Over an indelible lunch last Fall, actor William Shatner was regaling me with stories about his travels and suggested that I visit his ancestral home of Lithuania, but I was skeptical. After all, I consider myself more of an adventurer seeking ultimate outrageous destinations for a thrill or hanging out at island resorts mingling with billionaire yacht owners while drinking champagne. Lithuania was a place I knew nothing about, but when Captain Kirk tells you to trust him, you take his advice.
I found myself on a remarkable adventure to a region I would never have discovered on my own. A trip that took me through some of the country’s most stunning locales and ultimately convinced me that Lithuania should be on everyone’s bucket list.
Lithuania has mainly been a day stop on cruises to the Baltic, traditionally grouped together with Latvia and Estonia. My visit was to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania and its largest and most bustling city. To fully understand Lithuania and its history of oppression from outside forces and how resilient its people have become, you have to look deep beyond the quick visit that most tourists make.
I made my base at the iconic Kempinski Hotel Cathedral Square in the most sought after location of the city. Where else can you find a dramatic view of the neoclassical Cathedral Basilica with its bell tower as well as the mountaintop Gediminas Castle from your bathtub? The hotel offers endless views of the entire Old Town with stunning sunsets every night and makes for the perfect launch pad for your explorations. The Kempinski has been lovingly restored and boasts an impressive white marble lobby with panoramic windows. Its stately appearance from the outside holds a boutique size hotel featuring an intimate 86 rooms and 13 suites. The beautiful award-winning spa also offers up an amazing Amber body scrub treatment where the mineral is crushed into a fine powder and made into a healing oil.
On my arrival, the crystal blue skies gave way to a fast-moving rainstorm, the dramatic dark clouds offering a brief respite from the long hours of sunlight this region experiences for almost 20 hours a day in the Summer. It was an easy journey from the U.S. via Stockholm, and I was eager to see the sights.
My first experience was sampling the spectacular food of the region. I dined at the Kempinski Hotel’s Telegrafas Restaurant along with the hotel’s charming GM Kai Schukowski (the youngest GM in the history of the Kempinski brand). We imbibed copious amounts of Chef Vytautas Alekna’s European style dishes with Mediterranean influences of Langoustines, Turbot fillets, Yellowfin tuna and his signature dish of Roe Deer, a treasure from the Žemaitija Forest.
Before exploring Vilnius, it is important to know a little about its dramatic history. I wanted to see for myself how resilient the people were in a country that had experienced so much loss. Founded in 1323 by Grand Duke Gediminas, the region attracted Jewish and German tradesmen and merchants, and for centuries it became a destination for people fleeing religious persecution. Before World War II, Vilnius was actually one of the largest Jewish centers in Europe. Napoleon even named it “the Jerusalem of the North.”
In 1654, Vilnius was occupied by Russian forces, and it was pillaged and burned, while its population was massacred. During the Great Northern War, it was looted by the Swedish army, and at the end of the 18th century, Vilnius entered the Russian Empire as its third largest city. During the Russian rule, the city walls were destroyed, and by 1805, only the Gate of Dawn remained among its five original gates.
In 1812, the city was taken by Napoleon on his way to Russia and also upon his embarrassing retreat where thousands of his soldiers died and ended up buried in mass graves. During World War I, Lithuania was occupied by the German Army from 1915 until 1918, and during the Polish-Soviet War, it was taken by the Polish Army, only to fall to Soviet forces again. In 1940, Lithuania was annexed by the Soviet Union, and tens of thousands of its residents were arrested and sent by trains to Siberia. In 1941, the Germans captured Vilnius and two ghettos were established to house the enormous Jewish population. By 1944, they were ultimately liquidated despite failed resistance groups that hid in the surrounding forest, and during the Holocaust, a shocking 95% of the Jewish population was murdered. Finally in 1989, in an amazing display of peaceful human demonstration, 2 million people seeking their independence held hands forming a chain linking three Baltic states from Vilnius to Riga to Tallin. Seven months after the protest, Lithuania became the first of the Soviet republics to declare independence.
I made sure to pack in as much as possible during my brief visit, so I enlisted the help of Lina Duseviciene, one of the very best guides in the city to show me all of the most interesting sites in this UNESCO World Heritage Old Town. We spent hours wandering the city through winding cobblestone alleys, nary a Starbucks or western chain restaurant to be seen thankfully. We ventured into small, hidden shops including one coffee house for a taste of the delightful traditional tree cake known as Šakotis, created on a rotating spit and appearing very much like a hollow cake with spikes. In one of the small galleries we visited, I met husband and wife artists Ruta and Marijus Piekurai who were exhibiting their Ruty Verticle bow ties incorporating his traditional oil painted miniatures with her unique designs. We then continued on to climb the steep, winding staircase of the St. John’s Bell Tower at the prestigious Vilnius University (one of the oldest in Europe) for a 360-degree viewpoint of the city.
Everything in Vilnius works with symbiotic energy, with a youthful and vibrant art scene mixed with a historic, architectural presence that honors its past. Its unique energy is what is transforming this normally sleepy city of cautious residents, once fearful of outsiders. They are a welcoming population filled with creative force. From its offbeat bars and cafes to its medieval churches, just walking through the city filled with German gothic, Italian Baroque and French classicist architecture, and Russian Orthodox domes open your senses. Even Hollywood has come calling with more film productions including Daniel Craigs “Defiance” and the BBC’s “War and Peace” with every corner the perfect backdrop for a Hollywood blockbuster.
We ended our tour strolling past the flamboyant gothic St. Anne Church right on the bank of the Vilnia River, and through the neighborhood of Užupis. The area is home to a movement of bohemian artists operating numerous art galleries and workshops, even the river banks have art displayed on its rock walls. And in a strange twist of fate, just outside of the former Jewish ghetto, I came across a small group of people eagerly awaiting the arrival of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. It was a very special moment when the Dalai Lama raised his hand to my forehead and blessed me. Who would have known that I would travel all throughout the world, including India and end up meeting His Holiness in Lithuania? Vilnius is apparently one of his favorite places to visit and has been there many times before to speak. And not to be outdone, preparations are happening for Pope Francis and his upcoming visit in September. This will be the first papal trip to the country in a quarter of a century.
We celebrated our spiritual encounter with lunch at the brand new and stunning Hotel Pacai, a modern masterpiece that will truly put Vilnius back on the map with the fashion and celebrity crowd. It is the first Design Hotel in the Baltic States, a Baroque Palace and former residence of Lithuanian nobles. The palace has hosted Russian Tzar Peter I, French Emperor Napoleon, Russian Emperor Alexander I, and the King of Poland and you can feel its history within its walls. In fact, during remodeling, they uncovered hidden staircases, ancient walls, and stunning frescoes. All were kept in the final design of the five-story, 104 room hotel with a spa and very popular lounge and restaurant filled with the most beautiful visitors to the area.
Dinner that evening was at the well known Ertlio Namas which serves traditional Lithuanian food with a modern twist fronted by chef Tomas Rimydis. His 6-course tasting menu contains very artful displays of foods all characterized by the seasonal availability in the country, from Guinea Fowl to Mutton with grits and Duck Liver to Roe Deer. One thing to note about Lithuania is how inexpensive everything is with most high-end restaurants offering gourmet meals at very reasonable prices.
My final day of this whirlwind adventure was something I carefully curated with the locals. I wanted to venture outside of the city and experience farmlands and activities for younger, more thrill-seeking travelers. We departed for the easy drive out of town to the beautiful Esperanza Resort & Spa, a 5-star boutique resort near the town of Trakai. Feeling more like a retreat in Alaska, the lakeside resort is surrounded by 27 acres of pine forests and is created with stone and ancient cedar logs shipped in from Canada. The resort’s restaurants offer gourmet farm to table cuisine, and the spa includes some of the most unique and futuristic treatments I have ever seen. From the floating Cloud Bed treatment to an Amphibia Water Massage Bed, a horizontal shower, Hot Sand Massage Bed, and numerous innovative rejuvenation treatments, this property is the perfect wellness retreat escape. There are even a Russian bathhouse and bowling alley at the 33 room property.
After a relaxing afternoon of spa and lunch, I was off to take a private champagne sailboat ride around the Medieval castle in Trakai. The only castle built on a lake in Eastern Europe, this gothic style property became a residential retreat for the Dukes of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and in the 16th century, it was converted into a prison for nobles. Now a museum, the castle is one of the most famous sites in Lithuania, and a must visit for everyone.
And for the grand finale of my adventure, I enlisted the help of well-known Columbian/Lithuanian musician Jurgis Didziulis to join me for an amazing hot air balloon ride over the countryside as the sun went down. More than just a talented musician, Jurgis is one of the most creative forces I have ever encountered. Emotional, spiritual and centered with so much talent, he enjoys participatory musical experiences that engage his fans and onlookers. For our trip, he even brought a hand crank music box as well as his ukelele to perform as we soared above the land and entertained the hardworking farmers as we flew over. He is part Burning Man, part spiritual leader and a force to be reckoned with, and I am proud to call him my friend.
We spent my final evening together for dinner at the most popular restaurant in town, Sweet Root. It is almost impossible to get a reservation here so book in advance. The incredibly talented chef Justinas Misius offers up a memorable evening of inspired and seasonal avant-garde food. The tasting menu is a surprise and only gives you a list of the ingredients you will be having, from gooseberries to Northern pike, from dandelion buds to Quail, from cherries and wild roses to Lamb. The small and experiential restaurant is one of those places you can stay for hours and never want to leave, the food and the atmosphere is that good. This is a true culinary experience and having Jurgis perform for us until the wee hours, it was the most wonderful way to say goodbye to this beautiful country that is evolving every day and opening their hearts to new possibilities.
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