Sunday, December 21, 2008

Day 101: Vilnius, Lithuania

What's nice is that even with inflation, some prices are too good to be true. Take the price of my ticket to Vilnius, Lithuania, for example. From the Belarusian capital of Minsk to Lithuania's baroque capital, Vilnius, a ticket nowadays costs only $8 for the 185-kilometer (115-mile) journey. Unfortunately, due to the speed of the antiquated trains, and also because of the numerous stops along the way as well as customs and border checks, the journey takes about four-and-a-half hours. However, for $8 that is still a bargain, especially since two years ago this ticket was $7. With the dollar being up in both Lithuania and Belarus, perhaps this price will keep falling (in dollar terms) in the future.

Vilnius, and Lithuania as a whole, is an interesting place. Due to the country's tumultuous history, nowadays Polish, Russian, and Lithuanian are heard on the street and all three languages are understood. Lithuanian itself is a captivating language and a mystery for linguists, who study it with passion, as it is the language alive today that is most similar to ancient sanskrit. As a new European Union member, Lithuania is still one of the poorest member states of the 27-member bloc, but that results in lower prices. And with one of the most beautiful -- and largest -- Old Towns in Eastern Europe (the second largest, actually, after Prague), it is definitely well worth a visit. As for me, I only stayed in Vilnius one night, for I have been here before numerous times, most recently back in January on a group trip with friends that turned out disastruous just about here (read below).

However, it is best to go in the summer to this part of Europe, since it gets excruciatingly cold in the winters, though coming here at any time of the year is no longer a problem, with Lithuania having joined the EU and the subsequent proliferation of low-cost airlines, such as RyanAir, which fly to nearby Kaunas, Lithuania's second city.

Whatever you do in quirky Vilnius, though, do not go to Zemaicai restuarant and order a piglet under any circumstances, as we ended up doing on my initiative back in January. In "we" I mean me and my nine friends, who ended up coming to Lithuania and pre-ordering a piglet that my Lonely Planet guidebook told me cost about $65 and feeds four/five. Well, the actual cost ended up being some three times higher for the piglet alone, thereby making Lithuania, which was to be our cheapest destination on the trip, our most expensive. And this could not have come at a worst time, for it was the last several days of our two-week journey and just about everyone was low on money, if not completely broke. In any case, this guaranteed that everyone would be broke henceforth. So, for the record, be sure to take the prices in Lonely Planet's Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania book with a grain of salt.

Luckily, I avoided the piglet trap this time around. With its cobblestone streets and warmer temperature then at this time last year, Vilnius was a more pleasant experience--especially now that I was coming here from the East (Russia or Belarus) rather than the West (Germany, for example). It's always better to come to Lithuania from a country that's even poorer, since it looks rich in comparison, so coming from Belarus is an excellent choice. If last year I was surprised by how poor Lithuania looked even after Berlin, which is by far not one of Europe's richest capital cities, I was pleasantly surprised by how civilized and relatively rich it looked after Minsk.

The one low point of my visit here this time around, though, were the ubiquitous signs of the credit crunch and, worse, a faltering domestic economy. With the global financiasl crisis exacerbating, I noticed how Hansa Bank, one of the Baltic States' most common banks, was now gone. In its place was Swed Bank, which, apparently, bought Hansa Bank out. And while talking with my relatives in Vilnius, much of the conversation focused on lamenting about the dire economic conditions of the day: how no one's job is secure anymore, how the excellent growth has ended, how inflation isn't abating much, etc. Quite a dire status quo, especially if comparing it to Lithuania's economic indictators back in January, when, generally speaking, things were looking fairly bright.

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