In recent years weâ€™ve gotten used to the idea that former Soviet countries have taken off economically, but itâ€™s hard to shake the stereotypical imagery of grey, dull concrete and cold, depressed societies. Then you wander into Druskininkai and you have to rethink those preconceptions.
Druskininkai is a small town in southern Lithuania, only eight kilometres from the Belarusian border. Its great claim to fame is as a spa resort, popular with Czar Nicholas I in the 1830â€™s and keeping the tradition going through to WWII.
The town is surrounded by forest and the beautiful wooden houses emerge from leafy shadows which give the town a quiet and peaceful air. It was a rich town for a long time, and the neglect of half a century couldnâ€™t destroy its beauty.
While the town has rejuvenated itself, many of the large spas are still in mothballs. Opposite the tourist information centre it is possible to enter the grounds of one. Overgrown athletic equipment from the 1920s â€“ steps and bars and wading pools â€“ lurk in the greenery. The place has an eerie feel to it, perhaps the ghosts of those long ago fitness fanatics are still puffing along the trails or struggling over chin-ups.
There are a number of spa resorts up and running again, some with reasonable hotel rates. If budget travel is more your style, the campsite next to the tourist info is large, new and has cabins for rent. Druskininkai is about 120 km from the capital city Vilnius and several buses run daily.
If you have any questions just ask a local, but preferably one under the age of 25. They have had English in school and love practising it. You might even get introduced to the latest Lithuanian hip-hop on their iPod, and that is well worth it indeed.