Vilnius Stories and Tips

The Uzupis Republic: Civically Sanctioned Separatists

Lithuanian National Song Dome Photo, Vilnius, Lithuania

You may want to exercise caution in making your way to the Hill Park, a wooded recreation area that is Vilnius’s second-finest vantage point after Gediminas Hill, whose 91 meter summit is crowned with three gigantic white crosses. It’s not because these monuments, erected in 1989 under perestroika to commemorate Lithuanians deported to Siberia and to replace the originals, which the Soviets tore down in 1950, are guarded, though they once were. Nor does it have to do with the considerable difficulty you’re likely to encounter in finding the road leading to the crosses, which have stood on the site in some form or other since the 17th century, when their wooden predecessors were erected in honor of Franciscan martyrs. Rather, it’s that you may have to cross an international boundary to do so.

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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