Vilnius (15 – 18 June 2013)
I was pretty excited to get there. That area up in the north of Europe had always seemed so mysterious to me and not only that I had never visited a former Soviet Republic before. I could hardly wait!
I took a Ryanair flight from Rome to Vilnius. It was only after I had booked my flight that I realised how annoying Ryanair was. I suppose the service on board was alright, although I could not remember what happened during the flight. However Ryanair had this stupid policy of requiring passengers to print their own boarding passes or otherwise pay something like €70 to get one printed at the airport. €70 for a lousy piece of paper! How utterly shameless!
Getting to the central train station from the airport by train was terribly easy, fast and cheap. It cost Lt 3.50 one way and brilliant me gave the conductor Lt 200 because I forgot to draw something smaller. Thankfully she did not curse me for it and even made the effort to get me my change.
I rented an apartment right in the middle of the old city and it was great. It came with good strong free wifi and even had a workable washing machine. My only complaint was that the toilet seat was broken but since I was not going to sit on the toilet all the time it was not a big issue.
Vilnius was special and looked and felt special. For some reason the old city felt more like a quaint little town and was not like anything I had seen before. The usual European architectural styles, Gothic, Baroque, neo-Classical, etc, were represented in the city, and yet it still managed to retain a unique look and feel.
And since I had come here straight from Rome, it was like having a soothing rice porridge the day after a heavy 10-course feast.
I think I have to attribute this uniqueness to the stubbornness of the Lithuanian people. They simply refuse to conform. Despite their long historical relationships with the Polish and the Russians, the Lithuanians never became Slavic.
The Lithuanians are also a very religious bunch. Somehow I have to attribute this to their stubbornness too. The more their Russian occupiers tried to stop them from being Catholic, the more Catholic they became. The Catholicness of the Lithuanians is also amazing now because they were the last European nation to leave paganism.
The Basilica of St Stanislaus and St Vladislav is the cathedral of Vilnius. The distinctive 18th century building was completely renovated between 2006 and 2008. It was incredible that 5 years after the renovation the white paint on it still looked so fresh and new.
The interesting looking Church of St Anne is situated in a quiet part of the old town. Its façade is built in Flamboyant Gothic style and is indeed quite flamboyant. Next to it is the more sedated Church of St Francis of Assisi (Bernadine). The two churches sit together as if they are in fact one church. How odd. I can never understand why the Europeans of old needed so many churches. They seemed to enjoy building churches like they were lamp posts. Walk by one and then a few metres away there is another.
On the Sunday I was in Vilnius, I attended mass at the Bernadine Church. I was hoping to attend a mass in the main church itself. Instead the mass was held in one of the chapels. The mass was said in English.
Religious fervour among the Lithuanians can be experienced in two shrines in the old city of Vilnius itself.
The first, and most obvious one, is the chapel in the Gate of Dawn. The gate is the only one still standing in the old city and is an important landmark in Vilnius. The chapel was built into the wall to house an icon of the Mother of Mercy to protect the city. Apparently many favours were granted to people who prayed at this icon. I went up to pray too of course and am still waiting for my prayers to be answered.
The second one I came upon completely by chance. This was the Divine Mercy Sanctuary or also known as the Holy Trinity Church and it houses the image of the Divine Mercy. It has been promised that anyone who venerates the image is assured of divine mercy. The sanctuary was also a nice place for some peace and quiet after a day of mad sightseeing. When I was there a nun was worshipping with her guitar. I had a very pleasant time in there with the guitar strumming and had to try somewhat to stay awake.
Despite the country being staunchly Catholic, there are Orthodox churches right in the old city. The Church of the Holy Spirit is one and is the only Orthodox church in the country built in the Baroque style and in the shape of the Latin cross.
Another landmark in the old city is the Gediminas’ Tower which is part of what remains of the Upper Castle built on a hill. The tower is an important symbol of Vilnius and Lithuania itself. There is a small museum in the tower but I think people mostly came here for the view from on top.
I should add that the Gediminas’ Tower is part of the historic Vilnius Castle Complex. There is an Upper Castle and so there is also a Lower Castle. The latter fared better than the former in that two of its structures are today still intact and complete. The cathedral is one, the other is the Royal Palace although the present building is a recent reconstruction. The palace was once the political centre of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The new building was officially opened to the public on 6 July 2013, less than a month after my visit!
Leaving the old city one comes to a very sombre yet important museum called the Museum of Genocide Victims or the KGB Museum. The building which houses the museum now was once the local headquarters of the KGB. For once I read about how there could be people who had caused more pain and suffering than the Nazis. in Europe. However, since the Nazis were ousted quickly by the end of WWII in Europe, and the tormentors of the Lithuanian people, the Soviets, were in control of the country for decades after the Nazis with no one to drive them away, more people suffered more under the Soviets.
I think it was very telling that the museum was called the Museum of Genocide Victims. The Soviets tried to Russify the Lithuanians and that of course involved making all possible attempts to destroy everything Lithuanian. I am glad that the Soviets failed, although the Soviets definitely left behind many Russians in the country. And the Soviet’s probably trademark dour personality on the Lithuanians. Lonely Planet called the Lithuanians flamboyant. All I saw in Vilnius were mostly grumpy people. The only Lithuanians I met in Vilnius who had actually smiled at me were the lady on the airport train, locals (if there were any) at the mass on Sunday, this flamboyant waiter at a restaurant, the bus driver who had driven me back from Kernavė and this girl at the fast food stand. My landlady was kind to me and even tried to make conversation but she hardly smiled. Could it be that all these smiley people I met were in fact not Lithuanian?
I remember this girl at a bakery at the bus station whom I had asked if the black bits on this bun were chocolate since I could not read the Lithuanian labels. She replied that it was fruit with a look as if I had just killed her mother but she was forced to attend to me. Or I was her captor at the KGB headquarters and I had made her lick my toes clean of crap or something.
Back to the Museum of Genocide Victims. It showcased the sad and awful history of the Soviet occupation of Lithuania and the struggles and suffering of the people because of Soviet atrocities and their fight for freedom. It was mind blowing just walking through the museum. Everyone had heard about the atrocities of the Nazis but far fewer people truly knew about the atrocities of the Soviets.
The basement of the museum contained the cells of the KGB prison. This was a very gruesome section. I particularly remember this cell where a prisoner could be made to stand on a tiny round wooden platform, barely a foot across, in the middle of the cell. The floor of the cell, which had been dug in around the platform, would be flooded with water and so the prisoner could only remain on the platform for as long as his captors wanted. The prisoner would find himself slipping into the water ever so often and in the northern European winter this would be absolute torture.
There is a very interesting district in Vilnius called Užupis. This district declared itself an independent republic on April Fools’ Day in 1997 and even has its own constitution written in 15 languages and displayed on a public wall. Although I did not see any, the district felt like a hippie enclave. It is apparently more of an artist enclave.
Even without hearing of Užupis, the city is sort of quirky in some ways. There was a tree across the road from St Anne’s that was wearing a sweater. The city also has a bronze cast of Frank Zappa although this to me was nowhere near the sweater-wearing tree in quirkiness.
Vilnius got me acquainted with a rather quirky drink. I asked the waitress at this restaurant what a gira was, having spotted the name on the menu, and she explained that it was a drink that was like beer but not beer. Her cryptic reply made me all the more curious and so I had to order one to try. It turned out to be exactly what the waitress said it was: it was like beer but not beer. It tasted like a drink made from fermented grain and yet was non-alcoholic and sweet. The first few sips were strange but it actually grew on me after a while.
I had made the right choice going to Lithuania. I enjoyed its uniqueness and its quirkiness and Vilnius made me want to see more of the country. Before my visit, I had not expected Lithuania to be this refreshing. I imagined that I had European culture down pat until I saw Vilnius. Now if only the people there could be made to just smile a little at visitors. Just a little would be fine.