About a dozen people are silently looking upward. One lady is kneeling. They face us as we walk through the Gate of Dawn on the southern border of Old Town in Vilnius, a part of the original town walls that are still intact. We move about three meters in and turn to see what everyone is so piously focused on. A black and gold Virgin Mary icon glimmers in a Chapel that is built into the top of the gate, its open window facing the street below. More people stand within the chapel against a window railing, the only barrier between this “miracle-working” icon and the street below.
A few meters further down the street is St. Teresa’s Church, with its early baroque facade. Access to the inside is through a tunnel-like passage, which opens up to an altar with such a wealth of icons, one could view it again and again, each time finding ones not previously noticed.
Our Lithuania Photo Gallery
Church after church interspersed with restaurants and shops in beautiful baroque – in fact UNESCO named this the largest baroque Old Town in 1994.
A young lady I talk to, who had just been on a balloon ride over Vilnius says, “The steeples are so plentiful they appear like a bed of nails from above.”
Cathedral Square is where the immense Vilnius Cathedral reigns. It is postulated that the first cathedral was conceived in 1251 by Grand Duke Mindaugas, on the occasion of him being a new convert to Christianity. It was built on the site of a pagan temple. It reverted to paganism after his death in 1263.
To one side is the equestrian statue of Gediminas, Grand Duke of Lithuania from 1316-1341 who gained a reputation for his successful skill in negotiating with the Pope and other Christian leaders to keep paganism alive. The Cathedral was given back to the Catholic Church in 1387, the official date when the country converted to Christianity, although it is said paganism survived for another two centuries.
Rick always says, “where ever there is a climb, you find it!”…and so in keeping with this stereotype, we make our way to the church’s 57m-tall Belfry, which was closed to the public for over a decade, opening in the summer of 2014. On the bottom half is the original brick dating back to the 13th century when the tower was part of the city’s defensive wall. It became a belfry in the 16th century, and was remodelled in the 19th. It is a spiral climb to the top, with a few landings along the way to take a closer look at the old brick, heavy beams, and giant bells, which resoundingly rang once at 1:00 p.m. (my ears thanked me for not being in the belfry at noon).
Gediminas Hill rises up from Cathedral Square, and we make our way upward over a cobblestone pathway to its 48m height ….while Rick is in the climbing mood. On this hilltop is where Vilnius was founded, and where the oft rebuilt Gediminas Tower stood since the 13th century. Nearing the top and noting a funicular on the other side of the hill, Rick gasps, “You didn’t tell me about that.” A bird’s eye view of the city spreads out below.
We are compelled to visit the Museum of Genocide Victims, to better understand the violence and oppression that gripped the country. During WWII the Nazis murdered more than 300,000 people, mostly Jews. Between 1944 and 1952, under Soviet rule 250,000 Lithuanians were killed or deported.
After our three kilometer walk to the museum we stand in shock before its closed doors, being a day when it was scheduled to be open. We leave with photos of memorials that are beside the museum, and our previous knowledge – that this building was KGB headquarters and prison from 1940-1991, with the exception of German occupation from 1941-44 when it became headquarters for the Gustapo. Sadly the museum is not due to open until the day after we leave Vilnius.
On the way back (okay, one last church) we are drawn to the Gaudy-like spires of St. Anne’s. The church’s first historical records go back to 1394, the current Gothic masterpiece took five years to build, the completion date being 1500. An ancient fresco of Christ is imbedded above one of the many doors; the whole complex covers a block. The inside’s dark wood contrasts with the gleam of gold around the colourful icons; faded frescoes adorn the walls.
Potato Creations Lithuania Style
Every time we walk by the row of restaurants on the main Old Town street “Forto Dvaras” (Fort Manor) with its cheery folk-themed ambiance and mouth-watering odours of traditional dishes calls to me.
On our last evening in Vilnius we head out to the restaurant. Half way there a threatening cloud decides to spill its contents. “Who chose this restaurant,” Rick mumbles, “it’s the furthest one away.” Arriving a bit soggy, we order up three dishes to share, and Svyturys beer (brewed locally since 1784). The creamy cold beet soup, served with (what else?) boiled potatoes, and a dollop of sour cream is beyond belief delicious!
Entrée number one is a dish called Zeppelin (not sure if this dish is named after the dirigibles, but they do have the same shape, although these would not easily be airborne). There are a number of filling choices for the thick dumpling-like outer casing; we go with spicy ground pork and onions. But wait…there is small bowl with a topping of sour cream, butter and bacon pieces, to slather on with abandon.
Our second entrée is potato pancakes with mushroom sauce – crispy and light, rich in potatoey goodness – reminiscent of the ones my Ukrainian baba used to make. Our comfort food meal leaves us in a glow of warmth, and that satiated feeling, like there is nothing more you could want….but wait!… drum roll please – the cost is 46 litas ($22 Cdn)! Exiting the restaurant Rick says, “It’s a good thing this place if so far from our hotel, we can at least wear off a fork-full of Zeppelin.”
All in all, our many walks through the Old Town and around were at a leisurely pace; the streets are not overly busy, not a busker to be found, bus tour groups seem to make up the majority of visitors. Vilnius proves to be a truly relaxing and enjoyable city.
From Vilnius Lithuania we fly to Denmark….Copenhagen here we come!
Rick, my finance minister, is giddy – our Vilnius Lithuania costs (for accommodations, food, entertainment, travel) came to $89 CDN a day!