Vilnius’ old town, blending history and modernity

I don’t know if I have seen many old towns in Europe (perhaps Amsterdam and its canals) as big as this one.

The only other old town of similar size that I have visited is Georgetown in Penang, Malaysia. Housed within this old town are more than 70 streets and almost 1.5 million square metres of total floor area (for buildings). It is so well preserved, ironically, perhaps because of the unfortunate events of the 20th century. The city was bulldozed easily by aggressors in World War I and II, and subsequently a self-aggrandising Soviet power that sought to play up national identity from within the Iron Curtain.

And yet it still stands, as it has stood for more than 700 years. Despite its age, Vilnius is not the oldest city in Lithuania, that honour goes to Klaipeda founded by the Teutonic Knights during their war with the founder of the Lithuanian nation, and only Lithuanian King – Mindaugas.

Legend has it that Vilnius was founded by the Grand Duke of Lithuania Gediminas who was hunting in the area and had a very successful hunt. Tired after the hunt, Gediminas fell into a deep sleep and had a dream of a lone Iron wolf on a hill, with a howl as loud and strong as 100 wolves. on what was then flat wetlands. Gediminas sought the advice of the pagan priest (the country had not yet turned Christian) who interpreted his dream as saying that a capital city would be built at that site and that the wolf on the hill meant that the city would one day become a famous city known near and far of the whole world. Gediminas obeyed the inspiration of the priest and established a capital in the land. He named the place Vilnius after the river next to it, the Vilna river.

A castle stands on the hill that he dreamts the Iron Wolf to stand on, the castle is today called the Gediminas Castle.

Now Gediminas was no simpleton, even if the founding myth made the city’s founding seem fortuitous there were important strategic reasons for the city to be founded where it was. Vilnius had a number of powerful advantages that the other Lithuanian cities did not, first it was at the confluence of two rivers making it ideal for trade and second the surrounding lands were forest and wetmarsh making invasion difficult. This is perhaps the true reason that the myth shrouds. His statute stands at the central square of the city today, next to the Cathedral of Vilnius.

But take a closer look at that statute and something will strike you as odd. While most founders and rulers are portrayed as great individuals face straight ahead atop horse as if possessed by a grand vision, Gediminas stands in front of a horse, sword handled awkwardly at his side and his gaze downwards. Not the most impressive way to remember one of the greatest kings…

That would be a fair indictment only if the focus was on aggrandizing Gediminas, in the same authentic vein of the city, Gediminas’ monument expresses exactly how this great Grand Duke expanded and strengthened the country – not on horse back but at a table, writing letters instead of fighting wars. It was Gediminas’ letters that first established for historians the date of the founding of the city – 1323. In those letters Gediminas invited the German people and German Jews to settle in Vilnius, to avoid attack by the Christian Teutonic Knights he invite then Pope John XXII to visit the city (Christians were not allowed to invade and kill other Christians, let alone a city that has gained the favour of a Pope).

Vilnius grew as Gediminas’ star rose. His invitations to peoples from over to settle in this land, a land of tolerance and diversity and peace was more strategic than ideological. An open city with all sorts of people would enable trade to take place and a hub to emerge. That was exactly what happened to Vilnius. Vilnius was on an upward trajectory of hundred of years save a short period when it was the centre of a civil war between Gediminas’ descendants. The city reached its greatest ever epoch in the 16th century, when it became a truly global city as part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

It’s city walls were expanded to defend the city, up came more than five walls as well as some forts along the walls.

It was at this time that the Gates of Dawn and the Madonna of the Gates of Dawn emerged.

Self-defense aside, a university – the University of Vilnius – was founded in 1579 and grew to become the hub of scientific, artistic and intellectual endeavour in the Commonwealth.

The 17th century was the apogee of greatness of Vilnius the end of which gave way to three centuries of decline. The Polish-Lituanian Commonwealth was a land with no natural borders and its riches drew the hungry eyes of the Austrain Hapsburgs, Prussians and Russians who partitioned the whole Commonwealth into three. Vilnius was partitioned into the Russian corner. The Russians destroyed the walls of the city and Vlinius then knew little peace. Napoleon took over the city on the way to his disastrous invasion of Russia, Russia returned and brutally surprised the local uprising. Then the Germans took over the city in the war, and as you can imagine every conflict of the 20th century then took turns ravaging the city.

And yet, I saw little reminder of this in the old town. For some reason the old town was left mostly untouched and emerged unscathed throughout this long period. My uneducated guess (why I saw no trace of the destroyed old town) is that it had to do with the rebuilding of its beauty*. Most of Vilnius is built in the Baroque style which is characterised by ornate, extravagant art, culture and architecture meant to wow and impress. Perhaps the most obvious way to seeing beautiful baroque style architecture is through churches in Vilnius such as the Church of St Peter and St Paul.

Baroque architecture is not the only thing though, Vilnius is also dotted with other designs such as a Gothic brick style (unique because it is made not of stone but bricks). Gothic buildings tend to be pointed, ribbed and strong looking intended to convey a strength in the nature of the building and institution – Gothic architecture emerged at the end and directly competed with feudalism where the ownership of land determined power.

All this was locked in the city, but the city was not locked in time. There was a modernity to the city in Pilies Street and the artist colony in Uzupis.

Walking around the city and breathing the living history side by side the fragrance of freshly roasted coffee beans, we could see why this city became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994. I thought however that it deserved the accolade not just for having these buildings, but for blending these historical buildings with our modern day comforts.


*Go outside the old town and the ravages of the century past become apparent.

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