by Owen Lipsett
New York, New York
January 4, 2005
Opposite the statue, at the Hill’s base, are the remains of the Lower Castle which are currently the subject of Lithuania’s most extensive archaeological excavations. These have been so successful that the original plan to rebuild the Castle that stood on the site has been delayed. At the time of my visit in June 2004, a hoard of 62 silver coins dating to the late 14th century had just been found on the site, leading to speculation that it the site had significance even earlier than had been thought.
Historians generally believe that the Lower Castle served both to guard the Vilnius (at that time located on the Hill) from incursions by the Teutonic Knights, and as a residence for Gediminas and his successors. In 1802, seven years after the Third Partition of Poland removed the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from the map of Europe, Russian troops destroyed the Castle. The excavation itself is closed to the public except for prearranged tours, although it’s possible to view it from a small pavilion.
The Higher Castle, which you can reach either by a funicular to the rear of the National Museum or a gentle pathway that wraps around the east side of the Hill, is Vilnius’ finest single sight. The current brick structure is actually a 1930s reconstruction of the western tower of the original three-towered Gothic castle built by Grand Duke Vytautas in 1419 to replace the wooden structure that had burned in the Great Fire of Vilnius in the same year. This fortress stood until it was seriously damaged by Russian forces between 1655 and 1661. Ironically, it was under Russian rule that the fortress was repaired to afford the Tsarist authorities with a power base in the wake of the 1831 Lithuanian Rebellion.
The historical exhibitions inside the reconstructed tower cover this history, as well as the castle’s brief role as a 17th-century prison for noblemen, but its chief charm is the view that it affords. To this day, the platform on top of the tower is the only publicly available place from which all of the Old Town’s key sights are visible, as well as much of the New Town--making it as strategic a vantage point for modern photographers as medieval warriors. Quite simply, there’s no better place from which to view Vilnius.
From journal Vilnius I: A Historical Overview