Op-ed: 7 things that will surprise you in Vilnius
Kombucha – an old acquaintance in a new guise
Kombucha, a sour, fermented tea beverage, can be found on the shelves of many Vilnius supermarkets.
This mysterious drink, fermented over several days or weeks with the help of a mother of vinegar (bacterial mass), used to be common in almost all Soviet kitchens.
It lives in a glass bottle, and outwardly resembles a hefty, flattened slug. And though it might not look particularly tasty, this grotesque organic mass can turn regular water into something resembling a zesty kvass or lemonade.
In Baku, generations born after the late 80s don’t much remember this drink, but in Lithuania, its produced on an industrial level.
Užupis, or Vilnius’ Montmartre
Passing the church of St. Anne and crossing the bridge over the river Vilmnia, you find yourself in the Republic of Uzupis.
This is a separate area inhabited by artists and other bohemians. A sort of Montmartre, if you will.
In 1997, the locals jokingly proclaimed Uzupis a separate republic with their own flag, president and constitution, which, among other things, declared that “Everyone has the right to be happy.”
A statue of an angel adorns the main square, and peeking through any arch into a courtyard, you can find yourself in a sort of Wonderland: shops selling amulets, old books or hemp goods.
No, its not that kind of hemp.
But the hemp you were thinking about? That you can find that easily enough on a number of Vilnius’ street corners. It’s easy to find – just follow your nose.
It would seem that a Baltic state wouldn’t have too much interest in one of East Asia’s most intense showdowns. However, Lithuania strongly supports Tibet in its struggle for independence from China. Accordingly, relations with the People’s Republic of China are strained.
In a sign of solidarity in 2010, Vilnius opened Tibet Square. In its center there is a mosaic mandala, which the Dalai Lama himself consecrated during one of his visits.
Music of the slums
Concerts are sometimes held at the railway station in Vilnius. In late December, for example, the Ukrainian singer Luna performed there in the open. In -10 degree weather, people lined up for mulled wine and mournful love songs. What romance.
Don’t be jarred when you hear electronic music pulsing in the covered market just below the train station where you can pick up some delicious cheese and sausages.
All of this was part of a program to beautify the city’s nation area.
Edible aircrafts and beet bread
Here at the market you can try the main national Lithuanian dish – Cepelinai (zeppelins) – akin to something like boiled potato pies stuffed with minced meat. They are named after the German airships (Zeppelin) they so closely resemble.
Back in Vilnius, there are excellent pastries and 1001 sorts of bread, including, for example, beet bread or baguettes with olive oil and garlic.
Back to the middle ages
Vilnius is a medieval city, and some ancient streets still look frighteningly authentic. Curved and gloomy, surrounded by towering and oppressive walls, they sling you back to the 13th century, and don’t be surprised if you’re accosted by a night patrolman asking you just what in god’s name you’re looking for there.
All this is even more surprising given that in Baku, the municipal authorities have diligently erased all antiquity – the dark stones of the houses are polished and highlighted. A ghost from the past would remember nothing.
– Please, one coffee and one… (damn, what’s this thing called in English?)
– One coffee and one bulochka?, the barista asks, laughing.
Thirty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian is still in use in Lithuania. As it is in Azerbaijan as well.
There is a widespread belief that nobody will speak to you in the Baltics in Russian, not even if you paid them.
That’s just not true – 90 per cent of the time, if you speak Russian, people will understand you and respond.
– Da, one coffee and one bulochka, pozhaluysta.