Smith Clan Reunited in Vilnius- June 26

So just a bit after midnight Dave and Lauren arrived in Vilnius.  Tauck was tracking their travel and had a driver at the airport.  I was expecting them earlier (Dave was in the wrong timezone when he gave me their arrival time Lol)  Also on their flight from Madison-Chicago-Frankfurt-Vilnuis was couple from Middleton, Art and Jean.  Art and Jean are also on our tour and they too were coming in a day early.  This is the first time we have had other Sconies on our Tauck tours.  Typically it is East Coasters with a few Californians.  Usually we may get one or two people from the suburbs of Chicago but this is the first time we have ever had someone from Wisconsin let alone Middleton! Tauck is a family company started in 1925 that is based in Connecticut and is primarily marketed through word of mouth thus the big east coast following.  Tomorrow night we will meet the rest of out group at a welcome reception and dinner.

Morning came way to soon even though we slept in and had a late breakfast at 10:30.  Because we booked an extra day in Vilnius we have the whole day free before our welcome dinner tonight with our Tauck Tour Group. First stop was to hit the bank to get more Lits the local currency. Lithuania and Latvia EU member states but have yet to change to the euro. They are in the process of moving to the Euro and in many stores the price is in Lits and Euro.

St Casimir's church and Jesuit monastery.

Reunited after almost three weeks apart in front of St Casimir’s church and Jesuit monastery in Old Town.

The bank was on the town square and which is the center of Old Town.  The old town is beautiful with cobble stone streets, most buildings and churches are in a baroque style of architecture with an occasional gothic or Russian Orthodox Church mixed in.  Speaking of churches there are many in the old town which I found surprising.  Lithuania was Soviet occupied for over fifty years and religion was at best repressed, also Lithuania was the last pagan country in Europe. Unfortunately like almost all of Europe the once thriving  Jewish population was decimated during WWII and only one Synagogue, Pylimo, remains.  Vilnius had over 100 synagogues and was once known as the “Jerusalem of Lithuania”.

We started walking down one of the main streets to show Lauren and Dave the places we have been and specially where we ate the first night.  As we walked along you can see a tower on a very steep hill at the end of the street.

Looking down the Streets of Old Town to the Tower on Castle Hill

Looking down the Streets of Old Town to the Tower on Castle Hill

This tower is the remaining part of the upper castle.  As we approached there was a park with lots of large trees and a paths that wraps around and up the very very steep hill. We walked up and it was a serious work out.  Lauren on the way up Castle HillWe found that on the other side of the hill there is a tram to the top of the hill, but where’s the fun in that right… No matter how you get up it is worth it.  The view is incredible.

view of Old Town from the tower on Castle Hill

view of Old Town from the tower on Castle Hill

Old Town with the hundreds of church steeples the more modern town ( from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s) and the truly modern from the soviet era.

Modern city across the river.

Modern city across the river.

The river is the real dividing line between old and really old and the new and you can really appreciate this divid from the vantage  point on this hill.  Also I felt the significance for the strategic placement of this tower with the river below any invasions would be easily visible from this place.  If walking up seemed difficult going down might have been more treacherous as the hill was very steep and you are walking on big cobblestones.  After walking down the hill we went looking for the Vilnius University which was started in 1579 by the Jesuits.  St. John’s church with the beautiful tower Jordan and I had eaten by our first night in Vilnius in on the Campus.  On our walk from the hill past St. Anne’s the gothic church which Napoleon said was so beautiful that he wanted to carry it back to Paris in the palm of his hand.

Gothic Church

St Anne’s Catholic Church in the Gothic Style

While walking and yes we were a little lost we found a fun side street with artistic tiles that represent important people in the history of Lithuania,  it was sunny and pleasant out and there was a cute cafe where we had lunch. J & I had gazpacho.  Lauren had a vegetable soup and Dave had a caprese salad. One of the great joys of traveling for me is the food and when you can eat outside in such a picturesque setting that to me is perfection.

Small artworks, dedications mounted on the walls.  Dedications to the literature workers:writers, translators, everyone who has links to Lithuania and is important for Lithuanian or world literature.

Small artworks, dedications mounted on the walls. Dedications to the literature workers:writers, translators, everyone who has links to Lithuania and is important for Lithuanian or world literature.

Lauren helps her visually impaired (old) Man read the menu at a cafe on Literatu Street

Lauren helps her visually impaired (old) Man read the menu at a cafe on Literatu Street

While we were waiting for our food a cat walked right by my feet.  I picked the cat up thinking this will be a surprise but really the cat didn’t like me at all and I had to wrangle the cat to keep it on my lap long enough for Lauren to notice.  Everyone was pretty shocked to see the cat, and it quickly ran off as soon as I let it go.  After lunch we made our way towards the Vilnius University.  As we were walking along the streets towards the  University I kept seeing people carrying flowers,  lots of flowers,  beautiful beautiful arrangements of flowers and I was wondering why.  Apparently it’s quite common for the people in Vilnius to get flowers for almost every occasion. Either you buy them at the  market or grab wildflowers from your own garden.  We found the University and went to the bookstore which  had a beautiful painted ceiling which reminded me of the Strahov Monastery Library in Prague.

Vilnius University Bookstore

Vilnius University Bookstore Doesn’t Jordan look thrilled to be wearing that hat!

I love libraries and I would love to have that in my own home.  After the bookstore we walked out and we could hear beautiful music coming from the St. John’s Church which is a part of Vilnius University so we peeked our heads in and saw all the students in caps and gowns.

St. John's Church at Vinius University

St. John’s Church at Vinius University

Graduation Ceremony Inside St. John's Church at Vilnius University

Graduation Ceremony Inside St. John’s Church at Vilnius University

It was graduation which explained all the dressed up people with flowers.  We made our way back to the hotel popping in every interesting store that we passed along the the way.  In the Evening we had out Tauck Welcome Dinner at the Astorija hotel.  The food and drinks were fabulous.  During the Cocktail hour our Tauck director Anne Marie had us all introduce ourselves and answer an ice breaker question.  Usually on past trips the question is “how many Tauck trips have you been on?” this tour the question was  “Where would you take people if they came to visit you in your hometown?”  It had to be one place and of course the New Yorkers had trouble just picking one place.  It was a great question and now  I have lots of new places I would like to see in NY and DC especially.  Our group consists of 38 people and my kids were not surprised that they not only were the youngest on the trip, but that the next youngest people were there parents.  This is typical of the Tauck Tours we have been on with the exception of the Tauck Bridges Tours which are almost half kids aged 8-18.  The Bridges tours are wonderful and extra fun for kids but as of right now they do not go to the more offbeat locations that we want to go. Our last tour was mostly retired people and the kids made lots of “older” friends and I am hoping that will be the case this trip.  During dinner we sat with Jules and Margie, doctors from Merion Station PA, and Albert and Bonnie from Northbrook,  Il.  Merion Station is where the US open was held this year so golf was the topic de jour just like at home.   No exploring after dinner, Dave and Lauren are jet lagging and  we just wanted to get to bed at a decent hour since we have lots planed for tomorrow.

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Dropped the Ball

Oh the best laid plans…. Yes I started this blog and then the day our tour started I couldn’t keep up. Yes I have some excuses like the wifi was poor and It was too much to transfer photos from my camera to web based storage and then upload to the blog Adding to my difficulties we were up every night till at least midnight and started our mornings at about 7am. The blog was the first thing to suffer. I did journal on my ipad during bus, ferry, train and plane rides but never was able to finish a whole day let alone upload it with photos I was taking. So I came home with over a thousand photos and 17 days of notes and partial journals. It is my plan now to compile that into some sort of keepsake of our trip. A digital scrapbook of sorts. Today is exactly two months since the first full day the whole Smith Clan was in Vilnius so I will start with posting my journal from the 26th of July and attempt to add one a day.

My goal:   Approach the start of each day with one goal and end the day with one word: DONE!

Waiting for D & L

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Dave and Lauren flew out of Madison on Monday morning and had everything gone smoothly they would have been here this (Tuesday) afternoon. Alas they were flying from o’hare and it did not go smoothly. From the few texts I got in the middle of the night here, they had initially a 15min delay, which became what is know in the industry as a creeping delay. Fifteen minutes turns to fourth-five which turns into an hour which turns into many hours. Apparently they even boarded the plane at one point and spent 2 hours on the tarmac only to come back to the gate and switch planes. This meant they would not make their connection in Frankfurt and they were hoping to get on the last flight to Vilnius due to get in at 10:45pm. As I type this it is 10:30 and I am waiting in the lobby hoping they will be here in about an hour. I am sure they are exhausted!

When J and I returned from our laundry adventure he needed to spend some time journaling his Spain trip and uploading pictures and I took the time to blog and just cool down. It was 83 today which was very comfortable if you were sitting in the shade at a sidewalk cafe but was very warm in the un-air conditioned steamy laundromat and the very hot full trolley. After cooling down and journaling we went out again in the Old Town which was much busier than last night (Sunday). We found another sidewalk cafe this one right on the Town Hall Square. Tonight j & I both had a chicken Kiev with a fruit in a sauce and potato balls which were just like the French potato croquettes. All delicious and again some very fun people watching. This time we had the added bonus of many very high end cars driving by. Definitely the place to see and be seen in Vilnius. For desert Jordan had remembered our hotel has creme brûlée and also a nice side walk cafe on the other side of the square so we changed venues and while walking Jordan was stung by a bee. Snagged some choice seats and were just in time to see hot air balloons coming over the St. Casimirs Church. There were at least 6 balloons and a perfect clean night. It was 9pm and still the sun was up. I really enjoy the long day in the evening. In the morning not so much. Jordan went to his room where I hope he is getting some sleep and I am hoping my hubby and girl walk in the hotel soon!

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When we traveled to Poland a few years ago our hotel was next door to the home of the Polish President this time in Vilnius our hotel is right next to the Turkish embassy.

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Achoo actually aciu.

Whenever I travel I try to learn a few key phases. Thank you is definitely the first words I learn believe me I need it. I encounter so many helpful people and the very least that I can do is say thank you in their native language. In Lithuanian “Thank You” is Aciu and it sounds like achoo, like you are sneezing and I must admit I feel a little silly sounding like I am sneezing to show my gratitude. I have been sneezing a lot.

Jordan and I arrived yesterday afternoon after smooth flights from Portugal to Brussels and then into Vilnius. Tauck had a woman at the airport to meet us, help us get Lats (local currency) and introduced us to our driver. Our drive from the airport was short about 15 minutes and we passed many old cement style apartments as well as older wooden homes in traditional Latvian style. As we approached the Old Town Center where our hotel is located we saw many stucco style building and everywhere there is a lot of graffiti. Check in was smooth and Jordan’s room is huge about the size of two rooms with 15 foot ceilings and a wall of windows. My room is smaller with the same high ceilings.

In the evening it was raining lightly but Jordan and I decided to explore and we kind of just happen to end up on a street facing a church and there were lots of sidewalk cafes with the awnings out. We looked at menus and ended up at a fabulous cafe at the 5 star boutique hotel Narutis. the inside was gorgeous it was designed by the French interior designer Anne Toulous, but the outside cafe looks out on the St. John church so we opted to sit outside. Still raining a bit it was cozy under the awning and fun to people watch especially the dressed up women in their 4 inch heels on the cobblestone street. Both Jordan and I ordered the stroganoff. It was delicious, the Paprika was definitely not McCormicks, it was wonderful and reminded me of Budapest. For desert Jordan had a version of Apple Pie and I had Ice Cream with melted Chocolate. So good. I wasnt brave enough to try the vodka with my jet lag but it was at almost every table around us. It was the beverage of choice like beer in Wisconsin or wine with dinner everywhere else in the US. On the walk back from dinner we did a little shopping. Most disturbing item was in one of the many many amber shops. It was a copy of Hitlers Mein Kampf with an amber cover…..

The rain had stopped and it was still daylight at 9:30. We were exhausted but I was awake 3 hours later and had texts from Dave and Lauren that their flight was delayed for “servicing”. Hours later and they were sitting on the plane for two hours waiting for take off. This meant that they would be missing their connecting flight in Frankfurt.:( They will hopefully get on the next flight 8 hours later getting in Vilnius at 10:45pm! Luckily they will still have tomorrow free because we booked an extra day for the four of us to recover from Jet lag and be fully rested before we start the tour. Woke up again when the sun started coming up at 4 something in the morning. Long days at this latitude. This hotel has a breakfast buffet that is similar to most Sunday brunch buffets at home and it closes at 10:30 so we had to get up at 9:30 at the latest. My alarm felt like death when it went off, I probably was in that deep rem sleep. I got up and looked in the mirror and my eyes were all puffy and swollen, quite honestly it looked like I had enjoyed lots and lots of vodka the night before. Coffee and a wonderful breakfast of fresh fruit, croissants, belinis, eggs, sausage and bacon had me feeling much better.

We had a problem. Jordan had just spent two weeks in Spain, Morrocco, and Portugal in the heat of summer and without access to Laundry. His dirty clothes bag had almost everything in it. My plan before the trip was to use the laundry service at our hotel in Vilnius. This morning I filled out the sheet and the price was in LATs and basically that is like Monopoly money to me. I totaled it up and used my converter app and almost died. The total was 1,068LT which is actually $405.95!! Just socks were 3$ a pair. I figured I had done something wrong of my app was bad and called the concierge. Unfortunately I had it right down to the penny. So I needed a plan B I asked if they had laundromats and he looked online and found four. “Any close by”. I asked. He pulled out a map and started putting dots OFF the map for all four locations. When he said one was by a University I figured that would probably be the least sketchy of the four. We got a cab 50 Lats about $20 and headed out to a very soviet style area. We were dropped off at the address building 41 which looked like a 60’s dorm building. We walked in the door by the sign that said Laundry Services and it was not a laundry it was a very old looking copy center. No one spoke any English and I was thinking oh no I just spend 20 to go out to the middle of nowhere and we have no way back and two laundry bags. Luckily when I pointed to the sign outside the building one of the men at the copy center knew what I was looking for and directed us to another door at a different part of the building.
There was a small laundry room with a counter and about four machines and two dryers. The women behind the counter knew very very little English. This is where all those years playing charades pays off. I’m sure I looked hilarious trying to explain that I needed to wash my laundry, and that I needed soap too. All the machines were in use and students kept coming in and dropping off bags but thru gestures and pointing and some writing I was able to communicate that we crazy americans came to Lithuania with our dirty clothes I showed her the hotels business card so she new where we came from and that we would stay and do our loads. We waited for the machines to become available and she asked what year in school Jordan was a student. We said 10 and she said her girl was 9. She pointed on the calendar and said her girl would be, and she wrote15, on July 2nd. I told her my girl would be 15 on, and again pointing on the calendar, June 29. She asked what Baltic states and other places we were going. I was able to show on the calendar the dates and point to Jordan and said Spain. She said “espaigne” I said “da” since she spoke three languages, Lithuanian, Polish (her mother is Polish) and Russian that they had been taught in school. She was about my age and they were a part of the USSR during her school years. She said it was 1941, and again she wrote the years on scraps of paper, when the Russian occupation started and 1990 is when they got rid of the Soviets. As the washing machines became available we put in the loads and she asked if we wanted laundry water??!? She could tell I was confused so she grabbed a container that looked like detergent and had the English word “Clean” in bold letters. So laundry water is detergent and yes we needed some. It was very steamy in the room and she pointed outside in a direction and said “cafe” and then pointed to the machine that would be done first and the time remaining 28 min. So Jordan and I walked to the door of another building and went in it looked like a dorm lobby not a cafe but lucky for us there were footprint stickers on the floor and we followed them to door and went in and there was a tiny cafe with some pastries and beverages. Jordan and I each got a coke and went to the little patio in back. This dorm backed up to a forest which was very dense and full of very tall evergreens. It reminded me of the Black Forrest. There was music at the cafe and it was current popular songs and the song “Get Lucky” by daft punk came on. Those of you who know Jordan well have heard this song many times and apparently on the Spain trip it was played at the beach dance party he went to in Estoril. So of course Jordan made a vine. Couldn’t upload it though, no Internet. Actually had there been Internet I have a translator app and we could have been communicating easily in Lithuanian. When we came back we moved laundry into dryers and stayed to talk she asked our names and we asked hers. She wrote it on a piece of paper “Kotze” I can’t even type it because of the Cyrillic alphabet. I pointed to my phone and the Facebook app. She has a Facebook and we wrote out our names but I don’t know if we will find each other because of the different alphabets. The dryers run for only 14 minutes and really got most everything dry, which is not like my machines at home which run about 50 minutes. We folded our laundry and I asked about the bus. We passed a big stop on our way in. She didn’t know what bus was, but a picture of one in my “Vilnius in your pocket” guide and she said “trolley” I said “da” and said to old town? She told us bus #2 goes to old town and drew a line on a piece of paper and said end and then drew a dot just before the end and said one. since calling a cab was going to be almost impossible to explain we decided to try the trolley and the fare was 2.5LT a person 5LTs for both of us a tenth of the cost of the cab. So we left Kotze thanking her like we had allergies. Aciu Aciu Aciu and gave her a hug before walking down thru the dorm buildings to the trolley stop and waited less than 5 minutes for the #2 and following Kotze instructions got off in the old town at the second to the last stop. Walked less than 4 blocks to the Astoria Hotel. Where we walked in proudly with our two bags of clean laundry that cost us about 95LTs. 50LTs for the cab, 40 LTS for machine use and laundry water, and 5LTs for the trolley. $36 dollars in American money and an adventure I will not forget. God bless Kotze.

Kotze

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