Stepping out of the depressing bus station in Vilnius I saw a number of people who looked like they’ve suffered hard lives, or drunken lives. That was even before I saw a man with one leg. Cars that were falling apart sped past and the wind whipped up dust and grit. It all felt a bit like Mad Max. It felt like the wild west of the Baltics. It felt a little like a Spanish town that time forgot.
This area is about to be hipsterised, I was later to understand, and it needs it. Once you get closer to Vilnius’s Old Town centre things look up. It has a similar feel to the other Baltic capitals but a little scruffier, a little poorer. The place has its charms and certainly isn’t as backward as my first impression. Numerous glass towers for business can be seen from the icon of Vilnius, the Gediminas Tower. The hill on which this stands is having work done, there are fears otherwise that the Tower will one day slide down the hill and be no more.
Warsaw was an eight hour coach trip away from the Lithuanian capital and this is a much larger, more forbidding looking city. During WWII the Nazi’s reduced to rubble about 90-95% of the city, partly in retribution for the Warsaw rising. The result is that a lot of Warsaw is ‘new’. This means block after block after block and some communist buildings thrown in too. The Old Town is pretty but this is more or less a reconstruction of the one that existed prior to the Nazi occupation. With little to see I set to trying the Polish vodka. I drank too much and spent too much and I spent the next day recovering. It was a night with many missing hours, many missing memories.
On Sundays Warsaw hosts free concerts of Chopin music by his memorial in the park and this draws a large crowd. It is worth finding a seat anywhere you can to enjoy the music from one of Poland’s greatest sons.
Krakow is very different to Warsaw. There is a large and attractive square where the Old Town is based around. The church of St Mary situated here has an incredibly stunning altarpiece. I would have taken pictures, however these cost extra to the entrance fee. It is worth seeking out online. As well as the Old Town Krakow has the shabby-chic Jewish quarter named Kazimierz which has a number of exciting looking bars I still wasn’t quite recovered enough to fully appreciate. In addition there is some good graffiti that keeps the streets interesting. This is certainly a good place to explore and a little less touristy than the Old Town, although it isn’t a hidden secret.
Day trips from Krakow are popular. The Salt Mine at Wieliczka features many chambers with carvings from salt, and tacky figures to represent the work. There are also some pretty salt crystal chandeliers, but once again, I have no pictures, as it appeared to cost an additional fee to the ticket price to take pictures.
The most well known day trip from Krakow is to the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps where the Nazi’s brutalized, tortured and killed over a million people, mostly Jews. The place leaves a deep impression on you, as it should. This is a place you can’t forget, a place that shouldn’t be forgotten.