Sorry, I can't let you hire an audio guide,' said the beautiful woman behind the counter at the Vilnius Tourist Board. I wondered if it was my appearance that made me unsuitable to be trusted with a talking box that would take me on a three- hour walk around the charms of Lithuania's capital. Dressed as I was, in several quilted layers over yet more layers, I resembled a woolly- hatted zeppelin. ' The equipment doesn't work when it's below - 7C, and today it's - 14C,' she explained. Fortunately, my human walking tour guide, Julia, did function in such freezing temperatures, and as snowflakes fell across the darkening sky, illuminating the snow- covered spires and domes of one of the largest Baroque cities in Europe, I was glad I'd come in winter - and, in particular, this year because Vilnius is celebrating being European Capital of Culture. It is the first city in the Baltic states to be given such an honour, and the government has earmarked ? 16m for an extensive, year- long cultural programme of 300 ( largely free) events, plus some much- needed restoration work on important buildings such as the National Museum. Crunching through ankle- deep snow past women in ankle- length fur coats tottering down Gedimino, the main shopping street, there are sure signs that the days of Communism are truly over. Escada and Gucci shops glare haughtily out from a neon shopping centre, and while Starbucks hasn't arrived, its doppelganger, Double Coffee, and a local chain of coffee shops, pizza houses and kitsch restaurants abound. That the city has maintained a sense ALL A- BUZZ IN THE BALTICS by Victoria Gooch Saturday 7 February 2009
5 of humour in spit of its often- miserable past under Soviet and Nazi occupation is immediately striking - and humbling. Across the River Vilnia from the Old Town is the avant garde district of Uzupis, a breakaway ' republic' that has declared April Fool's Day its Independence Day. Such bohemian behaviour would have been forbidden less than two decades ago. As proof of point, the Speaker of Seimas ( their parliament) is the country's favourite reality TV host, and in 1995 the man who once carved the Lenin statue in Moscow sculpted a bronze bust of anti- establishment rocker Frank Zappa that sits in Central Vilnius. Most gobsmacking of all is the existence of ' Stalin World' in the spa town of Druskininkai, a popular day trip from Vilnius. After the regime fell, the unwanted statues of Lenin and Stalin standing in positions of importance throughout Lithuania were not destroyed in shows of ire and bitterness, but were instead cut down with mockery. Then they were rounded up and plonked in what amounts to a bizarre Soviet statue theme park, Gruto Parkas, to be laughed at. Head- spinning: Cathedral Square in the heart of Vilnius.