We finally pulled into the metropolis of Vilnius just before 6PM. I was truly amazed at how large and modern the city was. It was also surprisingly clean, too. We’d come to enjoy an old town, and instead had been greeted by shining glass skyscrapers and modern buildings lining the river.
Gediminas Castle Tower
However, by the time we parked in our fantastic location, right underneath Gediminas Castle Tower, we realised that it was a city with split personalities. We found a flat spot in the car park, and got ourselves equipped for an exploration of town. This started by climbing the surprisingly steep hill to see the city from castle tower – except, it was a little expensive to enter the tower, so we looked out from the base of the tower. From here it was even clearer to see the two cities of Vilnius, with a clear divide from the river that passes through.
At first, we had to remind ourselves that we weren’t in Italy when we looked out over the old town. It had a very similar renaissance/baroque feel to the churches – much different to anything we’d seen in the past few weeks in Scandinavia or the other Baltic countries. We later learnt on our walking tour that it wasn’t just our imagination, there was a strong Italian influence from the Grand Duke taking an Italian wife. As we walked through the main streets, it still felt more Italian than Baltic, except for one key difference – the streets were clean.
We slowly strolled up the main street of the old town, admiring how lively it was, with bars and restaurants all busy with tourists. One of these restaurants stood out – it was hoisted 50m above the ground by a crane. I queried the small logistics, like bathroom breaks, since guests were strapped into their seats. It looked fun, but we’re the wrong kind of tourists to be able to afford such extravagance.
By the time we’d made it to the Gate of Dawn, twilight had truly ended, and we were in a dark city. The painting inside the gate was beautiful. We tried our luck taking some of the quieter side streets and found roads closed to cars, with restaurants and bars using the road instead.
We were quite excited to visit Vilnius, as I have a friend from work who is from here. We’d narrowly missed his dad while in Riga, and unfortunately been unable to time our trip to have him come out from London while we were there. But, we did organise to meet with his wife, and his wife’s sister who was in town this this weekend.
His wife, Irena, had found that there was a ‘free’ walking tour of the old city of Vilnius that left at 10:30AM, so we arranged to meet and join the tour together. It was hard at first, because we were trying to do two things at once – talk and connect with each other, as well as follow what our nervous tour guide was saying.
It was great to get a little history of the country and the town from him. We’ve regretted a little not doing more of these walking tours when visiting different cities, but timing is often not suitable for us – and often we just can’t be bothered. But, the tour today really gave us more of an insight – certainly more than we could have gleamed from our tour book and our eyes alone.
We visited the old Jewish quarter, and learnt that Vilnius Jews too suffered a similar fate to those in the rest of Europe during WWII. It actually sounded like they’d been persecuted for far longer, with restrictions, oppression and segregation being applied for several generations prior. Still, despite all of this, it sounded like they flourished here. This part of Vilnius was beautiful, and appeared to have hardly changed since it was built.
We also covered some of the bizarre folk lore, like people covering themselves in mirrors to avoid being turned into stone by the giant lizard/dragon that haunted the streets of town.
We left the walls of the old town, and found ourselves in another republic (or ‘res publika’) – Uzupis. He was quick to point out that they don’t like to be compared with Christiania in Copenhagen – but it seemed like a similar concept. The area was abandoned. Artists had started moving in, squatting, and eventually cleaned up the area, making it a clean and safe place to live. I’m sure it would have been different as a sole tourist, but I didn’t get the feeling that tour groups were all that welcome/wanted here.
You got a great sense of their weird sense of humour when reading their constitution, which included many unique rights that I haven’t seen in any other republic. Favourites include “Everyone has the right to cry”, “A cat is not obliged to love its owner, but must help in time of need”, as well as the last three (of the forty one!) – “Do not defeat”, “Do not fight back”, “Do not surrender”.
Of course, there were more serious rights in their constitution, which I sadly am not aware of seeing in other constitutions, like “Everyone has the right to hot water, heating in winter, and a tiled roof” or “Nobody has the right to violence”.
Being a republic founded by artists, there was plenty of interesting art on display here. The largest is the centrally located column with an angel atop. I love the way this angel was displayed to the public, hatching out of a giant egg on their national day – April Fools. It sounds like it’s quite the place to be on their national day, too, with a tap flowing free beer for all.
However, by the tour did start to wear on. Our guide did a good job, but we covered so much ground, and learnt so much history about so many locations that we were exhausted at the end of the four-hours.
The girls were hungry. Once the tour ended, we were straight to their car and on our way to a cat café – but, we were a little too late, the café was full, and we weren’t allowed inside. We’d always wanted to visit a cat café, so we were incredibly excited when the suggestion came about. Instead, we settle for some super cheap food from a pizza chain. We could now chat freely, without the burden of trying to also enjoy a walking tour. The time passed so quickly, and we both had to rush off to do other things far too prematurely. Regrettably, I failed to take a photo of the lot of us. Again.
Museum of Genocide Victims
We made a mad rush to see the Holocaust/KGB museum, which is housed in the building that has been used by both the KGB and Gestapo. We’d wait and see it tomorrow, only it’s going to be shut for the next two days.
Unfortunately, most cities in this part of Europe have one of these museums. I’ve visited the one in Krakow, and Risa has visited something similar in Germany before. We’d tried to visit the one in Riga, too, but we were unlucky with the timing.
It started poorly (or authentically, if you prefer), greeted by a large dour woman who took our money, grunted, and pointed down the stairs. We were now in the basement, which was used as the KGB prison during the occupation period. It detailed the methods of torture and execution that were used against the people that opposed the communist regime’s strict policies. As with the other similar museums that I have visited, it was shocking that such practices took place – and amazes me that some people that have lived through it, would like to see a return of communism.
We did our best to take in as much as possible, with the padded cells, the cells requiring inmates to balance above icy water, as well as the bullet riddled execution room at the rear of the basement, which was accompanied by an all too graphic video.
There was also a small section dedicated to the Jews who were sent to labour/execution camps, much like other European cities. It was all too similar to what I had seen in Krakow last year – though, it didn’t make it any easier to read about – if anything, it made it worse.
We knew that we wouldn’t have enough time to see it properly, and I wondered if rushing through it was better than not seeing it at all. At 16:55, five-minutes before closing time, the same dour lady from the entry started walking through saying ‘bye-bye’ and switching the lights off. We’d only just started our way through the ground floor, looking at the history of Lithuania during WWII – which was played out in a black-and-white film, backed by the Storm Trooper theme… which was odd.
We now had to race back into the old town to meet with some friends from Australia – who we actually knew from Japan. By a truly weird co-incidence, they were in town at the same time as us. They were travelling with her family, tracing family roots and history, so we caught up with their whole family for dinner at Forto Dvaras for some cepelinai (potato zeppelins).
It was a great night, and we couldn’t believe how much time we spent talking and eating – with a little drinking thrown in, too. The last time we saw Derek and Kat was at their home in Adelaide on our Australian road trip, four years ago. They probably get the impression that we’re constantly travelling.
As usual, we over estimated how much we could eat (or, rather, how much we needed to eat), especially since we were still full from our late lunch. The cepelinai were pretty good, especially fried and with smoked bacon and sour cream sauce. I’m not sure if you will ever read this, Richard, but thanks again for dinner! I hope we catch you in Colorado some day.
It’d been such a fantastic day, and even though we’d been out-and-about for nearly 14 hours, we still had energy. That was until we had to walk back to our car in the increasing rain, at which point the fatigue kicked in, making the 20-minute walk to the car park feel an eternity.
We felt like we’d seen all we needed to see in Vilnius. Of course, there was so much we had missed, but we never have time to see everything. Risa wanted to grab some souvenirs before we left, so we made a quick trip back through the Jewish quarter, and back down the main street. Risa picked up all manner of woollen apparel, including some truly garish knee-high socks, and some new slippers for the both of us.
I couldn’t help re-photograph the sights I knew I’d already taken photos of. The main cathedral is surprisingly enormous, and without a point of reference, it’s hard to understand just how wide these supporting columns are.
We also found ourselves inside a small orthodox church that was closed previously. As always with orthodox churches, it was beautifully decorated with an over-the-top amount of detail and decoration.
I was starting to get the feeling that we’d never leave Vilnius. But, some time after lunch, we finally set off towards Poland, via a few small detours to Trakai and a Soviet Monument Park.