A June 2005 trip
to Vilnius by Owen Lipsett
Quote: Lithuania’s verdant capital contains a stunning array of ornate churches in its UNESCO-listed baroque Old Town, excellent museums, and a quirky atmosphere that is at once sophisticated and charmingly provincial. Consequently, it’s one of the nicest and most rewarding places to visit – anywhere.
Beside the ruins of the Lower Castle stands the airy neoclassical Cathedral, the finest of the city’s many churches and one of the few not to date from the baroque era that saw Vilnius become an important city in the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth as a center for the Counter-Reformation. Nearby, the interesting National Museum,Applied Arts Museum, and Archaeological Museum occupy a splendid set of buildings. Across Vrublenskio gatve is Gediminio prospektas, the center of the modern city and a lovely walking street.
Vilnius’ Baroque Old Town occupies the area directly south of the Cathedral and its square (Katedros aikste) and contains innumerable delightful buildings, including several fine churches. It’s best to first walk from the Cathedral to the Gates of Dawn, along a meandering pedestrianized street whose name varies, to get a sense of its scale and then to explore its sidestreets. The gates themselves are the only of the city’s original nine gates that remain, but they are better known for the miracle-working Icon of the Virgin housed above them.
Of particular note within the Old Town are the stunning brick St. Anne’s Church, the historic Vilnius University (and the fine St. John’s Churchinside its walls), the Orthodox Church of the Holy Spirit, and the ornate St. Teresa’s Church. The Old Town’s chief pleasure lies in aimlessly wandering it; there’s hardly a building that isn’t of either historical or architectural interest.
The most interesting attractions outside the Old Town are the infamous Frank Zappa Monument, Three Crosses Hill, The Lithuanian State Jewish Museum, and the Museum of Lithuanian Genocide Victims covering the horrors of Soviet rule. The television tower where Soviet troops killed unarmed civilians in 1991, bringing the country’s plight to the world’s attention, is located in the suburbs.
You may be surprised by how friendly people are. As always, when traveling, you should take precautions, but my experience in Vilnius (and throughout Lithuania) is that tourists are enough of a novelty that many people just want to help and to share a conversation.
There is an ATM in the airport and others throughout the Old Town, so avoid the currency exchanges, which are invariably give worse rates, unless absolutely necessary.
The main post office is at Gediminio prospektas 7. It’s the best place to make international phone calls, as well as to send mail.
The Old Town’s best Internet café is Collegium, located in a courtyard just off Pilies gatve and open 8am-midnight. Confusingly, the address is Pilies gatve 22-1.
Avoid the beggars who cluster around the Gates of Dawn in order to take advantage of the emotions visitors feel after seeing the shrine above them.
Vilnius’ airport is 5km south of the bus/train stations, to which it is connected by Buses 1 and 2 (1 LT). A taxi from the airport costs LT25, and a taxi between the Old Town and these stations costs about LT10. Lithuanian Airlines and AirBaltic have the most flights to and from the rest of the Baltic region and Western Europe. Both carriers sell reasonably priced one-way tickets, making it economical to fly into Vilnius and out of Riga or Tallinn (or the reverse). Travel within Lithuania and to Latvia is best done by bus-– trains in Lithuania are nearly always slower, more expensive, and far more infrequent than buses. The train and bus station are next to one another south of the Old Town.
Getting Around Vilnius:
Vilnius is best appreciated and explored on foot. Indeed, a stroll between Gediminas Hill and the Gates of Dawn is pretty much essential for appreciating the Old Town and assimilating its sights. A walk down the new town’s Gediminio prospektas serves the same purpose for the rest of the city. Both of these routes are largely pedestrianized, and nearly all sights are near one or the other.
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.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on January 4, 2005
Gediminas Hill (Higher and Lower Castles)
The neoclassical structure, designed by Laurynas Gucevicius between 1783 and 1801, gives no hint of the larger Gothic cathedral that Grand Duke Vytautas ordered built on the site. The Belfry that stands independently in front of the cathedral was actually originally part of the Lower Castle, but was converted to its present use in the 1520s when a pair of octagonal tiers were added to its top. The curious cupola that jars with the otherwise harmonious design of the cathedral itself represents Gucevicius’ attempt to incorporate the Chapel of St. Casimir, the only remnant of the cathedral’s baroque incarnation.
The cathedral’s airy interior is the most attractive in the Baltic, and one of the most delightful anywhere in Europe. With the except of the aforementioned Chapel of St. Casimir, it echoes the design of the exterior, with the relatively plain column-lined nave resembling a classical temple, thereby directing viewers attention to the magnificent high altar, shaped like the front of such a temple itself. The paintings hung on the columns are a complete series depicting the Apostles by Franciszek Smuglewicz (1745-1807). The Polish-born Smuglewicz was the foremost practitioner of neoclassical painting in Lithuania and also executed The Martyrdom of St. Stanislaus, which hangs over the high altar.
The cathedral’s highlight, however, is the exquisitely decorated Chapel of St. Casimir, which was built between 1622 and 1636 by Constantino Tencalla to provide a resting place for the remains of the eponymous patron saint of Lithuania, who died in 1484. The chapel’s dominant feature is the lavish black, white, and colored marble paneling, which was executed over the course of a century, primarily by Italian artisans. Tencalla’s countrymen Hiacinto Campana and Michelangelo Palloni painted the ceiling and side frescoes respectively, while Pietro Peretti exceuted the ornate stucco backdrop to the silver shrine to St. Casimir. The eight small niche statues, which depict Lithuanian Grand Dukes, were added in the 18th century, as was the goblet-shaped moveable pulpit.
The cathedral is open daily to visitors and for evening mass at 6 and 7pm, with services held almost hourly on Sunday. Visitors can supposedly sometimes visit the vault, which holds some of the remains of the Perkunas Temple, as well as royal coffins and fragments from the previous churches on the same site. Unfortunately, my experience was that this was not possible, but you may wish to enquire nonetheless.
The visitor is left to infer Vilnius’ role as a major center for the counter-Reformation from the plethora of liturgical objects, although, quite frankly, the folk art collection of traditional carved crosses is rather more extensive and interesting. While other museums amply elucidate Lithuania’s role as a center for Jewish culture and the country’s suffering under Soviet occupation, it’s a pity that neither is touched on here. One could put this down to Vilnius’ exclusion from the inter-war Lithuanian Republic, when it was ruled by Poland as Wilno and Kaunas served as the country’s capital, consequently becoming home to the country’s best museums. Unfortunately, this piece of history is ignored as well.
The National Museum proper’s saving grace, however, is that it plays host to good temporary exhibitions. At the time of my visit, one covered the recent discovery of a mass grave of French soldiers from Napoleon’s invasion of Russia (which began in present-day Lithuania) and of historic maps of Vilnius. These were thoughtfully curated and accompanied by good explanations-–it is to be hoped that the museum as a whole is renovated to resemble them.
The Museum’s oldest collections are thoughtfully displayed in the Old Arsenal, which is entered on a separate ticket. The ground floor’s exhibitions contain archaeological finds from the entire country, arranged chronologically and covering the period from the Paleolithic era to the birth of Christ. Considering the fact that Lithuania remained pagan until 1387, the longest of any European country, this is a somewhat arbitrary choice, but there’s little else to complain about, as the finds are immaculately labeled in Lithuanian and English alike. Pride of place belongs to amber jewelry and well-preserved wooden implements from the vicinity of modern-day Palanga on Lithuania’s Baltic coast.
The upstairs exhibition consists of thematically arranged displays covering the period between the birth of Christ and the formation of the Lithuanian state in the 13th century. Several glass cases document daily life and trade during this period by displaying excavated objects. Others illustrate the cultures of the diverse tribes that Grand Duke Mindaugas welded into the Lithuanian nation by means of mannequins dressed in the clothes and jewelry they are thought to have worn, carrying reconstructed tools and weapons. The superb English explanations accompanying both exhibits and several contemporary excavated graves are the best I encountered anywhere in the Baltics.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on January 4, 2005
National Museum of Lithuania
The university’s walls contain a dozen courtyards, whose muddle of architectural styles reflect its distinguished essence though turbulent history. Established as a center to inculcate Counter-Reformation dogma in Lithuania’s priests and nobility (many of the latter of having to the Lutheran faith), the university also became an important center for scientific inquiry. Under Russian rule it also became a hotbed for Lithuanian nationalist thought, leading to its closure in 1832 in the wake of the rebellion the previous year. The university was reopened when Lithuania regained its independence in 1919, but was forced to spout Marxist-Leninist dogma under Soviet occupation. With independence it has recovered its role as the country’s premier university.
While its buildings contain innumerable artistic treasures, only the University Church dedicated to the two Saint Johns is readily accessible to the public. While its hulking presence is visible from Pilies gatve, the Old Town’s main street, entrance is only possible through the Great Courtyard within the university’s walls. The original church dates to the conversion of Grand Duke Jogaila (Ladislaus) to Christianity, although its present form dates largely to the 1738-1749 renovation under the auspices of Jan Krysztof Glaubitz. This accounts for the startling distinction between its dull exterior and sumptuous interior.
The church’s decorations are the most ornate to be found anywhere in Vilnius, making ample use of plasterwork, precious metals, and paintings alike. The 10 interconnected altars that together compose the high altar are also noteworthy. Although a few glass cases containing old scientific tracts hint at the church’s erstwhile role as the university’s Science Museum, a designation that began under Soviet rule, they are dwarfed by monuments to Polish and Lithuanian patriots. The most memorable honors Adam Mickiewicz, the author of Poland’s national epic Pan Tadeusz, who was born near Vilnius and attended the university until he was expelled in 1824 for anti-Russian activities.
The University Church is open from 10am to 5pm daily, and the university itself supposedly share these opening hours, though in practice you may enter as long as the gate on Universiteto gatve is open. The gift shop is open during business hours and located off the Great Courtyard to the left of the University Church.
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