SWEET LIKE HONEY
Locals in southern Lithuania show Matthew Lee how to make the most of their unspoiled countryside, from harvesting honey and wild mushrooms to cycling, kayaking and leaping into lakes.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY ALEXANDER SHORT Arthur breaks down at the end of the pathway. I stand on the side of the road, arms raised in frustration, and start cursing. Not at Arthur though, for he is a bicycle (they have names here, according to the tour company providing them) and can't hear a thing, but at my stupidity for ge ing a punctured tyre so soon a er leaving the farm where I am staying. It turns out I'm panicking over nothing. Ray, our tour leader, sees me, makes a phone call and soon a man arrives to unload a pink Sophy from his car boot. I check the tyre pressure, adjust the seat, and pedal deep into the gorgeous Dzūkija National Park. We're two hours south-west of Vilnius, Lithuania's vibrant, forward-thinking capital, soaking up a very different aspect of what this country offers the international visitor. It's Lithuania's o en overlooked gorgeous rural scenery and small villages that we've come to explore. My Sophy and the surviving Arthurs roll past orchids, wetlands, apple trees and thousands of pines. Grasshoppers, lizards, voles, beetles and toads line the sandy trails that lead us through the forest. On the rare occasions our bikes pick up speed, bu erflies fly into our faces. On the regular occasions we dismount and stand still, we hear the insects' collective buzz. The sound is almost meditative. I don't even mind the odd mosquito bite. At Ray's suggestion we take a detour to visit a small natural stream, the waters of which are said to be a potent aid to fertility. According to local folklore, many centuries ago a giant boulder tumbled into the source and no children were born in the village until it was removed. I take a sip of the magical water and hope the impending rush of virility won't impair my ability to continue riding a girl's bicycle. We've been enjoying ourselves to the point that we've slightly lost track of the tour itinerary, and arrive at the Beekeeping Museum in Musteika an hour late. We have to track down its modernity-shunning manager, Romas Norkunas, the traditional way by running through the nearby woods desperately shouting his name. When we eventually locate him, he rewards us by showing us how he makes honey: a centuries-old technique befitting of a man who refuses to own a mobile phone. He uses a rope to haul himself up a tree and his young daughter chucks him a bee smoker, lit by rubbing flint against steel. Following his successful mission, Romas's children lie on the grass contentedly sucking pieces of honeycomb. We return to the main road and see a man in a truck selling mushrooms to an elderly lady. At least that's what we thought we were seeing. I'm later told that the woman, who didn't look a day younger than 95, was actually the forager. She still wakes at dawn each day to sell her fresh mushrooms. Mushrooms, I'm told on several occasions, are the unoﬃcial currency in these parts. In fact, the tour we're on is called "Mushroom". The man behind it, Ray Abromavicius, had been living in London for a decade but found himself increasingly drawn to his home country. In 2011, he took the plunge, le his restaurant job and moved back, se ing up a tour company focusing on Lithuania's less-travelled roads. By taking small groups into Dzūkija he hopes to promote rural culture and customs, and help generate an income for local people. Later, when we return to our farmhouse in the barely-there village of Kapiniskes, we meet one such person. Zophia Stanionyte, dressed in splendid traditional clothing, cooks a mushroom-heavy dinner for us in her kitchen. Before we eat we hit the sauna at the end of her garden, warming down from our 20km cycle the Lithuanian way. We get sweaty before diving into a freezing lake, and repeat the process until we're feeling fresh again. We're totally ravenous when we sit down to hunks of succulent pork, glistening roast potatoes, mushrooms and generous shots of the local moonshine. Stepping gingerly into a kayak the following morning, I wonder what was in the mysterious liquor we'd been drinking. Thankfully, the Ula river, which cuts through the heart of the national park, has a reviving quality. A er a couple of hours of crashing into everything in and not in my path, I get to grips with my vehicle. Fallen trees require sharp turns and drastic ducks under branches, and a er a day of water-bound heroics I'm feeling happy but exhausted. The remedy for my aches and pains is a mud bath in the nearby spa town of Druskininkai. You spend 20 minutes soaking in a tub of warm, slushy local mud, and a further 10 minutes in the shower trying to wash the stuffoff. I had been sceptical about the mud's supposed reviving qualities, but my skin - baftered by sun, mosquitoes and kayak oars - feels softer and smoother straight away. Lithuanians are proud of Druskininkai, and rightly so. It's also home to eastern Europe's longest indoor ski slope - conveniently opened a day before our arrival. And you can find more thrills at the enormous Aquapark. The contrast is striking. The futuristic arenas of Druskininkai feel a long way from the rural charms of the Dzūkija National Park. Lithuania's towns and cities are vibrant, and an excitement about the future is tangible. But to really understand the customs and traditions that make this country special, you have to get on your bike and head deep into the forest. Our writer flew with Ryanair from London (Stansted) to Vilnius, then travelled onward with Aooo! Travel. The full five-day "Mushroom" tour of rural Lithuania costs from £395 (€473). For more information, visit www.aoootravel.com and www.travel.lt
Like that? You'll love these! MORE UNIQUE TRIPS IN LITHUANIA
CURONIAN SPIT The Curonian Spit in the far west of the country offers many kilometres of beautiful, untouched sand dunes and an amazing variety of wildlife. The Lithuanian part of the spit (some is in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad) is a designated national park where a wide array of outdoor activities such as walking, cycling and boating can be arranged. PALANGA Every summer the people of Vilnius and Kaunas move en masse to Palanga, arguably the Baltics' most popular beach resort. When the weather hots up you'll find a nonstop party, although visit outside peak season and you can have the beaches all to yourself. Aside from the ample opportunities for lazing, sunbathing and swimming, Palanga is home to a pretty botanical garden, the excellent Palanga Amber Museum, and a large number of restaurants, cafés and bars. TRAKAI Only a 25-minute hop from Vilnius, this small town is worth visiting for its spectacular castle - a majestic 14th-century structure that takes up almost the entire space of the island it's been built on. Part of the reason Trakai is such a unique place is its small population of Karaite people - probably no more than 50 - who are a Jewish group originating from the Crimea. They have their own language and unique culture that's fascinating to explore.