Words and photography: Anthony Lydekker
Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, brilliantly combines three factors: it’s one of the most beautiful cities in Europe with spectacular Baroque churches; it’s a relaxed place that’s also very affordable; and a wonderful feeling of youth and confidence in a people who re-won their national independence 20 years ago, and retained their own language in a story which goes back over 1,000 years.
These days the “Baroque” is often used to indicate something ornate, classy or just old. Vilnius sums up the original meaning: from about 1545 the extremes of the Protestant Reformation were leading to churches with no pictures, statues or decorations. The reaction of the Roman Catholic Church was to go completely the other way with a new heavily decorated flamboyant style. If you can’t get to Rome, see it all in Vilnius –many enthusiasts see the two as comparable with the dramatic architecture, Church decoration and the fine and secluded courtyards of the latter.
Not surprisingly Lithuania is a Catholic country and the University, founded by the Jesuits in 1579 is worth a visit for its impressive library, murals and small observatory. Incidentally, an increasing number of courses are delivered in English – tuition costs vary but are significantly lower than England and Wales.
.…and jazz ?
Most of the 48 churches in the city have been repaired and restored since the Soviets left in 1991. During the Soviet Regime, St Catherine’s was used as a store and some elements of vandalism have been deliberately left as a reminder of the Soviets with eerie images of maimed statues and open tombs in the low light of a concert.
St Catherine’s, is a major venue for classical and jazz concerts. English jazz pianist Howard Riley appears regularly and recently recorded in the church his well regarded album ‘Solo in Vilnius’. Later this year there are two Jazz Festivals coming up: “Jazz 24” (October 13-16) and Mama Jazz (November 17-21). For more information, visit www.kadmusarts.com/festivals/1542.html
A much darker reminder of life in Lithuania from 1944 to 1991 is the museum in the former KGB HQ. The basement cells include some permanently in a foot of water and apart from protecting the floor with glass, the large execution cell with its bullet marks and drains is exactly as it was – not a reconstruction! Upstairs there are large photo displays of the mass deportations to forced labour camps in the far North the 300,000 transported included while families. There are also pictures of the Lithuanian Partisan fighters, few of whom survived.
Getting around and the less formal
One of the joys of Vilnius is that one can cover much of the ground on foot. So it’s easy to pop in to a church and there is no shortage of quiet cafes and bistros to take the weight off one’s fee – opposite St Catherine’s there’s even a vegetarian Indian: the “Baltic Balti”. Two hour walks with English speaking guide are available for around £7 (but included in the Vilnius City card). Non-walkers can get around with the hop-on-hop off bus service and there’s new hire outlet with electric bicycles. Details from www.lithuaniatourism.co.uk
Well worth a visit, is the arty area of Uzupio on the banks of the Vilnia River where, in the late 80’s, latter day hippies declared the area a Republic (well sort of) as a part of Montmartre. It’s now become very fashionable and lively at night with a hive of bistros and music bars.
Three facts about Lithuania not many people know: the national sport is basketball and Vilnius currently hosts the European Championships. Next, their female President (since 2009) blonde Dalia Grybauskaite 55 is a Judo Black belt. And Vilnius has a large statue of Frank Zappa who had no connection with Lithuania and never went there – there’s no agreed explanation for this. Maybe something to do with residents of Uzupio.
However, moving on from the spirit of Uzupio, when it comes to national pride, Lithuanians have an incredibly impressive four yearly Song and Dance Festival for which there are many hours of rehearsal. I was lucky enough to see it in 2009 including 6,000 dancers and a mass choir of 11,000 in a stadium. Overall there were 42,000 participants and 500 choirs. Pencil it in for 2013.
Where to stay, eat and play
Three hotels sort of sum up the different facets of the City’s culture.
Oddball, creative and comfortable, all the rooms in The Shakespeare are themed to writers. For example, the walls of “The Hemingway” have stuffed animal heads and, somewhat morbidly, a rifle is mounted over the bed. A stylishly converted monastery is now The Mabre Residence almost opposite St Anne’s www.mabre.lt/EN.php . And the modern looking Reval Hotel was the Intourist under the Soviets – we are assured that the bugging devices have gone.
There’s much more choice at lunchtime from a range of wine bars and small restaurants. The problem with the evenings in Vilnius is that the places that are well recommended get very busy and very loud. Some come and go, so be sure to check they’re still open, wherever the recommendation comes from. The three I’m suggesting must be booked in advance are: Bistro 18 (www.bistro18.lt ) Lokys (great Lithuanian food and the only restaurant I know that puts blankets round their outdoor diners’ shoulders if it gets a bit chilly; www.lokys.lt) and La Pergola inside a Boutique Hotel (www.grotthusshotel.com/index.php?page=restaurant-la-pergola). Nightlife is very busy with bars and clubs: try Disco 311 Buddhabar and Marushkabar and others around Islandijosstreet.
For more on Lithuania, visit www.lithuaniatourism.co.uk. To read Anthony’s verdict on the three other capitals of Lithuania, don’t forget to log onto the CD-Traveller website tomorrow.