With around 600,000 people, Vilnius demands more than a day of anybody’s time, but I’m afraid that’s all I had.
The train journey from Kaunas can take anything between an hour and an hour and three quarters, and with that in mind I took an early fast train to Lithuania’s capital city.
The journey passed through some pretty flat countryside and quite different to where I come from: There were lots of trees and wooden farmhouses, one of which had a stork’s nest on its rooftop, an unusual sight for anyone from the UK to see.
Apparently, Lithuania has the biggest population of White Storks in the world, which is why it’s the country’s ‘National Bird’: They seem to be revered so much that March 25th is Stork Day when all sorts of rituals take place. Anyway, I digress.
I arrived at Vilnius railway station around 09.30 and made my way towards Ausros Gate, or better known in English as the Gates of Dawn.
The Gate gives entry into the Old Town, which is where most visitors to Vilnius head for, and which was bound to keep me occupied all day. The good thing is, that just a few streets lead straight through the Old Town down to where the Vilnia River meets the Neris near Cathedral Square and the Castle, where according to legend, the city was founded in 1323 by Gediminas, the Grand Duke of Lithuania.
Ausros Gate is one of the city’s landmarks, not just because it’s the only surviving gate from the original city wall, but also because it has a small chapel that attracts a lot of attention thanks to its icon of the ‘Blessed Virgin Mary Mother of Mercy’.
At the time the Gate was completed in 1522 it was common for an image of the Virgin Mary to be placed above the arch for the city’s protection, although the current one dates from the 17th century and known as the Madonna of Vilnius.
This originally fairly simple painting has morphed into a gold and silver embellished icon that apparently has miraculous healing powers, and if you wait for a moment you may well see believers passing under the arch saying a quiet prayer.
I’m not a believer myself, but I do have a confession to make. I didn’t go into the chapel to see the famous Madonna because it can be seen from the road, and I thought it was best left to those who would appreciate it more than I would.
The Gate leads through into Ausros Vartu Street, the first of the three streets that lead, almost in a straight line, down to Cathedral Square and the Castle.
The street has been described as an open church and where, according to tradition, caps shouldn’t be worn when walking down here.
It’s not difficult to see how it got its reputation because I was immediately confronted by three churches of different denominations – the Baroque Catholic Church of St Theresa and the Monastery of the Barefoot Carmelites, followed by the Russian Orthodox Church and Monastery of the Holy Spirit, and finally, the Uniate Church of the Holy Trinity and Basilian Monastery. Quite a mouthful I know, and I may not fully understand what all these different churches mean to people, but I could certainly appreciate their wonderfully harmonious architecture.
Ausros Vartu Street is a fairly short thoroughfare that has architectural delights other than just churches, but it soon leads into Didzioji Street, which has a different feel to it, but still with some attractive looking churches to resist such as the Church of St. Casimir and the Jesuit Monastery, and the Russian Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas. I had already realised that I wouldn’t get very far if I started visiting all these churches, and so I just opted to visit the Town Hall instead.
The history of the Town Hall goes back to the 14th century and rebuilt in the classical style at the latter end of the eighteenth, but to be honest, the only reason that I came in here was to visit the Tourist Information Office.
In Town Hall Square I took time out to enjoy the surroundings and read a bit about what I’d seen, and what I still wanted to see.
I’m one of those people who actually prefers wandering the streets, especially when the weather’s fine like it is today, rather than spend time indoors, which is one of the reasons why I’ve not been inside any churches so far.
Apparently, there are 28 churches in Vilnius Old Town, and I was probably only going to have time to visit one of them – and it would have to be the cathedral, which is at the bottom of the next street – Castle Street.
Castle Street, given its proximity to the university, cathedral and castle has a much more vibrant feel to it – with more bars, cafes and restaurants than churches – and even though, as is name suggests, the street leads to the castle, it was Cathedral Square that first came into view.
Cathedral Square, was for many centuries, the political, military, administrative, and religious heart of Vilnius.
The Cathedral-Basilica of St Stanislaus & St Vladislaus, to give it its full title, is the most important catholic church in Lithuania, and includes a 57m free standing Bell Tower that used to be part of the city’s medieval defensive wall, although it has to be said that it’s been much altered and added to since.
There is also, of course, a monument to the Grand Duke Gediminas, the city’s founder, and the overall appearance of the Square is quite striking, or at least it was to me.
What wasn’t quite so striking though was the cathedral’s plain interior.
Originally built in 1251, the present structure dates from the early 15th century, but you wouldn’t need a trained eye to see that there have been plenty of modifications since, most noticeably its 18th century classical additions.
Even with the discovery in the 1970s of the original foundations and glaze-tiled floor, the real significance of the Cathedral lies not in the building itself, but with historical connections to people that are associated with it.
Lithuanian/Polish dukes, kings and queens were not only crowned here, but also buried in the crypt along with bishops and saints. Tours are conducted of the crypt at certain times, but fortunately not when I was here, otherwise I might have been tempted out of morbid curiosity.
It was still possible to see where the remains of Lithuania’s patron saint were kept without going underground though.
St. Casimir was just twenty-four years old when he died in 1484, and in 1636 a chapel was built and dedicated to him here in the cathedral.
His silver sarcophagus sits above an altar surrounded by typically over-the-top, but sombre, Baroque decorations carved by Italian craftsmen, and is regarded as one of Lithuania’s national treasures.
Behind the Cathedral is the Castle, which has a Lower and Upper part to it. The Lower part of the castle has several museums in the former Arsenal buildings including the National Museum of Lithuania, which if the weather hadn’t been so good, I would have been sorely tempted to visit, but as it was, my goal was going to be the Gediminas Tower at the top of the hill.
Gediminas Tower is the iconic remnant of a castle that has its roots back in the 14th century when our friend, the Grand Duke Gediminas, built the first wooden fortress.
A later brick replacement was built around 1419 by Vytautus the Great which included a palace and chapel surrounded by a protective stone wall and three towers: The Gediminas Tower is the only survivor, although I’m not sure that it can be regarded as a real survivor as it’s been through quite a lot including several reconstructions.
Be that as it may, the tower is still seen as an important part of Lithuania’s history which included fending off the Teutonic Knights for two hundred years.
Normally, the tower can be reached by taking the footpath that winds it up way up to the top of the hill, but there was some renovation work going on which prevented me from doing so (there’s always something isn’t there?), but every cloud has a silver lining because the only way up was by funicular which turned out to be money well spent, as it was just €1 each way (2012 prices) – and there were 78 stairs to climb up to the top of the tower anyway.
There were a few things of minor interest on the way up the tower, but the best bit of course were the views. It was a bit unfortunate that the sun was in the direct line of the Old Town for the best views photographically speaking, but how could I complain on such a beautiful day as this?
The carousel below shows 1) The view over the Grand Duke’s Palace 2) The Old Town 3) The Arsenal and the Neris River 4) Across the Neris to the modern city skyline.
There was only one place to head for next – somewhere that sold cold drinks, preferably beer.
The first place that took my fancy was a place in Castle St. with some tables outside. I ordered a large beer and a Club Sandwich; my beer didn’t take long to arrive, but my Club Sandwich took considerably longer, so I was forced to have another beer.
A German couple came and sat next to me and we had a chat for a while but when my bill came, I had their items on my bill as well. When I pointed it out to the waitress, she brought me another bill – the same as the first!
The name of the place escapes me now, which is probably just as well, but my waitress was dressed up in Greek clothes and there were a lot of Greek dishes on the menu! It made me feel like wanting to smash a few plates!
Eventually I got it sorted out, left, and made my way down some of the back streets of the Old Town.
I suppose it was inevitable that it wouldn’t take long to come to another church, and sure enough at the bottom of Bernardinu Street there were two. The imposing brick-built Bernardine Church and the adjacent, more flamboyant Gothic St. Anne’s – both of which were being kept watch over by a statue of Adam Mickiewicz, a highly revered figure in both Lithuania and Poland for his independence activism and literary accomplishments.
Coincidentally, I soon found myself in Literatu Street where Mickiewicz, the National Poet of Lithuania, Poland and Belarus lived for a while. It used to be a street full of bookshops, but in 2008 plaques started to appear on the walls of other famous Lithuanian authors and has since become a thoroughfare dedicated to famous local people of literature.
A few more streets and churches later, I found myself on the way back towards the station, and on a slow train back to Kaunas.
Reflecting back on my day in Vilnius, I would have to say that for anyone who has an interest in religion and religious houses could spend a week here and still run out of time before running out of churches, but even for someone like me, I could certainly appreciate how all these buildings made the Old Town a delight to wander around.
Of course, I only had time to visit one part of the city, and I’m sure there’s plenty more to see, but as I thought before I came here, one day was never going to be enough.
There’s no doubt in my mind that since Lithuania’s independence from Russia in 1990, Vilnius has wasted no time in sprucing up the city in a way that visitors can enjoy, and the local citizens can feel proud of – and I really have to say Amen to that.