Beetroot soup, covert bar entries, bitter vodkas and big fat hairy guys arm-wrestling… it’s all in one blurry night in Vilnius. Duncan Rhodes reports back from the Lithuanian capital.

“We’re going to a concert?” I repeat with barely disguised dismay. It’s my second night in Vilnius and I’ve arranged to go out with Lineta and Sarune, two Lithuanian friends of mine I met back in Barcelona. Normally I’d be more than happy to entrust my nightlife plans to two hip young locals, but a) I’m fucking starving and b) Italy are playing Germany in less than 1.5 hours in the semi finals of Euro 2012. And after all, what venue is so great that it hosts live music events, serves up cheap and delicious food and screens ridiculously important football matches?

Teacher’s House, as it turns out. And we’ve got a reservation.

My new favourite venue

Two steps into the courtyard of this romantic cultural / nightlife space and I’m in love. The pastel pink walls of this academic cloister are covered with clinging ivy, whilst a central stage is flanked with canopied lounge area and bar, and Vilnius’ cool kids are out in force to enjoy the free live music on this still bright Baltic summer evening. We shuffle over to our table reservation on the right of the stage and – keen to go local – I order a šaltibarščiai… which turns out to be a radioactive Lithuanian beetroot soup, served cold for good measure. It’s actually not too bad, but I can’t help but look enviously at the Australian couchsurfer who had the good sense to order a chicken sandwich.

I order a šaltibarščiai… which turns out to be a radioactive Lithuanian beetroot soup, served cold for good measure.

Encouraging me to eat up, Lineta tells me that šaltibarščiai is a staple dish at every good grandmother’s house and is “made from special Lithuanian cream. I think you can’t buy it in any other European countries, except maybe Ukraine and Poland.”

“Why is it special?”

“No it’s not special, you just don’t have it.” Well there you go.

My dying camera phone doesn’t do justice to just how pink that soup really was…

As we tuck into our nosh washed down with a palatable Svyturys Ekstra beer, suddenly the crowd start singing along to the music. Lineta explains that the band, a husband and wife team called Ball and Chain, are belting out a classic Lithuanian crowdpleaser… which they promptly follow with a very decent cover of Rolling in the Deep. Just as I’m getting nervous that this concert is going to extend past kick off the band finish their set, the Bohemian section of the crowd disappear, and Sky Sports is projected on big screens around the courtyard.

As the German and Italian national anthems ring out, talk turns to national sports.

“You are crazy about football,” say Lineta. “But we are crazy about basketball. We are really looking forward to the Olympics. Basketball is like our second religion. Have you ever heard of the other Dream Team?”

“You are crazy about football,” say Lineta. “But we are crazy about basketball…. Basketball is like our second religion.”

I confess I haven’t, but as she goes on to explain in the 1992 Olympics (ie. the same Olympics when the American Dream Team of Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan won gold) the Lithuanian national team managed to break free of their Soviet identity and beat the Russians to a bronze medal (In fact they recently made a film commemorating the achievement), cementing the sport’s popularity in Lithuania’s hearts for all time.

By the time the Italians have booked their place in the Euro 2012 finals it’s decidedly nippy in the courtyard of Teacher’s House and Lineta and Sarune lead us to where the bars are most plentiful…

vilnius bars, clubs and nightlife
Things getting blurry already in Piano Man

“This is the main nightlife street, which one year ago became really popular,” says Lineta. “The name is Island Street. It is a really short street but there are a lot of bars, and usually you are going to different places, having fun, meeting a lot of friends. We are going to one place that is like an international bar: you don’t need to have friends, you can go alone and you will have a conversation there… everybody is welcome there, it doesn’t matter how you look.”

This is in contrast to another nightspot on the same street called Buddha, which Lineta reliably informs me is a “fish market” for good looking girls and guys trying to buy their attention.

I fall in with a couple of Lithuanian dudes who are keen to extol the values of two of their nation’s greatest assets, starting with their local brews…

In Vilnius’ Piano Man bar the atmosphere on a Thursday night is rowdy. Lineta orders a fish-bowl-sized glass of Hoegarden, and I grab a tasteless Cuba Libra for 12 Lt. I fall in with a couple of Lithuanian dudes who are keen to extol the values of two of their nation’s greatest assets, starting with their local brews.

bars and pubs vilnius
Drinking with Vilnius’ Pulp Fiction fan club

“Hoegarden is a woman’s beer,” asserts Darius. “You should try a Lithuanian beer like ‘Lighthouse’” he says giving the famous Svyturys brand its English name. “We also have a lot of really good small independent breweries in small towns. You can try some at Snekutis bar in Uzupis.” Quite a legend in Vilnius, Snekutis is a ramshackle bar that I’d happened to pass by day on by bike in the free district of Uzupis (think Lithuania’s very own Christiana). I make a mental note to go back sometime.

Meanwhile Ilya is keen to impress on me the virtues of the local girls – which naturally doesn’t interest me at all -but I indulgently listen.

“The Lithuanian girls are nice girls… Maybe there are 60% of women in clubs. For example I went to clubs in Rome and the majority of people were guys. I was shocked!”

“The Lithuanian girls are nice girls. They are not looking for rich guys, just normal guys… and it’s easy to meet them. Maybe there are 60% of women in clubs. For example I went to clubs in Rome and the majority of people were guys. I was shocked! In Lithuania all the time you enter a club you are in paradise. You are surrounded by beautiful girls. They are very nice, you can speak to them.”

Before I can add my own observations to this intellectual conversation Lineta grabs me… she wants to show me a nearby bar. But we are not going there by conventional means. We head out of the back of Piano Man into an internal courtyard, which seems to be the inside of a small shopping mall. We cross through it and arrive at the window of another bar.

Doors are so passe

“At night it’s much more fun to jump through the window,” says Lineta when I ask if we couldn’t have just walked around to the street entrance. “But if we’re doing it we should order two shots.” And so ushering the punters of Gringo out of the way of the window we clamber through – with some difficulty by now – and make our way to the counter. I order us two “Mad Dogs” and Lineta tells me about her time living in the UK… it isn’t long before she’s screeching a loud rendition of I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles. The bouncer doesn’t find this as entertaining as we do.

“Don’t worry he’s new. He doesn’t know the traditions of this bar,” she assures me, before collapsing out of her chair and sending us both crashing to the ground. No harm done.

“At night it’s much more fun to jump through the window,” says Lineta when I ask if we couldn’t have just walked around to the street entrance.

After repeating our Houdini window trick we’re back in Piano Man and unfortunately it’s time for Sarune and Lineta to go home. It is after all a Thursday night and they have to go to work tomorrow. As for me… maybe it’s the booze, or maybe it was all this talk of young approachable nice girls but I’m keen to make my blurry night just a fraction blurrier before turning in. So taking a tip from my friends I head off, Spy Map in hand, in search for Artistai, a famous student club and the one place guaranteed to be rocking late on a Thursday night in Vilnius. It’s closed.

So I back up to a bar I passed on the way, which may or may not have been called Brodvejus. A photo near the entrance of a toothless black grandpa smoking a fat cigar hints that this is supposed to be a Cuban bar, but right now it’s looking like an archetypical discotheque wreck: wall-mounted TVs are screening MTV videos, whilst the DJ is pumping out crap R’n’B music and a smoke machine belches out wisps of white vapours. There are no more twenty people in the place, most notably a group of trashy-looking Russian girls tottering around the dancefloor in high heel boots, two drunkards sitting in front of an empty, tripod-mounted ten litre beer glass and two very cute girls who appear incongruously sober and well-behaved given the hour and the surroundings. I wait for the drunkards to try their luck first, in the hopes of seeming attractive by comparison, and it’s not long before I’m at the bar with my new friends Eva and Indre, two cosmopolitan sisters of 24 and 27 years, drinking shots. I enlist their help in selecting a Lithuanian spirit.

I wait for the drunkards to try their luck first, in the hopes of seeming attractive by comparison, and it’s not long before I’m at the bar with my new friends Eva and Indre…

One last 999 for the road

“Try 999,” says Eva. “It’s something of a mix between vodka and Jagermeister. It’s lovely, it’s delicious. You should do a live commentary.”

“Unfortunately my tastebuds are not very refined.”

“What kind of journalist are you?” they come back, refusing to let me off the hook. And so taking a sip I switch on my voice recorder and record my observation that “it’s very spirity.”

There’s a chorus of boos and Eva is forced to take over. “It’s sweet and it tastes of berries. It reminds me of a shady woodland… I can imagine a deer running in a forest at dawn, the sun is rising and the birds are chirping…”

“Can I use that in my article?”

“Try 999,” says Eva. “It’s something of a mix between vodka and Jagermeister. It’s lovely, it’s delicious. You should do a live commentary.”

The girls disappear to the bathrooms and I order another 999… it’s only 6 Lt after all. Meanwhile the music has gone a bit Shakira-esque, with a donk on it, which has somehow brought the dancefloor back to life. When my new friends return, I decide optimistically that it’s time to steer the conversation in a sexual direction. Noting the lack of great specimens in this particular bar, I ask them what they think of Lithuanian men?

“I don’t like them that much,” says Eva. “They are too macho.”

So far so good, I think to myself.

“Also, they drink a lot.”

I thought we were talking about their bad points!

“And a lot of them are sexist.”

I decide it’s time to speak up. “I am definitely not sexist. I’m a feminist,” I declare. “I always go down.”

Somehow this declaration of solidarity doesn’t earn me an invitation for a threesome which it clearly deserved, and – with the pub disco now on its last legs – we swap Facebook profiles and bid each other goodnight. It’s nearly 5am now and there’s plenty of light in the summer sky, which is always a sensible person’s cue for bedtime. Somehow or other though I manage to find myself chatting to two more friendly girls (Ilya was right, they’re everywhere!) on the way home who invite me to accompany them for breakfast at a 24 hour restaurant/bar nearby. It turns out to be a pretty upmarket traditional Lithuanian restaurant, decked out in a kind of medieval tavern style. As we three disco casualties tuck into some stomach settling cuisine we’re treated to an equally amusing and disturbing sideshow of two enormous drunk guys arm-wrestling on the table opposite. The fatter and hairier of the two decides to strip off his shirt, which was obviously impeding him, and I watch in fascination as this human bear fight goes on without a word from the staff… who wisely decide against intervening. My fellow breakfasters meanwhile munch away non-plussed. Clearly it’s just another blurry morning in Vilnius.

As we three disco casualties tuck into some stomach settling cuisine we’re treated to an equally amusing and disturbing sideshow of two enormous drunk guys arm-wrestling on the table opposite.

Day breaks in the Lithuanian capital

As we polish off our dumplings and soup I glance at my phone. It’s somehow nearly 7am. By now it really is time to go home. After all I’m meeting Sarune and Lineta again in just over 12 hours and they promised to take me on a big night out. Still, this was a good warm up…

Duncan would like to extend his heartfelt thanks to the Hostel Gate for accommodating him during his stay in Vilnius. Apart from the great staff, he enjoyed the heated bathroom floors and the use of their rental bikes to explore the city, and the location is perfect for stumbling home from any of the aforementioned bars/clubs. If you’re heading to Vilnius be sure to check out our weekend guide to the Lithuanian capital which has a tonne of great tips for exploring. 

partying in Vilnius
The real fun starts on Friday…

For more vicarious nightlife stories, check out what happened when Ben Rhodes enjoyed big night out in Dubai and James Pengelley went partying in Bogota.

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