Vilnius Stories and Tips

A first impression of the Old Town

Mother of Mercy Photo, Vilnius, Lithuania

The narrow streets, cobbled alleys, and walkways of the Old Town can best be discovered and explored on foot. A 1km walk starting from Ausros Vartai, the only remaining Old Town gate to the end of Pilies gatve gives you a good orientation of the numerous places of interest and architectural monuments that await you.

Ausros Vartai, formerly part of the bastions which circled the Old Town acquired its present appearance at the beginning of the 17th century. Last restored in summer 2002 and painted in shades of grey and stone, it houses a beautiful tiny chapel accessible through a side flight of steps, always busy with visitors pushing their way to get a view of the miraculous icon of 'The Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Mercy', an original icon brought here in 1363 from Crimea. (See my entry: GDANSK: A world heritage of church architecture).

Walk down among the crowds of Catholic Poles along Ausros Vartu gatve for about 50 metres until you reach the Baroque Church of St.Theresa whose wonderful 18th-century interior decorated with elaborate stucco work has remained intact. Painted in shades of pink as many churches in Vilnius are, the Russian Orthodox Church of the Holy Spirit, a short distance away from St.Theresa's at Ausros Vartu 10 is reached through a beautiful arched Byzantine gate. Note the magnificent iconostatis and the preserved bodies of three martyrs lying in front of the altar. Also along Ausros Vartu gatve opposite the Russian Orthodox Church, the majestic restored gate of the Basilian Monastery leads to the monastery courtyard which is ringed with a maze of unrestored chambers among neglected garden paths. Ausros Vartu gatve ends with the Baroque Church of St.Casimir, its crown topped dome seen from everywhere in Vilnius. Its simple interior has been wonderfully restored after serving as a museum of atheism under the Soviets but much restoration work has still to be done on its outside architecture.

Further north, elegant Didzioji gatve's highlight is the Town Hall square. Newly restored, the Town Hall acquired its present classical-style structure in the early 19th century and is now used for official functions and cultural events. The elevated central part of the square is mostly occupied by a beer garden where you can relax, have a snack and enjoy the atmosphere. From here, walk further north along Didzioji gatve past numerous restaurants and shops (take note of the artistic wrought iron shop signs) until you reach the Russian Orthodox church of St.Paraskevija, in front of which local artists and craftsmen display their works. There are paintings, wooden works of art, ceramics, collectors' items and Lithuanian souvenirs for sale.

From Didzioji gatve, walk further north along Pilies gatve until you see the 68 metres high belfry of St.John's church. Entry to St.John's whose 18th-century Baroque facade and its interior works of art are outstanding is through the Skarga courtyard, one of the 12 linked courtyards inside the University Complex which occupies the whole block of buildings between Pilies gatve and Universiteto gatve. There are numerous attractions inside the complex. Discover the various architectural styles, memorial plaques, ornate niches and gateways and taste the historical atmosphere of the interior's decor, some of it dating back to the 16th century.

After visiting the University complex, continue straight ahead along pedestrianised Pilies gatve until you reach Katedros aikste, the big square on which the present massive classical Cathedral was rebuilt at the end of the 18th century. Enter the Cathedral to see among other attractions the beautiful sculptures and marble works that decorate the Chapel of St.Casimir and the silver coffin with the relics of the saint. From Cathedral's square, you can get a glimpse of Gediiminas tower constructed on a small hill behind the Cathedral and three white crosses perched on another beautiful hill further east.

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