As it turned out, all the rooms were good and Lithuanian food is just plain delicious.
Choosing hotels, bed-and-breakfasts, gîtes/self-catering apartments is something of a crap shoot. You start with the essentials: parking and free Internet. You move on to the important features: the location and configuration of the bathroom, the type of bed, conveniences such as refrigerators. You Google the address to get a better sense of the neighborhood. You make superficial judgments about the quality of the establishment based on the décor evident in the pictures. For that matter, you make superficial judgments about the quality of the establishment based on the quantity and variety of pictures. Finally you decide whether the cost is reasonable, and if it is, you hope like heck you can get a reservation.
If there is a hotel lottery, we may have hit the travel jackpot.
The rooms were not identical in comforts and costs but each was perfect in its own way.
Nemunas Tour, Ringaudai (near Kaunas), May 15-18: I read somewhere the comment that “this just might be the best bed-and-breakfast in Lithuania” and it must be true. Jurgis and Danute combine backgrounds in business and horticulture and a luminous affection for guests to create a guesthouse that is comfortable, efficiently run, and joyous in spirit. And the rooms are, in my opinion, underpriced.
A hedge of lavender, purple and white lilacs perfume the house in spring and hide a Secret Garden of a yard, a place with fruit trees and flowers and greenhouse and view over the adjacent fields. Danute is a marvelous cook and no one makes a better pancake. Her breakfasts are simply works of art, dishes of cucumber, tomato, cheeses, meats and pickles on plates decorated with herbs and fresh flowers. She bakes her own bread, serves her sister’s homemade farm cheese, and her papa’s ham. Bus 56 that runs into Kaunas stops across the street, but parking is plentiful and cheap in the city, too.
Danute was happy to let me use the washing machine—in fact she offered to do the washing for me. I like hanging clothes on the line, though, and a warm breezy day left them fresh in a way that just doesn’t happen when you use a dryer.
The Timejas truckstop by the on-ramp to 130 (a three-minute drive, a ten-minute walk) is open twenty-four hours a day. It may not have offered the best food we ate but the servers were lovely young women, the portions were ample, and everything tasted good. Lunch at Pizza Jazz on Laisvės gatvė has excellent salads. Bernėlių Užeiga, M. Valančiaus g. 9 in Old Town, was the best: sausages and sauerkraut, meaty stuffed cabbage leaves. Everything everywhere was always washed down with good Lithuanian beer.
We were sad to leave Nemunas and Jurgis said if we were not happy with our next place to turn around and come right back. If we had not been happy, I think we would have done just that.
Romove Homestead, Vazgaikiemo k., Balbieriškio seniūnija (near Prienai), May 19-20: Why Americans are not flocking to this place is beyond me, especially given the extremely reasonable cost, which was something like 140 euros or 400-something Litas for two nights. Each individual villa has a kitchen and enormous glass doors and windows provide views over lawns, ponds and woods. Cuckoos go cuckoo and storks take gracefully to the air after breakfast of frogs and other small critters. Okay, the furnishings are more stylish than comfortable, and the pull-out bed squeaks with every twitch. Oh and while there was no shortage of outlets, the only one that worked was over by the television and inconvenient given that the Internet required a cord connected to the telephone. Still, the place felt brand-spanking new and unused and oh-my-gawd the serenity of this place!
My fantasy would be a two-week stay here with riding lessons three times a week and regular visits to the spa. I’m guessing there’s a golf course not all that far away—not that I personally play golf you understand—and Kaunas and Vilnius (north and north-east respectively) and Druskininkai (south) are all close enough for day trips so there is plenty to do in terms of conventional tourism. Did I mention that this place was quiet, peaceful, simply Edenic? May I say again that this place is quiet, peaceful and simply Edenic.
Breakfast buffet was available at the Hotel Simboly a kilometer distant, but we had our own supply of bread, butter, cheese, meat, oranges and tea, and besides, who wants to leave the Garden of Eden.
Naglis Hotel, Naglių 12, Nida, Neringa (on the Curonian Spit),May 21-22: It was a funky little apartment in a quaint little town whose only raison d’être is tourism but it was just right. The bed linens weren’t quite what we might have wanted—the bottom sheet was harsh and scratchy so I used the individual duvets to cover it and we slept under the lightweight coverlet which, as it turned out, was all we needed. We might have dined al fresco on the little table on our own little terrace, but the Spit swarms with gnats and especially with mosquitoes that encrust the window screens and sills each evening and are swept away by industrious housewives each morning. I forget what we paid but I remember it seemed like very good deal, indeed.
This is also the moment when my passport got washed. Once again we were almost out of clean clothes. It had been a long drive and I was sweaty and dirty. I checked in at the office, went back to our room to change so my jeans could go into the laundry, handed over the laundry bag, and discovered a few hours later that I had left my passport in a pocket. Ah but that was an adventure of its own.
Most of the tourist attractions are in Nida, a few are in Juodkrantė and the Baltic beach runs from one end of the spit to the other. We never saw a deer. I wanted to see one of the wild pigs, and on the way out a dark furry creature burst from a bracken thicket on the right and cantered across the road and disappeared. My Dear One insists that it was a pig and that he got a good look. He may well be right. I thought I got a fair look at it and my first thought was, “Is that a raccoon?” Raccoon dogs have in fact been introduced from their native Asia to eastern Europe and thrive in the Baltic states (although there is an ongoing attempt to eradicate them). Neringan wild pigs are apparently friendly and sociable; raccoon dogs are skittish. I think we saw a raccoon dog.
Once again we made our own breakfast and lunch. Our first night we had fish at a restaurant at the southern end of the town: meh, it wasn’t much. Our second night we feasted on žuvys we bought from an old woman in a little roadside stand in Juodkrantė. It was a big meaty piece of smoked fish, as sweet and tender as butter, perfect with a side of cabbage, celery and cucumber slaw from the Maxima store. (We bought another kind of fish from the žuvis lady, too, something that resembled red snapper, and ate it three days later in Vilnius. It was also delicious but not the same spectacular taste and texture.)
Hotel Rinno, Vingriu g. 25, Old Town Vilnius, May 23-25: It wasn’t so much as saving the best for last as making sure that the final hotel was central enough that we could return the car to the Vilnius Airport rental once we had checked in. I knew we wouldn’t need it and I was dubious about my ability to drive and find my way back into the rental lot at five or five-thirty in the morning. The bed was extremely comfortable and had bright lights on the side tables. (Decent reading lights seem to be a problem no matter where we go.) No complaints at all about the bathroom and Zita made sure we had plenty of breakfast and exactly the breakfast we wanted.
The cost? I don’t remember. Clearly not enough to make me feel extravagant.
The first night we looked through a restaurant guide and found a place not too far away that served dumplings, Kolduninė, Saviciaus g. 6, Old Town Vilnius. It sounded perfect. A pleasant stroll took us past St. Casimir’s and the Town Hall and down a tiny side street and—Kolduninė was closed. Aaack! Turned out I read the hours wrong in the guide. We backtracked, figuring any one of the multitude of places we could see would do. They were all noisy, though, and too close to street traffic, to we backtracked to a pocket-sized park where we had seen a playground and a bar. There we got local beers, a plate of beef sausage from a particular farm in the Rasenai district, and a meat turnover. In fact, it was all we wanted and a very friendly black pug got several bites of sausage. (My Dear One cannot resist those soulful eyes.)
We returned to Kolduninė the next day at noon, and yes, it was every bit as wonderful as we thought it might be. It didn’t serve beer, but we had a glass of wine and then my Dear One ordered a kvass (in Lithuanian, gira), an effervescent not-quite-near-beer made from old dried bits of rye bread and water. The closest I can come to describing it is to say it is like fizzy gingerbread with a soupçon of yeast. Yum! We both wanted mushrooms but mushrooms are a fall thing, so he started with bright pink šaltibarščiai (theirs is better than the bowl served at Timejas—and not quite like the one my Dear One makes us at home) and I with a “cold vegetable salad” which turned out to be lettuce, sliced radishes, diced red pepper, toasted sunflower seeds and a drizzle of basalmic reduction. Then came boiled dumplings stuffed with potato and bacon over which we slathered sour cream.
Before this trip I wasn’t a particular fan of sour cream. A person can change though, especially when sour creams tastes the way it does in Lithuania.
Absent from this litany are the many cups of coffee (uniformly excellent) and miscellaneous pastries (none bad, some superior) we had. The little restaurant near the entrance to Grūtas Park served a good pepper soup and fantastic “pig neck bones” which turned out to be grilled and succulent pork kebab. Items from the Maxima grocery deli aren’t half-bad, either.
As an evaluation sheet might ask, “Would you recommend these places to your friends?”
Yes I would, I certainly would.