We only had 2 days in Lithuania and spent our time in the capital city of Vilnius Lithuania.
Like its neighbors, Lithuania has had a long history of occupation. But, since it is “hidden” in an inland location (rather than being a port city like Tallinn or Riga), its history began much later and was influenced by fewer foreign powers. The first documented reference to the city was in 1323, when the city’s Grand Duke Gediminas invited Germans to move to the city in return for a number of privileges, including an exemption from taxes. Also unlike its neighbors, it actually controlled its own mini-empire (which included parts of Belarus, Ukraine and Russia) from the 13th through 16th centuries.
Its glory days, however, were limited. It was soon relegated to becoming a provincial city in the Polish Commonwealth and then suffered many devastating attacks and fires through the 17th and 18th centuries. The city, however, was rapidly rebuilt, largely in the Baroque style that characterizes the current city.
While it briefly regained its position as a national capital in 1918, it was soon reoccupied by Poland. It fell into relative obscurity until the Soviets captured it in 1939 and the Germans largely destroyed it in WWII. It rebuilt its economic base during the post-war Soviet occupation and it has flourished since its post-1991 independence. It joined the EU and NATO to protect its regained sovereignty in light of its “unpredictable” neighbor.
Vilnius’s Baroque Heritage
Although the city’s Old Town contains a number of architectural styles, it is especially known for its large concentration of 17th-and 18th-century Baroque buildings–buildings that are characterized by their rich colors and ornate stucco figures. Churches, in particular, have opulent façades and dramatically decorated interiors with multiple and particularly ornate altars. Key examples include:
- St. Casimir Church, which, after being destroyed three times by fire, was reconstructed in 1750 as the city’s first Baroque church. Later converted to Russian Orthodox, it added onion domes. It still retains its beautiful alter, despite the Soviet’s attempted sacrilege of converting it into a museum of atheism.
- St. Theresa Church, built in the early 17th century, has a rather plain exterior (other than for its lovely portal), but an extravagant interior with its frescos and dramatic altars.
- St. John’s Church, which was originally built in Gothic style (in 1426), but was reconstructed in Baroque in 1749. Although the exterior is impressively large, it is only sparsely decorated. The interior is also relatively spare, except for the extravagant high altar, the organ (which, after being destroyed and reconstructed several times, is now the largest in the country) and St. Anne’s Chapel, with its Rococo portal and 19th century altar. The Body of Christ Chapel is notable primarily for its gilded wrought iron doors and its stained windows. Its separate 223-foot bell tower, meanwhile, is the tallest structure in the city.
- Dominican Church of the Holy Spirit was rebuilt in the mid-17th century after being destroyed during the first Russian occupation. It has a plain exterior that one enters through a fresco-adorned vestibule into a magnificent cavern with elaborate Rococo-style alters and Baroque-style frescos, gilding and faux-marble columns.
- St. Catherine’s, a pretty, strawberry and cream-colored Baroque that was built in the 17th and rebuilt in the 18th century, and now used primarily as a concert venue.
- St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, which was also originally build in Gothic style (1514), later converted to Baroque;
- Basilian Gate, designed in 1761, with its top bas relief of the Holy Trinity being particularly noteworthy.
Another Baroque masterpiece is located about a mile from the city center.
- Church of Sts. Peter and Paul is another massive church that had to be virtually totally rebuilt after the mid-17th century Russian invasion. Although its exterior is rather plain (other than for its white stucco portal), it has a riotously ornate interior. But unlike most of the other churches, whose interiors are carnivals of gilding and multiple colors, Peter and Paul’s interior is stark white. It is, however, far from plain. Other than the altar that consists of an important painting of the two saints, virtually every inch of the floor, ceiling and cupola of the church and its chapels (especially those of Saint Ursula and of the Holy Queens) is covered with intricate high relief stucco figures.
This is certainly not to suggest that the entire town, nor even all its most architecturally important churches or religious sites are Baroque. Many of the city’s religious masterpieces are classic examples of other styles. But regardless of their style, even many of these still have some important Baroque influences. Consider, for example:
- Vilnius Cathedral, initially built as a pagan temple in 1251 and reconstructed in the French Classicist style, is still notable for its exterior stucco sculptures and friezes, its high altar and its one major Baroque element, the grand St. Casimir’s Chapel. The cathedral’s separate belfry, however, hasn’t a single Baroque element. The Cathedral was also the starting point of the Baltic Chain, a million-person chain of people, holding hands all the way through Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia (which have total collective populations of 5 million) to protest Soviet occupation.
- St. Anne’s, which has the most elaborate exterior of any church in the city, is extravagantly and unapologetically Gothic, with narrow windows, arches, soaring spires and decoration. Its interior, however, has three very Baroque altars.
Vilnius’ Religious Heritage
Old Town has a huge number of churches (30), and a number of very elaborate ones at that. This may be somewhat surprising in light of the Soviet’s 45-year effort to stamp out all signs of religion and by converting existing churches into everything from warehouses, to museums to basketball courts (to accommodate what many feel is the country’s true religion). Atop this is the Lutheran predisposition and the rapidly declining importance of all religions in its Baltic neighbors.
Lithuania, and especially Vilnius, however, is very different than its neighbors for many reasons.
First, Lithuania’s Grand Duke decided to convert the entire country from Paganism to Catholicism in the 14th century. He brought hundreds of priests into the country and effectively bribed the entire population to be baptized by giving every newly baptized person a new shirt (a significant incentive in those days). But although the entire population went through the ceremony and were given Christian names (and shirts) within a single year, only a portion of the new initiates truly bought into the new religion.
Their Polish neighbors and co-Duchy members, however, bought very heavily into Catholicism. About 20 percent of Vilnius’ population is now of Polish heritage and this percentage used to be much larger. Vilnius was, in fact, officially part of Poland during most of the Inter-War years. It was not until Russia effectively forced its way into Lithuania in 1939 that it brought Vilnius with it. That prompted a number of Poles to leave the city and return to their native country.
The Russians also altered the city’s mix in other ways. First was the process of “Russification”, wherein they moved a number of Russians into Lithuania. And while the Soviets did all in their power to stamp any semblance of religion out of its controlled territories, many of these relocated Russians brought their Russian Orthodox faith with them. Even now, Russians are about 13 percent of the city’s population.
One religion, however, has plunged dramatically since the Russian’s 1939 return, and especially during WWII when the Nazi’s took control of the city—the Jews. Jews, as our guide explained, had accounted for about one-third of the city’s population in the early 20th century. They were fully integrated into the city and had more than 100 synagogues. Many of these Jews lived in Old Town where many of their synagogues were located.
When the Soviet’s forced their way into the country and the city in 1939 with 20,000 soldiers, they deported a number of the Jews. The Nazis executed or sent many of those that remained to concentration camps. The result: the city now has only about 300 Jews.
Secular Old Town
It is true that religion pervades many of the city’s activities—even a number of its generally secular activities and buildings. It has done so for many years and continues to do so today. For example:
- Gates of Dawn, one of the oldest and only remaining of the gates in the city’s defensive wall contained a chapel and a religious icon as a means of safeguarding the city. The Madonna of Mercy icon, which was painted on an oak plank in1620 and has since been encased in a silver frame, has had a number of miracles attributed to it. It has since become one of the most venerated icons in the city. Every day, hundreds of people pay homage to the Madonna and the heart-encrusted silver plates that surround it.
- Vilnius University is the oldest (founded in 1568) and largest (with about 20,000 students) university in the country. The university (see below for a more secular discussion of the campus) began as, and continues to be a Jesuit school. It also contains St. John Church and its separate bell tower.
But for all the city’s religious overtones and undertones, it also has a number of purely secular attractions. These include individual buildings, entire neighborhoods or sections of the city. Among the most historic and otherwise notable of the buildings are:
- Upper Castle, the rebuilt (in the 1950s) remains of one tower from the original (1419) defensive fortification that was built on a hill overlooking the town;
- Royal Castle, which was initially Neo-Classical structure was built in the 14th century as the residence of the Grand Duke. It was rebuilt in the Renaissance style in the 1520s. While it was destroyed in 1802 by ruling Tsarist Russians that wanted to eliminate remnants of Lithuanian power and authority, the foundation and other remnants have been restored in a museum. The plaza has a fun statue of city founder, Bishop Gedeminas.
- New Arsenal, a 1995 reconstruction of the old long-since demolished building that is built on the foundations of the old city wall, part of which has also been reconstructed. It now serves as the National Museum and is fronted by a modernist statue of King Mindavgas.
- Presidential Palace, a 14th-century bishop’s residence was rebuilt in Neo-Classical style in the 1820s. Having served as a temporary residence for dignitaries including Russian Czars and Napoleon, it now houses the country’s president (currently a woman). It is the centerpiece of a large and impressive courtyard that is now open to the public.
- House of Signatories, a lovely, highly decorated strawberries and cream-colored building in which the 1918 deed that restored the country’s independence was signed.
Many other historic buildings have been renovated into museums of all types…a number of which are art and history museums. Others are dedicated to different components of the city and country’s culture, to survival of occupation and genocide and to all types of notable Vilnius residents.
In addition to individual buildings, there are also a number of particularly notable streets, squares and neighborhoods that must be explored. These include:
- Pilies Street, a pretty pedestrian street that is filled with shops, restaurants and cafes, many of which are hosed in restored buildings and provides entrance to a number of atmospheric side streets and courtyards;
- Literature Street, a novel approach to recognizing authors, poets and important pieces of literature that have some connection to the city whereby artists are commissioned to create some type of reference to the work or writer and to have it embedded into a wall that lines the street. Among the many notable pieces are one that recognizes the first book published in Lithuanian and another, a set of plastic teeth that is intended to represent literature critics.
- Town Hall Square, a paved square surrounding the 18th-century, Classically-designed Town Hall that is a popular meeting place, the site of celebrations and important speeches (such as when George W. Bush commemorated the country’s admission to NATO, in a speech of which part is now inscribed on the building). When we visited, the square was also hosting a crane that lifts a portable dining room into the sky for high-altitude meals.
- Vilnius University, which occupies a very large, enclosed city block, consists of dozens of buildings of different styles and 13 courtyards. The campus itself, which is a practically unnavigable jungle of courtyards and buildings, contains three particular gems. St. John’s Church and its Bell Tower are discussed above. Two locations, however, are notable particularly for their frescos. The ceilings of the vaulted Littera Bookstore is filled with frescos of past university professors and students. “The Seasons” frescos, in the school Philology Center, cover the vestibule walls and vaulted ceilings with fascinating images of strangely segmented and distorted humans engaged in all types of chores and tortured states based on images from Baltic mythology representing a world in chaos.
- Uzupis, a rundown community which, as signified by the name means, “the other side of the river” that was adopted by artists and, on April 1, 1997, was jokingly declared an “independent state.” It has its own president and ministers, a 12-person army (until they recognized that an army may have to resort to violence, after which they disbanded it) and a “constitution” that enshrines rights, such as the right to die (but not an obligation), the right to be happy, the right to be unhappy, and so forth. And they require a visa to enter—a visa that consists of a smile. IT has its own guardian angel and public works of art spread around the community. A fun spot that is slightly reminiscent of Copenhagen’s Christinia.
- Bernardine Gardens, a pretty park. Tucked in a river bend that includes flowers, trees, playgrounds and fountains, including one that can be semi-choreographed to music.
But even in secular parts of the city, religion isn’t far away. Consider, for example:
- Hill of Three Crosses, a city landmark of three wooden crosses atop a hill that commemorated three priests that were supposedly killed by mobs of pagans who resisted being Christianized. While it was destroyed by the Soviets but reconstructed, replicas have been reconstructed.
- Lady on a Bear statue, by contrast, is an effort to pay homage to Paganism by reproducing one of its symbols.
Not all city symbols, however, are official or religious. One wall painting south of Old Town, for example, has become a poignant political statement for a city that is justifiably skeptical of Russian intentions: an image of Putin in Trump entwined in a passionate kiss.
Given that our time in Lithuania limited us to the city, our only regret is that that the KGB/Genocide Museum in which we had the greatest interest, was closed on the one day we were able to do it. The museum, located in a former KGB building, is supposed to tell personal stories of survivors, the mass, cattle-car deportations to Siberia and chances to see the solitary confinement and torture rooms and the execution chambers used during the Soviet occupations.