The third city of our whirlwind tour through the three Baltic countries was the capital of Lithuania; Vilnius. It was a trading settlement before first being mentioned in the records in 1323 by Grand Duke Gediminas, inviting Germans and German Jews to settle there.
The Lithuanian Civil War (1389-1392) culminated in a joint Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Vilnius flourished for the next few centuries until a tumultuous time, known as The Deluge, tore it apart. The Russo-Polish War (1654-1667) and the Great Northern War (1700-1721) with Sweden, ensured that Lithuania’s history, much like its neighbours to the north, Estonia and Latvia, would be predominantly shaped by outside forces.
We started our day with a breakfast of famous cepelinai. A super tasty potato dumpling filled with pork mince and served in a creamy mushroom sauce (washed down with a cold beer too, of course!).
Oh wow! They were good!
Another European Old Town, another UNESCO World Heritage Listing. It is one of the largest in Europe and its buildings vary in architectural style, as history played its part. One enters through the Gate of Dawn, the last surviving remnant of the city walls built in the early 16th century but then destroyed by the Russian Empire in 1805 when Lithuania’s territories were divided amongst them and the (German/Austrian) Habsburg Empire and Kingdom of Prussia.
The Church of St. Teresa is a beautiful example of Early Baroque style, built in 1650 with a facade of Swedish sandstone, black and white marble and granite.
A few years later in 1812, Napoleon stormed through on his push to Moscow, then back again during his disastrous retreat. After several uprisings in 1831 and 1863, Polish and Lithuanian languages were banned. Entering the 20th century, 40% of the population were Jews and only a small minority still spoke Lithuanian.
During World War I, Lithuania was occupied by the German Army. It declared independence after the war on 16 February 1918, then was fought over by Polish and Soviet forces. Eventually the retreating Red Army ceded Lithuania to Poland in 1920, causing a dispute between who owned Vilnius!
World War II intervened, and with the German invasion of Poland, Soviets took control of Lithuania once again. On 22 June 1941, Nazi Germany captured Vilnius. Two ghettos were set up in the Old Town centre. 95% of the 265,000 Jewish population of Lithuania were killed. The remaining population mostly relocated to Communist Poland after the war to avoid the Sovietization.
On 7 Octover 1988, the Flag of Lithuania was re-hoisted atop Gediminas’ Tower during the independence movement that finally lead to the Re-establishment of Lithuania in 1990.
With commanding views over the city, it is a remaining part of a castle first completed in 1409 and has watched over Vilnius’ changing times with pride.
In fact, one of the more run down districts of Vilnius wanted a piece of their own, so they declared the independent republic of Uzupis on April Fool’s Day in 1997. Home to a movement of Bohemian artists, this cool little neighbourhood is a refreshing stroll.
Across the river, you come to realise the abundance of green areas, parks and gardens that fill the city. There’s not much hustle and bustle here.
Though if that’s what you’re after, Vilnius Cathedral Square is the place. Its the main square of the Old Town, and boasts Vilnius Cathedral. Convenient.
As impressive as this gigantic building is (we didn’t go inside), perhaps the focal point is directly facing it; its bell tower. At its base is the “Magical Stone”, the end point of the Baltic Way; where the human chain of two million people held hands from here, through Riga, Latvia and all the way to Tallinn, Estonia as a peaceful demonstration for the three Baltic countries’ fight for their own independence.
Step on this stone and turn around three times to get a wish granted (so we hear)!
Over the last three days, we had travelled the entire Baltic Way. We had seen how three cities in three neighbouring countries can be so very different, yet bound together by history as they fought for their own place in the world.What does the future hold now for Lithuania? Or Latvia? Or Estonia?
But from our new-founded point of view…
It looks pretty good.
Visited 20th September 2014.