A June 2004 trip
to Vilnius by Owen Lipsett
Quote: Vilnius’ combination of a fascinating historical past and an enjoyably bohemian present make it an irresistible destination. Here are a few further notes on some of its more interesting (and idiosyncratic) sights and a guesthouse so superb it should almost be considered one of them!
Location: The guesthouse (the company also offers apartment rentals and homestays) is located in a drab building a short stagger down Bernardinu gatve from Pilies gatve (the Old Town’s main street). Your cue to turn is the teapot-studded corner of the two streets, one of the more subtle of Vilnius’ many idiosyncratic landmarks. Consequently, it’s convenient to all the sights and restaurants in the northern part of the Old Town, Gediminas Hill, Vilnius Cathedral, and the national museums without being in a noisy area. If you continue to the end of Bernardinu gatve, you reach St. Anne’s Church, Lithuania’s most famous and beloved building. There’s no better location in Vilnius.
Rooms: I stayed in a single room with "shared bathroom," meaning that there were two shower/bathrooms shared among four rooms. The room was about average-sized for a European guesthouse, though perhaps in deference to the height of many Lithuanians, the bed was noticeably longer, which I found a nice touch. I found the room light, airy, and quiet and was fortunate to have a view over Bernardinu gatve, which I believe all the rooms on my floor shared. I found the bed extremely comfortable and the oak furniture generally in excellent condition. While Litinterp is a budget operation, everything, including the coffeemaker in the hallway, was high-quality.
Service: Any operation that boasts of providing "The Ultimate Service" creates high expectations, but between offering to get my laundry done with the guesthouse’s, answering countless bizarre questions, and checking opening hours of museums in Kaunas, Litinterp repeatedly exceeded them. My favorite anecdote, however, concerns being told that I was free to check off every item on the breakfast menu if I so desired--none of the "choose only one of the following" here. Naturally, the food itself was excellent. The only catch to all this is that they only handle inquiries during business hours and Saturday mornings, although they can be reached by mobile telephone at other times.
Considering that the review of Litinterp in Vilnius in Your Pocket, a publication not known for its effusiveness, reads like advertising copy, I feel safe to say that my high regard for this guesthouse is widely shared. As an added bonus, the same company rents cars, does translations, and arranges accommodations in Lithuania’s major cities and resorts. Prices, on average, are about half those of their competitors. With typical generosity, they also provided me with the pictures of their rooms below, though there are many others, which are rather smaller, on their website.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on January 10, 2005
2341 Vior Drive
"Lithuania! My fatherland!" Every Polish schoolchild knows though words because the constitute (in Polish) the first line of Poland’s national epic, Pan Tadeusz. Yes, you did read that correctly. The explanation for this paradox is that their author, Adam Mickiewicz (or Adomas Mickevicus, as he’s known is Lithuania), hailed from the vicinity of Vilnius and attended Vilnius University until he was expelled for anti-Russian activities in 1824. That Lithuanians and Poles alike consider him among their greatest poets (the latter having a stronger claim in that their language was the mother tongue in which he wrote) hints at the fraught relationship between the two peoples.
The Polish-Lithuanian Union (1387-1795) preserved the latter’s independence. This prevented Vilnius (or Kaunas for that matter) from becoming a member of the German Hanseatic League, unlike all the major towns in modern-day Latvia and Estonia, and consequently it never developed a sizable German population. Lithuania did, however, acquire a sizable Polish population, and to this day ethnic Poles constitute 7% of the country’s population, making them the country’s second largest ethnic minority group (after Russians). Quite a few Lithuanians emigrated to Poland, among them some of the ancestors of Karol Wojtyla (better known to the world as Pope John Paul II) who honored them in 1993 by planting a cross on the Hill of the Crosses outside Siauliai in northern Lithuania.
In general, however, the relationship between the two countries, which today are officially NATO allies, has been highly contentious. Poles generally regard the Union as their nation’s golden age, while many Lithuanians regard it as a time during which Poland sought to politically and culturally dominate them. The second period of the Union, when it was declared a Commonwealth (Rzeczpolita) and the whole realm was ruled from Warsaw, rather than the constituent elements being governed from Vilnius and Krakow, respectively, particularly aggrieves modern Lithuanians. To put this in its proper context, however, Lithuanians much preferred this arrangement to rule by Russia (1795-1919) which sought to impose the Orthodox religion and Russian language on the country, even though Vilnius regained its status as a capital, albeit a provincial one.
The current uneasy relationship between Poland and Lithuania is rooted in the 20th century, however. Not only was Poland’s national poet born in Lithuania, so too was General Jozef Pilsudski, the founder of the modern Polish state, who was born in 1867 to a noble family in Zulow, although he regarded Vilnius as his home city. Although many of the region’s inhabitants were ethnic Poles, Pilsudski’s ancestors were Lithuanians, albeit ones who had long been Polonized. After defeating the Bolsheviks to assure Poland’s postwar independence, Pilsudski sought to retake Lithuania and Ukraine from them as well in the hope of reestablishing the Commonwealth. However Polish forces under General Lucjan Zeligowski (another ethnic Lithuanian) only succeeded in gaining control of Vilnius and southeastern Lithuania and after Lithuanian forces successfully drove out the Bolshevik invaders themselves, he was compelled to recognize the country’s independence.
Although Pilsudski’s actions and his opposition to Lithuanian independence are today generally seen as repugnant, they were typical of his time. Although he was eager to reestablish the Commonwealth for historical reasons, he did not believe that Lithuania was sufficiently large enough to preserve its independence as a practical matter. Both Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia (neither of which had previously existed as a political unit) were created at the same time based on the same assumption. Polish speakers also far outnumbered Lithuanian speakers within the city at the time, although the rulers of the new Lithuanian state regarded the city’s inclusion into Poland as such an affront that they designated Kaunas their "Provisional Capital." To this day, inhabitants of the city are wont to point out that it is the country’s most ethnically Lithuanian city, both as a proportion and an absolute number of its population.
It was Jews, rather than Poles or Lithuanians, who constituted the largest ethnic group in inter-war Vilnius. The first Jews came to Lithuania before the Polish-Lithuanian Union, at the invitation of Grand Dukes Augustus II and Augustus III, who sought their expertise in trade and as craftsmen. The community flourished under the toleration afforded by the Union (although this was often more in law than in fact) and concentrated its activities in Vilnius, which was second only to Warsaw as a center of Jewish learning. The scholar Gaon of Vilna, after whom a street in the Old Town is named, was esteemed as the 18th century’s Jewish scholar. This role continued between the wars as YIVO, a worldwide organization for the preservation of Yiddish language and culture, was located in Vilna (as the city was known in Yiddish), rather than Warsaw or New York.
Over ninety percent of present-day Lithuania’s Jewish population was murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators. The extent of complicity by Lithuanians in the Holocaust remains heavily debated by the country’s historians to this day. While, as elsewhere in Eastern and Central Europe, many anti-Semitic attitudes persist, it’s to the country’s great credit that in addition to offering an apology for the genocide, it has established and supported a State Jewish Museum. Not only is such recognition of this historic community (which today numbers 6,500, of whom 5,000 live in Vilnius) welcome, but the candor with which the exhibition deals with the attempts of Lithuanians to both collaborate with the Nazis and save the country’s Jews is also particularly striking.
No summary of Vilnius’ multiethnic past and present would be complete without reference to the Russian influence on the city, although it is far less noticeable than in either of the other Baltic capitals. Large-scale Russian immigration began after Lithuania’s incorporation into the Tsarist Empire in 1795, and a century later, Russians constituted approximately a fifth of the city’s population, as they do today. The main testament to the period of Russian rule (1795-1919) are the city’s many Orthodox churches, although the most famous, the Church of the Holy Spirit, predates it. While the city’s outskirts bear the unmistakeable mark of Soviet architecture, and certain churches retain the scars of atheist reappropriation, central Vilnius seems less marked by this period than any other large city in the Baltics.
St. Anne’s Church
According to legend, when the Emperor Napoleon stopped in Vilnius at the beginning of his ill-fated attempt to invade Russia, he was so enamored of this magnificent brick Gothic church that he expressed the desire to bring it back with him to France in the palm of his hand. Another, perhaps more credible version of the same story holds that he considered ordering it dismantled brick by brick so that it could be reassembled on French soil, not unreasonable given the Emperor’s fondness for spiriting away artistic (if not architectural) treasures from lands he conquered.
Fittingly, the history of the church’s construction itself is shrouded in mystery, although this has only served to enhance its status as the most celebrated work of architecture in the entire country. Twice as high as it is broad and perfectly symmetrical, it utilizes thirty-three different shapes of brick. Historians have been unable to agree when its spectacular brick Gothic façade was constructed, let alone by whom. It certainly served some purpose as a part of a larger brick Bernardine Friary, and thus must have been built no earlier than 1469 when the order (an offshoot of the Franciscans) arrived in Vilnius, although it was dwarfed in size (and probably importance) by the adjacent Church of SS Francis and Bernardino. Consequently, its interior is relatively modest.
Church of St. Casimir
By contrast, the Jesuit church dedicated to St. Casimir, Lithuania’s patron saint, is modest neither inside nor outside. Its dome, topped by a lantern which is in turn topped by a crown added in 1942 to commemorate St. Casimir’s royal lineage, is visible from every point along the Old Town’s main throughfare, on which it is located. Lithuania’s Soviet occupiers duly noted its prominent position and sought to strike at Lithuanian nationalism and Catholicism alike by converting it into a "Museum of Atheism" between 1966 and 1988. By contrast, Vilnius’ Cathedral was pressed into service as a secular art gallery!
Prior to Soviet rule, the church projected the power of the Jesuit order, which dominated Vilnius’ spiritual and intellectual life during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Construction began in 1604, a mere two years after St. Casimir’s canonization, under the auspices of the local architect Jan Prochowicz. It was most likely designed, however, by the Italian Giovanni Maria Bernardoni, who designed several other Jesuit churches in Eastern Europe that were modeled on the order’s mother church of Il Gesu in Rome. The twin towers, however, which differ from the originals, are clearly Prochowicz’ touch. In any case, it was the first baroque building of any kind to be constructed in Vilnius, and while the Jesuits’ intellectual imprimatur may have waned, their architectural influence remains evident, as this is the Old Town’s dominant architectural style.
Church of the Holy Spirit
Before stepping inside, the only hint a visitor has that the baroque Church of the Holy Spirit, designed in 1749 by Jan Kryzysztof Glaubitz, is consecrated as an Orthodox place of worship is the Cyrillic inscription on the archway that leads to its courtyard. This has much to do with the identity of its architect, the acknowledged master of the so-called "Vilnius Baroque" style who is best known for the Jesuit St. John’s Church (inside Vilnius University), which was completed in the same year. Glaubitz, who spent nearly three decades designing churches for the Jesuit order, wasn’t overly consumed by sectarian matters, as he was an Evangelical Lutheran himself!
The presence of the church in the heart of Vilnius’ Old Town is a commendation to the spirit of tolerance under the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth which allowed all three faiths (and Glaubitz himself) to prosper. It owes its position as Lithuania’s most important Orthodox church, however, to the presence of the preserved remains of a trio of victims of intolerance: SS Anthony, Ivan, and Estachius. The three men, servants at the court of the pagan Grade Duke Algirdas, were martyred in 1347 when the latter suddenly reversed his policy of tolerating Christians. The gigantic green iconostasis, which is only marginally more tasteful than the martyrs’ shriveled feet poking out from the shroud below it, is thought to have been designed by Glaubitz himself. Its incorporation of Baroque paintings alongside traditional Orthodox icons is offered as support for this supposition.
Zappa himself never visited Lithuania, although his antiestablishment stance made him an extremely popular figure among anti-Communist youths in Eastern Europe. In 1992, Lithuania’s first full year of independence, Saulius Paukstys, a Vilnius photographer and the president of the country’s Zappa fan club, had a brief audience with the musician while visiting California. He was so moved that when Zappa succumbed to cancer the next year, Paukstys went about seeking to memorialize him.
Intoxicated with the heady spirit of the times (and maybe also something more conventional), he put together a petition to erect a monument to Zappa outside the Vilnius Art Academy, securing the signatures of several prominent writers and some of the younger members of Lithuania’s newly reconstituted Seimas (Parliament). However, these were cash-strapped times in Lithuania. The same year, when the country’s beloved basketball team had to show up to collect the Olympic bronze medals it had won (beating the rump USSR no less!) in tie-dyed shirts donated by the Grateful Dead. Therefore, the city informed Paukstys that it could not pay for the sculpture, and after complaints about the potentially subversive effect of the monument by teachers at the art school, that it would have to be erected elsewhere.
Crucially, however, they did not oppose the creation of the monument itself. So, after raising sufficient funds, the Zappa Fan Club commissioned sculptor Konstantinas Bogdanas, well known for his massive sculptures of Communist figures for official commissions, to chisel a larger-than-life stone bust of their hero. The statue was mounted on a 4-meter stainless steel column and unveiled to great fanfare--from none other than the municipal military band – and a fireworks display in 1995 and remains in place to this day just outside the Old Town at Kaulinausko gatve 1, with a singularly appropriate background spray-painted onto the concrete wall behind it.
Frank Zappa Monument
1 Kaulinausko Street
Granted, you won’t be entering another country in the conventional or even the Frank Zappa sense of the word (he claimed that any true country required a beer and an airline), but you’d be wise to bring your passport anyway. Unless, of course, there happens to be a basketball game going on--in which case the border guards will prefer to watch it instead, as was my experience. The Uzupis Republic, which constitutes the bohemian district of the same name, which simply means "beyond the river" in Lithuanian, is a rather unusual "country." Something between Copenhagen’s free town of Christiania and Paris’ Montmartre, aspiring rather more to the latter, the area unilaterally declared its independence on April Fool’s Day 1998, which is celebrated annually at the somewhat ramshackle Angel of Uzupis Statue.
While it’s difficult to know what to do with a place whose Constitution ends: "Don’t conquer. Don’t defend. Don’t surrender." Vilnius’ authorities seem largely to have taken its declaration of independence with good humor and now seek to market the run-down area, home to several art galleries and youth hostels, as an alternative tourist destination to the Old Town. This might have something to do with the fact that the city’s maverick 35-year-old mayor, Arturas Zuokas, makes his home there. Completely ignoring Article 9 of Uzupis’ Constitution ("People have the right to be lazy and do nothing at all"), Zuokas had a webcam installed in his office to demonstrate to the people of Vilnius how hard he was working.
Zuokas governs from Vilnius’ neoclassical town hall, built in the last years of the 18th century (and thus the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) according to plans by Laurynas Gucevicius, who simultaneously oversaw the construction of the city’s cathedral, which he also designed. The town hall doubles as a "Palace of Art," displaying exhibitions by Lithuanian and international artists. In recognition of this roll, a large plaster angel appears to have alighted just to the right of the entrance, sat down, and struck a pensive pose. Whether it will bless his grandest of Zuokas’ many ambitious projects, the 129-meter Europa Tower, a $250 million skyscraper erected on the far bank of the Neris in May 2004 to coincide with Lithuania’s entry into the European Union, remains to be seen. In any case, it’s Vilnius’s first non-Soviet high-rise!
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