Just Loving Lithuania
It’s 7 a.m. and too early to check in to my hotel. So, the next best thing is to walk down the street to the most famous Cathedral Square in Vilnius Lithuania.
At the very centre is the stately and stunning Vilnius Cathedral in all its white neoclassical beauty.
Formally known as the Basilica of St. Stanislaus this is definitely one of the most iconic sights in Vilnius. The fact that it lies at the head of the main street, Gedimino Pr., adds to its status. The cathedral is built in Palladian-style architecture on a site that has been a sacred place since pre-Christian times, when it may have been used to worship the Baltic pagan god, Perkūnas. The original cathedral was established in 1251 and was rebuilt and restored several times throughout the centuries.
The early morning service was certainly time well spent!
Standing tall in front of this cathedral is a bell tower, once a part of the ancient Lower Castle. For 3 Euro, you can climb to the very top and survey the city across and below.
Between the Cathedral and the Bell Tower I noticed a tile with footprints. This, I am told, is where the first person in the Baltic Chain had stood. The Baltic Way or Baltic Chain (also Chain of Freedom) was a peaceful political demonstration that occurred on August 23, 1989 where approximately two million people joined hands to form a human chain spanning 675.5 kilometres (419.7 mi) across the three Baltic States Estonian SSR, Latvian SSR and Lithuanian SSR, republics of the Soviet Union. It marked the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentop pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.
Behind this square lies the National Museum of Lithuania which holds an extensive collection of the country’s cultural heritage and historical exhibits, a total of over 800,000 items through the Stone Age to medieval monuments and folk art.
From the corner of my eye I can spot the Gediminas Tower, a remnant of the ancient fortifications of Vilnius’ Upper Castle. Perched high above Old Town on top of Castle Hill, the tower is named for Gediminas, the Grand Duke of Lithuania who made Vilnius the capital of his reign in the early 1300s. Today, the tower houses a branch of the National Museum of Lithuania.
“You haven’t seen Lithuania if you haven’t visited Trakai”, they said. So, a bus ride, a train ride and a short walk later, I am at Lake Galvė, which is frozen today. Yes, it is –1C and freezing and it keeps snowing despite the valiant effort by the sun to shine.
But around the corner is the breathtakingly beautiful Trakai Island Castle which appears to be floating on this Lake. A long wooden boardwalk leads to this fairytale-like castle, which was once the strategic stronghold of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Today, it is a museum with some fascinating historic exhibits.
Vilnius, the capital city of Lithuania is brimming with baroque architecture. Its charming Old Town is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Europe’s largest baroque capital. It’s got some amazing coffee shops, some interesting street art and plenty of friendly people!
On the far end of the main street is the Museum of Genocide Victims, dedicated to the tragedies and turmoil in Lithuania during the Soviet Union’s 50-year occupation of the country. Housed in a former headquarters building of the KGB, the Museum of Genocide Victims collects and displays documents, artifacts and original prison cells used by the Soviet regime.
On February 16 (of this year) this nation marked the 100-year anniversary of the restoration of independence for Lithuania, after a complex history that stretched from the 13th century to modern times. It was a century ago, on February 16, 1918, with the signing of the Act of Independence, that the modern democratic state of Lithuanian was born — with March 11, 1990, marking the restoration of independence after half a century of Soviet Occupation.
To mark this occasion, Lithuania has a series of events across the nation, one of which is displayed across the walls of the former headquarters building of the KGB. It is sad to read all these stories of courage and bravery, death and deceit, annihilation and resistance. Reminders of yesteryear in the hopes that history will never repeat itself.
With its needle-like towers and intricate brickwork, St. Anne’s Church is one of the most distinctive landmarks in Vilnius’ Old Town. This Gothic-style church was consecrated in 1500 and has remained almost entirely unchanged since that time. Allegedly designed by Bohemian architect Benedikt Rejt, the church was constructed from 33 different types of bricks and its façade incorporates Gothic arches with the patterns of the Pillars of Gediminas. Napoleon visited the church in the early 1800s and is reputed to have said that he would like to take the church home to Paris “in the palm of his hand.”
The Gates of Dawn is an ancient city gate in Vilnius that houses a magnificent chapel and a shrine to the Virgin Mary. Built between 1503 and 1522, the gates once defended the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and its magnificent religious artifacts are intended to bless and protect the city. Up in the arched window of the chapel is the sacred shrine to Our Lady of the Gates of Dawn.
A must-see part of Lithuania is its self-proclaimed ‘Republic” of Užupis’. This bohemian district has its own anthem, constitution, president, bishop, two churches, the Bernadine Cemetery, seven bridges, and its own guardian called The Bronze Angel of Užupis, who was put in the centre of the district in 2002.
Dating back to the 16th century, Užupis is one of Vilnius’ oldest districts and despite its current prestigious status, was formerly the city’s poorest area and home to a number of manual workers and a red light-district. Today the place is quiet and devoid of crowds and it is good to sit and enjoy a cup of coffee and soak up some sun.
My hotel, the delightful Budget Central is so conveniently located down the main street, Gedimino Pr., where most of the city’s attractions are just a short walk away. The hotel is clean and so affordable.