Mud, sweat and beers

1st October 2004 at 01:00
Enjoy a hot mud bath, endure masseuses with attitude, then chill out in a cool bar in downtown Vilnius. Lithuania has everything for a half-term break, says Renata Rubnikowicz

Imagine lying in a warm spa. You've splashed under an indoor waterfall, and steamed gently; now you are being massaged with local honey. Outside the snow is thick between the pine trees. But you are not in Scandinavia. This is Druskininkai in Lithuania, and the blue onion dome of the Russian Orthodox church down the road is evidence of just one episode in the area's rich history.

Druskininkai is an ancient spa town, much used in Soviet times. The taps on the long rows of baths flow with mud like melted chocolate, and the massage therapists have no smiley English small talk, but the facilities are newly updated and the treatments are genuine. The local hotel is modern, warm and comfortable and the food is simple and good. This is the real thing - a far cry from the whale song and lavender oil in the spare room of a country house hotel that often passes for a spa in Britain.

It would be possible to come here on a day trip from the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, but it is so much more relaxing to stay overnight. This also gives you time, on the way, to visit Grutas Park, a kind of Stalinist theme park for redundant dictators, with huge statues striking grand poses among the trees and a collection of all kinds of Soviet memorabilia.

Tourists find it fun in a post-ironic way but its breezy take on the past has bitterly divided locals, for whom this history remains sharp in the memory.

In Vilnius itself, on a quiet Sunday morning, when it seems everyone is in church, that history is chillingly present in the Museum of Genocide Victims, the former KGB headquarters that was still in use until it was relinquished in 1991, after Lithuania declared independence. In the prison cells beneath the building, the walls painted over many times to cover the stains of torture and the graffiti of the teachers, priests and other dissidents detained and killed here, everything has been left as it was, including the sacks of documents the KGB shredded just before leaving.

But in the streets, all is cheerful. Crowds stream out of the churches, stalls sell wooden and ceramic ornaments, hand-knitted jumpers, exceptionally good value leather goods and linen. Vilnius has its full complement of designer clothes shops and you will recognise many of the brand names. But the city, particularly the old town, retains its individuality. The first impression is of an ice-cream-coloured mix of baroque buildings, many of which have been refurbished as top-class hotels.

You can stay in a circular roof-top room with floor to ceiling windows, a round bed and an eye-level view of the church spires and domes, or dine in cellar restaurants, whose curved, brick-vaulted ceilings show the immense age of the city, which dates from the 14th century.

St Anne's is a spiky red-brick Gothic church, while the main cathedral is a neo-classical building, used as a museum in Soviet times and now restored.

On the steep hill behind stand the three crosses, also restored, that are a symbol of Lithuania's long Christian tradition. In summer the streets swarm with pavement cafes; in winter cafe society continues, French-style in cosy glassed-in conservatories tacked on to the fronts of the old buildings. I warm up with cappuccino and carrot cake in Freskas, a cafe-restaurant in the old town, hung about with theatrical mementos.

Across the river, the completely rebuilt Reval Lieutva hotel has added a hip and happening rooftop bar, coolly lit in blue and buzzing with Lithuanian students and fashionistas checking out each other and the view over the Neris river. It's difficult to believe that a little over a decade ago the reception of this same hotel was plastered with the stickers from news organisations from all over the world who stayed here while covering the fight for independence.

Regent Holidays offers city breaks to Vilnius and tailor-made holidays in Lithuania and the Baltic states. Three nights' bed and breakfast in the three-star Hotel City Gate costs pound;285 per person, twin-share, including return flights and taxes. Excursions to Grutas Park and Druskininkai from pound;65. Details: 0117 921 1711; Holidays is offering a four-night break in Vilnius from October 25-29 for pound;350, including: return flights from Gatwick, transfers, accommodation in the four-star Mabre hotel (a converted Russian monastery in the heart of the Old Town), walking tour of the Old Town and day trip to Trakai Castle and Grutas Park. Details and booking: 0870 757 9233;


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