As my feet begin to hurt from all this country-hopping, I look up to the hills above and see the Lithuanian flag mounted atop a castle tower and realize I must overcome the pain to see this highest peak in the city. The Gediminas Castle Tower is opposite the Three Crosses of Vilnius, on a separate hill. From Užupis it was a fairly quick climb to the crosses, though my Sancho Panza of a father significantly slowed my errant post-lunch mountaineering. At the top the sun shone and it was actually somehow warm. I basked, briefly, in the rays before plotting a course to the castle. We descended our hill, then ascended the other and were mobbed by fellow tourists who were more eager than we were to pay five Euros to climb a brick tower.
From there, we descended from the tower, and went back to the hostel for a nap. In the evening I limped to a midrange Lithuanian restaurant as my feet ached from the week of Baltic city-slicking. I had just come off a New England winter where I practically never left the house for any reason other than going to work or school, and my feet were paying the price despite my insistence that I was too young to have “foot problems.” Next, I assumed, I’d be blogging about my retirement home’s yearly trip to Tuscany, or perhaps a cruise to the Caribbean. Or, perhaps it was my sneakers, which I had bought in Malaysia for 60 bucks, and had worn through the insolent insoles to the point that my left heel was touching rubber. I was determined to look into getting new shoes when I returned home.
The restaurant where we dined on our last Baltic night served a “crispy, melt in your mouth pork,” which I could find no better words to describe than those provided by the English version of the restaurant menu, as well as the national dish “cepelinai.” These potato dumplings, which derive their name from the zeppelin airships which their resemble, can be filled with mushrooms, meat, or cheese, so we ordered the sampler platter to taste all the country had to offer. As it turns out, the country offers potatoes in ample quantities, and in strange textures. When the first cepelinai hit my tongue I realized it too was a melt-in-your-mouth type deal, but in this instance the melted meatpouch simply became thick potato soup. As with nearly all things, I am glad I tried it once. Just don’t expect cepelinas to land at your local KFC any time soon.
We returned to the micronation for lunch, and to get our stamps for this universally unrecognized nation. At the barliament, we ordered ‘foreign’ beer, and Lithuanian food, as the nation produces many more artists than chefs. There, we rubbed elbows with the president himself, who was at the next table arguing politics or art in Lithuanian. This country allegedly having a standing militia of eleven people, I was afraid to bother the gray-bearded man for fear that they might be waiting to protect the president at whatever the cost. As we left, we met with two Australians at the bar who were on our tour, and watched as the bartender stamped the instruction pages of our passports with what I gathered was a mix of jealousy (as they had forgotten their passports) and secondhand embarrassment that we were actually stamping our real passports with fake stamps. I don’t care who you are, you are never too old to play pretend.
We crossed the river and the guide showed us two of the city’s most impressive churches, one Roman Catholic and the other an Orthodox Cathedral started in 1346. Our tour wrapped up at the foot of Vilnius’ Castle Tower near the national museum, and we realized we had metabolized our fruitcake and coffee rather quickly (it would appear that fruitcake here is actually digestable) and were ready for lunch. Since I had long before made a vow to eat a meal in every nation I stepped in, we agreed to cross the ancient Vilnius River to get a nice Užupian meal.
The Republic of Užupis (OO-zoo-PEACE) is officially a neighborhood, meaning “beyond the river” in Lithuanian. It has historically been a neighborhood for artists, and declared itself to be its’ own country in 1997. The nation’s parliament, housed in a bar on the banks of the Vilnius River, is commonly known as their “Barliament,” actually has a working stamp and is where Užupis’ politicians, namely their current president, discuss policy and art. The chief pride of the nation, I believe, is the constitution which often has contradictory instructions to the citizens of the nation such as “don’t fight,” “don’t give up,” and “don’t surrender.” The constitution, thanks to the donations from many countries, has been translated into 38 languages and placed on a place for each language and hung on a brick wall in the north part of the 148-acre country.
Another beautiful part of the micronation is their Tibet Square. Flags of Tibet fly occasionally in windows and above doors in Užupis because the micronation has used their faux-independence to demonstrate their belief that Tibet should be an independent state. Tibet Square is decorated with authentic Buddhist symbols and Tibetan prayer flags. In fact, the Dalai Lama visited the area in 2013 and is an honorary citizen of the micronation.
We arrive, or should I say return, to Vilnius just as the sun is starting to rise. I spent most of the night nodding off then being shaken awake by some rogue nerve that senses fear then jerks me awake. I am tired, but not yet exhausted and as we weave through the deserted streets to our hostel downtown I begin to feel nauseous. The early-spring Baltic pollen has been seeping into my airways and I begin vomiting up mucus and stomach acid into the brush every ten or fifteen feet. After mapping dozens of cafes, we finally find one that is open before 10 am and we walk in, ordering coffee and what can only be described as fruitcake without the trademark stale-taste that all fruitcakes seem to have. The coffee shop offers a variety of mysterious coffee items with words like “nitro” and “compress,” but the barista seems to understand what my dad is talking about when he orders an “Americano, black.” We sit, eat our cake, and listen as the barista puts a vinyl of experimental German rock on the turntable. Perhaps my mind had softened, or been pickled by some sleepy neurotransmitter, but the German rock is one of the best things I have every heard and my heart crumbles like a fruitcake when I can’t find it on Spotify.
Eventually, we leave the cafe and find our hostel, which is locked. We are let in by a guest/ social media intern for the hostel, who informs us we can put our bags behind the desk, but that we have to wait until the owner gets in at 10 am to check in. This is no problem because the hostel has a large, soft, and clean couch in the lobby. I stow my bag behind the desk, take my shoes off, and quickly fall into a restful pseudo-sleep, which I break a half-hour later.
We walk to the town hall, where we begin the free walking tour of the city. The sun is out and I am elated to be on the last walking tour of the trip, which promises to be indistinguishable from the other Baltic walking tours in a few days’ time. The group is the largest yet, and we are immediately harassed by fellow Americans (from Minnesota of all places). Upon reflection, the most powerful nugget of truth came from our Polish tour guide who said that “the last thing he would do when traveling to another country is take a tour for Polish people, because when I am away from home the last thing I want to do is meet people from Poland.” Truer words have likely never been spoken; when I meet an American my first instinct is often to run. What if they want to talk about how quaint that city is? What if they cling to you and you don’t know how to get rid of them? What if they watch Fox News? Many scary things can happen when you travel, folks, be prepared. If you see an American sports team on a shirt or hat, act like you are Canadian.
We see statues, churches and places where synagogues used to be. We discuss Vilnius’ role as the center of Jewish learning and culture in the 1800s, and talk about Lithuanian culture and tradition. Then, the coolest part of the tour begins. The guide mentions that Vilnius is home to one of the largest and most legitimate micronations: Užupis.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.