I know I said I was only visiting one country on this trip, but as you’ve read I went to Belarus and now today I’m heading off to Lithuania. I wasn’t really lying though because both of these countries were once a part of Poland – parts from which my family were living prior to the outbreak of World War 2.
So what is the reason for the jaunt to Lithuania? Lithuania, and in particular the city of Vilnius, is the last known address of my Dziadek (grandfather) before the war came and disrupted life for everyone. This trip presented a unique opportunity to pop across the border and try to get a sense of what might have happened to Krzysztof Lukasik.
My flight to Vilnius took just over an hour, Vilnius International Airport a fairly small, quiet, clean little airport. I disembarked and followed the well signposted pathway to the airport train, which would take me to the city centre in around 9 minutes. It was a funny little setup, where you walk down a path almost into what feels like a meadow, catching an elevator (or taking the stairs) down to a platform which contains a bench or two and not much else. Kind of like catching a train in the countryside! You buy your tickets on board from the conductor.
My hotel, the City Gate Hotel, was a short walk from the train station. It was around 9am in the morning, so it felt a little confronting to see not one, but two or three gents stumbling around, black eyes, blood on their faces, clearly still drunk from the night before. I kept moving, tightening the grip on my bags somewhat.
I chose the hotel because it was across the road from the building where Krzysztof had been living in 1939. Thanks to a Facebook Group, I had been able to track down the exact building, which had been renumbered since the days before World War 2. So once I had checked in, and dumped my bags, I headed straight out across the road to explore.
I have no idea really what Krzysztof was doing here in Wilno, present day Vilnius. He was born in Warsaw in 1916, but it was from here that he was arrested by Stalin’s notorious NKVD – the forerunner to the KGB -and imprisioned for just over a year until the Amnesty which meant the release of Poles from Soviet prisons and work camps.
I can’t explain what it feels like to stand in front of this now derelict building, knowing that Krzsztof walked in and out of these doors; stepped out onto this street; looked out of these windows. What would be here in another year? An empty site? Or a newly renovated iteration of this building? Who knows.
Standing here outside this building, I will his story to somehow come to me, lead me to hidden clues and unveil some more of his story. But nothing comes, I’ll have to go looking myself.
Beacuase I’ve arrived in Vilnius early in the morning, I have a full day to explore the streets of Vilnius which are gritty and interspersed with interesting street art. I drop my backpack off at the hotel and head out to explore.
Outside the Hales Turgus, local women selling all sorts of home produced goods, sit chatting amongst themselves, their array of goods in front of them proppoed on baskes, boxes and plastic crates.
The Hales Turgus is the oldest operating market in Vilnius. Built in 1906, it was known as the Grain Market, but in 1914, it became the Hales Turgus and the name has continued ever since. It contains all the great things markets are known for.
Back along Baziliyonu Street, you will find something else that all the tourists flock to – the Gates of Dawn. Every day, hordes of tourists come to stand underneath the gates to admire what is the last surviving gate of the city’s defensive walls.
I walk past the gates and down around the old town, wandering the streets past old ruins and ruined old buildings. There’s a certain charm in Vilnius’ cobblestoned streets which is hard to resist.
I don’t really know where I am going today, literally just wandering; something I don’t do much of. I really just want to get a feel of the place.
I end up along Gediminos Avenue right around lunch time and decide to eat lunch at La Crepe. I order the most amazing whole wheat blini crepes with chicken and tomato. They are amazing, especially with a couple of glasses of white wine and some sunshine.
I wander in and out of shops and stop to take photos, wondering how Krzysztof would have spent his days here. Before long, I find myself in charming Pilies Street, which all the tourist brochures rave about. And it is charming but I have walked and walked and walked today and the sky is clouding over.
Feeling like I can walk no more, I retreat to my hotel with a foot mask and a bottle of wine to watch some Lithuanian TV music specials before gathering the strength to go out in search of dinner. Pilies Street can wait.
I didn’t have to go far to find a quaint little place, just outside the Gates of Dawn in fact. Named after the castle nearby, Medininkai serves up what is supposed to be Vilnius best traditional food. So I order the Cepelinai and a glass of local wine and sit back to enjoy the evening. Cepelinai are huge potato dumplings filled with beef and smothered in a creamy, bacon littered sauce. They are very yummy and the perfect meal for a cool evening.
I wander back to my hotel as the sky starts to darken and think about tomorrow. There’s something dark in Vilnius’ history that I want to tackle.