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Planet Appetite: The Sky's the Limit in Vilnius, Lithuania

22/08/2014 12:07 BST | Updated 21/10/2014 10:59 BST

Around two and half hours from London, on a direct flight, Vilnius, capital of Lithuania, is good value, and there's lot's to do, including flying a hot air balloon over the city.

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The pilot tells us to prepare for a bumpy landing as the wind has got up - he instructs us to keep our knees bent and hold on tight, as it could be uncomfortable. Our altitude is 30m but the ground is rushing up towards us. Suddenly we're down and on the verge of tipping over but he manages to right the basket and we're safe.

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Fortunately this is not my Wizz Air flight to Vilnius, but my maiden voyage in a hot air balloon. We've left the centre of the city, along with 10 other balloons, and drifted 25 km across the countryside. The sun is setting as we land in somebody's field, narrowly missing their greenhouse full of cucumbers.

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Lithuania, in Northern Europe, is one of 3 Baltic States to the East of Sweden. Vilnius old town hails mainly from the 17th and 18th century and has a surprising cohesion of styles and a definite absence of soviet-style eyesores. It's peppered with churches and they say that wherever you go there are at least 2 in sight.

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The first cathedral was erected here in the 13th century but has undergone much rebuilding and, during soviet times, was used as an art gallery. Next to it is a white tower, part of the original fortifications, but now used as a belfry.

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The city is home to the oldest university in this part of Europe and was established by the Jesuits in 1579. Its 9 courtyards are remarkably tranquil and it's worth visiting the beautiful Baroque St John's Church and climbing its bell tower. There's a lift for most of the way but the last few wooden stairs require some courage. At 68m, this is the tallest building in the old town and the view is well worth the climb.

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An interesting way of getting to know the city is to take a Tasty Vilnius tour. You start in the Culinary Museum and see a collection of cutlery from the 16th-20th centuries, kitchen utensils from all over the world and antique kitchen furniture.

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At different restaurants, there are tastings of Lithuanian traditional beetroot soup, snails with green butter, and Cepelinai, mashed potato stuffed with mince (their shape resembles WW1 Zeppelins). The final stop is at Tie Kepejai, a traditional bakery where you enjoy coffee and cakes.

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It's worth a day trip to the village of Trakai, the former capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, 28 km away. It occupies a peninsula, between two lakes, and the Island Castle, accessed by 2 wooden drawbridges is particularly impressive.

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It was built in the early 15th century by Grand Duke Vytautas, when Lithuania was at the height of its power, but fell into ruin over the centuries. In the 1960s, some say to spite the Soviets, it was restored to its former glory, but it does have a slight Disneyland feel. Still, there are glorious views over the lake and there's a museum inside displaying artefacts found on the site. You can also swim here, take a boat ride, or just amble along in a Pedalo.

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This area is home to Lithuania's only ethnic minority, the Karaim, originally imported from the Crimea as bodyguards in the 14th century. Their roots lie in Turkic lands around the Black Sea but there are now less than 300 left in the country. Kybynlar is a traditional restaurant which serves up Kibinai - pastries filled with meat, cheese or cabbage, similar to Cornish pasties. You wash them down with Karaimų Tradicinė Trauktinė, golden alcohol with spices and herbs, bound to put hairs on your chest..

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Vilnius is a pleasant city, with good prices, and it's small enough to walk around and take in the atmosphere. Restaurants serve traditional food in the main, but you can find young chefs, like Linas Samenas, cooking delicious modern variations.

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There are plenty of bars, but don't expect raucous drinking parties - this is a polite town where you're expected to behave. And if you really are serious about sightseeing, then get a bird's eye view from a hot air balloon, just hang on tight...

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Vilnius Tourism has information about the city.

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Lithuania Travel has information about the country.

Europa Royale Vilnius makes a pleasant base in the centre of the city

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The Ballooning Centre has flights in the early morning and evening.

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Ryanair flies to Vilnius from London Luton and Stansted.

Wizz Air flies Luton to Vilnius International Airport..

Air Baltic flies to Vilnius,via Riga, from Gatwick.

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All pictures copyright Rupert Parker.