We spent a long weekend in Vilnius, Lithuania, and we had a great time. Between a lot of work and several consecutive weekends of travel, Jenny was pretty exhausted, so we took it easier than we normally would on a weekend trip, yet we still saw a lot of an interesting, historic city.
We got lucky again in visiting a city during a big festival. Vilnius was celebrating Capital Days (Sostinės dienos), so there was a lot more going on than there normally would be. The events included big concerts in the main Cathedral Square and an arts fair.
The concerts were free and very popular. The first night had Lithuanian artists singing popular English-language songs by artists like Sting, Whitney Houston, Queen, Roxette, and U2 (although the singer performing With or Without You seemed not to understand the tone of the song, completing pirouettes between triumphant cries of “With or Without You!!!”). The next night featured a fashion show, complete with a choir doing a Gregorian Chant. Our final night there, the concert was more patriotic, with a lot of songs about Vilnius and Lithuania. Of course, we didn’t understand a word of it, so we had to take their word for it.
The arts fair was also fun, comprising tents and booths set up along several blocks of the city’s main street. In addition to the typical pottery, textiles, and prints, there were also dancers and a slow parade of masked women.
Lithuanian food wasn’t really that interesting. It’s mostly pork and potatoes in one form or another. We saw pigs ears on the menu a few times, but we stayed away from that. Perhaps we should have tried it. However, we did find a few drinks we liked a lot. “Kiss” is a sweet, bubbly pear cider that was fantastic on warm afternoons, and we found some cherry and honey liqueurs that were very tasty without being too strong. We brought some of each of those back with us to Hamburg.
Our last evening, we ate in the Užupis district, a small artist neighborhood that claims to be its own tiny republic, complete with a constitution (the final three articles: “Don’t Conquer. Don’t Defend. Don’t Surrender.”). The district was actually less interesting than we expected, perhaps because we came too late in the day (or too early in the evening). We did see something quite unusual, though: the Velobar. It was a functioning beer bar that moved through the city through the power of its patrons. The patrons sit across from each other at the bar, and they each have a set of pedals, with one person steering. I guess it’s used mostly for stag parties for Brits (a big source of tourism throughout Eastern Europe). Unfortunately, I didn’t get a good picture of it, but I found some pictures other people have taken.
An important historic building in Vilnius is the Gates of Dawn. This is the only remaining gate from the old city walls, and it’s also a chapel. The chapel contains an icon of the Virgin mother that is deeply revered by the Polish Catholic community and is supposed to have performed miracles. Although our Lutheran backgrounds make such veneration a strange concept, we went up to the chapel. There, we saw about a half-dozen old Polish and Lithuanian women kneeling before the icon repeating their Hail Marys. It was a beautiful chapel, but a strange city gate.
We spent a day at Trakai, now a small town, but seven hundred years ago the capital of Lithuania. Although there are some of the ugly apartments like those found anywhere that the dull Soviet architects had any influence, there are also remains of three ancient castles and a 60-person, 600-year old Jewish community. One castle, the Island castle, has been completely rebuilt, and the Peninsula Castle has been partially rebuilt. As a result, there were hordes of tourists in the small town, disgorged from tour buses in dull-eyed masses speaking Italian, German, Russian, or English. Despite the crowds, we really enjoyed the castles and the local food (some Jewish pastries and a drink made of cumin).
Vilnius has some nice architecture, but it still has a lot of scars left over from the Soviet years. Fortunately, most of the ugly buildings are kept on the periphery of the city.
In the heart of the city, though, is the Museum of Genocide Victims, which shows the prison cells and execution room that the KGB used for decades while thousands of Lithuanians were tortured, deported, or killed. There is still a sizable Russian minority in Vilnius, which meant I could occasionally use my Russian to bargain for souvenirs, but I usually tried not to use it out of fear of offending the Lithuanians who still carry the historical scars and animosity for a half century of brutal occupation.
I’ll end with some pictures of the prettier (and wackier) architecture of the city.