M i r a c l e
Vilnius is an obscure capital, with only 600,000 inhabitants. After a long history of foreign dominion - only half of those 600,000 are ethnic Lithuanians - one can only expect it to be a little mixed up. And it is. While its Old Town is listed by UNESCO as an architectural gem of ancient times, its newer landmarks include a bust in honour of Zappa and a NATO themed restaurant. It certainly has soul, Vilnius has. A soul you can spend many hours happily searching.
As smallest capital of the already small Baltic countries, Vilnius was never really noticed by the central powers of the Soviet Union. This changed dramatically in 1991, when demonstrators began demanding independence for Lithuania. The world watched in fear as troops fired on civilians, perhaps instigating a civil war in the world's largest country. In the end, everything was solved peacefully. Vilnius became the capital of free Lithuania, and proceeded to become an odd mix of establishments like strip bars and Jewish colleges.
J a z z
1988. The Iron Curtain was being eaten away by steely moths, the Soviet Giant had suddenly become a chaotic ant hill of countries struggling to become independent, and the people of Lithuania decided to test their freedom. How? By arranging a jazz festival. It seemed the right thing to do - jazz had been frowned upon by totalitarian regimes since Hitler condemned the swing youth. Besides, an underground movement of avant-garde jazz had been part of Vilnius culture since the 1970s. The arrangement became a well-attended success, and the jazz has been an annual event in the city since then.
The crown on the musical rebellion was the monument to Frank Zappa, reportedly the only one of its kind in the world. Although Lithuania has nothing to with Zappa, really, he has a strong fanbase who gathered enough momentum to get a bust of him made and erected. The anti-establishment musician was celebrated by the city's military band and a firework display as the monument, created by Konstantinas Bogdanas, whose experience mainly lay in depicting communist heroes, was unveiled.
J e w s
Vilnius was once known as the Jerusalem of Lithuania for its tolerance for and high density of Jews. Symbolised by the great scholar Vilna Gaon, it was a thriving centre of Yiddish learning and culture. This came to an end when Nazi Germany invaded the country in 1941 and killed 95% of the Jewish population. Stated differently: Out of 80,000 inhabitants in 1941, only 6,000 were alive by the end of the war.
The fact that Soviet took over control after the war, did not help the remaining Jews much. Most of them fled the pogroms by emigrating to Israel or the United States. Today, however, Jewry is beginning to return. One synagogue has been restored and re-opened, a strong Jewish community is becoming active, and the new Vilnius Yiddish Institute, aiming to study and preserve Yiddish language and literature, is the first centre of its kind in Eastern Europe after the Holocaust.
O c c u p a t i o n s
The Union of Lublin was signed in 1569, making Lithuania and Poland one commonwealth. Vilnius, which had until then been the trade centre of the region, eventually lost power and importance in their union. At the same time, it enjoyed a steady immigration of Poles and an influx of their culture. Most Christians in Vilnius are Roman Catholics, as they are in Poland.
The city was annexed by the Russian Empire in 1795; occupied by Germany in 1915, then controlled by Lithuanians, Bolsheviks, and Poles in succession. USSR forces took control of the city in 1920 and released it to independent Lithuania; Poland took it back later the same year. The USSR captured it again in 1939. In remembrance of the long Russian occupation is the KGB Museum - a rather sinister affair in the former secret police headquarters - and the Žaliasis tiltas, green bridge of Vilnius, which is adorned with statues of glorified labourers.
P r i d e
But Vilnius had one freedom, a freedom of the past. For centuries it had been a capital of trade and culture in the Grand Duchy and later Kingdom of Lithuania. Its Old Town was and is a masterpiece of Baroque architecture. With 1,500 buildings, it is the largest gathering such medieval town in the world, sprinkled with some Renaissance and Gothic pieces for extra flavour.
Of note is the Arkikatedra Basilika, the city's cathedral, originally built by Mindaugas the Great, the first king of the country. Saint Casimir's chapel inside the cathedral houses the bodies of one Grand Duke, another Arch Duke's two wives, and Vladislav IV's heart. The cathedral also has a freestanding bell tower, and somewhere between the two lies the Miracle tile, the starting point for the anti-Soviet demonstrations which will now supposedly grant you what you wish. Šv. Onos Bažnyčia, Saint Anne's Church, belongs to the spice, being of the Gothic persuasion. This building so amazed Napoleon Bonaparte on his ill-fated journey to Russia that he wished to bring the church back to France - in the palm of his hand. These are but the two greates houses of god in the city.
The Hill of Crosses outside the city is perhaps an even more impressive monument to faith and, yet again, the thirst for freedom of the Lithuanians. A hillock strewn with crosses, attempted cleared by the Soviet authorities, but always re-sanctified by the stubborn believers. Quite a feat for the last country in Europe to become Christian!
L e g e n d s
The Vilnius coat of arms currently features Saint Christopher - known as Kristupas in Lithuanian - carrying the infant Jesus on his shoulders through a river. It is a derivation from a pagan legend. Until the end of the 14th century, when the country became Christian, the man in question was the hero Titan Alkis who carried his wife Janteryte through the water.
Castle ruins from the same century lie in the old town and remind us of another story. The castle once belonged to the Grand Duke Gediminas, who made the city his capital in 1323. Although the area around the river Vilnele (then Vilnia) was probably inhabited before that, legend has it otherwise.
It is said that the Duke went hunting in the holy woods of Dventaragis until he was greatly exhausted. So he rested, and in his sleep he saw a great wolf of iron standing on the top of a hill, hundreds of wolves inside it which could be heard throughout the fields and woods. The Duke went to a holy man to learn the meaning of his dream. The sage said he was meant to found a castle and a town, from which he would eventually rule all the land. And Gediminas did so.