Vilnius took us by surprise!

Some members of the Mereczonthego traveling gang associated Vilnius with noble grandma-pilgrims to the holy image of Santa Madonna in the Gates of Dawn. Others expected a sleepy, dusty town emerging from the mist of the past with countless church towers. However…
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Vilnius turned out to be a beautiful, clean, vibrant multicultural European city. In Vilnius streets you will hear Lithuanian, Polish and Russian languages as well as good English. Lithuanians are prosperous kind and open people 🙂
So, Vilnius is much more then the churches (although there are 40 catholic ones there all right, plus 20 orthodox churches and 3 Jewish synagogues!), Rummaging through the internet, we learned that a major pastime here is just visiting churches. Going there we set ourselves a challenge: Do not visit churches! Well, it worked (with just one exception). In this city really it is much more to explore.
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Literary Street
We went there in the first place, not truly aware what to except. So, when we saw… false teeth protruding from the wall, well, we got happily stunned! Literatų gatvė or Vilnius Literary Street is a tiny street dedicated to famous writers associated with Lithuania. Each of the selected writers has here their artistic plaque mounted on the wall. Some plaques are not plaques at all, but – as the said false teeth for example – ingenious artistic installations. Well, you might stare at those wonders for hours, read descriptions and admire the artistic creation. And so we stared 🙂
Interestingly, the whole thing has not been here for long – the first plaque on Literatų gatvė appeared in 2008 as part of the artistic Literatu Street Project, which was supposed to be temporary. And, as it happens from time to time with “temporary” things (see the Eiffel Tower in Paris) it stayed. Currently plates cover several walls. And the key for selecting authors to commemorate has also had to change: once the plaques were dedicated only to writers associated with the Vilnius Old Town; now the plates also commemorate literary translators and foreign authors who wrote about Lithuania (e.g. Günter Grass).
The place is not accidental – once on this street there were bookstores, publishers and literary antique shops.
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University Library
Yeah … It’s just one of those libraries that are on the lists of the greatest libraries of the world. For example, this list 🙂 (nota bene: it is tempting to follow travel-wise such a list, because the interiors, exteriors and contents of those libraries are often really unique and awesome!). And so it is with this library. It is absolutely worth visiting. Do book a tour in advance. We didn’t and only had a chance to enter the main hall for a moment (kind guarding ladies allowed us to have a look there without reservation and fee but only because we were super nice and cool by nature, and we had a disarming child in the stroller). Normally you have to book a guided tour, be sure to do it earlier (tour groups min. 4 persons, adults €5, children €1.20, the guide speaks English, Russian and Polish). For us this magical quarter was really intense and great. We were impressed not only by the interior (after all it is brilliantly preserved architecture and decoration from the mid-sixteenth century!), But above all, we loved to see the ancient, incredibly illustrated books. Have a look at the video above, to get the idea.
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Cathedral (Arkikatedra Bazilika)
(O, yeah, this is the one exception to the “No visit churches rule” we had)
The thing is absolutely unique! Colossal, even if scaled temple currently in the classical style, once gothic built on the site of the original pre-Christian temple. The turbulent Lithuanian history had given the Basilica its share: it was completely burnt down a few times, plundered, and in the 1950s it served as organ concert hall… Now stun vastness and pure classical form: solid, architecture and decor consistently refer to Greek style, the colossal statues of Christian saints took on the form and style of ancient sculptures (this is something!). The really unique baroque chapel of St. Casimir presents in its center the mysterious painting of the patron depicted with… three hands! (the creepy legend says why, but we won’t reveal it here, go and see and hear it by yourselves 🙂 The cathedral basement hosts royal tombs, which seems normal, and – which doesn’t sound normal – the heart of the Polish king Władysław IV Vasa (WTF with this extracting and burying hearts here and there?). In the great Cathedral you will find ten other chapels and a lot of God-fearing tourists, but it’s cool.
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Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania, The National Museum
Nice, friendly museum in the restored Vilnius Lower Castle, dating back to the 14th century, when the gothic castle was built, and even further back to the 4th century, when the original wooden settlement was thriving on this very spot. Exhibitions tend to focus on noble and patriotic Lithuanian history (address: Katedros a. 3; hr .: Tue, Wed, Fri, Sat 10.00-18.00, Thurs 10.00-20.00, Sun 10.00-16.00; tickets: adults €2.90, pupils and students €1.45). We found shelter from the summer heat here and it was nice.
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Gediminas Tower
Gediminas was in many ways grand: he was the grand Lithuanian chief and conqueror of the 13th century, as well as the grand…father of the most powerful medieval Polish king Władysław Jagiełło (right, the same Jagiełło who has this huge statue in NYC Central Park). Gediminas lived and ruled almost a century before the tower of his name was erected. This was originally one of the three towers of the Vilnius Upper Castle built in 1409. This castle was the new generation brick mutation of the wooden fortress standing there in Gediminas’ times. The castle was strong and decent, but because of the turbulent history of these lands, it crumbled in time down to pieces. What is left now is, of course, the Gediminas Tower. And this – in contrast to the Lower Castle, which was recently rebuilt almost entirely from scratch – the Gediminas Tower is said to be mostly the original building of the fifteenth century. It has this interesting episode from the 1830s, when a wooden superstructure was built inside the tower for… optical telegraph! It is no longer there, but what is there is a little historical museum (hours: April-September 10:00-19:00, October-March 10:00-17:00; tickets: 4€ adults, 2€ children above 6 years). It is worth to get on top for the spectacular Vilnius panorama view. As for the Merecz On The Go team, only the three oldest Merecz ladies climbed to the top, whereas Merecz-Father stayed with the youngest girl in the park at the bottom of the Castle Hill, due to the quite steep and long climb along roughly cobblestoned path, not entirely baby-stroller friendly. It turned out later that there is a cable car at the other side of the hill that would take you up the hill to the Gediminas Tower without shortness of breath (1.50€).
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Bernardine Garden
Maybe not all the Mereczes would die for strolling unhurriedly in parks, but when we entered the Vilnius Bernardine Garden there was not much dispute – we all instantly felt the charming aura and cool climate of the old (though recently revitalized) monastery garden. Its beginnings must have been rooted in fun for it was co-founded with the monastic brewery and meadery in the middle of the fifteenth century. The garden is located near the center of the Vilnius Old Town and is flanked by the river Wilejka (lit. Vilnia). The garden is 9 hectares big and hosts a well-maintained conservatory, botanical garden and rockery, as well as a musical fountain and children playgrounds … You can also eat and drink in the cozy cafeteria, or just to sit there and breathe. Full relax.
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Užupis
This district of artists, numerous styled cafes and artistic shops is often said to be a bit like Paris Montmarte (toutes proportions gardées;). The Wilejka rivulet lowing through adds to the nice atmosphere of the neighborhood. Užupis, even has its “constitution”, written down for fun, but still with a witty sense of style, translated into several languages, including English, and hanged on the wall. As you read the Constitution of the Republic of Užupis, you understand why this is such a cool place.
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Džiugas Shop & Cafe
Lithuanian Džiugas is our family’s favorite hard cheese, so we could not miss it. The eastern cousin of the great Italian Parmesan cheese, Džiugas is being sold in many neighboring countries, including Poland. But nowhere we could see such a variety of types of Džiugas. Do you know that the maturation time of this kind of cheese can be 12, 18, 24, 36 or 48 months? This is why Džiugas has a lot of different tastes. And is sold in different sizes, differently styled packages… We just couldn’t resist and bought so many nicely wrapped kinds – as gifts for friends and family as well as for ourselves. And this place offers also absolutely fabulous cheesecakes (but alas, only decent coffee)! Anyway, it’s a great place to drop! It’s easy to find, for it has a big brass cheese installed in front of the café (with even a little brass mouse sticking its head from one of the cheese’s holes). Cute!
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Gates of Dawn (Ausros Vartai)
The miraculous painting can be seen from a distance through a huge window high above the street. But how to get up there seems to be a real mistic puzzle! The entrance to the chapel is hidden; we were looking for it for many minutes. And finally we had to ask for it, for it’s not where you’d expect it to be. While the girls stayed with the father, Ola entered the mysterious gateway up to the chapel. The space in the chapel and on the catwalk before it is small, so when the holy mass is being held, you will rather not escape the eyes of the faithful. We would not advise to pack up there with the camera during the service. The famous Gates of Dawn (Aušros Vartai in Lithuenian, and Ostra Brama in Polish) was built in the 16th century as part of the Vilnius defense fortification system. Now it is the only preserved city gate; the other four gates were demolished in the nineteenth century. And now about the miraculous painting: it is 2 meters high and 165 cm wide. Its now unknown artist had painted it on the boards of oak. Regarded as a miracle (not only from an aesthetic point of view) it has long attracted the faithful and tourists. Because it’s well seen from the street, many a passerby pay respect. Generally, the artwork and grandeur is well worth going inside to see even for those less religious folks amongst us. And, who knows, maybe you will be the lucky one to face a miracle? Free entry!
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As we drove into Vilnius at night and then were moving around the Old City on foot, only while leaving the town we realized how big and diverse this city is. Modern Vilnius City surprised us with skyscrapers and shopping malls. On the other hand, we were truly charmed by numerous rustic wooden houses painted bright blue in the suburbs. Vilnius, the urban surprise of the year! (Maybe except the old town of Trakai, also Lithuanian, stay tuned for this story, coming soon!)
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Vilnius demographic mystery
Population: the city: just over half a million; the whole Vilnius agglomeration: more than a million – which translates into more than the 1/3 of all Lithuanian population (of 2.8M)! 63% of the residents of Vilnius are Lithuanians, Poles: 16.5%, Russians: 12%, Belarusians: 3.5% and Jews 0.5%. Interestingly, before the WW2 the proportions were quite different: Poles made up 66% of the population of Vilnius, Jews: 28%, Russians: 2.8%, Ukrainians: 0.9% and Lithuanians… 0.8%!
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Written by mereczonthego

3 Comments

by-letter/u/

On 18 April, Colonel Belina decided to use the element of surprise and move into Vilnius without waiting for the slower infantry units.

day zz

The Polish infantry was able to reinforce the cavalry in the city center, and during the night, with help of local guides, Polish forces crossed the river and took one of the bridges.

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