Thursday 08 September 2016
Hotel Panorama is conveniently situated on a little hill just out of the main Old Town area of Vilnius and as the name suggests has a wonderful panoramic view over the city. Our room has a panoramic view of the magnificent castle that is the railway station, built in times that they wanted their grandeur to be known for ever. But as we go out to the lifts on the 5th floor there is a breathtaking view of the city and its many domes.
The hotel is very modern and well appointed but our room is so small that there is nowhere for us to put our bags so we have them on the floor and have to clamber over them to go to the bathroom or out of the room. It is clearly a very popular place to stay as there are 8 tour buses parked outside and breakfast is total chaos: the restaurant is huge but poorly laid out and we scramble to find seats anywhere we can and queue for drinks, for plates, for food. Thankfully we do manage to get sufficient breakfast before they run out of coffee, hot water, cups….
This morning we meet Vilma our local guide for a walking tour of the UNESCO World Heritage Vilnius Old Town, starting with a look at some local street art – and particularly the graffiti of the Trump-Putin kiss that ‘went viral’ earlier this year but someone had painted over it. We pass the local market where people (mainly older people) come to buy and sell whatever they can, from a few flowers from the garden to some mushrooms or berries they picked in the woods to supplement their pensions.
Then we head to the only remaining gate to the old city: the famous Gates of Dawn that survived being pulled down during Soviet times because it houses a picture of Our Lady of Mercy – people from around the world come to pray to this icon and we can hear prayers being sung as we come through the gates (fairly plain on the outside but beautifully decorated on the inside). This whole street is one of the most religiously iconic in Vilnius and includes Church of St Casimir, a monastery, a Russian Orthodox Church and many more. There are 28 churches in the old town area: 21 Roman Catholic (often in baroque style), 4 Russian Orthodox and 1 each of Lutheran, Reformed and Eastern Rite Catholic. During the Soviet occupation most of the churches were closed and subject to massive desecrations, ransackings and remodelling as they were put to other uses such as sports halls, warehouses and museums. Most of the exteriors are now restored but only some are restored to their former glory inside.
We also pass the National Philharmonic Hall and the classically styled Town Hall and square.
By the turn of the last century, Vilnius had an 80,000-strong Jewish community. However, by the end of World War II, it had been completely decimated. Our next stop is the former Jewish Ghetto area that was a famous trade and craft centre from medieval times through to World War II. During Nazi occupation the area was destroyed and 95% of the city’s Jews were killed.
From there we carry along a narrow street that suddenly opens out to a huge square with a large classical early 19th century building that was once a nobleman’s house but is now the office of the Lithuanian President. Nearby is Vilnius University and St Johns’ Church. Lithuanians are very proud of their city and culture; of artists and literati; the University was built by Jesuits 200 years before there was a university in Moscow. It originally had schools of theology and philosophy, and then an observatory was built. Around the observatory the streets had wooden cobbles so that the vibrations wouldn’t affect the delicate instruments. Lithuania was the last pagan state in Europe but survived the crusades by saying that they would convert to Christianity but not under those conditions. St Johns’ Church is dedicated to St John the Evangelist and St John the Baptist and was the first people’s church.
We have been extremely impressed with each of the Baltic cities we have visited – they each have a lovely charm with such a nice feel to them. They are justifiably proud of their cities and people: Nobel Laureates, architects, poets, sculptors, and artists of all kinds. In Vilnius there is one street named Literati street and is lined with mini-installations representing many of these famous people.
We are hearing a lot about the Baltic people’s who have been subjugated by so many different countries over the centuries and have really only been independent for the last 25 years (apart from a short period at the beginning of last century). They have been peaceful peoples: in Estonia, thousands of people gathered together in what was called ‘the Singing Revolution’ and today we were told about how 1.5 million people linked arms stretching from Vilnius to Riga to Tallin to demonstrate that their solidarity and desire to leave the Soviet system.
Whilst Estonians have embraced the modern era and boldly gone electronic and connected, Lithuanians are proud of and embracing their history and roots. Latvians are somewhere in between. It seems that whatever statistic you wish to use, Latvians are somewhere in between Estonians and Lithuanians. There is a friendly rivalry and joking between them but also a solidarity that they are European and look to the west, strongly trying to shake off their imposed Soviet past. There is a saying that their only disadvantage is their favourable geography: everyone wants to have it.
We visit an Amber Museum and hear about how amber is made from pine resin and as it drips down it often traps insects or pollen and other materials. As well as the familiar yellowish and orange colour we see red, blue, green, black and white versions. They even have a piece with a lizard trapped within it. It is used to make all manner of jewellery and other decorative pieces, and we even get to try an amber liqueur made with ground amber.
We walk through Cathedral Square and see the classically styled Vilnius Cathedral, the Gediminas Belltower and the Monument to Gediminas (who was the Grand Duke (and founder) of Lithuania).
At the end of our morning’s tour we visit a coffee shop and get to try some of the traditional Sakotis cake. There is a story that there was a competition to impress a princess with cooking skills and a poor man looked at what others were baking and realised that he couldn’t compete so threw his mixture into the fire but the batter dripping down and cooking on the logs gave him inspiration for this cake that apparently won the competition. It is made on a rotating ‘skewer’ over heat with batter dropping down on it as it turns, so that you get layers of different colours and ‘icicles’ dropping down (the slower it turns the longer the icicles or branches). The resulting cake looks like the branches of a tree.
Suitably refreshed we head off for a tour of the KGB Museum, intrigued but not really looking forward to what we might see and hear. The building has variously been Nazi Headquarters, Polish Police Headquarters and KGB Headquarters – none of which have been happy places. Lithuanians wanted to call this the Museum of Genocide Victims but ‘Brussels’ determined that what happened here during the Soviet occupation was not genocide but rather part of a general killing of a whole range of different peoples. Vilma gives us a guided tour of the basement that houses the cells and interrogation chambers that were used right up until 1991. It is a sobering and distressing insight into what the Lithuanian peoples have suffered in the recent past: a huge percentage of the population were either killed or sent away to Siberia. Most of the people portrayed in the museum were members of the Partisans – the movement that tried to bring freedom from the Soviets.
Some went on to visit art museums but we were looking forward to sitting down for a while with a cuppa and something to eat. A little cafe nearby served delicious pancakes and the requisite drinks. The helpful waitress also ordered a taxi for us to get back to the hotel for a rest before heading out again for dinner.
On the tour we had heard about the Uzupis district – a self-proclaimed republic of artists and bohemians with its own constitution, president, anthem and bishop. It also reportedly had its own army of 12 soldiers who were all dismissed for being pacificists. It is just a joke but apparently an interesting place to visit. Seven of us decide that we will find our way there for dinner and wind our way through a maze of back streets that all seem to be under repair, finally crossing a bridge into the republic and find a delightful little restaurant right on the square overlooked by an Angel. It is a very mild evening and we sit outside watching the interesting world go by: business men in suits trailing suitcases, students on skateboards, people out walking their dogs or children, gaggles of students with brightly coloured hair and designer shabby clothing, very upmarket cars and some boy racers.
For this and other similar tours see:
Peregrine Adventures (Comfort tours)
Geckos Adventures (for 18 to 30s)
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