I had a choice. Vilnius or Waterford. Having gone to Waterford last year, I plumped for Vilnius. Why not? I’d never been that far East before, it would be something new.
I had planned to go away somewhere in November. I had hoped to do a long weekend in November in Manchester for one of United’s UEFA Cup games on the Thursday and then the League match on the Sunday (Brighton or Villa) but a combination of hotel costs and fixture scheduling defeated my hopes.
So, I decided to them look around to see what else there was.
If you want to know how crap the travel options are from Belfast, try to book a three day break in Europe.
I could have done a major city in England or the Central Belt of Scotland quite easily, but I wanted something different.
I was hoping to fly out early on Monday and return late on Wednesday, or fly out early Wednesday and return late on Friday. My searches would be fruitless.
The flight options were usually late out and early home, or running on inconvenient days. Or seasonal, and therefore not running in Winter.
It’s laughable when Politicians say that most of Europe will be inaccessible to people as a result of Brexit. If you want to know how it feels to be cut off from most of Europe, just try to book a flight from Belfast.
If Resort Breaks or Hen/Stag Dos aren’t your thing, there really is very little for you outside of the UK from Belfast.
One thing I always remembered about Vilnius was that it got a favourable review from a local newspaper Journalist who covered a European match between Crusaders and Zalgiris Vilnius in the 1990s.
“Expensive to get to, but worth it when you do get there” was the consensus of that piece.
So, I looked up Vilnius, a service being run by a Hungarian low cost airline called Wizz Air.
Quite apt, as their check-in took the piss, only being able to do so two days before your flight, meaning I had to check-in for my flight home and find somewhere to print off my Boarding Pass while I was away, which was inconvenient.
They had a very different communications approach from Airlines I usually fly with.
Most of my trips involve flying with Easyjet and Flybe, who never stop contacting you.
“We see you’re flying to …, have you booked a hotel? Do you need a taxi from the airport? What about a hire car?”
And when i’m not flying with them, “Hey, xxxxxxx has a good deal on, just saying”
I literally had no contact from Wizz after I booked with them until I was ready to check in.
Wizz’s flights were out on Sunday morning and back on Wednesday morning. Not ideal, but I could work with it.
Going in Vilnius favour – I’d never been there before. It’s in the EU and they use Euros, which is very convenient. It means I could say I visited the Soviet Union, sort of, 28 years late, ironically after Lithuania started the ball rolling by being Robbie Williams and going solo, causing the band to split up shortly after.
I know that flying to an EU country in November was a bit of a gamble, but did you really expect Brexit to take place on 31st October? Come on.
I had hoped to go in October. The problem was, my diary was filled up in October with concerts, and they were taking place on Mondays and Wednesdays.
The Wednesday concerts could be accommodated around it. My first choice was to fly out on Sunday 13th October and back on the morning of Wednesday 16th October, then catch a bit of sleep ahead of the Two Door Cinema Club concert that night.
For some reason, the return flight was on the Thursday that week, so that was ruled out.
I had a special reason for wanting to do that week, as I could have went to the Euro 2020 Qualifier between Lithuania and Serbia on the Monday night.
Ironically, one of the bands I was seeing during this run, OMD, are doing a concert in Vilnius in late January 2020. Could have went then instead.
So, I went with late November. There would be no football on for me to groundhop while I was there, but there would be other things to occupy me while I was there.
I didn’t think about it at the time I was booking it, but it dawned on me, it might be a bit cold. A former Soviet state, in an area beside Scandinavia known as “The Baltic Region”. Yep, I think it will be cold.
The weather was just like music in the 1970s. It didn’t get any better than Three Degrees. Around teatime, it went into minus figures. It was all about layers and keeping myself well wrapped up. We even had a brief, literally seconds, period of snow.
Not a sponsored post, but thermal socks from Home Bargains have changed the game. I don’t know what the game is, but they have changed it.
The next time I hear somebody from Belfast describe a slight chill as “Baltic”, I shall roll my eyes, at describing weather people in the Baltic Region would describe as warm.
The total cost of my flight and hotel was £160, not too bad. Another factor which made Vilnius appealing.
My hotel was Ibis Central on the periphery of the Old Town. A proper Ibis, unlike Ibis Budget I usually stay in.
Arriving at Vilnius Airport, it was a very modern facility. If you are flying from there and turn up in advance of your flight, be warned that there isn’t much there to go to or do. I headed to the Train Station there, which was unremarkable, like Sydenham, and almost as far away from the Airport as Sydenham.
Checking the timetables, it would be an hour until the next train, so I decided to go and get the bus into the city instead.
The bus was quite an experience, as the Driver multitasked, issuing tickets and change while driving the vehicle.
Just after leaving the airport, I spotted branches of Ikea and Decathlon, which made me feel at home. Surely I hadn’t flown three hours from Belfast International Airport to Belfast City Airport?
That bus journey from the Airport took me to Vilnius Train Station. Excuse me for a minute while I put on some mismatching bright clothes and pretend to be Michael Portillo.
It’s not really comparable to other Train Stations I had been to. It was a bit drab, but it had some nice features.
There is a take a book, leave a book library, while there were also beanbags if you wanted to sit down.
The station also had a Railway Museum, where I had a look around.
The highlight of the station is a restaurant called Gusto Blynine, a Finnish pancake restaurant, where I had my lunch, a Chicken and Cheese Pancake. I can confirm that it tasted as amazing as it sounds.
This particular branch had window seats where you could just stare out and watch the trains on the platform, just as the pub at Sheffield Train Station, although I didn’t actually go in there when I visited Sheffield earlier this year.
I’ll definitely make an effort to do that if i’m ever in Sheffield again.
Talking of trains, the new series of Chris Tarrant’s Extreme Railway Journeys will feature Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland. I know that because I walked past him when I was getting a train to Derry in June.
Lithuania is two hours ahead of Northern Ireland, and that took some getting used to. I was doing everything later, just so I would be eating and waking up at the usual time.
My plans for the Sunday were to have a brief exploration of the city. That brief exploration saw me take in the Old Town, Town Square, as well as keeping an eye out for Street Art.
When walking through the Old Town, I saw a shop that interested me called Flea Market, which interested me, but it was closed. I also saw what was billed on the signage as a Chocolate Restaurant, which seems self explanatory but also intriguing. I didn’t go in to investigate.
I went past Hales Market, but it had already closed for the day, so I made a note to come back later in my trip.
I then made my way back to my hotel. I passed a hotel on the same street and looked through the window and saw they were showing Sheffield United v Manchester United, arriving in time to see Phil Jones doing Phil Jones things, to gift Sheffield United a 1-0 lead.
At half-time, I headed back to my room, and flicked through the channels in the room (I had a choice of news channels from UK, Germany, Italy, Poland and France as well as MTV and Eurosport) to see if they were showing it.
None were, so I headed down to the Hotel Lobby, where it was on, but Sheffield United were now 2-0 up.
Thankfully, I stuck with it but that was still two points dropped from such a strong position. Anyway, that’s enough of the football.
There wasn’t much life in Vilnius on the Sunday night. I don’t know if that is normal for a Sunday night, or if it was to do with the temperature now dropping to minus two.
My initial observations of Vilnius were that it is easy to navigate, everything is well signposted, making it easy to make visual notes as to what is close to where and remember how to get to places. The city is also well lit up and feels very safe.
The city is very photographable, you could set yourself up for some decent photos of the City Centre, especially the Old Town.
Unfortunately, the weather was dull and grey during my stay, which hampered my phototaking.
On the Monday morning, I slept in. Well, sort of. I woke up at 8.30am, which was 6.30am back home, usually when I am waking up.
It seems a bit embarrassing to suffer from Jet Lag without leaving Europe, but if Liam Galllagher can claim to get it from travelling between Dublin and London, that’s good enough for me.
My first port of call on the Monday morning was Gedimas Tower, where you can take the funicular up for 1 Euro and get views overlooking the city.
The views were fantastic and made for great photos. Well, it would have been if the sky wasn’t dull and grey. If you are there on a day with some decent daylight, it would be worth visiting as the sun comes up or goes down.
The actual tower was closed though, but it was still enjoyable to look over the city. I walked down (you can get a funicular return for 2 Euro if you wish) what turned out to be a wobbly and cobbly footpath.
From there, I headed to Uzupis, marketed as the trendy area of Vilnius.
In fact, it’s declared itself an Independent State, the constitution visible for people to see.
At the entrance, there is a border crossing. It is a soft border though, the crossing is basically a Tourist Shop.
Don’t be giving Lisburn Road similar ideas. They’ll put up roadblocks at Eglantine Avenue and only let in 4x4s.
I had a look around, and spotted a lot of Street Art, which I naturally photographed. A separate blog will follow on the Street Art.
From there, I headed to the Old Town, browsing through the market stalls. There was a stall selling paintings of cats, which was very tempting for my house. Cat lovers visiting Vilnius will probably enjoy Cat Café, which is self explanatory, where you can get some tea or coffee in the company of cats.
I was tempted to get a Zalgiris Vilnius shirt from a shop in the Old Town, just to boost my Football Hipster credibility.
I then headed to Hales Market, only for it to be closed on a Monday. Then I headed to the Railway Museum, and guess what, it was also closed on Mondays.
While I was at Vilnius Train Station, I noticed that Vilnius has it’s own version of Metro. I don’t know if there is a Lithuanian version of Rush Hour Crush.
I then decided to go an check out some Street Art near the Train Station that I spotted the previous day, but it was too dark to photograph.
One of the more curious pieces of Street Art was a statement on the side of a train which said “YOU CAN EXERCISE YOUR FREEDOM, BUT ONLY UNTIL 10PM”.
You could interpret that as a comment on events in the UK on 12th December, but I actually stumbled upon what it really means.
As I was getting a photo of a piece, a free Walking Tour was passing, and they were covering the story behind it.
Local promoters would hold parties on abandoned trains, but had to stop after protests from local residents about noise pollution.
Vilnius location made it hard to sneak a visit to another city while I was there. One option was Kaunas, the Second City of Lithuania, which was only an hour away. Well it should be, but due to work on the train line, there is a Bus Replacement Service in place, making the journey longer.
There are options of buses to countries such as Latvia, Belarus, Estonia, Russia, Finland and Germany. Unsurprisingly, a lot of those journeys are a bit long.
Minsk is 2 hours 47 minutes and Riga is 3 hours 43 minutes, so neither were really an option.
If I ever do come back to Vilnius, I would definitely take time to sneak in a visit to Kaunas just to see what it is like.
A random observation was the number of Embassies in Vilnius. There seemed to be one in every street. There was a two man protest outside the Swedish Embassy when I walked past it.
The number of Embassies made it easy to bookmark them in your mind. If I saw the Hungarian Embassy, I knew I was on the right path to my hotel. If I saw the Irish Embassy, I was very close to my hotel.
Any Irish people planning on visiting Vilnius should note that the Embassy is next door to a KFC, so if you have any diplomatic issues that need resolved, you can go and get a Bargain Bucket while you’re waiting.
A lot of the tourist shops and market stalls sell a lot of merchandise in the colours of Lithuania’s national flag. They love red, gold and green more than Boy George.
Having been in Manchester on the first day of their Christmas Market, there wouldn’t be a Christmas Market for me in Vilnius, as they actually wait until December before opening them. While I was there, I saw the stalls getting erected.
Tuesday was spent walking through the City Centre and seeing the places that I hadn’t been to yet. I actually also managed to get to Hales Market and Vilnius Railway Museum. It was very very cold on the Tuesday. Going into minus figures at times.
I also walked past the Zappa Monument and had a look. A statue of Frank Zappa, because, why not?
That was pretty much it for me. The rest of Tuesday was spent getting ready for my flight home and hibernating.
The overall verdict on Vilnius is very positive, it was well worth a visit.
Regular readers will feel like i’m travelling all the time. I wish. I really haven’t explored as much of the world as I wanted to. It was great to go somewhere different, and experience somewhere different.
With my flight home on the Wednesday being at 6.30am (4.30am UK time) I had to go to bed early in order to get up early. I’ve never been so motivated to get out of bed on time in my life.
As much as I enjoyed my visit to Vilnius, I didn’t want to be stranded there.
Especially as the next possible flight for me would be Ryanair to Dublin. The following day.
Vilnius Airport isn’t that far from the City Centre, so a taxi to my flight home only cost me 10 Euro. Considering it saved me walking to the bus stop in freezing temperatures in the middle of the night, that was money well spent.
A few other observations of Vilnius is how few people smoke. There were plenty of streets I could walk through without having to hold my nose and cover my mouth.
Unfortunately, I didn’t reacclimatise myself for my return to Belfast which I can confirm is still a rancid smelling shithole.
Nobody has canvassed for my vote yet, but I will be raising this with anyone who does, and ask what will be done to tackle this epidemic. I suggest you do likewise.
Everyday issues shouldn’t be put on the shelf because of Brexit.
Another random observation is that a lot of the language seems to borrow from other languages, such as Billetu signalling Ticket Offices, bringing back memories of France in 2016. Un bilet le foot sil vous plait.
Policija on the side of cars are self explanatory. It wasn’t that hard to work out what a lot of the signage in the city meant.
Milk in Lithuanian is Pienas, which made me laugh. Immature, I know.
Overall, Vilnius gets a favourable verdict from me. I would consider making a return visit, but maybe not for a few years. It’s not a place you would make an annual visit to.
However, if Northern Ireland drew Lithuania in the 2022 World Cup Qualifiers (taking place between March and November 2021) I would give serious consideration to going to it.
I’ve already had a sneaky look at Riga and Tallin from Dublin. Both very tempting. Especially as i’m looking to go away over 12th July period next year. If not The Baltics, I might choose between Cork, Galway or Waterford, depending if there is a decent line-up at that time on Live At The Marquee or Galway International Arts Festival.
Upon my return from Belfast, I got a pleasant surprise when I saw a self service ticket machine being set up in Great Victoria Street. It looks like it’s only for the Airport Express, but it’s a long overdue start.
Unless something dramatic happens, this will be my last travel adventure of 2019, unless you want to count football day trips to Warrenpoint, East Belfast and Coleraine in December.
So, what do I have in 2020?
Manchester in January for a United match. The match is on a Wednesday, so I won’t have a spare day to go somewhere else in the North of England.
I’ll be staying in Bray in late June and take in a bit of Dublin while i’m there. I want to go to a Euro 2020 game while i’m there, but there are also concerts at Trinity College, so I won’t be bored.
Nothing else booked, but Edinburgh in August is on my mind, as always.
After that, we shall see.