Where: Vilnius, Lithuania
Plate of food: Vilnius is a place of contrasts – rich and poor, modern and medieval, understated and opulent. The food is the same. There were plenty of hip, edgy restaurants serving artistic plates of food in Vilnius, but we wanted something more…authentic. Being in a place that still showed wounds from Soviet occupation made us want simple, rustic food. Meat! Potatoes! Nothing more! It may surprise you, but it turns out that this was an incredibly stodgy choice. Who woulda thunk?
One meal was memorable as much for the setting as for the food. We entered the restaurant and were taken down a narrow, winding stone staircase to the “bowels” of the building. The ceiling was roughly hewn out of rock and solid wooden tables were nestled in nooks and crannies. Candlelight flickered and voices were hushed. It was like dining in a bunker. We gamely looked at the menu and decided to start with a traditional appetizer of a selection of meats and accompaniments. The waiter soon came back bearing a wooden board upon which the chef had arranged sausage, cured ham, gherkins and such. In the dim light, though, it was difficult to see each item on the platter. We brought the candle closer and we discovered a pile of raw fat slices nestled next to half a dozen fresh garlic cloves. Rustic, you say? Simple, you query? Well, I didn’t mean that rustic and simple. I tried everything except the fat which reclined in soft, glistening, white folds on the wood, brazenly judging me for not eating it: “In the Soviets’ time, I was a delicacy!!”
Sorry, that is clearly the paraffin fumes and raw garlic messing with my mind…
The best: It has to be the Russian Orthodox Church of the Holy Spirit, in all of its Vegas splendor. There are many churches in Vilnius with stunning interiors, but this one in particular was so over-the-top and fabulous. The bright green altar featured pink marble columns and huge, hulking gold chandeliers. Every surface was covered in colourful embellishments, as if an angel had run riot with a Bedazzler. On either side of the altar were two words spelled out with bright light bulbs, blinking and flashing to some frenetic rhythm. In contrast to all of this bright grandeur, there was also a glass coffin in the centre of the church which contained the bodies of three Christian martyrs. They were covered with a blanket, so all you could see were their slippered feet peeking out at the bottom. Slightly creepy, but completely in line with the dichotomy of Vilnius.
Story that needs to be told: The Gate of Dawn, and the shrine within, attracts many tourists and religious pilgrims to Vilnius. Its painting of Mary depicts her with dark skin and it is said to have miraculous powers. The room containing the shrine is small, so we waited our turn with a crowd of other people to ascend the steep stairs. As we tumbled through the narrow doorway, everyone fell silent. The walls are covered with silver amulets – shiny hearts, legs, and arms. We all shuffled over to let everyone in until we were finally shoulder to shoulder, all staring at the Virgin Mary. Then, in one fluid synchronized motion every person dropped to their knees in prayer.
Everyone, except us.
Being more tourists than pilgrims meant that we had naively and dumbly neglected to consider the protocol. I turned, wild-eyed, to my husband and saw that he was just as horrified to be the only 2 people standing in the room. I started to kneel, but quickly realized that it was possible. The reason everyone had knelt at precisely the same moment was because that was the only way it would work in a crowded room. Once everyone was down there was no space to bend our knees. I turned, wild-eyed, again to my husband who I saw was trying to abandon me and find a route to the door. There was no easy escape. I slouched and crouched, trying desperately to not look like a disrespectful oaf. No luck. After a decade of praying (it may have been mere moments in reality, but you try keeping time whilst in a semi-squat), everyone simply stood again and filed out. With that, we were swept down the stairs and out into the street with the crowd.
Later that evening as we drank luridly coloured cocktails with strobe light ice cubes floating in them (yes, you read that correctly. That’s Vilnius for you!), we comforted ourselves with the thought that everyone was so deep in prayer with their eyes downcast that it’s possible the only person who saw our embarrassing debacle was the Virgin Mary. We are relying on her forgiveness for this one….
Photo: 3 again – I see a trend beginning…. I hope you enjoyed exploring Vilnius. It is a truly lovely place, like a best kept secret of Europe. If you are lucky enough to visit, don’t forget your kneepads in case of any sudden mass kneeling that occurs. Let my mistakes be your lessons.
“We wander for distraction, but we travel for fulfillment.” Hilaire Belloc