All of us city folk feel the urge to get away, from time to time. To reconnect with nature, wake up to birdsong, hug a tree or two (or is that last one just me?). Sadly, with limited vacation time and a dizzying array of options, satisfying that nature-reconnecting urge slips lower down on our priority list when planning a holiday.
We feel compelled to maximise these few days, when our time is welly and truly our own, and stuff them choc-a-block with “things to do”. A dash of culture and history: check; a smattering of physical activity: of course; sampling local cuisine: bring it on; quiet time spent in the lap of nature: yes. But how best to apportion you time between all these?
Seen here: Arial view of Vilnius Old Town from the Hill of Three Crosses in Vilnius
What if there was a holiday destination where you didn’t have to choose? What if this destination — a city in a little-spoken-of European country, and which remains a relatively undiscovered locale — offered you all of the above? A place where nature rules supreme, where the summer nights are long (you can read on your balcony without the need for an electric light, at 10 pm!), and activities involving culture, history and cuisine are just an hour’s drive from your hotel.
Vilnius, in Lithuania, is just such a place. Lithuania is one of the Baltic States, called so because of the region’s proximity to the Baltic Sea.
Above photo: Old Town architecture
The first of the USSR states to be declared an independent republic, Lithuania is now a member of the European Union. Vilnius is a thoroughly modern European city in many ways (it even has its own Ikea!), but with a distinct old world charm. History seeps out of its very pores, be it through the chocolate-box-beautiful architecture of the Old Town area of Vilnius, or the plethora of Catholic churches dotted all over the city and out in the expansive countryside, which stretches for mile after endless mile between cities.
With a wide variety of art museums and galleries to choose from, you might decide to spend a day admiring the artworks on display, or perhaps you would prefer to spend an evening seeing a play at the Lithuanian Drama Theatre, or even enjoy a performance at the Lithuania National Opera and Ballet Theatre. From the traditional to the avant-garde, from local to Chinese productions, there is something for even the most obscure taste on the programmes of these institutions.
Seen here: Vilnius Grand Resort, half an hour’s drive out of Vilnius, where we stayed on this trip
However, it is worth bearing in mind that the Opera and Drama Theatre schedules begin in the autumn and wrap up by the spring. This might be partly down to the fact that Lithuanians are rather keen on spending the summer months out in nature too — just as much as any visiting tourist. They are an active nation, who love the outdoors and take every opportunity to take their families out to enjoy their beautiful countryside.
Outdoor inauguration concert for the new Lithuanian President
In the absence of these two institutions’ programmes in the summer months, outdoor concerts take place in the streets of Vilnius and it’s worth checking ahead to catch one. By pure chance we happened to be in Vilnius on the day of the inauguration of the new Lithuanian President. Walking out onto Independence Square near the Presidential Palace as we explored the Old Town, we came across a musical gathering of representatives from different regions, cities and towns of Lithuania, each holding their own flags, and singing a slow and painfully beautiful song to celebrate the President’s inauguration, under the watchful eyes of the statue of Grand Duke Gediminas (more on him later).
In this image: Colourful train rushing through the open Lithuanian landscape
If it is history that you’re after, Vilnius’ Old Town area is where you should head. Wandering from one pastel coloured jewel of a building to the next, down tiny cobblestone lanes, I recommend putting away your smartphone, and discovering this lovely labyrinth of old streets by getting lost in it, taking turns just because you feel like it, not because you have the slightest idea of where you are going.
You might come across a small local crafts market around that next corner, and buy someone a beautiful gift made of local amber, for which Lithuania is famous. Also high on my personal priority list is stopping to rest in a cute café every so often. Here, you can people-watch (the Lithuanian women who seem to have stepped right out of the pages of a fashion glossy), sample old-fashioned delicacies (pork-filled potato Zeppelins with a dash of sour cream, anyone?) or try a modern take on local dishes, which many of the smaller cafes are fond of offering.
St Anne's and Bernardine Monastery in the Old Town in Vilnius
There is more history to explore slightly further afield: the famous castle of Trakai is only half an hour’s drive away from Vilnius, and almost as soon as you leave the city limits, you will see that nature is waiting for you just around the corner. The area surrounding Vilnius is rather flat, with much of it used for agricultural purposes, which creates endless views of the unattainable horizon, with extravagant cloud formations overhead, and just the occasional brightly coloured train slicing through the landscape.
Fields of golden crops, framed by cheerful wild flowers are often separated from each other by densely green stretches of forest, with quaint little villages nestled in between. Should you happen to arrive here in early summer, a walk in these forests will reward the eagle-eyed forager with deliciously sweet jewels of wild strawberries, raspberries and blueberries. Late summer visitors can pick a basketful of wild mushrooms for their dinner — or cheat, and buy them from the little old ladies who stand by the side of the motorway selling their finds to city folk too lazy to go pick the fungi themselves.
Above photo: Interiors of The Baroque Church of St Casimir in Vilnius Old Town
And as for the tiny villages dotted throughout the landscape, a detour through the smaller local roads, away from the freeway, can reward the intrepid explorer with an unexpected experience or two. You might come across a real farmer’s market, bursting at the seams with tempting homemade food and traditional artisan crafts, to an imposing Catholic church, seemingly jumping out at you from in between the fields and forests, or even a medieval jousting tournament (yes, really) with attendees dressed to impress in their finest imitation 14th century-wear, wielding wooden swords like their hero, Grand Duke Gediminas.
On finally reaching Trakai, if you can tear yourself away from all the fascinating distractions along the way, a new facet of nature greets the curious tourist — water! In a country bordered by the Baltic Sea and containing, it is said, up to 6,000 lakes, seeing water is hardly a surprise, but this lake is particularly large. At over 3.5 square kilometers, it surrounds the medieval island castle on all sides. Trakai Castle was built in the 14th century by — you guessed it — Grand Duke Gediminas, and completed later by his son. Grand Duke Gediminas is a medieval Lithuanian hero regarded as the father of the nation due to the wide-ranging territory expansions that took place during his reign. He was also the ruler responsible for establishing the capital of Lithuania in Vilnius.
Seen here: Local village made wool products, produced in small batches by hand by local artisans and sold in the village market
Nowadays, the castle is a historical museum, drawing in big tourist numbers in the summer months especially. Despite its popularity with locals and foreign tourists alike, there is a prevailing sense of peace by the shores of this huge lake. Sailing and boating of different kinds are popular on its waters, and yet, the overwhelming feeling one has on visiting this place is that of peace and calm. I wonder if this is exactly what drew Gediminas to it when he first found this place after a successful hunt in the 1300s, as the legend goes?
If you’re looking to be even more involved with nature, there is always the option to stay a little further out of Vilnius. Just half an hour out of the city is the Vilnius Grand Resort, where we stayed on this trip, and indeed woke up to the aforementioned birdsong, and very little else. This place has a lake of its own that you can swim and boat in, or even just watch the sunset over it. The more energetic in our party woke up early to play a round of golf in the championship golf course attached to the property. Alas, I prefer a more sedate way of interacting with nature, so I was content with just walking around the grounds and picking those delicious wild berries I spoke of earlier.
In this image: Smoked fish, popular in Lithuania, produced in small batches by hand by artisans and sold in the village market
And if you want even more of nature, a three-hour drive from Vilnius will take you down the Baltic Sea coast to the beautiful port city of Klaipeda, with its own historical fort, its own Old Town, its own Drama Theatre, beaches and the sea! This is the most popular destination for many Lithuanians during the summer months: the irresistible combination of the Northern hemisphere’s white nights and relaxing by the beach is hard to beat. As the evening draws in, the sky remains light until very late in the summer months, barbeques are cooked, guitars are played, Krupnikas (a traditional Lithuanian sweet alcohol) and beer are drunk, and songs are sung till the sun finally decides to go to sleep, before rising again in the very early hours of the morning. Blue skies and bluer waters, framed by white sand dunes, with the occasional tufts of green grass breaking through… together, they make Lithuanian beaches distinctive and a break here, most memorable and peaceful.
Above photo: Wild flowers surrounding golden fields of agricultural crops of rye
So while you may not have heard much of this country or of its charming capital city, or indeed its beachside retreats on the shores of the Baltic Sea, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. After all, it’s kind of nice that there are still undiscovered secrets to be found, hidden in plain sight throughout Europe.
Banner image: Sunset over the lake at Vilnius Grand Resort
—All photographs by Polina Schapova
Polina Schapova is a Delhi-based Russian-British photographer. Follow her work on Instagram or on her website