Travels with V
Estonia & Lithuania
One step back and three forward
Lithuania part one, Vilnius
Leaving Kihnu we drive back to Pärnu and continue south-east. Our goal is to reach the Lithuanian town of Siauliai before nightfall. But some 20 kilometers south of Pärnu the engine gets a hiccup and suddenly stops. We’re on a main road with heavy traffic and there is just a narrow strip beside the road to push the car into. Fearing everytime a lorry passes that it will crash into our car we call for help. And two hours later a skinny man with a Che Guevara t-shirt arrives with a tow truck, wheels in the car and takes us back to Pärnu. There he finds a garage that is able to fix the car already the next day.
Now we drive as fast as we can straight through Latvia and down through Lithuania to Vilnius, the capital. It’s dark and rainy when we arrive and we’re almost hit by some insane driver in a roundabout. But we arrive unhurt at the hotel located in a new and rapidly developing part of the city. Old concrete Soviet-style buildings have been razed and glass-and steel business buildings have replaced them. We throw in our trunks and go visit the hotel bar.
Vilnius is with its well preserved medieval city center a typical Baltic city. An Old Town with narrow cobbled streets and magnificent palaces and churches and a surrounding wall. New suburbs with tall business buildings, and in between a worn down city with apartment houses in various states of decline. Vilnius is a bit more elegant and well kept than its Baltic sisters Tallinn and Riga.
The shops in Old Town are mostly exclusive fashion boutiques, but restaurants and bars dominate the streets.
Vilnius’ churches are also bigger and more flamboyant, and perhaps also a bit more odd. One has a spire that looks like a king’s crown, another, called the Chapel of the Gates of Dawn is hidden above an old city gate. And one orthodox church, St. Paraskeva, is said to have received in 1708 as a gift from the tsar Peter the Great some Swedish flags conquered in battle. But we didn’t see any.
WORSHIPPERS AT GATES OF DAWN
Our first city hike starts at the castle which we reach by a short cable car ride. But the castle itself is closed and doesn’t look like much, just some restored brick walls. Instead we head over to the other end of the courtyard to climb the mighty Gediminas Tower, a six-edge three-storey defence tower that today contains a smart museum showing specific bits of the tower’s and Vilnius’ history. From the tower’s roof you have a nice panorama view of the city.
With its back to the Tower hill stands the shiny white Grand Dukes’ palace (picture on top of this page). Lithuania has never had a king, but was since ancient times a grand duchy, and a very successful one. In the middle ages it was one of the largest countries in Europe, stretching from the Baltic Sea almost to the Black sea. Gradually though the country fell under Polish influence, later in a union and finally incorporated as a vassal state.
After the Napoleon wars it became a part of Russia. After the Bolshevik revolution Lithuania declared a short-lived independence, but the Red Army reconquered it after just a few months. Two years later the Poles snatched it back. A troublesome time that would continue.
Most hard hit by the turmoils that followed were Vilnius’ jews. The city had such a large jewish population that it was called “Jerusalem of Eastern Europe”. But when nazi Germany attacked Moscow they seized the Baltic countries on the way, and in Vilnius they quickly established two ghettos. One for the factory slave workers (red on the map) and one smaller for the elderly and the sick (yellow).
This last ghetto was soon emptied and the inhabitants was taken to a nearby forest and shot. The larger ghetto was useful for the nazis so it lived a few years. But when the Red Army was advancing its inhabitants were also murdered. Of Vilnius’ 60 000 jews only 2-3000 survived.
For the Baltic people the outcome of the war went from bad to worse. The Red Army recaptured the countries and kept them under ockupation for more than 60 years. And the occupants faced resistance all those years. The story of that resistance is displayed in the Occupation and Freedom museum In the former KGB headquarters in Vilnius.
There was a brave but ill-fated guerilla trying for ten years to fight the Soviets. Tens of thousands of Lithuanians were deported to remote parts of Russia. And many hundred killed by the KGB. In the basement of the building we can see the prison cells and the torture rooms. It is a heartbreaking exposé.
Our journey is nearing its end, but on the way to our last stop we encounter some remarkable memorials. Are they contradicting or agreeing?
Top 5 in Vilnius:
- Stay: We exceeded our hotel budget slightly and checked in at Courtyard By Marriot just north of the river. Not over-luxurious but youthful and nice. Gorgeous breakfast, a good bar and a fine restaurant. A walk to the city center takes ca 10 minutes.
- See: Gediminas tower on the castle hill. The Old Town. The Ockupation and freedom museum. The cathedral square and the clock tower. The Market Hall.
- Eat: El Mercado, a nice spanish restaurant in the southern part of the Old Town. A bit relaxed, cool and away from the street in a back yard.
- Bar: Oddly enough Vilnius has lots of champagne bars, The sparkling wine seems really popular and you’ll often see groups of friends sharing a couple of bottles.
- Churches: Religion is a very serious matter here an Vilnius has an uncountable number of churches. One of the more unusual, and also a goal for pilgrims is the so called Gates of Dawn chapel, situated above an old city gate. A silver plated painting of Virgin Mary is adorned by believers arriving in a steady stream.