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Brief History - Getting There and In - Food and Drink
Various Useful Facts

Brief History

Over the past 1000 years or so Lithuania has been part of the vast Kingdom of Poland-Lithuania, part of Prussia (bits of it at any rate), part of the Russian Tsarist Empire , and between the wars was briefly independent. It was subsequently snapped up again by the Soviet Union, briefly taken by the Nazis (which is why the Nazis were seen in Lithuania as " liberators" , and why there were so many Lithuanians fighting for the Nazis). After the war the borders of Russia, Lithuania, Poland and Germany were all shifted to the West, meaning that many parts of present day Lithuania were previously parts of Poland (including the capitol, Vilnius), and many parts of preWar Lithuania are now in Belarus and Russia. Lithuania was once again absorbed into the Soviet Union, only regaining its independence when the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union disintegrated.

Getting There and In

There are direct flights from Gatwick to Vilnius on Lithuanian Airlines, and many other European carriers offer transfer connections (including SAS Scandinavian, Czech Airlines, and LOT). The cheapest return flights on Lithuanian Airlines start from around 200, if you shop around on the Internet though you might be able to find cheaper transfer connections. I really wouldn't try getting there by road or rail unless you're planning on visiting somewhere else on the way as it's a hellishly long journey.

As of 1st May 2004 Lithuania is a member of the European Union (EU) which means that there are no restrictions on passport holders of other EU countries staying, living, and working in the Lithuania. At the airport or border they'll just examine your passport and wave you through without stamping it, and probably without speaking to you.

Passport holders of other countries will still get their passports stamped, and may be asked to provide evidence of a return ticket or that they have sufficient funds for their stay. This is unlikely though. It's always a good idea to contact the Lithuania in your home country to check that you don't need to obtain a visa prior to your arrival.

Food and Drink

Lithuanian food is heavily influenced by neighbouring Russia and Poland, so cabbages, potato and beetroot are abundant, usually served up with pork. Try the cold, creamy beetroot soup, very refreshing and usually served with boiled potatoes or eggs. If Lithuania has a national dish it is "Zeppelins", large, air-balloon shaped (hence the name) parcels of potato dough, stuffed with either meat or cheese, and covered with either bacon and/or a sauce. They're certainly unique in world cuisine, but are fairly tasty if extremely filling. There are a few restaurants that serve exclusively Lithuanian food, but most places will have a few Lithuanian dishes as well as more standard food; steak, pasta, pizza, etc. Pizza seems to be very popular in Lithuania and there are many dedicated pizza restaurants (try Bambolo in Klaipeda for combinations of toppings you couldn't even begin to imagine). If you're after more "exotic" stuff most of the big cities will have the standard ranges of world cuisines, Indian, Chinese and the like, as well as some more unusual ones like Polish or Armenian. Lithuanian restaurants are good value for money; if you avoid the tourist traps you should never have to pay more than 5 for a good meal.

McDonalds have now spread their insidious influence to Lithuania. They aren't widespread yet, but you should be warned that they are there!

Lithuanian beer is pretty good stuff; Czech-style lagers are most common, but some breweries do dark beers as well. The lager is stronger than those you'll find in the UK, but happily you seem to be able to drink as much as you like and not suffer from a hangover (probably because the beer is fairly pure, and not pumped full of chemicals). All bars served beer on draught. Depending on where you drink half a litre will cost between 40 and 80p. Imported beers are available in touristy bars, but are more expensive than the local stuff, and is usually not on draught so you may as well stick to the local brew.

Spirits are popular in Lithuania, vodka especially so, and there are some reasonable vodkas distilled in Lithuania. Another drink that you may encounter is Lithuanian mead, made from honey and which only recently begun to made again, based on traditional recipes. It comes in a wide variety of colours and flavours, and as it comes in small bottles with pretty pictures of Lithuania on them it makes a popular present to bring back. Having had a couple of the stuff I can confirm that it is drinkable, although its sweet flavour means that I doubt you could drink too much of the stuff before throwing up. It warms you up nicely in cold weather though, and does a respectable job of clearing blocked sinuses.

Cheap but reasonable wine is available, most of the good stuff being imported from the former Soviet Republic of Moldova. Decent "champagne" (well, sparkling wine anyway) will set you back 3 to 4 for a bottle.

Various Useful Facts

The main language is, not surprisingly, Lithuanian, which is fiendishly difficult to learn and pronounce (although at least it's mostly written in the Latin rather than the Cyrillic alphabet). Most older Lithuanians also speak Russian but remember that this is because they had to learn it when Lithuania was still part of the Soviet Union, so although many Lithuanians know how to speak Russian many have no desire to use it. Always ask whether it's OK before trying to speak to someone in Russian. Other common second languages spoken in Lithuania are German and English. Most big hotels will have someone who speaks English, as will most bars and restaurants in the big cities. Away from these places you might have some problems, but nothing that you shouldn't be able to overcome with the help of a guidebook and resorting to hand signals.

Lithuania's currency is the Litu (plural, litas). It's freely convertible, which means there aren't any restrictions on exchanging it, or how much you can bring in or out of Lithuania. As it's freely convertible in theory you should be able to exchange it once you get back to the UK. In practice it doesn't work like this, and I spent a happy afternoon trudging round the banks and bureaux de change of London trying to get rid of over 100 worth of the damned things that I'd brought back with me without success. Incidentally, I was advised by Thomas Cook that I should take Deutchmarks to Lithuania; let me say that there is absolutely no point in doing this. Every shop, hotel, restaurant and bar that I went in took Lithuanian litas only, and I seriously doubt that I would have been offered advantageous prices anywhere had I offered to pay in any other currency. There are plenty of bureaux de change in Lithuania, but you' ll get a better rate of exchange and lower commission charges if you use banks instead. That said the easiest way to get money out is through cash machines. These are also plentiful throughout Lithuania and you can get cash advances on your credit cards, or on a Cirrus card from these. Most Hotels in Lithuania, and most shops and restaurants in the cities accept credit cards, and some will take Maestro as well.

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