Vilnius, Beauty and Horror

Trip Start Jul 06, 2008
Trip End Oct 11, 2008

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Sunday, August 17, 2008

This morning we were taken on a guided tour of Vilnius, mainly its Old Town. Our first stop was a viewing point above the city where we could see a great Panorama of the old and new parts of the city. Amelia was our local guide. She is very knowledgeable and also very proud of her home town.
From the hilltop we went down to the Old Town. We left the bus at the only remaining gate of the Old Town's wall. This bears the original coat of arms of the Dukes of Lithuania, supposedly the oldest in Europe. As we walked under the gate we could hear singing. Of course, being Sunday morning, mass was being held in the churches. The particular one from which the singing was coming was above the gates itself. This contains Lithuania's most famous icon, The Black Madonna. We could see this from the street through the open window.
As we walked along the street we passed many churches, both Catholic and Russian Orthodox. Amelia was at pains to point out that during the many years since Lithuania had become Christian, very late in the 14th century, both creeds had coexisted peacefully. During the Stalinist period however many of the churches had become warehouses and museums. The now Jesuit church had even become a museum of Atheism!!
We had a short break to have a browse on our own. Not many shops were yet open but we found a shop which sold Amber items. This is the precious "stone" of this area. I bought a very nice bangle for myself and Fletcher chose a small amber sailing ship to go with his collection.
We were then shown the Presidential Palace and the University buildings, both in the old town.The group then walked down to Cathedral Square where the original settlement was made. The Cathedral is very NeoClassical in appearance but has been altered several times over the years. Above this on the hill is the original upper castle established by Duke Ganimedes.
We then drove out of the city to the town of Trekai. Here there is a reconstructed castle on an island in the lake. This is very imposing and though it can be seen to be fairly modern it has retained the old style. The castle dates from the 14th century but was a ruin for many years. In 1948 the Lithuanians set out to restore it and the full reconstruction has only recently been completed. It is now an historical Museum. We were taken on a tour through the main rooms of the restored castle which has some of the original stonework and then modern brickwork resembling other castles of the period.
We stopped here for lunch, a very pretty place, being enjoyed by many locals on this warm, but cloudy, Sunday afternoon. At 1-30 we headed back to the city, but a group of us were dropped off for our optional afternoon tour. This was where the Horror was evident.
We toured the Genocide Museum, the old KGB headquarters and prison in the cellars of a beautiful looking building, not far from the Old Town which is now a Music Conservatory. Descending into the dank underground passageways was immediately chilling and the musty smell added to the oppression. We were shown the very small holding cells which were like cupboards with no windows or light and only a narrow bench to sit on. We saw the interrogation rooms, the cold cells where prisoners were kept wet and cold, the library containing Communist propaganda for reeducation and finally the exercise yard (a small cage like structure only a few feet wide) and  the execution room, complete with the bullet holes in the wall. Amelia was obviously very emotional about this horrific place and conveyed the tragedy that befell many who resisted during the Soviet years. We all contemplated  the pain that humans can inflict on other humans and were fairly subdued as we emerged. We stopped at the shrine to the dead outside the building and also read the names carved on the walls of the building of over 700 whose bodies were discovered in a forest outside the city.
Tonight we are going to a Lithuanian Folkloric show and dinner which should be entertaining. Truly an interesting place beautiful but beastly at the same time!!
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lucy123 on

Saw a bit of Vilnius about 6 weeks ago as the went there on the Amazing Race and had to find someone in the University Square, which was very pretty. I assume this is in the old town section.

lissa0412 on

sdo, I'm not sure about all this purchasing of things for yourself - I think some amber jewellery would have been very nice ;-)

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