Lonely Planet recomends LITHUANIA

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lonelyAs of 1 January 2015, Lithuania will be one of the family…well, the Euro family at least. As the newest member of the eurozone, Lithuania will take the final step in its journey from east to west, from reluctant Soviet republic to fully fledged European nation.

When the 35 artists who launched the Reform Movement of Lithuania began their quest for independence from the Soviet Union in 1990, who knew how far it would go?

From a visitor perspective, this means travelling in Lithuania is going to get a whole lot easier, particularly when it comes to electronic payments and finding an ATM. However, it may not get cheaper – the rate of exchange for the switchover is still to be decided and some 55% of Lithuanians are nervous about what the change means for the litas in their pocket. What is guaranteed is lots of fanfare and public events to mark the occasion of the last Baltic nation joining the European common currency.

Life-changing experiences

The seaside probably isn’t the first thing that springs to mind when people think of Lithuania, but the Curonian Spit is one long line of gorgeous beaches stretching south towards Russia, backed by Europe’s largest moving sand dunes. This wasn’t always sand and marram grass – the spit was once densely forested, before the trees were felled to build boats for the Battle of Gross-Jägersdorf 1757). Today, the spit is World Heritage listed, and the most popular holiday spot in the country – to help keep it beautiful, free tickets are offered to visitors who carry 120L of rubbish away when they leave.

Then there’s lovely Vilnius, whose baroque old town – the largest in northern Europe – earned Lithuania one of its entries on the World Heritage list. Like a less cutesy and less commercial Prague, the old quarter is a warren of winding alleyways and cobbled squares flanked by curlicue-covered town-houses. Teutonic statues and occasional onion domes lend a definite Russian flavour, but there’s refreshingly little pressure to buy a furry ushanka hat.

Current craze

Love for shooting hoops runs deep in Lithuania, where basketball tournaments between Lithuanian and Soviet teams became an allegory for the greater struggles of the Cold War. ‘Eurobasket’ is consistently the most popular word entered into Lithuanian online search engines and ten former Lithuanian players have made it to the American NBA. The above-average height of Lithuanians – nearly 4cm taller than the European norm – may well have played a part.

Random facts

Mindaugas, who united Lithuania in the 13th century, was the country’s first and only monarch.

Lithuania was the first Soviet Republic to declare independence, leading the charge in 1990.

Vilnius proudly displays the world’s only statue to Frank Zappa, replacing a Communist monument that was torn down after Independence.

Most bizarre sights

Topping the list of unlikely attractions is Grūto Parkas, popularly known as Stalin World, with its statues of ‘heroic workers’ and rescued busts of Lenin and Uncle Joe, spread around a forest park guarded by gulag-style watchtowers. The theme park’s founder, mushroom-mogul Viliumas Malinauskas, insists that the park exists to make fun of Communism, but plans for Siberian-style ‘deportation’ trains to ferry tourists from Vilnius were flatly rejected by local officials!

Almost as strange is Siauliai’s Hill of Crosses, a weather-worn collection of around 100,000 crucifixes of every imaginable kind and size, groaning under the weight of rosaries and devotional offerings. The first crosses appeared here after the 1831 uprising against Russian rule, and the collection is still growing (new additions are positively encouraged).

By Joe Bindloss

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