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.
The gallery shows that not all Vilnius's treasures are immediately visible. Turn off any cobbled street and you'll find a picturesque scene tucked away in a hidden courtyard, or burrow down into the cellars and crypts that house museums, bars, clubs and cafes. While in the latter, try the local dish cepelinai - potato blimps stuffed with meat and served with pork rind and sour cream. If that's not to your liking, there are plenty of international restaurants to suit every budget ( not least wealthy Russians) and taste. If you are hoping to see something of an equal to Trakai Castle, the fairy- tale fortress siting on an island in the middle of a lake 15 miles out of town, you might be a little disappointed. If you use your imagination, however, and the helpful model in the Upper Castle Museum, you'll be able to see what a behemoth the whole Vilnius castle complex once was. From the top of the tower, you can see a panorama of ancient rooftops to rival Prague, and also the restoration of the Lower Castle directly below. Also known as the Royal Palace of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, it was destroyed by Tsarist Russia at the beginning of the 19th century, but will open after seven years of reconstruction on July 6, Lithuanian Statehood Day, to mark Lithuania's first millennium. Even in the sombre atmosphere of the Museum of Genocide victims, formerly the KGB and Gestapo HQ, I was met with humour. When asking if my bags would be secure in the cloakroom, the manager wryly quipped: ' This KGB, Miss; everything safe here.' The museum, which has kept its chilling basement prison intact, portrays the country's recent harrowing history with respect and utter honesty. Back in the medieval quarter, a stroll through its narrow, curving streets illustrates that Vilnius is a city of tolerance and acceptance that has been welcoming Europeans since it was the capital of what was once a regional superpower in the 15th century. Built by the Grand Duke of Lithuania, Gediminas, in 1323 after a vivid dream, the street names ( German, Jewish, Tartar and Russian) and the proliferation of churches of some nine faiths show how multi- cultural the Duke's city soon became. One highlight is the flamboyantly Gothic St Anne's Church, that has such a delicate tracery brick facade that Napoleon wanted to take it back to Paris in the palm of his hand. However, linen and amber (' Baltic gold') may be the easier souvenirs to get through customs and are found in abundance along Pilies Street and in the surprising Amber Museum- Gallery. Two floors down, you find yourself at 14th- century street level looking at relics from many millennia before. ALL A- BUZZ IN THE BALTICS Dancers in folk costume