We drove into Vilnius in the early evening after leaving Riga on the 23rd of December. It was dark and raining heavily when we arrived at our hotel, the Radisson Blu. Caroline, our five-year-old, was sick. She had moments where her eyes were clear followed then by periods of lethargy. She complained of terrible pain in her right ear. My poor baby girl—what a way to spend Christmas. Tired from our drive, we decided that we could all use some down time.
After dropping our bags, we went straight to the Sky Bar on the 22nd floor of the hotel, the “Highest Bar in Vilnius.” Admiring the bird’s-eye view of the old town and the city from our table, we drank hot chocolate and shared a lovely cheese plate. We played cards with the kids and talked about our plans for the following day, and decided our first order of business in the morning was getting Caroline to a doctor. We’d gone through all of our cold and fever medicine from home. Although we had purchased more in Latvia, we were almost out of that. It was time to get serious with some proper medication.
Later that evening we made our way down to the main restaurant for dinner. It was a large dining room with only a handful of other guests. The hotel was eerily quiet. There was a small but stocked play area adjacent to the restaurant which entertained the kids for some time as Stephen and I enjoyed each other’s company. Caroline hardly ate a thing which caused me to worry about her even more. At the moment though there was nothing we could do so after we enjoyed our dessert—a lovely cheesecake made from a local cheese, with an oat crust and sour berries over the top—we retired to our room and slept.
The next morning, our concierge was able to book Caroline an appointment at an English-speaking medical practice at 13:30. Great! That gave us time to explore the old town after breakfast.
Outside, the sun was working its way out but it was windy still. We should’ve probably stayed home but we all felt the need to at least see some of Vilnius before we would leave the next morning. Fiona, our oldest, was beginning to show signs of a head cold. It was ok, we would get through this together, one step at a time. I repeated that last sentence to myself over-and-over again.
After a brisk walk over and along the Neris River, our first stop was at the Christmas market in Cathedral Square which appeared to be only partially opened on Christmas Eve morning. There was a large, plastic Christmas tree in the square that had Santa’s work shop built into it. Perfect for visiting Santa and taking the traditional holiday photo but it was closed also. We decide to walk around Gediminas Hill to take the funicular up to the Castle Museum on top. After a long walk around the hill with tired and sick kids we were disappointed to find it closed.
Our first child meltdown of the day commenced as we tried to make our way around the remainder of the park and back to the square from which we came. We happened upon a stone path that gently made its way up the hill to the castle. We were in luck and so grateful that we had chosen to walk around the far side of the park which enabled us to find it. Although at this point the temper tantrum increased ten-fold at the idea of walking uphill. Fiona was cold and sobbing, and absolutely refused to take one more step. I took James and Caroline up the five-minute walk to reach the top while Stephen stood at the bottom of the hill to discuss our principles of sticking together, of compromise when in a group, about the reward of climbing to the top to see the view and so on. The two of them made it up the hill 10 minutes later, and as with so many struggles that seem impossible until surpassed, smiles graced their faces and the troubles were soon forgotten. The kids enjoyed climbing on the many stone walls of the castle on the hill. The view allowed us to get our bearings on the city, the old town and the location of our hotel. It was a very beautiful place.
The old town of Vilnius is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the largest old town in Eastern Europe. In most cities one could spend a portion of the day and see the old town in its entirety. Vilnius, however, felt immense with so many alleys and streets, like it just kept going. Looking back now I feel like we barely touched the surface of its many treasures. My initial thoughts were that the city was very clean and very safe. It was a mix of classic older stone homes and churches with grander buildings, like Vilnius Cathedral and the Presidential Palace.
We kept noticing a Christmas train driving through the old town. From what we could see it drove around town in a loop starting and ending at the Cathedral Square. However, each time it passed us we were nowhere near to the start. It was cute and festive, adorned by twinkling fairy lights—it looked like the perfect way to see the city with sick kids in tow. We promised to do our best to ride it.
When Stephen and Caroline set off to the doctor by car, Fiona, James and I continued to wander around. Some family members kindly gave each of our kids spending money to buy themselves something in each city we visited during the holiday and Fiona and James were ready to do some shopping. We found a shopping mall that was opened and ventured inside to find a toy shop. Our British pounds bought a lot in Lithuania and the two of them had much success in a sweet shop where they amassed a large quantity of eastern European sweeties to bring home.
The Punk Rock Doctor – by Stephen
The doctor’s office was something between a large private medical practice and a full hospital. Everyone spoke English and it was all very clean, modern and up-scale. There were no other patients waiting (remember it was Christmas Eve) and after filling out a standard medical history form, we were sent in to see the doctor. The doctor was in her early thirties with half of her head shaved, tattoos on her neck and earrings all the way around her ears. Despite her punk rock appearance, she was all business and got right to examining Caroline. She quickly diagnosed her as having an ear infection and sent us on our way to a pharmacy down the road where we picked up her antibiotics (a powder that we mixed with water).
The cost for the visit was around €50 and the antibiotics were another €10 or so. It would have been free at a state hospital, but the simplicity and quality of the private care was worth the money.
We regrouped after the doctor visit to enjoy an Italian lunch at a large restaurant in a cave-like setting in the basement of a building. It was like a maze inside with many dining rooms each having its own unique décor. There was even a cinema room with a large hot tub to sit in while enjoying the movie (naturally!). I’m sorry to say I haven’t a clue of the name of the place because it is worth a visit. It was really quiet being Christmas eve and the somewhat English-speaking proprietors doted on us and were accommodating to our special food requests.
With one last look around before returning to our car, we found more of the Christmas Market’s stalls to be open. Our little shoppers happily purchased some small toys for themselves. We took ourselves on a short driving tour to see some notable sites before heading back to our hotel. We looked for the Frank Zappa memorial but didn’t see it in the darkly lit park where it resides. Next were the Gates of Dawn and St Anne’s Church, and that concluded our sightseeing for the day.
From the hotel we phoned friends and family in the US to wish them Merry Christmas as we probably wouldn’t have mobile coverage the following day in Belarus. Our Christmas Eve dinner was at Sue’s Indian Raja, back at Cathedral Square. The dinner was delicious, but, sadly, the mood within our group was sour. Sickness and a week of traveling closely together was wearing on everyone. There were a lot of sibling arguments followed by pouting. We tried to start conversation and a card game but all attempts to lighten the atmosphere were halted. We needed a change of scenery.
While dining we noticed that people were filing in to the cathedral across the street in a steady flow. We guessed there was going to be a service and hopefully carolling. That was sure to brighten everyone’s mood, so we went to check it out. We noticed on our way across the square that the Christmas train had concluded for the day. We’d missed it, but the bustling church awaited.
The cathedral was lovely inside and all decorated for Christmas with candles everywhere. It was almost to full capacity and we found a pew towards the back to secure our place for who knows what. Thirty minutes later there was still no service or music. The official looking people were clearly setting up for something grand as they checked video cameras and lighting. The orchestra above us were tuning their instruments. The children decided they didn’t want to wait any longer and the pouting was back. I urged them to be patient and that we would be rewarded with such a unique Lithuanian Christmas experience that we would treasure always. Sharing this special moment with the citizens of Vilnius as they came together as a community would have made a perfect Christmas memory. But, one-by-one my rebels stormed out of the church and refused to return. I tried again to use experience as the gift of patience but they were absolutely done. We left heavy hearted with heads down in silence. I felt like the service must have started soon after but at that point what did it matter. Not only did we not have that immersive experience that was promised but we had substituted it for a really disappointing Christmas memory. Fairly regularly, it seems that travel and life similarly offer up surprises with both happy and difficult times. This was our low point during the entire two-week holiday. We returned to our room and quietly everyone went to sleep.
Christmas morning arrived with a renewed sense of vigor, a blank slate, antibiotics that clearly had been working their magic overnight and, of course, Christmas presents. In a mostly successful attempt to make Christmas away from home special, we’d decided to draw names out of a hat and shop for that person while in Riga. It was our first time doing this as a family and the kids really enjoyed the experience of shopping for their person. We started the morning with the Secret Santa presents and the kids were delighted to give their presents and guess and who had drawn who. All gifts turned out to be locally made crafts (woollen socks, amber jewellery, Russian nesting dolls, chocolates and a wooden sling shot) and everyone was happy.
We had breakfast at the hotel and then we loaded up our car for our two-and-a-half-hour drive to Minsk. Fingers were crossed as we read the border crossings could be lengthy.
Side trip to the Hill of Crosses
Earlier in our drive through Lithuania, we took a slight detour to the Hill of Crosses (in the village of Jurgaiciai) in the pouring rain to see this surreal, odd and spiritual place. I read that there were tens of thousands of crosses on the hill but it looked like much more than that. The crosses go on in every direction and are so tightly packed together. They are large and small, cheap and expensive, all different – left as a wish or a memorial. Apparently, every Saturday Newlyweds line up to leave a cross as a blessing for their recent marriage. We were able to buy a simple wooden cross in the car park and etch the letter “B” into it with our car keys before hammering it into the ground to leave our mark on Lithuania forever. There are many paths to wander down to gaze with wonder at the special place. What an awesome site to explore with the kids. Despite rain and sickness, we all enjoyed the stop.