Vilnius, Lithuania – Attracted by Authenticity, An Introduction

“What the fuck! I bellowed with laughter.

It’s not hard to get your 15 minutes of fame on the metro. Just laugh a bit too loud. I was flipping the pages of the Lithuania tourism brochure and came across this, “…not everyone likes our food, some say its too heavy and filling, but you need to try it to know what you think about it…”*

You’ve got to admit that was bloody authentic. The sort of comment you’d make privately to a friend not the sort you expect to see on tourism brochures.

If the goal of the marketing agency was to convey a sense of authenticity, I was sold. Now I just needed to find the right combination of flights to get there.

The first time I had thought of visiting Lithuania was at a public square in Stockholm. The Lithuanian tourism board had brought in traditional music performers and set up a booth next to it lined with brochures upon brochures extolling the many reasons to visit Lithunia. Nerd that I was, I took as many brochures as my hands could handle, at least the pictures were going to look interesting.

It didn’t take long for the brochures to came in handy. Bored out of my mind on the metro trip back, I grabbed a random brochure and began flipping to while away the time. And that was when I came across the quote in the brochure.

And where better to start than the capital and largest city in the country – Vilnius.

It took 12 months to get to Vilnius, and the first question I had for myself was why I didn’t visit sooner.

Vilnius is a small city spread over a large area with a complexion more regional than international in nature. It may not register on the international who’s who of mega-cities, but more than makes up for it with its authenticity.  Unlike the international megacities like London, New York, and even smaller ones like Amsterdam and Warsaw, small cities tend to feel more real, friendly and authentic and that was perhaps the charm of Vilnius. This was no Stockholm style, it was Gothenburg chill with a Catholic feel.

Everywhere we went, we heard church bells going off and people were dressed in their Sunday best on their way to church. These were not white haired individuals but young individuals – like Poland, Lithuania is bastion of Catholicism. Don’t let the small town piety beguile you into thinking Vilnius is short of history. It has a history to be very proud off.

Vilnius has been a city for more than a millennium and had already been the capital of the Lithuanian peoples since the 14th century overseeing the most glorious period of the country’s history when the then Grand Duchy of Lithuania spanned the length of Baltic and Black seas.  While the territorial size of Poland may be much larger today, during the time of the Grand Duchy and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, it was not Poland but Lithuania that was top dog and the bigger country. It however also the decline from its height into becoming a vassal of the Russian Empire, occupied twice during both World Wars, blanketed by the Iron Curtain and now an independent state.

One thing that struck us as different about Vilnius was that despite formerly being under the grip of the Iron Curtain there was a lack of Soviet styled buildings in the city area, unlike Stalin’s Gift in Warsaw or his birthday cake in Riga. What was in large supply in the city area was medieval era churches and Russian (i.e. pre-Soviet) styled government buildings. This nation seemed to have leapfrogged from medieval to modern, perhaps this was a way of removing the stain of Soviet occupation and remembering a prouder past, for this nation has a glorious history to be proud of. It was the capital of one of the largest Kingdoms in Europe, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. At its peak, under the Grand Duke Gediminas, the Grand Duchy stretch from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. Most phenomenally, most of the growth and expansion was performed without bloodshed but through intelligent political interplay.

The statue of Grand Duke Gediminas, standing in front of the horse and looking downwards to symbolise his use of the pen rather than the sword to growth the Grand Duchy

This doesn’t meant that there is nothing to do in Vilnius, far from it. Despite its size the city manages, in my estimation, to cater to many tastes. It is in a way all things to all people.

It starts like all cities do in the old town, a heaven for history, architecture and heritage buffs.

Despite spending years under Soviet occupation, the Old Town is dominated by soviet styled buildings. The beautiful and compact old town, itself a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most well preserved old towns has generations of architecture sitting side by side, from Gothic to renaissance, baroque to neoclassical buildings.

Best of all, these buildings are not open for tourist patronage, but are still in active service. Non-more so, than the vibrant religious scene. Whereas it is difficult to have religious needs met in Scandinavia for example (you could make a case that religious faith is frowned upon in the North), the number of churches, shrines and synagogues in Vilnius is enough to fill a whole weekend of pilgrimages. The city was not called the Jerusalem of the North for no reason. In fact a substantially large group of young Catholic Seminaries were offering prayers at the Gates of Dawn when we visited.

Catholic seminarians praying at the Gates of Dawn to the Madonna of the Gates of Dawn

A short distance away, across the Neris river and the old town is a completely different world. The modern glass skyscrappers stand representing the new Jerusalem of capitalism in the city, built from the literal ashes of an old ghetto and is seen as a sign of people standing up as a modern nation.

The skyscappers are not just a sign but a mark of pride. This city of tall buildings was completed only in 2005, almost 15 years after the country managed to free itself from the shackles of the Soviet Union in 1991 not after one of the most power human walls made up of 2 million people acorss the length of the three Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia). These new buildings are therefore an extension of the stand.

The variety of activities doesn’t end there. Going back to the old town, located right at the centre is Pilies Street a short pedestrian street filled with cafes, bars, restaurants, a Hooters, and side by side with other stalls selling folk crafts.

Barely a 15 minute walk away is a colony of artist who have declared their own little nation with their own President, Foreign Minister and currency. The Republic of Uzupis has a national anthem, a standing army of 11 men, a parliament house in a bar and a national day on 1st April… get it 😉 If that sense of humour is not enough, Užupis is home to many artists and an arts incubator too.

It’s not just Uzupis though, Lithuania has a strong reputation for street art, some of the most well known street artist are Lithuanian – such as Ernest Zacharevic who’s street art can be found as far as Malaysia and Singapore.

Naujamiestis district near the central station is full of urban art and street art, including a rather topical and recently famous one – I call it, The Kiss 😉

Then there’s the fancy postal code of Žvėrynas and the almost American suburban lifestyle.

Most importantly though, none of this felt staged. The coolness, the hipness was not made for tourist but was very very authentic. Vilnius was real and it was real in a multitude of ways.

So what makes this city what it is? Let’s go check it out!

*as I recalled reading in the brochure.

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