After my visit in London, I set off on my most foreign trip yet: Vilnius, Lithuania. My research assured me that I would have no problem navigating the land of my ancestors, but I was still apprehensive about the language barrier and my physical and mental distance from anything familiar.
Though the flight to Vilnius was (unsurprisingly) empty, I shared the row with a chatty fellow traveler. He pointed out the window and spoke to me in what I assumed was Lithuanian. When I told him no, I did not understand, in English, he said “Français?” and I replied with a hesitant “Oui…” He explained that he was pointing at the blanket of snow that covered the land below. Coming from a city of the seaside and sunshine, I was not thrilled with this observation. We continued the conversation as well as two people speaking a second language could, and I discovered that Mikhail Yurkov was a Russian pianist giving a private concert in Vilnius that night. He lived in Paris, which is why he had learned French, but his Russian accent was very strong. When I told him that I was going to explore Lithuania because I was Lithuanian, he shook and kissed my hand. He repeated the gesture when I mentioned that I would love to visit Russia after reading the Russian novel War and Peace. With this expression of friendship, I felt good about my upcoming time in Lithuania.
It wasn’t difficult to show the taxi driver my hostel address, so I made my way into town with ease. I stayed at the Litinterp Guesthouse Vilnius in a large, single room with an ensuite bathroom for the same price as I paid for my room in London, a shared bedroom of 14 with a communal hall bathroom.
I noticed the poverty of the area between the airport and the city center, evident from the extensive graffiti and overall disrepair of some of the buildings. Vilnius’s Old Town, however, found on the south side of the Neris River that divides the city, contrasted the capital’s suburbs as quaint and clean little village within an Eastern European metropolis. I ate dinner at Forto Dvaras, a Lithuanian chain restaurant that makes authentic Lithuanian food certified by Lithuanian’s Culinary Heritage Fund. I ordered potato pancakes, a dish that I am familiar with from meals with the Lithuanian half of my family. The pancakes tasted delicious and reminded me exactly of the ones I enjoy at home.
Churches of Vilnius
Vilnius awoke sluggish yet sunny the next morning, and I boarded the hop-on-hop-off tour bus from a rather deserted town square. Accompanied by only two other couples, I rode the bus around Vilnius, gathering an idea of the city’s layout, as well as historic information about the country as a whole.
The first thing I realized of Old Town Vilnius were the churches. Acting like the blue-light system on a college campus, if standing in front of one church, one can turn 360 degrees and find another place of worship within sight and walking distance. I’m convinced you could do so all day.
The Vilnius Cathedral Basilica can be found in Cathedral Square, the center of Vilnius’s Old Town. This Roman Catholic church is one of the most celebrated sites in Vilnius, hosting religious services, the remains of St. Casimir, Lithuania’s patron saint, and even, one time, Pope John Paul II. The cathedral shares the square with the Bell Tower of Vilnius Cathedral that overlooks the old city.
“The shrine in which the heart of the Lithuanian nation beats.” ~John Paul II, on the Vilnius Cathedral Basilica
Apart from Vilnius itself, (the Republic of) Užupis, comparable to the artist-filled Montmartre district of Paris, is an alternative section of the city allegedly independent from Lithuania. The entity, created by those who create, recognizes its independence day as April 1st (April Fool’s Day), and strongly supports its 41-point constitution, which guards some of the citizen’s most important rights:
- Everyone has the right to die, but it is not his duty.
- Everyone has the right to make mistakes.
- Everyone has the right to love.
- Everyone has the right to take care of their dog until one of them dies.
- Every dog has the right to be a dog.
- Everyone has the right to have no rights.
Though the official status of this neighborhood remains, intentionally, vague, it was entertaining, and somewhat humbling, to discover a place where art, emotion, and truth reign.
The Gates of Dawn
Continuing the tour, we traveled along the outskirts of the Old Town near what used to be Vilnius’s defensive wall. Built in the 1500s, the Lithuanians constructed the wall for protection from Russian invasion. Today, the Gates of Dawn is the last surviving passage of the original wall, and is a shrine to the Virgin Mary, housing a world-renowned painting of the “Vilnius Madonna.”
As I approached the gate, I realized that each person passing through stopped and prayed, gesturing the sign of the cross. Everyone, from the mother with her toddler to the group of older church ladies, halted in the middle of the street to recognize the religious significance of this sanctuary. I found the religious dedication of the Lithuanians incredibly moving.
Did You Know?
Did you know that the Lithuanian language is one of the nearest spoken forms of Sanskrit? Though the Lithuanians are proud of their special language, I found that many people in Vilnius has some knowledge of English. In an attempt to fit in, however, I learned the Lithuanian word for thank you: ačiū (pronounced like a sneeze). My one-word knowledge of Lithuanian could not get me very far, but each time I said”thank you” to a Lithuanian, they gave a small smirk of approval.
Conservative Country, Plenty of Pride
Lithuania may be a country that is easily overlooked from a North American perspective, but the people’s passion for their history and traditions rivals that of any great nation. I was disappointed to be missing Lithuanian Independence Day on February 16th, so close to my visit, but I understood the depth and intensity of Lithuanian pride from my short time in the country’s capital. Lithuania’s history recounts repeated episodes of political and religious intrusion, but despite these difficult events, the Lithuanians never gave up defending their freedom. A symbol of this political liberty stands in front of the Presidential Palace in Vilnius as a reminder of this fruitful fight. Though I appreciated this object of political pride, it does not compare to my encounter with the Lithuanians’ physical manifestation of religious independence that I experienced later that afternoon.
- If interested in the Vilnius City Tour bus, note that preordering tickets online only allows for the purchase of an all-day ticket. If bought from the bus driver, tickets for a one-time trip can be obtained for nearly half of the price of the unlimited option.
- I didn’t have time to see all of Vilnius, but the Vilnius Tourist Information Centre provides a great list of other places to see in Lithuania’s capital city.
- Vilnius, Lithuania
- Gediminas Tower
- Arsenalo g. 5, Vilnius 01143, Lithuania
- Litinterp Guesthouse Vilnius
- Bernardinu str. 7, Bernardinų g., Vilnius 01124, Lithuania
- Forto Dvaras
- Pilies g. 16, Vilnius 01123, Lithuania
- Cathedral Square
- St. Francis & St. Anne’s churches
- Maironio g. 8-1, Vilnius 01124, Lithuania
- Church of the Holy Spirit
- Aušros Vartų g. 10, Vilnius 01302, Lithuania
- Church of St. Casimir
- Didžioji g. 34, Vilnius 01128, Lithuania
- Vilnius Cathedral Basilica
- Šventaragio g., Vilnius 01143, Lithuania
- Bell Tower of Vilnius Cathedral
- Katedros varpinė, a. 2, Vilnius 01143, Lithuania
- Town Hall Square
- Gates of Dawn
- Aušros Vartų g. 12
- S. Daukanto a. 3, Vilnius 01122, Lithuania
Taika, Mielė, Vilnius,