Strange Days

There will, inevitably, be the odd day where nothing goes to plan. Sometimes, days like these are annoying. Sometimes, they are just funny. Despite the fact that your correspondents have been fortunate enough to travel to many different countries in Central and Eastern Europe, nothing too serious has happened. There has been the odd brush with authority – for example, the young German policemen who delivered a stern lecture on the dangers of crossing a completely empty road early on a Sunday morning – but nothing to cause the blood pressure to rise unduly.

Things can go wrong. Take the example of an acquaintance who boarded a train in Hamburg with the intent of making a local, ten-minute journey, but instead found himself on the non-stop express to Berlin. This, of course, is down to stupidity and nothing else. One of his excuses was that all the signs were in German. How terribly unreasonable of the Germans to display signage in their own language. Besides which, ‘Berlin’ in German is, er, ‘Berlin’. One might even add the improbability of a large, twelve-carriage train providing a local stopping service, but there is no need to labour the point.

Thankfully the Duck Holiday team has never encountered a problem as big as this (nor, indeed, an idiot as big). There have, though, been moments of surrealism and a selection is presented below.

Tirana – Photographers Beware

Some years ago, the Duck Holiday team (though not on holiday) were ambling along the sea-front in Accra. Ahead was a rather pretty little lighthouse that demanded a photo. The photo was duly taken. It was only some minutes later that we were able to see the sign that informed us of grievous penalties for anyone taking a photograph of the lighthouse.

Thus it was with the railway station in Tirana. As might be imagined, Tirana’s railway station is not large. There are no international services and what services there are tend to be something of of trial of patience for travellers. Even the most eager train buff would find it hard going.

Illicit photo of Tirana station

Illicit photo of Tirana station

The station was there, though, and there seemed no reason not to take a photo of it, if only for the sake of novelty. Little seemed to be happening, with no imminent departures or arrivals and not a passenger in sight. A couple of men lounged around, chatting over a cup of coffee and a cigarette.

It soon became apparent, however, that there was, indeed, a very good reason not to take photographs. One of the men, who may or may not have been the station-master, leapt to his feet and began to shout and wave his arms around. Not being conversant with the Albanian language, we shall never know what he was shouting, but it seemed unlikely that he was saying, “Welcome, take as many pictures as you like.”

Beware of Men in Blue Shirts

Beware of Men in Blue Shirts

Later that day, and considerably wiser, we strolled around the area known as Blloku (‘the Block’), the part of town that was sealed off to ordinary Albanians during the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha. Even now, it seemed, the area of the former president’s house was something of a no-go area. Men in black suits and dark glasses wandered menacingly. Even light inspection suggested that this was not a remake of The Blues Brothers. The Duck Holiday team kept their cameras firmly hidden away.

Lake Balaton – Dog Days

The hotel on the shores of Lake Balaton provided some of the finest views one could wish for. The hotel itself was perfectly pleasant and comfortable. Unfortunately, it also catered for dogs as well as humans.

The room next door to that occupied by the Duck Holiday team contained an Austrian family, who seemed to be perfectly affable people. It also contained a large Alsatian, who did not appear to be quite so amiable, especially when left to its own devices.

Nice view (shame about the dog)

Nice view (shame about the dog)

The Austrians (human, that is) were evidently early risers and would depart for breakfast at the earliest possible opportunity. The Duck Holiday team, while happy to start quite early in the day, prefer to linger in bed just a little longer than such enthusiasts. The problem was that the dog took considerable umbrage at being deserted and proceeded to bark its head off while its owners were absent.

Even nicer with the sun out

Even nicer with the sun out

Such behaviour does not help those that wish to have an extra half hour’s sleep. There was little that one could do except copy the regime of our neighbours and rise somewhat earlier than was truly desirable.

One morning, during the by-now familiar barking session, one of the Duck Holiday team lost all patience. Standing directly outside the door behind which the monster lurked, she yelled, “SCHWEINHUND!”. There was silence. The dog, possibly surprised at being addressed in its own language, shut up. Naturally, the silence did not last long, but the momentary quiet was most welcome.

Vilnius – Mystery Restaurant

The guide book was very in-depth and contained an extensive list of eating establishments in the Lithuanian capital. One of these was an Indian restaurant that appeared to be of good quality. While one always seeks out something local by way of food, Duck Holiday is very partial to Indian food (one of our few boasts is that we have dined at the world’s most northerly Indian restaurant, in Reykjavik). It seemed worth a visit.

While the book did not give the precise address, it informed us that the restaurant in question was in a street named Jogailos. This street, centrally located, was not by any means long, so it appeared to be fairly straightforward. We walked up the street and failed to spot the target. We walked back down the street with much the same result. We tried up on the opposite side, then down again on that side. Nothing doing.

Spot the restaurant (no, we couldn't)

Spot the restaurant (no, we couldn’t)

A café was open and while we took a cup of coffee, we enquired of the waitress whether she knew where the restaurant was. She spoke excellent English, so there were no communication problems, but she had never heard of it. This was not encouraging. She asked a few people in the café, but it seemed that this particular restaurant was completely unknown.

Nope, still can't see it

Nope, still can’t see it

A quick check of the map revealed that there was a tourist information office not far away. The results there were similar to what we had experienced in the café. Vilnius, it, appeared, had a ghost restaurant. Ultimately, we came to the conclusion that there must, once, have been an Indian restaurant on Jogailos, but that it had closed down.

Vilnius – Amber Alert

The bar in the Old Town was surprisingly quiet. We sat outside with bottles of Utenos Porteris, a very dark Lithuanian beer. The barmaid asked what we thought of the stuff and we agreed that it was a very pleasant drop of porter, but rather strong. She picked up the bottle and looked for the strength, then shook her head. “No, this is not so strong for Lithuania” she announced. The beer was 6.8% ABV.

Like their neighbours in Poland, Lithuanians like their beer strong. A bit of hunting around and you’ll be able to find something a little less vigorous, though a 4.4% beer will probably be advertised as ‘low alcohol’. In UK terms, this is the strength of a fairly robust best bitter. Another factor is the cheapness of beer in the country. Bars are cheap and bottles from shops cost mere pennies. Care needs to be taken.

If you do get a bit wobbly of an evening, it shouldn’t mean getting lost, at least in the Old Town. The centre is not vast and orientation does not take long. It is also a glorious mishmash of architectural styles that shouldn’t fit together, but do.

The place for a great view of the city is the top of the Castle complex. There are two castles and it is the upper one, on Gediminas Hill, that is the city’s highest point. An observation platform at the top of the Gediminas Tower provides a splendid panorama. The whole complex is crammed with museums and is well worth a full morning or afternoon to explore. Below Gediminas Tower is the cathedral, a gloriously neo-classical affair.

View from Gediminas Tower

View from Gediminas Tower

 It’s difficult to go very far in Vilnius without bumping into Gediminas in some form. He was a 14th Grand Duke of Lithuania who is regarded as both the founder of the Lithuanian state and the city of Vilnius. Gediminas Square is at the heart of the Old Town.

Churches in particular provide an example of the architectural contrasts of the city, with the resolutely Gothic St Anne’s church, the neo-classical cathedral and the beautiful Baroque St Peter and St Paul’s vying for attention. St. Michael and St. Constantine is a wonderful example of the Orthodox Church, with its bright green onion domes quite unmistakable. The modestly-named Church of the Apparition of the Holy Mother of God is another Orthodox building, an even more lavish neo-Byzantine affair that stands majestically across the River Neris from the Old Town.

Church of the Holy Spook (okay, Apparition)

Church of the Holy Spook (okay, Apparition)

Like many former Soviet areas, Vilnius has its share of ghastly buildings and one particularly choice example is Seimas Palace, home to the Lithuanian Parliament. Built in the 1970s, it has all of the stunningly good taste associated with that decade. The style, if such a term can be applied, is an abysmal attempt at modern classical and surely takes the award for the most hideous public building in Vilnius. It’s worth seeing just for that reason.

There is plenty to do in Vilnius, but if you’re staying for a few days, a trip outside of the capital is easy enough. Trains are not expensive and the second city of Kaunas is only a couple of hours away. We took the shorter trip to Trakai, which takes around 40 minutes and costs almost nothing. It’s also fun to experience the journey on a train that may lack comforts, but is incredibly cheap. Climbing up into a carriage from the almost non-existent platforms is also a pleasure that feels like it should be photographed in black and white. Another thing that pleases those of us beset with health and safety obsessives is the way one can nonchalantly saunter across the railway lines.

We walked into the station in the rain...

We walked into the station in the rain…

Trakai National Park comprises the area of several lakes and the town of Trakai, Lithuania’s medieval capital. Trakai houses two castles and various museums and is all a bit touristy, but the area is beautiful and there are plenty of places for a peaceful walk and quiet contemplation, not to mention some birdwatching.

Castles that are fairytales...

Castles that are fairytales…

Vilnius makes for an excellent city break of three or fours days. Mid-summer can get a bit hot and winters can be a bit cold, but can make for a very picturesque scene with snow on the ground. It’s not an expensive place to eat and drink, and it should be simple enough to find inexpensive accommodation. The City Gate is a splendid little hotel across from the Gate of Dawn, the only remaining gate to the city of Vilnius. The hotel has only about 10 rooms, but it’s a friendly and welcoming place with a pleasant restaurant. There is a decent pub next door and a brief stroll takes you right into the Old Town.

On the other side of the Gate of Dawn, you’ll find amber. You’ll find lots of amber. In fact, you’ll hardly be able to move for amber. Amber, many may be surprised to know, is not always the colour of, erm, amber. Lithuania seems to specialise in white amber. There is, inevitable, something of an overload towards souvenirs, but it’s not all tat and the Amber Museum-Gallery is a good place to see what amber is all about. Just make sure to go to the pub afterwards and not beforehand.