I’ve always enjoyed wandering the streets of a strange city, taking turns at a whim. I think that I’m lucky to have a decent sense of direction and probably to have serendipitously avoided a plethora of muggings. I felt a familiar enjoyment today as I set off through the streets of Vilnius. This morning was cold: today was the first time in a long time that I’ve felt properly chilled to by bones. Getting off some smaller streets and sticking to the main drags helped: there’s little in the way of gritting or clearing snow from pavements here and it was difficult to maintain a brisk pace on the smaller streets.
Feeling warmer and able to take few photographs (pictures to follow when I can get them off my phone easily, I’m on a patchy wi-fi connection at the moment) I was able to take a second look at the city. There’s a lot to like and I can imagine that in fine weather, when restaurants can spill out into the street, this is a pleasant, sophisticated area to visit. The central area boasts some upmarket boutiques and relatively expensive restaurants although by UK standards, everything here is very affordable. You get just over 4 Litas for your pound sterling – I enjoyed a starter, main course and two beers at the priciest of local Italian restaurants last night – 38Lt. About nine pounds.
In a steadily strengthening wind, I climbed up to the castle, for odd local political reasons, a recent construction. More likely a vanity project than a response to the risk of Belarusians showing up with a trebuchet, I think. From the top I can see the new Vilnius on the one side and the old on the other. The newer part of the city is grey and, in the current weather, I decide against a visit.
On my way back I cross the cathedral square, a Christmas market and pass through the main shopping district. So much of this could be anywhere. I hope that modernisation doesn’t rob this city of its character.
Other things common to big cities reveal themselves, too. It is a Sunday lunchtime but I see several groups of young people staggering about, some still clutching spirit bottles. Shop doorways have been fouled. Sunday here seems to be an odd contrast: too many young people for my comfort drunk and half-collapsed in the street, arguing with taxi drivers and each other while the local Catholic churches do a roaring trade. Worshippers cross themselves in front of the buildings as they walk straight past beggars. Frostbitten limbs with the signs of developing gangrene are thrust out as more mobile homeless root through bins in the alleys. I am reminded that cities everywhere face the same challenges and I wonder how the winter about to hit the UK in earnest will affect the newly poverty-stricken.
I am tired. The weather and the walking and a frantic working weekend have taken their toll. Part of me, having seen the darker side of the old city, wants to see what the modern Vilnius is like but neither my flesh nor my spirit possesses the strength. I am one of the lucky ones, I know, staying in a famous old hotel in the good part of town. I decide to make the most of my luck, take hot fruit tea and cake and an afternoon nap in the warm.
There are questions for me to address. For us all: how do we make sure that, in a world with the technology to feed, clothe, shelter and educate every citizen, that we do not sleep in feather beds while people die on cold streets? But today I am too tired, the skies are darkening and the snow drives at my face. I will take away the friendliness of this place and the reminder to count my blessings and be thankful that I return to love and friendship, a warm house and a stocked larder.