The Lit-Bel Trip, part 1: Vilnius

I hadn’t really thought much about Lithuania before going there – Belarus was the main draw of the trip and Vilnius was simply a cheap place to fly into and spend a day and a half before leaving for Minsk.  Out of the three Baltic nations, it was the one which interested me the least, or so I thought.  Then I arrived.

Town Hall Square in Old Vilnius

About the closest reference I have for Lithuania is Hungary, although Budapest is larger and far more bustling than Vilnius.  This is probably connected with the placement of the older parts of both cities.  In Vilnius, the Old Town lies between the new town and the train station, and although it is undeniably touristy, the presence of a number of churches, markets, embassies, and other institutions such as the National Opera House ensures that it is well populated by Lithuanians.

South entrance to the Old City

Budapest’s Old Town lies on a steep hill in Buda, across the river from modern life in Pest, and consists almost entirely of museums.  That Budapest also gets more visitors than Vilnius probably contributes to this impression.

An art market

The Lithuanians, like the Hungarians, are aware that their language is complex and unlikely to be at the top of any educational syllabus.  They are therefore similarly pleased, in general, by even the most mangled attempt to speak the language rather than just barking ‘Do you speak English?’ at them immediately.  Linguistically, you have to have some respect for them for the sheer number of diacritics their language employs and its commitment to putting diphthongs anywhere possible.  Apart from the basic Latin alphabet – with some subtractions – Lithuanian makes use of: ą, ę, ė, į, ū, ų, č, š, and ž.
The Lithuanian language is frequently cited as being the closest relative of ancient Indo-European, as if it were a time capsule.  If you want to hear how European peasants sounded 2,000 years ago, then apparently you should just listen to a Lith.  This is of course nonsense.  Lithuanian has changed significantly in recent centuries – their long vowels used to be nasals, as in Polish, to give just one example – but it is certainly one of the most conservative surviving Indo-European languages, possessing a full set of six cases, at least five noun declensions, three adjectival declensions, and a delicious verbal system.

A map of the Baltic region on a wall on Literature St.

The history of the Baltic Region – and particularly that area where Lithuania and Belarus now dwell – is extremely involved.  Partly this is due to frequent border alterations and wars, but the process of sorting out the historical facts is frustrated by modern nationalist sentiment.  Many Lithuanians resolutely ignore the fact that until it was seized by the Soviet Union, Vilnius was usually called Vilna or Wiłna and possessed a larger population of both Poles and Jews than of Lithuanians, and that until the Second World War the predominant language was Yiddish (Theodore Herzl made frequent trips there).  Indeed, most of modern Lithuania was for a long time part of Poland, as were the western parts of Belarus.  Lithuania’s national poet, Adomas Mickevičius, wrote a famous poem which begins with the line “Lithuania! My fatherland!”.  However,  his actual name was Adam Mickiewicz, and the poem in question, Pan Tadeusz, was composed in Polish: “Litwo! Ojczyzno moja!” Similarly, under the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, both Belarus and Poland were, to an extent, under Lithuanian rule.  Despite this, the last ruler of the Commonwealth to speak Lithuanian was Kazimierz IV, who died in 1492, and even then his promulgations were made in Latin and Slavonic.  Nowadays, Belarus’ president Lukashenko can’t even speak Belarussian (but then neither can nearly half the population of his country).

Arriving in Vilnius is a pleasing affair.  The airport building would make for a small train station, let alone an airport! There are regular busses and slightly less regular trains from the airport to the city centre – Vilnius, in its wisdom, placed its central bus and train stations together.  The train journey takes about 7 minutes and costs 55p.  The trains in Lithuania, as in Belarus and other former Soviet or communist countries of Eastern Europe, are magnificent.  The British train system is to have a raised platform at stations so that, when boarding or alighting from the train, you move more or less horizontally.  In Eastern Europe, the platform measures roughly a foot in height, but the trains are even higher than ours.  In order to access the carriage, you locate the staircase, which is so sheer in some cases that it is virtually a ladder, and – having first overcome the awe inspired in you by the train’s arrival – clamber up it to locate your rigorously-allocated seat.  This applies even to local trains, although with those you don’t get given a seat number.

Even before arriving in Vilnius I had noticed the unusual preponderance of churches on the map.  Coming from a situation in which the only reason I know the closest church to my house is that it’s a massive cathedral on a hill, this was rather a shock.  Most of the churches were Catholic – no surprise as around 80% of the population is Catholic, unique among the other predominantly Protestant Baltic nations – although there is a Russian Orthodox Minority.  As mentioned above, there used to be an enormous community of Jews, nearly 100,000 of them, before 1939.  According to the most recent census, there are now 1,272.
Russian Orthodox Christian churches contain no pews – the worshippers stand up for services – and they have much less concern about iconography than other Christians.  Hence, the interior of an Orthodox church is usually festooned with frescoes, bright colours, flourishes in gold, relics under ornate covers, and frankly absurd numbers of portraits of saints and martyrs.  Frustratingly, despite all this festive raiment, photographs are not allowed (although I did manage to sneak one photo in the Church of the Holy Spirit).

Protestors outside the Palace
Protest flags outside the Palace

Inside the Old City, next to the University of Vilnius, is the Presidential Palace.  Lined up alongside it is a group of protestors opposing what they say is officially-sanctioned whoring of small girls to policemen and male politicians by their fathers or mothers.  They want the President, Dalia Grybauskaitė, to start an investigation into the matter.  So far, they have had no response from the government.

Vilnius Cathedral

The central Cathedral in Lithuania is the Vilnius Cathedral, originally the site of worship for the Baltic god of thunder.  It became a Christian church in 1251 after King Mindaugas converted to Christianity, but after his death it was used for pagan rituals again until 1387, when Lithuania official became a Christian nation.  Since that date, it has undergone a bewildering series of collapses, renovations, redesigns, and controversies.

Many famous Lithuanian rulers (and Polish ones) are buried here.  During USSR days, it became a warehouse known as the ‘Gallery of Images’.  To the south side of the cathedral is a spacious square lined with trees.  The openness of Cathedral Square is quite a shock on first emerging from the narrower streets of the Old City.  In front of the cathedral, there is a red tile upon which a pleasingly pagan tradition demands that visitors should spin three times and make a wish, although a modern version cautions that if you do it when no-one is watching, you will be transported back to 1989.

Gediminas’ tower

East of the Cathedral, on a hill sandwiched between the Old Town and the River Neris, is Gediminas’ Tower, a symbol of Lithuanian independence from which the Lithuanian flag was hoisted in 1989 as an act of rebellion.  It is the only remaining part of the oldest section of Vilnius Castle.  Considering Lithuania’s religiosity, it is curious that the Grand Duke during whose reign the tower was built, Gediminas, is noted for his fervent opposition to the Christianisation of the region.

Just past Gediminas’ Tower, a tributary river, the Vilnia, forks off the Neris and moves southwards.  If you cross over the Vilnia from Old Vilnius, you come to Užupis.  This part of the city, historically artistic and bohemian, was fiercely neglected during the Soviet era.  When the situation worsened after independence, the district authorities came up with a cunning regeneration plan: they declared the district independent as the Republic of Užupis on April Fools’ Day 1997.

The sign welcoming visitors to Užupis

It seems to have worked.  Užupis has the sort of artsy, vaguely undirected feeling that you would expect from a micronation.  A patch of grassland along the riverbank against the north bridge is filled with prayer flags strung on lines between the trees – Tibet Square.  It is less imposing than the parts of the Old City on the west side of the river, but it doesn’t seem particularly bothered about it.  There are still artists living in squats on streets further from the river, but the Republic’s new problem is how to deal with the sudden influx of nouveaux from the rest of Vilnius who have decided that Užupis is the coolest place to live.  But then, Vilnius is a sort of artistic, edgy place all round.  Back on the other side of the river – not even in the Old City, but in new Vilnius – just as Kalinausko St. starts to incline, on the right-hand side is a bust on a metal pillar beside a parking lot: the world’s first statue of Frank Zappa.


See also Lit-Bel Parts TWO (Trakai), THREE (Belarus in general), FOUR (Minsk), FIVE (Brest), and SIX (Borisov).

(all photos are taken by me, Duncan Wane; copyright 2012)

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