Vilnius, August 15, 2005 - Monday
Trip Start Aug 12, 2005
23Trip End Aug 27, 2005
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Where I stayed
It was the Assumption Day today. I knew that Lithuania was basically a Roman Catholic country and that the Assumption Day was officially a day when you didn't work here. Same as in the great deal of Catholic countries of Europe. But this holiday didn't have the same treatment everywhere, regardless of its official status. So I didn't know how prominent it was in Lithuania. However, if the number of passengers riding the Vilnius-bound bus from Visaginas was anything to go by, then one could say the Lithuanians pretty much enjoyed their day off. You could not really claim that the few of us in the bus exactly trampled on each other's feet.
Bernardinų gatvė itself is one of the Old Town's back streets, a rather appealing narrow lane lined with seventeenth- and eighteenth-century houses
From the almost empty Bernardinų gatvė my feet led me directly to the Pilies gatvė, perhaps to tourists the most famous street in Vilnius Old Town. Pilies gatvė, or Castle Street literally, is a charming, rather steep, cobbled, pedestrian-only place, obviously a tourist attraction in its own right. If there was - or was to be - a lull in Vilnius due to the Assumption Day, they obviously had not learned about it in Pilies gatvė yet. Old Town's main artery and the hub of café and outdoors market life, the street was as busy as it could be with scores of souvenir stalls and cafés abounding on either side. At first sight, one would say that if you want to buy a souvenir in Vilnius or have a coffee at the right spot, Pilies gatvė was the place to come. If your name is a foreigner, of course. I'm not entirely sure the locals would think the same. I'm talking about the coffee, of course. Whoever buys souvenirs in their hometown?
Generally speaking, Vilniaus senamiestis, or Old Town of Vilnius, as we would say, is one of the largest surviving medieval old towns in Northern Europe
Practically just a stone's throw away from there, following the "Lonely Planet" downtown map, I found the Vilnius University, one of the most elaborate architectural complexes of the Old Town. Vilniaus Universitetas is one of the oldest universities in Northern Europe and also the largest university in Lithuania. Founded as far back as 1569 by Jesuits and granted the status of an academical institution by Pope Gregory XIII ten years later, it served as another example of how far back reached the culture and history of a small people, who at the same time in recent decades suffered a case of historical bad luck by being wrapped in the cloak of Soviet communism. The fact that Lithuanian population never numbered in tens, let alone hundreds of millions, that its historical description never included such desirable geo-political epithets like colonial, or, more recently, super-power, and that all those "respectable" colonial or super-powers had for centuries been seeing its territory as to be up for grabs (as is the case with many other small countries, by the way) was still to many from those "respectable" countries a reason enough to look down at this new-comer on the world scene
Sure enough, and regrettably so, times in such a small country and for such a small people like Lithuanians are seldom rosy for any longer spell. Just to make sure they are not, there is always a respectable neighbour, like Russians, Germans and Poles in this case. True to the form, the Universitetas was in turns closed, reopened, ransacked and looted, its activities banned, it hid underground and so on and on. So go ahead and go on being the old Oxford if you can.
University's closest neighbour is the Presidential Palace, so practically at one go I saw two Vilnius landmarks, side by side, around the Daukanto aikstė. Because of Lithuania's turbulent past which suffered no shortage of fires, wars, foreign occupations and unrests, many of the documents chronicling the building's early days have been lost to time, thieves and flames. But it is known that the palace traces its history back all the way to the 14th century. It started out as the Bishop's Palace. Over succeeding generations, the building was gradually enlarged and made more ornate. Then some time in the 18th century the Bishops left. In their wake all sorts of self-important characters dropped by, the likes of emperors and heroes in the mould of, say, Napoleon, whose greatest heroic feat was an attempt to subjugate Europe and rob all the nations he marched over of their independence, freedom and right to self-determination
And then I went on down the Vilniaus gatvė. I wanted to pass through that street as according to the "Lonely Planet" the largest tourist information office in Vilnius was there. As it was the Assumption Day, I assumed the probability that it would be closed was greater than that it wouldn't. And I was right. But at least I wanted to know where it was. Just in case. It was just a few minutes away from "Litinterp", so it would be no problem for me to take a walk and pick any material I might need tomorrow morning.
As soon as I was away from Daukanto aikstė, or rather, as soon as I was away from Pilies gatvė, Vilnius again looked like a God-forsaken dump
Having taken my seat there, finally in Vilnius, I tried to assess my first impressions of the town. I could immediately say I liked this charming capital of Lithuania. Of course, I hadn't even dipped my toes in the water properly there, as it were, and sitting and waiting to order myself a pizza in this certain "Da Antonio Restoranas" was probably the first big thing I was doing in Vinius. So the exploration of the city had yet to begin. But judging by this first brief look, I liked it.
As the capitals go, Vilnius is a midget. Even my country's capital is a bit bigger and beats it in a contest of midgets. But Vilnius is nevertheless the biggest Lithuanian city. It is located in a region that goes by the name of Aukstaitija, or the Highlands in translation, and then I realised whence the name of the hotel I had slept in in Visaginas. Considered the cradle of the Lithuanian state and nation, Aukstaitija geographically refers to north-eastern part of the country, which includes Visaginas, too
Vilnius isn't the oldest of all European cities, but for places like Visaginas it represented a relic from misty and untraceable ancient past. In general terms, though, being first mentioned in written sources in 1323, it was one more among those cropping up all over northern Europe roughly at the same time. Same as entire Lithuania, it changed hands many times, in the historical tug-of-war among Russia, Poland and Germany, only occasionally returning for a brief respite home to Lithuania, when it couldn't take the ravaging inflicted any more. Accordingly, there were periods in its history when Lithuanian speaking population constituted only a small minority, with Polish, Russian, and Yiddish speakers being most of the population there.
And so it went up and down all the way until 1990 when Lithuania announced its independence from the Soviet Union and restored the independent Republic of Lithuania. The Soviets responded by sending in troops one last time, killing at least fourteen civilians and seriously injuring more than 700. But that was all there was to it. When the Soviet Union finally recognised Lithuanian independence in August 1991, Lithuanians could at last start believing their independence would hold out this time and Vilnius would be able to turn to itself. Lithuanians are today the large majority in the city once again and the town has been emerging as a modern European city, being the major economic centre of Lithuania and one of the largest financial centres of the Baltics
Pizza came and went, neither the best nor the worst I'd ever had, and I moved on. My way led me to Gedimino prospektas, the main street of Vilnius. Named after a guy called Gediminas, the true founder of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania as an empire and its monarch, it is what you may safely term as the all-in-one. If you are a government official or a Member of Parliament, if you work in a Ministry or at the Constitutional Court, that's where you go to work. If you're into cultural institutions like Lithuanian National Drama Theatre or Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre, to name just a few, you look for them there. If only shopping and dining are your bag, that's your street again. And even if none of that is what you're after, and all you want is to watch stunning Lithuanian girls parading up and down, that's where you go. Particularly in the evenings when the traffic is prohibited and it is converted into a pedestrian-only zone.
Sure enough, same as entire Vilnius, Gedimino prospektas too went through all sorts of different incarnations in its 170 years of existence. As from the word go it was clear that they were dealing with the main artery in town, everyone up there in the ruling saddle at any given moment considered it important to name it after their own tastes. First it was called Sv. Georgijaus prospektas, or St. George Avenue. Then during the Polish rule it was ulica Mickiewicza, during the Nazi occupation Adolf Hitler Straße, and at the beginning of the Soviet occupation in 1940 Stalin first moved in, only to later got re-christened into Lenin Avenue. And so on. Since the fall of communism it's borne its present name. Like a criminal with a pile of passports out of which only one isn't counterfeit. If you ask Lithuanians, then it's most certainly this last one.
I knew I would be returning to Gedimino prospektas, and very soon at that, so this time I didn't linger for too long. I went on down the Vilniaus gatvė and arrived at the Neris river. Right at the other side there was St. Raphael's Church which I wanted to visit.
The river was just grey and murky water today, soaking up the dreary colour of the sky that was rapidly getting overcast again. Air temperature dropped and I wondered if summer in Lithuania wasn't meant to last longer than just a few hours this season. The Neris river is the second biggest Lithuanian river, even if it was actually more Byelorussian than Lithuanian. But it is difficult to expect from a small country like Lithuania to have a river of a more significant length that considers available territory large enough for itself, without stretching out into the neighbourhood
The Neris river is spanned by a number of bridges. I counted seven on the city map. Vilniaus gatvė emerged onto Zaliasis tiltas, literally the Green Bridge, probably the most famous of all in town. In fact, a bridge of one description or another has stood on the spot of the Zaliasis tiltas since 1536. The current construction in the length of 103 metres dates from 1952, and was originally named after a Red Army general. It, as the only one in entire Lithuania, sports sculptures at each of its corners. No other bridge in the country has any sculptures whatsoever, and this one has as many as four groups of them, extolling and representing such socrealist parade horses like agriculture, industry and construction, peace and that old Soviet chestnut, youth. And one may be wondering why such blatantly communist symbols are still intact. There do seem to be a few who'd like to see them gone, but the majority of the local population seems to be rather fond of them, if only because they're funny.
The Church of St Raphael the Archangel and the adjacent Jesuit monastery stand right on the bank of the Neris. This charming two-tower late baroque structure, built in 1730 was impossible to miss. Two stylish towers peeked from behind tall trees surrounding the church and simply beckoned a tourist like me.
This church, same as the great part of Vilnius, went through all sorts of incarnations in its history, depending on who the boss of the town was at given time
I entered and on the Assumption Day saw a proud crowd of three grannies and no priest or mass in sight. On the other hand, as a tourist, I preferred it like that as I could do my sightseeing better. And there was no doubt that it was pretty. The highlight, of course, is the beautiful painting of the Raphael the Archangel on the wall above and behind high altar, but there was also a multitude of smaller paintings with gilded rims, a number of columns with gilded capitals and a bunch of statues in various sizes. So the church looked both from outside and inside just the way you would expect it from a baroque church.
I returned to Gedimino prospektas and this time took a walk along the long stretch of it in the western direction. My destination was Lukiskių aikstė, or Lukishki square, the largest square in Vilnius, but I was in no hurry. Why hurry when all the girls of Vilnius were out in the street right here?
Lukiskių aikstė too saw its share of history, executions and destruction. According to good old Soviet custom, it too once bore the name of Lenin square with a huge Vladimir Ilyich monument. However, that statue got the boot in 1991 and would've certainly been consigned to a dump-site somewhere, or molten into a liquid metal, had someone not come up with an idea to open up a quirky theme park with relics from the communist past on a locality in southern Lithuania
I was more interested in Lithuanian Music Academy building which was there, as well. For music was obviously something that had no saturation point for me.
From Lukiskių aikstė I headed southwards up Vasario 16-osios gatvė, whatever that means, and found myself in the Pamėnkalnio gatvė, a street running roughly parallel to Gedimino prospektas. On a street corner I found an Internet café there and decided to check what had been happening with my mails over the last five days. I expected there would be more places like that in Vilnius. However, I had either always been walking the wrong streets or there were not nearly as many of them as I had thought there would be. This one consisted of a relatively small anteroom which doubled as a tiny supermarket for those who couldn't survive an hour at a PC without a snack or a drink, and of a larger room where local kids mostly played video games, so the air was full of sounds of blasted flying saucers, slaughtered aliens and an occasional bell or buzz, marking a mission successfully accomplished. I was interested in email only.
An hour and a half later back in the street again, it not only had not started raining again, but the sky cleared up. It was already seven thirty, but at such a high latitude it meant nothing yet. I might have as many as two more hours of daylight ahead of me. From the spot I was at I noticed a green slope leading up to the top of a hill, so I decided to climb up. So I arrived in - or climbed to - Taurakalnis, a park on top of the Hill of the Tauras. There was a Holocaust Museum, too, but I gave it the same treatment I'd given the Lithuanian Genocide Museum earlier downtown, which again consisted of a wide berth.
What interested me more was a view at the city from on top of the hill and finally something you might rightly call a panorama of some kind.
Not far from there, there was one of the most unusual monuments I have ever seen, the Frank Zappa Memorial. I still don't get it, what the connection is between Frank Zappa and Vilnius. It would be interesting to know who and why came to an idea to erect a metal column with his head on top of it and paint a graffiti mural depicting his face, among other things, right behind it. And I'd be even more curious to know how that someone sold the city authorities on the idea. Whichever way it might have happened, the Frank Zappa Memorial was there now. Certainly, as a prolific and distinctive composer, electric guitar player and the band leader in "Mothers of Invention", Frank Zappa was a name many "intellectually" oriented students, and even musicians of my generation swore by. And of course, he had a lot to show for, like 60 or so albums, numerous Grammy nominations and even two awards under his belt, one during his lifetime and one posthumously. But I never approached music intellectually. I have always listened to the feeling it creates in me. And Frank Zappa's music hardly ever created any. The only song he wrote I remember ever really liking was "Big Leg Emma" and that's where my Frank Zappa favourites list both begins and ends with. But then again, maybe I was simply too young to understand it and too honest to pretend otherwise. Of course, I don't want to imply others pretended. I just want to say it never occurred to me to pretend just in order to be one of the bunch. That's all.
On from the Frank Zappa Memorial, I decided to return to where I'd originally come from. The already empty streets grew even emptier and I could see as good as no one outside any more. Until I was back in Pilies gatvė. There it was as crowded as when I had first been there several hours ago. Only maybe a bit more. And now in the twilight, since sunrays couldn't find their way in between the narrowly lined houses any more, as the sun was soon about to set, it all looked different. Cafés and restaurants looked even livelier than earlier and one could see the night life was only about to get into the full swing.
I had another climb up the street and found a charming and beautiful, pink-and-white St. Parasceve's Orthodox Church. The way it looks now, it was built in the 16th century, and same as the rest of Vilnius, it too had its ups and downs. The only difference was to the extent that when Russians were in town, then it thrived, and when some others ruled, then not so much. The Soviets introduced equality. During their rule, no church prospered.
And then I turned back and slid downhill to the end of Pilies gatvė. It got me to Katedros aikstė, the Cathedral Square in translation. Lukiskių aikstė which I had seen earlier might have been the largest Vilnius square, but Katedros aikstė was the main one. Right in front of the neo-classical Vilnius Cathedral, it is not only the most lively and important location in town, but also one of the most significant and widely-known symbols of Lithuania. Come at the right time, and you're bound to bump into a military parade, a religious or official public event, a concert or just a fair. A key location in city's public life, it's obviously where it's at in Vilnius.
Founded as late as 19th century, during the reconstruction and refurbishment of the Cathedral, it's obviously a youngster in a town of Vilnius's age. Its main feature, as you can logically deduce form its name, is first of all the Cathedral itself. But there is the Belfry, as well, right next to it. And right by the Cathedral, there stands a big Monument to the Grand Duke Gediminas, the same bloke Gedimino prospektas was named after. Nearby, there is a magical place, or the magical place, which in a less mythical vocabulary is in fact a small stone marking the spot where, according to a local urban legend, the human chain of Baltic Way, linking Vilnius with Rīga and Tallinn, the capitals of other two Baltic Republics, had its start and thereby launched an event that marked the beginning of national liberation of the Baltic States. They say that if one steps on this stone and turns around three times, their wish will be granted. As for me, I learned about that urban legend only once I had long been gone. In other words, I couldn't test its validity.
So all in all, if you come to Vilnius and just whiz through, like one day only, then this is the place to come to and start your brief sightseeing from.
Vilnius Cathedral is the main Roman Catholic Cathedral of Lithuania and as such the heart of country's spiritual life. As coronations of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania were regularly conducted inside, it has seen a great deal of Lithuanian history trotted out. Add to it crypts and catacombs with many local historical celebrities interred, and more than forty works of art dating from the 16th through to the 19th century, and you'll know what it really represents here.
This Lithuanian King called Mindaugas built the original cathedral in 1251 after his conversion to Christianity. But after the old Mindaugas had set out on his journey to the evermore, all sorts of things were happening to it in the following seven and the half centuries, as it befits in a country with such a history. There were lapses back into paganism, fires, destructions, communism and the like, and all that meant that the Cathedral had to sometimes be rehabilitated, sometimes expanded, but sometimes built entirely anew. Seems the restoration is an ongoing process. As I stood there on the old Katedros aikstė, scaffolds and formwork covered a good deal of the Cathedral façade.
The Cathedral was closed. I don't know if I expected it to be on the Assumption Day, not too late in the evening. But whatever I might have expected, one couldn't go in. So for a while I lingered around, trying to shoot a good evening photo or two. When I decided that I'd done my best and whatever the result, I wouldn't do better than that, I swivelled on my heel and headed back to my room.
As a matter of fact, I found the prospect of sleeping in a normal bed after three nights that were more along the lines of a boy-scout-camping accommodation than what you would expect from a regular hotel room quite enticing.