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Vilnius: The secret European city famous for hot air balloons and history that tourists are yet to discover

Simon Calder’s Travel

“Soft landings,” exclaims Valentas Karpinskis, as he slaps my backside with a smile.

It is the final evening of my four-night trip to discover the delights of Vilnius, Lithuania – and undoubtedly the most unforgettable.

Valentas, a burly hot air balloon pilot, had moments earlier set fire to a few strands of my hair before extinguishing the flame with a splash of sparkling wine as he baptised me a ‘Duke from Trakai’.

The bizarre rituals take place at dusk in a deserted field beside a railway line on the outskirts of Lithuania’s compact capital, to mark the completion of my maiden airborne voyage in a wicker basket.

Balloon flights (from €150/£128 per person) are a popular pastime here and have become synonymous with a city which last year celebrated its 700th anniversary.

My flight, signalling the start of the season, which runs from April until October, glides over the nearby lake resort of Trakai. Unlike most other European cities, accommodating government regulations also permit passengers to float directly above the historic old town.

Attracting 46,000 visitors from the UK in 2023, Vilnius is relatively uncharted territory as a short break for Brits – a reality readily acknowledged by locals.

“Please promise not to confuse the Baltics and the Balkans,” urges tour guide Lina Dusevičienė, back on terra firma.

Frustration at Lithuania regularly being muddled with neighbouring countries is also expressed during my stay, while I am gifted a T-shirt by the tourist board emblazoned with the tongue-in-cheek slogan: ‘Nobody knows where Vilnius is.’

Lake Galve is home to the fairytale-esque Trakai Castle (Ed Elliot/PA)

The nation was the first to declare independence from the Soviet Union, in 1990, and is the largest and most southerly of the three Baltic states.

Home to around 2.8million people, it lies on the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea, south of Latvia, while also sharing borders with Poland, Belarus and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.

Vilnius, in the south-west of the country, can be reached from the UK in around two hours and 45 minutes, with direct flights operating from Luton, Stansted and London City airports.

So, why should travellers venture through the Iron Curtain to this particular corner of Europe?

“Vilnius has an absolutely gorgeous landscape in the way it combines the city and nature in a very…

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