to 12 rooms, but these aren’t big enough for tour groups.”
It has been left to eastern Europe specialists like Fregata, Norvista and Regent to package Vilnius and try to raise Lithuania’s profile to the level of its Baltic neighbours.
They can claim some success. The 12,519 UK guests in Lithuanian hotels last year – an increase of 63% – stayed on average 2.8 nights and represented the leading north European market.
It was Lithuania that led the Baltic states’ drive for independence from the Soviet Union and with European Union membership its ultimate goal, the country now sees itself very much a part of Europe.
Travellers who ventured to Vilnius five years ago tended to be less than impressed by the cash-strapped capital of a newly independent nation – but the city has changed dramatically since then.
Last year £3.5m in municipal and state funding was spent on old town rejuvenation; this year a further £5.3m is being invested in its buildings and streets. The outcome is an attractively presented city ideal for short breaks – compact and walkable where church towers peep above facades freshly coloured in pink, green and yellow.
Also tucked away down side streets are Gothic and Renaissance churches that bristle with Italian style and hint at Vilnius’s Catholic background.
Although Vilnius is relaxed and informal nowadays it was not always the case. Spend a sobering hour in the KGB Museum, where in the basement cells thousands of Lithuanians were tortured before being hauled off to Siberia. The guides are former inmates.
There are more than a dozen museums and art galleries in Vilnius, plus the Vilnius Opera and Ballet Theatre, where the best seats for top performances cost under £10.
The period of the Vilnius Festival – throughout June and early July – is a good time to visit, when top-notch classical performances are staged in churches and courtyards.
Just 30mins from Vilnius is the former capital Trakai, now a peaceful lakeside town best known for its beautifully restored 14th-century fairytale castle. Trakai is a half-day excursion from Vilnius. Lithuania’s second city Kaunas, with its striking old town, needs longer to explore and is reached by the fast road from Vilnius that ends at Klaipeda on the coast.
Light a cigarette on Kaunas’s Liberty Avenue and you could be fined – smoking is banned here. Close by, the Devil’s Museum with its 2,000 carved devils is another Kaunas oddity. Klaipeda is the country’s commercial seaport; visitors tend to drive 15 miles up the coast to its leading resort of Palanga,which boasts miles of excellent dune-backed beaches.
Lithuanian flydrivers should not miss Siauliai, with its Hill of Crosses – a Catholic pilgrimage site with thousands of crosses placed in memory of those deported to Siberia.
TEN things you didn’t know about lithuania
1. Present-day Lithuania, roughly the size of Ireland, is a surviving fragment of a vast country that stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea in the 14th century.
2. Lithuania’s favourite dish is the zeppelin, a potato cake filled with meat and shaped like an airship.
3. In fact, the Lithuanians love potatoes. They make pancakes out of them (bulvinai blynai); have potato pudding (kugelis); and even potato sausage (vedarai).
4. In a bid to strengthen ties with Europe as a prospective EU member state, Lithuania switched to Central European Time – 1hr ahead of London – in April 1998. It means that in mid-June daybreak is before 1.30am.
5. The world’s first memorial to the American rock musician Frank Zappa was erected in the grounds of a clinic in Vilnius in December 1995.
6. Amber jewellery is Lithuania’s most popular souvenir. Known as Baltic gold, Amber is fossilised resin from ancient pine forests which is washed up on the shores of the Baltic.
7. Lithuania has 2,833 lakes.
8. The Lithuanian language is very similar to that of is northern neighbour Latvia. Both use the Latin alphabet.
9. A mushroom magnate in southern Lithuania is building a Soviet theme park to house statues torn down when Lithuania gained independence in 1991.
10. Tourists can visit the Ignalina nuclear power plant 74 miles northeast of Vilnius. It’s two reactors are the same as the one in Chernobyl!
Fregata Travel: three-night Vilnius city break at the three-star standard Centrum, flying Lithuanian Airlines from Heathrow, from £310. Private city tour by car from £20 (four sharing).
Norvista: two-night Vilnius city break at the three-star standard Naujasis Vilnius, flying Finnair from Heathrow/Gatwick via Helsinki, from £375.
Regent Holidays: three-night Vilnius city break at the three-star standard Victoria, flying British Airways from Gatwick, from £315.
Shearings: the 13-night Best of the Baltics tour (coach ex-Dover), which spends two nights in Vilnius, is £779.
Wallace Arnold: nine-night three-country Baltic States air/coach tour overnights in Vilnius and Kaunas and costs £799. Includes return Gatwick-Tallinn flights with Estonian Air.
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