I wear my Italian heritage like a badge of pride.
My paternal ancestry is 100% Italian, something that has greatly influenced my family, and I’ve been lucky enough to have the pleasure of spending considerable time exploring Italy-- including a visit to Florence, where my parents were married.
My maternal ancestry is somewhat more complicated, but basically boils down to “northern European.” I found out a few years ago that side of the family is actually primarily Lithuanian, though it wasn’t until recently that it began to mean anything to me.
As I planned my post-Belgrade travels I tried to maintain the mindset that sometimes you really do need to do the dumb thing even if it doesn’t really make sense, which is exactly how I found myself riding in a hot air balloon over Vilnius, Lithuania with four spaniards- but I’ll get to that.
My first day in Lithuania was spent at the Hill of Crosses, with a guide from the above tour company. The Hill of Crosses is one of Lithuania’s best known sites and serves as a monument to Lithuanian resilience and persistence in the face of persecution. It was originally erected as a memorial for soldiers killed in an unsuccessful uprising against the Russian Empire and evolved into a place where Lithuanians would come to pray for peace for their family and their country. During Soviet occupation (1944-1990) it became a symbol of peaceful resistance: Lithuanians continued to leave crosses as tributes to their original heritage and religion, prohibited under Soviet rule, despite Soviet police removing crosses almost constantly. Instead of allowing the desecration of the monument, Lithuanians would sneak in at night and erect new crosses, a small, safe act of resistance amidst an oppressive regime.
Lithuanians continue to use the hill as a place of peace, placing new crosses in prayer, in memory of loved ones, or in celebration: it is a tradition for newly-wed to place a cross on the hill after their wedding.
After our visit to the hill and marveling at the sheer number of crosses that are there, even after it was destroyed so many times, we enjoyed a traditional Lithuanian meal at a restaurant located inside the upper floors of a windmill. If you google Lithuanian cuisine, the results are seriously disappointing. While their general bread - potatoes - onions descriptions aren’t incorrect, there is so much more to it than that.
One of my favorites was the “fried bread” (yes, you did read that correctly) which is a common pub snack. It’s made by frying garlic coated Lithuanian black rye bread and is served with a cheese and mayonnaise sauce which I’m realizing sounds entirely unappealing in writing, but trust me, it’s incredible.
Also made with black - rye bread is Kvass, also found in Russia and Ukraine. Kvass, also called “liquid bread”, is a beer-like drink made from stale bread that somehow maintains a sweet, spiced taste while also holding is distinctly grainy flavor. While it does contain a small amount of alcohol it is officially an nonalcoholic drink and is incredibly refreshing.
The pink soup is perhaps the most famous: a cold beet root soup, the bright color is entirely natural. While it has a great flavor, it was a bit too rich for my personal tastes.
Another specialty is zeppelins, properly known as cepelinas, which are essentially meatballs encased in boiled potatoes. It is typically served with a flavorful sauce, traditionally with pork or garlic, but there are dozens of variations.
The tour and lunch were organized through Vilnius With Locals.
Following our Lithuanian feast I was able to cross off a bucket list item: ride in a hot air balloon.
I had no idea what to expect and am still struggling to accurately describe what it felt like, but, in short, it was wonderful. The process of setting it up certainly builds anticipation, as you watch the balloon inflate and feel the basket shake as you begin to rise, but once you’re in the air the fact that all that is keeping you up is a fancy bed sheet and a wicker basket is no longer important. All you can do is look.
I’d say it feels like flying, but, well, that is kind of the point. If you can’t imagine what that feels like though, it’s similar to being on a boat, but much lighter and with no waves- floating.
After about an hour in the air, we touched down in an airfield just shy of the Belarus border and had our ‘baptism’ ceremony that everyone receives after their first flight. The ceremony, performed by our quietly exuberant pilot, consists of three parts, all using champagne. First, they burn a small piece of your hair, putting out the fire with the champagne. Second, they pour some onto the ground, marking each person’s forehead with the mud. And lastly, a toast to celebrate your flight. There are some long-winded, highly outdated and surely warped reasons for each of these things, but I can’t imagine they’d make sense in writing as they barely made sense in the moment- though that may have had something to do with the four Spanish guys who flew with us that were having the time of their lives goofing around.
As it goes, I haven’t felt as light as I did that night in a long time and it was easy to see why our pilot, who has been flying balloons for over ten years, is enamored with that feeling.
So, while I didn’t actually see much of Vilnius (from the ground, anyway) on my first day there, it is safe to say that my visit got off to a ridiculous start.
My next post will cover the old city of Vilnius and the Republic of Uzupis.