Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Settle down you FOMO suffering ADD chipmunk...or how I ended up inTrakai

Before landing in Vilnius, I was going highlighter happy on the discount Lithuania book I had managed to find in a second hand book store. After seeing every single thing in the capital city, I was going to visit a hill with roughly a bajillion crosses on it in the north. I was going to hit up a communist theme park in the south. I was going to take a selfie in the geographic center of Europe. Since all this running around might be a bit tiring, a spa town was definitely in order.

Trying to figure out how to do all this in only three days was proving a bit challenging but I was undaunted.  I would ask the locals, who were sure to know a shortcut or two.  To this end, I presented Lina, the owner of Vilnius' coolest hostel, with my wish list.  She briefly got the "Oh no, not one of these.." looks that I am pretty familiar with but gamely continued.  "You will go to Trakai" she said. Sure, if it's worth a visit, I'll add it to my list.  "No, you will only go to Trakai. You do not have enough time for all these other places."  But, the crosses...  "You would have to spend your entire holiday on buses. You will go to Trakai." The commie park?  "Trakai!"
So, I was on the forty minute train ride to Trakai, adding yet more highlighting to my dog eared book and reading up on the history of my only Lithuanian day trip destination.  Dating back to the 14th century,  this idyllic town was founded by a Lithuanian Grand Duke.  His castle, located squarely inside of a lake, is the only of its kind in Eastern Europe.  Early on, the area became home to a Jewish ethnic minority called the Karaite, who are known for their wooden homes and for a meat pastry called the kibinai.

On the walk towards the castle, the homes were soon apparent.

As was the fact that Vilnius must be full of a lot of Linas, because all the tourists from Vilnius had now descended on Trakai.

I had wondered if I would have a chance to try the kibinai.  Surely, there was at least one vegetarian Karaite who had tinkered with the recipe.  After hearing so much about this speciality, I had my fingers crossed.  Before even reaching the castle, I saw a restaurant by the lake with smiling cardboard people holding plates of Cuban empanadas.  If they were this multi-cultural, for sure they would have a veg kibinai.  I went inside and, to my delight, found a spinach and cheese option on the menu.  Now, before I go any further, let me say that I understand that in their assimilation, the Karaite lost their language, their culture and their Turkic homeland. All that remains is the architecture and the cuisine.  So it may seem like a dick move for me to point this out but....the dish that arrived at my table was 100% a Cuban spinach and cheese empanada.  Tell me as many times as you want how this is a recipe that has been handed for generations and is only available in Trakai and I will point out that Yadylasy at La Carreta has served at least a dozen of these in the time it took me to type out this sentence alone.

But fortunately, I had not come solely for the empa....I mean, kibinai.  Trakai is all about their lake castle and I got to explore that sucker from every angle.

I walked around the perimeter, dividing my time between snapping pictures of the castle and checking out the many souvenir stands.

I took a boat trip around the lake, during which I met a lovely Lithuanian couple who now live in the UK but had returned to introduce their new baby to their parents and who were very helpful in translating the narration, which although I think there may have been an English version, was unintelligible.

And of course, I visited the castle itself. There were a couple of displays but none that could compete with he beauty of the location itself.

To finish off the lake castle-themed day, I grabbed a prime seat at one of the several lake adjacent cafes and just chilled while taking in the view.

I guess that this was Lina's underlying goal.  I am certain that logistically, it would have been possible to get to all the sites I wanted to go to but as I often have to remind myself, less is sometimes more.  I could have run myself ragged and instead of enjoying myself, I'd be focused on just getting to the next place.  Or I could just put my highlighter away, sit by a lake, drink a cold beer and- after going a month without Cuban food- order up another empanada.

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