This short off the beaten track to Vilnius, Lithuania to acquaint myself with birch tree sap and its production was arranged by my business partner in early 2018. Though brief, the trip certainly opened my eyes to this Baltic state, which was a former Soviet bloc nation.
Vilnius city does not have bustling night market nor street food like in Thailand or Taiwan. But if history, culture, natural landscape and heritage sites are your faves, then you will be fascinated by this country. Vilnius Historic Centre was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994 and famed for its medieval Old Town. It also has Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque architecture and 18th-century cathedrals built on pagan temple sites.
Our flight took about 17.5 hours (with 2-hours transit in Istanbul) via Turkish Airways from Changi Airport. Alternatively, Lufthansa Airline will get you there in about 20 hours with a 4-hours transit at Frankfurt Airport.
There’s a national marketing campaign with sexy innuendos that certainly put Vilnius in the spotlight – “It’s like a G-spot. So difficult to find. But once you have found it, it’s amazing”. Come along as I share my journey to this lovely country that is not quite yet on the radar for most of us from Asia.
Brief Insight on Lithuania
Lithuania has a population of about 2.8 million (2019 census) while its largest city and capital is Vilnius . It is a member of the European Union (EU), the Council of Europe, Eurozone, Schengen Agreement, NATO and OECD with the largest economy in the Baltic region.
Modern Lithuania gained its independence from Russia in 1918 after World War I and the dissolution of the Czarist monarchy. In 1940, it was annexed by Soviet Union together with Estonia and Latvia. It finally regained its independence on 6 September 1991 with the crumbling of Soviet Union.
One of the country primary sectors is food processing which accounts for 11% of their total exports. The tourism sector is also a crucial part of the economy, which contributed 5.3% of the GDP in 2016. Some of the tourist attractions include 758 rivers, 4 UNESCO World-Heritage sites, 6,000 lakes and its unique coastal region. Information and communication technologies (ICT) are one of the main sub-sectors with over 2,000 ICT firms and the country is home to 13 out of the 20 biggest IT firms in the Baltic region.
Attractions in Vilnius and beyond
Walkabout Tour with Gabija Luneviciute
For a city rich in history, a walkabout tour with an experienced local guide is a must. With top-rated Gabija, streets and buildings come alive with stories that even locals may not know. It’s the fastest way to know the city better.
Vilnius Old Town
The Old Town of Vilnius is one of the largest remaining medieval old towns in Northern Europe and has an area of 3.59 square kilometres. It encompasses 74 quarters, with 70 streets and lanes numbering 1487 buildings with a total floor area of 1,497,000 square meters.
The oldest part of the capital, it has evolved over the course of many centuries and has been shaped by the city’s history and constantly changing cultural landscape. Architecture buffs will love the place where some of Europe’s greatest architectural styles—Gothic, renaissance, baroque and neoclassical—stand side by side and complement each other. The central squares in the Old Town are the Cathedral Square and the Town Hall Square.
Gate of Dawn
Walking towards the Gate of Dawn, which is a city gate in Vilnius and one of its most important religious, historical and cultural monuments. It was built between 1503 and 1522 as a part of defensive fortifications for the city.
Church of All Saints
At the Church of All Saints – a Baroque-style church. All Saints church was built between 1620 and 1630 and was adopted for Carmelites‘ needs. In the second half of the 17th century, the church was linked with a monastery and formed a single complex.
Baroque Church of the Holy Spirit
You will be enthralled by the colours and attention to details inside the Baroque Church of the Holy Spirit, the city’s main Russian Orthodox church and parish church of the city’s Polish community. Built at the beginning of the 15th century, it was extended and partly reconstructed in 1679-1688.
In the 19th century, several Byzantine Revival architectural elements were added to the church when Vilnius was part of the Russian Empire. Nonetheless, it still retained its essentially Baroque form. Indeed, the added orthodox frescoes, iconostasis and dome lifted its magnificence, as did the addition of deep blue and green interior decor.
The Vilna Ghetto
This cafe marks the lane where The Vilna Ghetto starts. It was a World War II Jewish ghetto set up and operated by Nazi Germany in the territory of Nazi-administered Reichskommissariat Ostland. During some two years of its existence, starvation, disease, street executions, maltreatment, and deportations to concentration and extermination camps decimated the Ghetto’s population from an estimated 40,000 to zero. Only several hundred people managed to survive, mostly by hiding in the forests in the city fringe, joining Soviet partisans, or sheltering with sympathetic locals.
Vilnius Jewish population on the eve of the Holocaust was probably more than 60,000, including refugees from the German-occupied Poland to the west and subtracting the small number who fled to the Soviet Union. The genocide of Jews in the city commenced before the ghetto was set up by the advancing German forces, resulting in an execution of about 21,000 victims prior to September 6, 1941. A dark period in history indeed.
Explore Vilnius Cafes Culture
I list this cafes exploration as a foodie adventure as there so many of them at almost every turn in Vilnius, each with its own characters and offering, from traditional, themed watering holes to swanky outlets.
How about cocoa-cafe with hand-made chocolates that you can buy home ?
This is the most important Catholic building in Lithuania. First built in 1251 by newly converted Grand Duke Mindaugas, on the site of a pagan temple – He was Lithuania’s only Christian king and the reason he took Christianity was to get a crown!. The current building dates to around 1419 is totally different from the original structure after countless modifications and additions.
The vocals of the parishioners during the night service were truly awe-inspiring and mesmerizing.
Uzupis Art Incubator
This place will appeal to creative and fun-loving people. Uzupis (pronounced Uh-Zu-pis) is the 1st art incubator in the Baltic states running for more than a decade. It is the sole alternative artistic organization with an arts centre in entire Lithuania. Those linens hanging across the river is not laundry by the way, but creative expression from artists.
Art incubator encourages stimulating ambience which is similarly supported in many advanced European cities, with an eye on the importance of the creative industries in the country’s cultural, tourism and economic development. Are you aware that the viral wall mural art featuring the bicycle with 2 kids that put Penang on the international tourism market was painted by Ernest Zacharevic, a Lithuanian?
In 1997, the residents of the area “declared” the Republic of Užupis, along with its own flag, currency, president, the cabinet of ministers, a constitution, an anthem and an ‘army’ of about 11 men. This independence is celebrated annually on Užupis Day, which falls on April 1. The flag of the Republic contains a palm of the hand on a white background. Each season the palm emblem has another colour: Winter – blue, Spring – green, Summer – yellow, Autumn – red.
It is pretty obvious that the statehood of the Republic, recognized by no government, is intended to be fun, tongue-in-cheek or a combination of both. The decision to place Užupis Day on April 1 (April Fools’ Day) may not be coincidental, alluding to the significance of humour. You can even get your passport stamped in the Republic, just for memory sake.
Ponulis – Uzupis Famous Cat
Užupis bookstore “Keistoteka” has a special resident – a cat name Ponulis. He is Užupis most famous cat. Ponulis has his own place in the middle of the bookstore, an Instagram page, a personal mailbox and a fan base from around the world. He’s the de facto president of the cats in the district. Each morning, he will inspect the district cats to check that they are well.
Literatu street (Literatų gatvė)
Anyone who reads Lithuanian literature thinks of this place like a temple. Artworks mounted on the walls of the street are dedicated to the literature figures – writers, translators, everyone who has a link with Lithuania and is important for Lithuanian or world literature.
Art galleries can be boring and mundane, so if you’d like to enjoy one without having to enter a building, then this street is right up your alley. Varying in style and size, more than 100 tributes line the wall pay homage to poets and writers who have influenced Lithuanian literature.
Gabjia pointing out her grandfather work on the wall. He is also a literary figure in Lithuania and is honoured and featured among the works.
Hales Market (Built 1906)
The Hales Market on Pylimo Gatve 58, is a local indoor market housed in an old bus station. This is the oldest marketplace still operating in Vilnius. The market roof and modern form, completed in 1906, rests on a metal frame similar to the Eiffel Tower and is 8,400 sq.m (about 1.5 football field).
In the market, you can find everything from vegetables, preserved meats or smoked fish, fruits, artisan cheeses, baked goods, shoes, clothing and more.
The market itself is worth a visit and the area around the market is a hipster hub with juices bar, cheese shops and many other interesting finds.
Trakai Island Castle @ Lake Galve
The visit to the 14th-century medieval castle at Lake Galve which is about 20km from Vilnius, took just a 35-40min bus ride. After the bus arrival point, a short 7 min taxi ride took us to this off-the-beaten track locale to Vilnius, Lithuania.
The winter scenery around the castle is pretty nice. In summer, the lake sees hive of activities like boat rides on the lake or picnics by the lake. But in deep winter, the lake is frozen over. It is the only island castle in Eastern Europe.
The castle has undergone structural enhancement but is a museum to some of Lithuania’s most interesting archaeological artefacts, religious objects and coins preserved from the excavation of the castle grounds. You can also see chain mail, medieval weapons, 19th-century embroidery and glassware, with animated knights talking on a projection screen on the stone walls.
A stained-glass featuring a knight on one of the castle many windows.
The town around Lake Galve is also famous for its picturesque landscape while offering city folks a respite from hectic city life, with walks around the beautiful lakes or holiday homes by the lake.
Trakai is also known for the Karaimes (ethnic group speaking the Turkic language), who have lived here since the 14th century and have preserved their traditions. The national dishes (the most popular is Kibinai – a small pasty stuffed with minced meat, can be tasted at the Kybynlar, a restaurant serving traditional Karaite dishes, just a short walk from the lake entrance.
My fave Kibinai is the one stuffed with lamb and onion (variations include cottage cheese, pork, chicken or spinach) and eaten with chicken soup.
Hill of Crosses @ Šiauliai
To visit this venue, we took a 2-hour train journey to Šiauliai, in northern Lithuania. The origin of the practice of leaving crosses on the hill is uncertain, but it is believed that the first crosses were placed on the former Domantai hill fort after the 1831 Uprising.
To some visitors, the journey to the Hill of Crosses is like a pilgrimage. Over the generations, the venue has come to signify the peaceful and stoicism of Lithuanian Catholicism despite the threats it faced throughout history.
A shop at the venue sells many variations of crosses for visitors to place at the site. My cross reads “God. Takes Care of Us” in the Lithuanian language.
Over the generations, not only crosses and crucifixes but statues of the Virgin Mary, carvings of Lithuanian patriots and thousands of tiny effigies and rosaries have been left behind by Catholic pilgrims. The exact number of crosses is unknown, but estimates put it at about 55,000 in 1990 to 550,000 currently and counting.
Choose where you want to place your cross and perhaps return someday. This will be one of your trip highlights off the beaten track to Vilnius.
Birch Tree Sap – Life’s Miracle Water
Lithuania is situated within the so-called mixed forest belt with a high percentage of broad leaves and mixed conifer-broad leaved stands. Most of the forests – especially spruce and birch – often grow in mixed stands. The picture above shows a section of certified organic birch forest.
Gintaras Didziokas, CEO of the company, presenting their products. The company have been bringing the goodness of Birch Tree Sap to the region including several other popular beverages and baby food brands.
A traditional birch tree sap extraction taps just for illustration, those on the ground used by their contractors are more modern as you see in the video.
A drone aerial view of the production factory. It is located in strategic proximity to the birch forest to facilitate the collection of freshly harvested birch tree sap, ensuring product quality.
Storage vats for pasteurised products to ensure stringent quality. The factory is HACCP certified.
The production facilities undergo regular cleaning and maintenance schedule, which was during our visit.
A quality product from Mother Earth. The goodness of which I looked forward to sharing with Singapore.
A group picture at the factory ground. Heart-warming to see the earth-sustainable effort the company put in to bring good products to the masses.
Special mention – Traditional Lithuanian Cuisine @ Mykolo 4 Restaurant
One of Lithuania national dishes – the Cepelinai (Zeppelin) Dumpling. The outer layer is made of potatoes and is a chewy texture similar to Chinese glutinous rice dumplings and the inside holds a juicy moist minced lamb. Foreigners may find the meal hard for their stomachs but it is very popular among Lithuanians. It is also one of the cheapest meals of its size you may get in restaurants.
Lithuanian cuisine is generally mild. Potatoes and rye bread are the staple foods and pork are the favourite meat, followed by beef and chicken.
A very hearty diet that Lithuanians dine on and the tray of rye bread and cured meats are just the starters of the meal.
Accommodation of choice in Vilnius
Our accommodation at Vilnius – The Barbacan Apartments. It is located in the Old Town of Vilnius, a 2-minute walk from Old Town Square. The apartment complex overlooks the bohemian Uzupio district.
The cosy living room. The TV has CNBC but mostly Lithuanian channels.
The picture on the wall is a tad undersized to enhance the room aesthetics but it’s still great for a good night sleep.
The full-fitted kitchen, with oven, dish-washer, fridge and all the crockeries and utensils you need if you need to prepare a full meal.
The apartment balcony, the perfect place to enjoy the -5-8’C winter chill.
View of dawn from the balcony at 7.30am. The sunrise is not due for another hour but the city is already getting busy with school children walking to school and cars buzzing on the roads.
The bathroom is equipped with a washer, air exhaust and heated towel racks. Fairly well-designed with a toilet seat cover made of wood so it’s comfier during the winter chill.
This off the beaten track to Vilnius, Lithuania served to open my eyes to what interesting surprises the Baltic region can offer. In fact, most of my friends were clueless about where Lithuania is nor were they able to differentiate between Balkan from the Baltic, just like how many Europeans still thought Singapore is a part of China.
Overall, it’s a lovely city to visit if you enjoy long flights or have a penchant to seek out off the beaten track exotic cultural adventures and enjoy the hearty local cuisine. It is also not afflicted by mass tourism as yet so you can enjoy the attractions in relative peace. Vilnius can also be a great stopover should you be planning a trip to Finland, for a more well-rounded escapade to Northern Europe.
Many sincere thanks for coming along my pixels journey. Should any readers be keen to enjoy this experience in the future, please feel free to drop me a message. All pictures used in this travelogue are copyrighted to Jensen Chua Photography and all rights reserved. The opinion expressed is non-prejudiced, factual, objective and that of the author.