Vilnius really is a hidden gem, take my word for it. The city lurks on the edges of eastern Europe, out towards Belarus. It was barely on my radar. If, like me, you’re not sure where it is, type Vilnius into your favourite search engine. You’re going to stumble across some articles from the likes of The Telegraph and The Guardian proclaiming it as ‘increasingly popular’ and ‘why it should be your next city break’. Indeed one viral advertising campaign declared it as the G-spot of Europe: ‘Nobody knows where it is, but when you find it, it's amazing.’ Now I can’t promise sexual liberation but I can promise you beautiful architecture, delightful restaurants, hip coffee shops, and bustle without claustrophobia.
Let’s start with the coffee shops. As a frequenter of Shoreditch, I’m not unused to the Hipster in all his finery. And I’m no stranger to his drinking establishments: the cotton factory turned coffee shop, the stable yard turned micro brewery. So it was with a certain sense of familiarity that I spied the man on bike, shades dangling from his open shirt, iPhone clamped to his ear outside the coffee shop selling vinyl. A different flavour Hipster, but Hipster nonetheless.
As for bustle, yes, there are tourists aplenty, but they’re an accompagnement, not the dish itself. There are buskers too, with requisite saxophone solos. But they’re season to the sauce, a piquant after-note. This is not, after all, Covent Garden on Saturday afternoon a week before Christmas. It is, however, a city of contrasts: leisurely with an undercurrent of excitement; faded yet glamourous; touristy yet intimate; wild whilst safe. It’s a city that refuses to be defined.
Or indeed photographed, at least in a traditional way. I shot few buildings or sites, opting instead for things that seemed to capture the spirit of the place. For example, we sat in a square sipping ice-cold drinks making future plans. Kids played in the streets, dodging expensive cars. There was none of that Highgate overprotectiveness (come here Tarquin), but equally none of that surly loutishness either (yeah, whaaaat). The kids were free to do what they wanted, and, shock horror, remained well-behaved, smiling and laughing. Kids being kids, in other words. They made beautiful photographs.
It’s dusk and the ice cream bar is shutting up shop. The lad busking sax starts playing Miles Davis. Shadows slow-dance over the church walls that cluster around the old town. Two young men emerge from an alleyway. Their faces flicker in the light from their phones. I imagine their evening is just beginning. They’re deciding where to go, where the city will burn brightest for them in the dark of the night.