A Post Covid Postcard From Vilnius (It’s War!)

The Uzupis Mermaid© Novak and Goode 2022

Some of you may remember my earlier Postcard from Vilnius Postcard From Vilnius much to my surprise that article is now 2 years old. I reference it only because it still contains much current information relating to touristic activities in Vilnius which I do not intend to repeat in this missive. Instead, I will look at how Vilnius is emerging from the so called “Pandemic” and coping with the “War” and also consider some quirky traits one might see or encounter, should dear reader, you ever decide to visit and various photographs to illustrate this are scattered across this article.

The 3 Muses atop the entrance to the National Theatre on Gedimino Prospect
© Novak and Goode 2022

During COVID times there were periods when it was impossible to travel to several of the Central European Countries in which I have business (I have been travelling each month to ex-Soviet CEE counties for business for some 15 years so this was quite a disruption). This was mostly in part due to the way in which so called “infections” were counted and once above a certain % per 1000 then borders were closed regardless of status.

This meant I spent quite some time trying to predict which way the figures would go, indeed in early Summer 2020 the UK figures had dropped to 14.3 per 1000 and the Lithuanian border would open again to non-Lithuanian citizens at 12.5 per 1000, I had a flight booked for early Monday morning the following week and travelled to the airport knowing the figures would be updated around 9am UK time whilst I would be airborne (about 11am LT time).  If the figures went the wrong way, then it would mean returning on the next flight home (or travelling to a 3rd country that would let me in). As soon as I landed, I opened the LT app and mightily relieved to see it stand at 12.34%, I was going to be let in.  I recall the surprise on the faces of Lithuanians I knew who could not believe I was there as no visitors from the UK had been seen for some months.

Vilnius Old City Street near the Philharmonic
© Novak and Goode 2022

I managed a couple of other visits in summer 2020 before the LT vaccination programme started and new proofs of testing, isolations, locator documents, certificates and the like were then required and adopted (along with harsh internal measures within Lithuania in order to drive vaccination numbers).  In addition, during late 2020 and early 2021 saw most of the flights I had booked being cancelled by the airlines meaning I did not go back until Spring 2021 and then again only every 8 weeks or so due to onerous and costly testing and isolation requirements imposed onto foreign visitors regardless of their status.  This was reflected in passenger loadings on flights and during 2021/early 2022 I was never on a flight that had more than 40 other passengers.  However, by the beginning of March 2022 Lithuania binned all restrictions and my normal monthly visits resumed.

Post Covid Landscape

You may be reassured to know that all the tourist attractions and landmarks are still to be found in Vilnius.  It was however the case that the lockdowns and restrictions have taken a fair toll on Hotels, Restaurants and Bars with some having gone for good and other changing hands.  Without exception there has been a general rise in prices but the hotels sector is still weak with oversupply and some very low prices can be found by scraping the internet.

This is the Ponių Laimė (The Ladies’ Delight) Bakery
© Novak and Goode 2022

It is said to be one of the best in Vilnius and is wonderfully decorated and is operated by the Stikliai Hotel which is where Heads of State will usually stay when visiting Vilnius. They have a website here https://www.stikliai.com/en/poniu-laime/

Sanctions and Consequences

At present Lithuania has joined in with the sanctions regime imposed by the EU and now has sanctions in place with both Belarus and Russia.  The Belarus sanctions have been in effect the longest (since the Belarussians “asked” that Ryanair flight from Athens to land in Minsk) and the Lithuanian border is now effectively closed to goods from both countries.  This has had a severe effect on the Lithuanian economy as there were significant flows of fertilizer and grain from Belarus and Russia by rail to the Lithuanian port of Klaipeda.  This traffic has ceased completely and an increasing number of LT Rail staff are being dismissed.  In addition, the stevedore company in Klaipeda that handled the loading of these products has ceased operations and dismissed its staff; both of these matters are causing economic repercussions not only in LT but elsewhere as grain and fertilizer prices soar across the world.  At present the LT Government is in discussion with Belarus about creating a “green corridor” from Ukraine, via Belarus to Klaipeda for the export of Ukrainian grain. It seems this grain cannot go via Poland because Polish Railways have a different railway gauge than Belarus and Lithuania and also lacks the rail cars for grain transport (Lithuania and Belarus currently have an abundance of correctly gauged vehicles). It is estimated that there is some 12 million tons of grain that will need to be moved to Klaipeda for loading onto ships, however even if agreement is reached sanctions will remain in place with Belarus.

A wall art picture from the “small ghetto” area; After German Occupation in June 1941 2 Ghettos were created (Large and Small) the ghettos were separated by a road and reduced in size as residents were “evacuated”
© Novak and Goode 2022

The physical closing of the Belarus border has also impacted upon Lithuanian exporters; having been occupied by Russia for some 50 years between 1940 and 1991 the Lithuanians have always maintained trade relations with Russia (periodic sanctions permitting) and in the past when Russia has put some sanctions in place some LT goods have gone to Belarus to receive a “made in Belarus” sticker before travelling onwards to Russia. Given that this option is no longer available exports to Russia have ceased.  I also noticed that this is starting to work the other way with some Russian products now being available for export via Lithuanian “entrepreneurs” with made in “insert minor Russian Federation State here” labels and documentation. However, this “leakage” from Russia is at present minor.

Recognition of Taiwan

On top of this Lithuania has recently chosen to recognise Taiwan as a state with the result that China has started a boycott of Lithuanian goods and has also stopped exports to Lithuania. Both countries have also recalled diplomats. Taken together with the Belarus/Russia sanctions and the general economic slowdown due to COVID restrictions, the Lithuanian economy has received quite a blow and I sense a degree of unease is blowing through some of the LT Government Ministries at present. This is replicated in my meetings with private companies who now wish for my company to find them new customers and markets for their products and services in both the UK and other EU states. This does however bring with it its own set of issues as many Lithuanian companies often have limited capacity (as it is a small country) and have to be carefully matched to B2B customers that will not crush them with demands that exceed their capacity. When one starts to add in the fractured supply chains now evident across Europe the situation becomes even more complex.

The entrance door to an electrical substation in Uzupis
© Novak and Goode 2022

IT Sector Impacts

I engage from time to time with Lithuanian IT companies. In the past they have exported a degree of IT work to Ukraine and Belarus where IT staff can be employed for $5/600 or so per month. The ability to work with Belarus has halted because of the sanctions and more interestingly they report that much of the Ukrainian IT sector has just disappeared due to the war. I have in the past worked with a number of UK IT Companies that were also keen (despite my advice to the contrary) on offshoring work to Ukraine and I will contact a few to see if they are seeing the same as the Lithuanians are reporting; (Ukrainian companies and staff gone, server farms down/destroyed, customers left with programmes they cannot update/modify or in some cases even access). The Lithuanians see this as an opportunity to gain “offshored” UK/Ukraine IT work.

TV (or the lack of it)

During a quiet hour one evening I decided to watch the TV, Lithuanian TV is quite dull and is a mixture of news programmes, lengthy adverts for pharmacy goods and imported films (where one gruff sounding man speaks the voices of all the characters be they male or female) or some unknown minor Euro or US TV series. I quickly noticed that the usual Russian and Belarussian TV channels were missing (which is a pity as one could often find Benny Hill or some atmospheric Soviet era film to watch on Russian TV). The next day I asked my colleague about this and it seems that when the “war” began in Ukraine the Lithuanian Authorities declared both Russia and Belarus to be “Terrorist States” and ordered that all TV from those areas was to be blocked. He commented drily “I wonder what it is that they do not want us to see?”

Literaku gatve: An art installation on a minor street in the Old City
© Novak and Goode 2022

Attitudes to the War

I have much enjoyed my recent visits as they have allowed me to catch up with many old friends and I have taken the opportunity to discuss current events with them as well as being able to conduct business. Views on the war have been mixed however I did detect an undertone and contentment (albeit subtly stated) that “the Russians were getting it”.  This was rarely expressed directly (except in one meeting where a younger member of staff from an LT Company became quite enthusiastic about “dead Russians” until one of his older colleagues told him to shut up).  Given the Lithuanians had the “benefits” of Communism and Soviet Socialism bestowed upon them for more than 50 years (deportations to the Gulag, murders for resistance and all the other achievements of Socialism) such views are understandable however it did lead me to ask myself what would the view be if Ukraine were to lose the war.  However, I could not find one Lithuanian who would countenance this happening but a dear friend did proffer the view that “It’s all a circus” and I cannot help but think her view was spot on. We had this discussion whilst taking tea at a rather splendid bakery in Uzupis

Uzupis bakery counter
© Novak and Goode 2022

It would appear that Lithuania has taken in about 50,000 Ukrainian refugees, it is however thought the true number is likely to be double (due to family links with Ukraine). I was amused to see a sign in the supermarket saying that many of the till staff were from Ukraine and only speak Russian and that if you cannot understand them, please see the supervisor.

Anyway, dear reader, I have wandered away on a tangent; let us return to the topic in hand; that of Vilnius itself. As mentioned, the majority of the information given in my previous postcard holds true Vilnius is still in the same place and its history has not altered.  It is still the case the main airlines to go there from the UK are Ryanair and Wizz although frequencies in some cases have been reduced, you will have to look for yourselves if you are planning to go there.  That aside all the touristic highlights mentioned in the original postcard are also still extant and can be seen.

Whilst walking around the Old City on a quiet weekend afternoon I can across a 20-foot-tall wooden baby; this is titled “The Giant Birth” its purpose remains unknown.

Giant Baby Sculpture
© Novak and Goode 2022

On the way back to the hotel I noticed this poster affixed to the wall, it seemed someone had managed a rather good night out

Lost and found poster
© Novak and Goode 2022

During a quiet interlude on my most recent visit in Mid-May I spent an hour calculating costs for travel from the UK for 2 people to a decent 4-star hotel room and found several options for travel in the 2nd week of June whereby a room for 3 nights (with breakfast) and flights for 2 could be found for £180-£200 total. The “sweet spot” for flight and hotel prices seems to be about 3/4 weeks in advance (at least at the moment). You might be able to do better by calling the hotels directly as they pay some 15-20% commission for the privilege of appearing on Booking or Hotels.com. Below is a picture of a painting I noticed in my hotel suite; I think that Johnny Nice the artist from the Fast Show painted it as it is rather errrm “Black”

Hotel Room picture by “Johnny Nice”
© Novak and Goode 2022

I think next time I shall send a postcard from Poland.

© 2022 Novak and Goode