Getting to grips with life in post-Communist Vilnius involves visiting a harrowing museum exhibition, shopping for amber and worshipping at the bust of Frank Zappa
The question "where?", in response to the statement "I'm off to Vilnius for the weekend" should be redundant by the end of 2009. The capital of Lithuania (nestled between Poland and Latvia) is one of this year's European Capitals of Culture (the other is Linz in Austria), so expect a year-long Baltic bash.
It's well timed too, as 2009 also marks Lithuania's millennium, and to celebrate both milestones there's a massive programme of events, concerts and activities taking place - covering music, art, culture, history and just about everything in between - going under the heading of Culture Live. Inspired by the avant-garde Fluxus (to flow) movement, its theme is that culture is alive, ever-changing and in constant flux.
Like most of modern Europe, Vilnius has its share of trendy hotels and scenester bars. At the weekend, everyone heads to the 22nd floor Skybar
of the Reval Hotel Lietuva
(if you're staying over, some of the rooms boast their own mini saunas), to sip cocktails and take in fantastic views of the city.
A bit outside the city, the huge Le Meridien Vilnius is more of a resort, overlooking two lakes, and is popular for its golf and spa packages. Close to the Old Town, the Novotel Vilnius
is in a great location, on the edge of the old town and right in the centre of the city's main shopping drag, Gedimino Avenue, with its major fashion stores, restaurants and cafes.
If you're shopping for souvenirs, make sure you buy some amber, either as a stone or in jewellery form - it's the country's national symbol and comes in more than 300 different shades. Lithuania is in the EU but hasn't yet fulfilled the requirements needed to adopt the Euro, so you'll need to change your currency into Litas.
Yet, for all its 21st century trappings, Vilnius can’t quite escape its turbulent past, which is what distinguishes it from every other fast-food-outlet-filled European city. Since 1915, the country has been occupied by Germany, Poland and the former USSR, though it was also the first of the Soviet states to reclaim its independence back in 1990.
To try to get to grips with at least some of its history, visit the Museum of Genocide Victims, the city's former KGB Museum. Sobering and sombre, it charts the history of life under Soviet rule, in what was a former prison in the centre of the city, and the cells and execution room have been kept more or less intact. It's chilling, but it's also an historically and culturally important place to visit.
Rich in parkland, Vilnius is also known for its baroque architecture and numerous churches. Even if you're not religious, pop your head round the doors of any church you happen to pass - they're usually always open to the public. A true historical gem is the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, with its baroque interior and 2000 (I'm taking their word for it; I gave up counting after I ran out of fingers) white, stuccoed figures representing mythological, biblical and battle scenes.
The picture postcard-esque Old Town - the historical and cultural centre of the city - is a delight to stroll around, with its differing styles of architecture and numerous antique and amber shops. Dip down a narrow street and you'll find yourself suddenly confronted with gems such as Gediminas Castle and Cathedral Square, plus those gems of a different sort in the Amber Gallery museum. Unless you're a huge fan, there's no need to go out of your way to see the bust of Frank Zappa, near the art college, although it's certainly the city's quirkiest attraction.
Locals in Vilnius are extremely proud of their language, traditions and culture, but there's one other topic that's sure to help you strike up friendships. Order a pint of the local beer, Svyturys, in any bar, raise the subject of Eurovision, and you've struck conversational gold. The annual televised show draws huge viewing figures and, for extra Brownie points, congratulate them on their 2006 entry, the tongue-in-cheek song, We Are the Winners (it didn’t win, and came in at sixth place).
The locals' pride extends to their traditional cuisine, mostly based around filling, if sometimes stodgy, meat and potato dishes. A 'must do' for lunch is Zemaiciai restaurant, with its menu of national treats such as wild boar goulash and 'zeppelins' - large, doughy, grated potato dumplings filled with meat. Neringa restaurant on Gedimino Avenue is another trad eating spot, popular with boho types since the 1960s.
If you want to venture outside the city, book an organised tour to Grutas Park, about 130km south-east of Vilnius, near the spa town of Druskininkai. An hour and a half away by bus, it's an open-air museum of Soviet sculptures. Previously on public display during the era of Soviet rule, the statues were collected together for this privately-financed museum owned by a local mushroom entrepreneur. There are monuments to Marx, Lenin and Stalin, along with recreations of guardtowers, and wooden buildings featuring displays of Soviet-era art, literature and propaganda along the route, along with a mini-zoo and playground.
The on-site restaurant serves Soviet-style 'nostalgia' meals on stainless steel plates - Baltic sprat and onion for starters, traditional borscht (beetroot soup) and meat cutlets for the main course, plus a large measure of vodka. Dyed-in-the-wool capitalists can round off their visit in the souvenir shop, with its collection of kitsch memorabilia, drinking glasses and Russian badges.