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Vilnius is the Capital of Lithuania and is in the south east of the country, but it is also the second biggest city in the Baltic States. It is known as being ‘The Centre of Europe’ as there is a place 24 km north of Vilnius that once visited you can get a ‘certificate’ stating that fact.
The city was first written about in 1323 when a letter was discovered from Grand Duke Gediminas, inviting Jewish people living in Germany to move there.In 1503 the city walls of Vilnius were started, which comprised of 9 gates and 3 towers. The city opened its gates to all the migrants in the region and soon became inhabited by; Polish, Russian, Latvian, Slovaks, Germans, Turkish and many Jewish people, earning the nickname ‘Babylon’.The Jewish influence over the city was so large at one point, that Napoleon once quoted ‘Vilnius is the Jerusalem of the North’. The walls and towers have all been destroyed after many battles and conflicts in and around the city, except for ‘The Gates of Dawn’. Miraculously above this arched gate still remains a picture of the Holy Virgin Mary, which attracts thousands of religious visitors yearly.
Vilnius is situated on the confluence of rivers Vilnia and Neris and therefore has many bridges; King Mindaulas, White and Green bridges, are the most popular.
Its history is complicated, but basically it has been occupied by a number of other countries; France, Poland, Russia and Germany etc. The city has witnessed much blood shed, but maybe the worst was the killing of over a quarter million Jewish residences at the hands of the German Army during WW2, during the Holocaust. You can learn more about this at the Museum of Victims (KGB Museum), which is situated just outside the ‘Old Town’ of Vilnius.
Lithuania’s true independence started in 1990, but Soviet Union troops stormed the State Radio/TV Tower in January 1991, were 14 people were killed and 700 injured trying to repel them. Not long afterwards the Soviet Union acknowledged Lithuanians independence, but the iconic building remains as a towering memory of that day.
The new Vilnius is a rapidly growing and expanding city and actually boasts the fastest internet in the world. Technology, banking, manufacturing, retail and the service sectors are all increasing. The biggest growth is in Exhibitions, Meetings, Conferences and Events. It has again opened its gates to the world and invited business people from around the world to meet there. One of the biggest events, at present, is a Baltic Sea Region Convene which is held every year, usually every February, but they also arrange many other events (for more information www.convene.lt). The new European looking business sector of Vilnius is a thriving area and a great contrast to the Old Town, which has been a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1994. Vilnius was also the Capital of Culture in 2009, along with Linz in Austria.
The Old Town of Vilnius has many attractions, but the highest one being Gediminas Tower, which is not only a museum, but gives you a 360 degree view over the city. From there you can see The Hill of Three Crosses Monument, which is three large white crosses commemorating the beheading of 7 Franciscan Friars. Nowadays, it symbolises the struggles the city has had throughout its history and how religion and national pride has helped it survive.
At the bottom of the tower are the Bernardine Gardens, which was originally designed by the artist Vladislovas Strausas and has a variety of flora and forna, plus play areas, seating, grassed areas, walks and water features. On this subject, Vilnius has numerous parks, probably the most in any capital city in Europe, which means you are never far from a place to sit, admire the scenery and relax. Many people are surprised by how green the whole of Lithuania is and Vilnius is a good example of that.
Directly in front of the tower and gardens is the Cathedral Square. The Cathedral of St Stanislav and St Vladislav, which is the most important place of worship for the country’s Catholics is situated there, plus the impressive early Baroque monument of The Chapel of St Casimer, with its famous Bell Tower.
Walking away from the square in any direction will lead you to somewhere interesting, for example, Pilies Street, which is the oldest street in the Old Town of Vilnius. It has bars, cafes, shops and little hidden squares and court yards. Try Stikliu or Little Jewish Getto as it’s known, which was famous in WW2 for its arts and crafts, which still remain today. Then there is the Town Hall Square, with the impressive Town Hall building itself, plus an open pedestrian area for fairs, concerts and celebrations. Ausros Vartu Street has many things to look out for; St Casimir’s Church, the National Philomonic Hall, Basilian Gates, the churches of Holy Trinity, Holy Spirit and St Teresa. Then at the end of the street, the famous ‘Gates of Dawn’. Then there is Gediminas Avenue which is a long straight road leading away from the historical city centre and has every type of shop you can imagine, plus a few bars, cafes and restaurants to rest, before you start shopping again.
An extremely unique place to visit is Uzupis, which is a Republic within the city of Vilnius itself. It was formed by artists and has its own Constitution, President and Bishop, plus a guardian – the statue of the Bronze Angel of Uzupis. There are bridges, bars, restaurants, art and craft shops, plus a wall which contains ‘the constitution’ in many different languages.
Directly in front of this statue is a drinking fountain, of which there are many around Vilnius. That is because the city has natural underground water and is said to have one the cleanest tap water in Europe. This comes in handy when walking throughout the city, as Lithuania has long hot summers but short cold winters. If walking is not your thing, there are ‘bike hire stations’ throughout the city, they are easy to spot as they are bright orange in colour.
Food and drink is important to all Lithuanians and they are proud of their national dishes and there are many to try; Potato, meat balls, bacon and sour cream (Cepelina), Cold Beetroot Soup (Salibarscia) which is usually served with potatoes, Pickled Cabbage, Cranberry Jelly/Drink (Kisielius), Herring with potatoes, Pancakes (Sklindziai), Black Rye Bread, Baked Potato Pudding (Kugelis), Beetroot Salad, Tree Cake, Cheese Curd and not forgetting their Pasty’s (Kibinai) which is sometimes served with a clear chicken soup. Do not be put off by the ingredients in these dishes, they taste much better than they sound. Then there are the drinks; Gira, which is an extremely popular bread based drink, that can contain alcohol, so ask what version it is? It has many beers; dark, cloudy and clear, try them all and decide for yourself which one you like best?
Just outside Vilnius is Belmontas, which is a multi-functional complex comprising of streams, gardens, walks and play areas etc. It also has a mill, restaurants, cafes, conference and banquet hall, seating areas, parks and wildlife. This is not a place to pop into, it’s a location that needs hours to appreciate.
Lithuania has many great places to visit and most are accessible from Vilnuis. Just 30 minutes away is Trakai, which was the resting place of the Dukes of Lithuania. It has a very large lake and the famous Trakai Castle. There is also the History Museum, Uzutrakis Manor Estate, The Hills of Angels and the town itself.
There is also the region of Panevezys, which is under 90 minutes away and is a lesser known area of Lithuania, but well worth exploring. It has an amazing Central Park, Theatre, Glass Factory/Gallery and Brewery. It is a great example of a traditional working town with its own history and touist attractions. Plus, it gives access to many other interesting places in Lithuania and even Latvia.
Vilnius is a contradiction. It is definitely an example of ‘triumph over adversity’, but more than that, it is; ‘historical but modern’, ‘work but play’, ‘east but west’, ‘ busy but quiet’, ‘scarred but beautiful’, ‘touristic but homely’, ‘cheap but stylist’, ‘relaxing but exciting’. They say ‘opposites attach’, well Vilnius attracts millions every year, so go and see why for yourself, whether that be for ‘business or pleasure’?