After an overnight stay in the Baltic Sea coastal town of Klaipeda (popular for cruise ships), we met up with our pre-arranged and excellent guide Regina Kopilevich (Vilnius-based and fluent in four languages: English, Russian, Hebrew and Yiddish). At Regina’s suggestion, our meeting place was the city of Kaunas (formerly Kovna) for the start of our tour. I had emailed Regina information I had on the hubby’s family history, emanating from the nearby towns of Marijampole and Simnas. She traveled by bus to the impressive war memorial, Ninth Fort. As you can see below, it is something to behold. From there we drove to the other cities — Marijampole is the largest and most affluent. We can’t say for sure that we pinpointed distant relatives, but just being in the area gave us a sense of them.
We then drove to Vilnius for our stay there, where we spent the entire next day with Regina walking from place to place. Travel companion Julie tracked our steps — we did good over the week! Among the highlights were the small but impressive Holocaust Museum (The Green House) and the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum. When one remembers 200,000 Lithuanian Jews were murdered, it is overwhelming. But for the grace of God, there were some very brave “Righteous Gentiles” who risked their lives to protect some of the Jews and they are appropriately honored in the State Museum. Some still survive today.
The photo below is in front of the home of Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese government official living in Lithuania, who undertook the enormous risk of hand-writing visas to save more than 6,000 Jews during the war. He was heroic to say the least.
Sunday in Vilnius finds the streets bustling with multi-generational families and young people out everywhere, especially with the beautiful weather. Of the cities visited so far (Helsinki and Tallinn, Riga and Klaipeda), hands-down Vilnius is one I could come to again. It is a truly beautiful city; “Paris of Eastern Europe” is an apt description that comes to mind. But a large part of what makes for a memorable stay anywhere is a great hotel. The Kempinski Cathedral Square fits that to a “t.”
Full disclosure: We did not like a previous Kempinski stay (Munich) — it was the first city we started in for a post-tax-season trip (2007). It really left a bad impression so we have avoided the chain ever since. From now on, I will certainly think differently.
We had an absolutely beautiful suite with a balcony overlooking Cathedral Square, the central location in Vilnius — particularly the older part of the city. The staff was extremely helpful with restaurant recommendations, friendly conversation and wonderful service. Little did we know how much we would come to rely on them …
There was quite a bit of conversation with Regina as to our plans to continue on to our next stop in Minsk via train. She and others confirmed that a 5-day transit visa for Belarus is automatically granted at the airport, but not the train station. On that basis, I refunded our train tickets and purchased flights via Belavia Airlines for the short flight to Minsk. On the day of our departure, we said our goodbyes to Julie who was returning to Tel Aviv before we headed to the airport. The fun began then when we were asked to produce our Visas for Belarus. It turns out that the transit Visa has some limitations, specifically when one’s onward travel is to Russia. Even the words “let me speak to your supervisor” were of no avail. We were denied the flight.
While attempting to get the flights refunded and purchase tickets from Vilnius to Moscow, I emailed an SOS to the Kempinski: “Help! We need a room — we are coming back to the hotel!” The GM kindly responded that they were full but would find/block a room for us. And no less than four of their personnel were waiting at the front of the hotel when we returned several hours after departing. We were so happy to have a place to stay and did not have to go searching. When some additional rooms opened up the next day, we moved yet again to a wonderful room. We cannot say enough about their help and look forward to a return visit. As it turned out, we had a much-needed break to do nothing (i.e., roaming the streets, shopping, etc.) Next, on to Moscow …
::Random photos from roaming around Vilnius::