After another comfortable bus ride from Riga, checking into our apartment and walking five minutes, we were thrilled to find that our entrance into the Old Town of Vilnius, Lithuania would be through the last-standing of the original five gates. It is called the Gate of Dawn and it houses the Chapel of Mary the Mother of God and the Vilnius Madonna, a painting from the 1600’s purported to work miracles; as such, it has become a pilgrimage site in Eastern Europe. We had read that sometimes Mass is held in this tiny chapel (only about 12 people can squeeze in around the priest) and we made a special point to attend – a unique sacred experience. The pictures above show the window above the gate which stays always open so you can see the portrait from the street below.
Vilnius’ Old Town is the largest in Eastern Europe and it is filled with churches and – guess what – beautiful architecture, mostly Baroque this time. In the 14th – 17th centuries, Lithuania was a big empire, stretching into what now is Russia and Poland, but it was given to Russia totally in the Partition of Poland in the late 1700’s. The rest of their history is basically the same as the other Baltic States, brief independence, Soviet rule, Nazi rule, Russian rule, independence in 1990. However, unlike Estonia and Latvia, Lithuania is still 80% Catholic and 90% are of Lithuanian descent (Russia chose not to resettle the country as it did the others). So the town is full of towering steeples and only a few onion-domes (Orthodox – as beautiful as they are, it’s nice to see Catholic churches again). While under Soviet rule, all the churches were closed and turned into warehouses and atheist museums (it’s true!), but when Lithuania regained independence the people retained their faith.
One particularly sad fact of Vilnius is that it used to be referred to as the “Jerusalem of the North” – at one time the Jewish population there was over 100,000. Sadly, only about 5000 live there now. Panerai Forest, where mass graves filled with up to 100,000 bodies of Jews massacred by the Nazis in WWII were found, is just outside the city. Over half of the Jewish population of Vilnius were killed there during the first three months of the war. We didn’t go there but we did walk through the site of the Jewish ghetto where there is a memorial to the victims.
Sports, basketball in particular, is supposed to be Lithuanian’s biggest passion (our tour guide said, #1 God, #2 basketball, #3 beer!). This was reinforced to us by two events: in the main square on Saturday was a boys wrestling tournament, and on Sunday the main street was closed and filled with all kinds of sports games, open to anyone who wanted to participate. There was tai chi, yoga, fitness classes, tennis courts, ping pong, chess, checkers, street hockey… anything you could think of, it stretched for blocks – really neat with people of all ages participating and watching.
Wrestling tourney in main square
And the beer drinking – we heard this wagon singing down the street 🙂
Vilnius was founded on Gediminus Hill, which still has a 13th century tower and castle ruins. We walked there through a lovely large park (if only US cities had more of these) and up a few hills to reach it and the site of the Three Crosses. Crosses were placed on a hill in the 1700’s to honor three monks who had been murdered by Pagans. The Soviets bulldozed them in 1950 and left their ruins at the base of the hill; they are still there below the rebuilt three crosses monument.
And here is Grand Duke Gediminus (ruled in the 1300’s) and his hilltop castle overlooking the old and new town:
Another interesting area of Vilnius is the Republic of Uzipes, located on an (almost) island close to Old Town. In 1998, on April 1st, it was declared an independent state with their own President, Parliament, flag and a Constitution. It is all tongue-in-cheek but the city has embraced it and it has become a hip place to live and visit. It is filled with art and cafes, and it’s quite pleasant to visit.
The pictures on the entrance sign reflect that you must be happy and smile while visiting here (Lithuanians have been downtrodden too long); speed limit is 20 km/hr.; Mona Lisa represents the artist colony who are embraced here; this is how you are punished if you speed (your car will end up in the river). The Constitution is also cute, such as stating the right for its citizens to have a cat, to love, to be free, and to have hot water among other things… the parliament meets in a corner bar and that is where it was written, so that explains it!
We watched the changing of the guard at the (real) Presidents Palace. Like the other Baltic states, the President’s house and Parliament are wide open, very accessible, and Lithuania has a popular woman president. The ritual was elaborate, with music and both soldiers and Knights in shining armor. Plus Brian got his requisite picture shaking hands with a Presidential Guard.
We had time to take a quick train to the small town of Trakai, which sits between two lovely lakes and has a fully restored castle dating back to the 1300’s. It’s a great little town and the castle has many exhibits, a small museum, plus some interactive stuff to do in the large inner yard.