It was dark and quiet on Ligoninės gatvė as I stumbled over the coarse cobblestones toward the heart of the medieval old town of Vilnius, Lithuania. The sky gradually lightened as I walked downhill toward the Neris River.
I walked past the enormous columns of the town hall, past the presidential palace, the cathedral, the national history museum, and the university. These were all places that I would become more familiar with in the days ahead.
When I reached the Neris River the sky was getting colorful. There were two people sitting on the bank watching the sunrise before work. I stood for a while, watching also, and waiting for enough light to see the cathedral nearby.
The Vilnius Cathedral is close enough to the river that there used to be a navigable side channel that took ocean-going sailing ships to the cathedral. This channel has been filled in and is now part of its expansive courtyard
Along this channel was a series of watch towers. This leaning tower is the only remaining one. The early morning light casts a shadow of the cross held by a statue on the cathedral roof. The cathedral was built in the 13th century on the site of an earlier pagan temple. During the Soviet occupation of the Baltic countries it was closed, damaged, and used as a warehouse.
My morning was filled with sightseeing and museum cruising. The national history museum at the base of Castle Hill has many interesting artifacts and old maps. Maps that depicted all the various historical occupations and alliances. The Baltic countries are at the intersection of Europe and Asia and have been a repeated battleground of cultures.
If you plan ahead you can visit Vilnius during the Skamba Skamba Kankliai international folk music festival in May. This festival is a wonderful feast of varied folk music and dancing. It lasts three days and is held on the massive front entryway to the Vilnius Town Hall.
The performances are spectacular and the mood is relaxed. It is fun to listen to and see so many different kinds of traditional music.
There is also a tradition in many European countries of multi-day bachelor and bachelorette parties. In the Baltic countries they are elevated to unavoidable street happenings. The main goal is to embarrass the bride or groom. Usually a group of friends travels to another city and spends several days roaming the streets, parks, plazas, and cafes trying to draw as much attention as they can. They are often obnoxious, especially in the early morning hours of their all-night frolics.
In the example below, a group of young women roamed the streets dressed as pirates, complete with plastic swords and pistols. The bride (middle) was required to approach all young men who walked by their bench in this small park, and ask for their phone number. And they had to write their number on her white apron with a felt pen.
As you can imagine she collected a lot of phone numbers. And some of them were written slowly and with large numbers, uh, just for clarity.
Vilnius is filled with interesting neighborhoods and intriguing sites. One neighborhood has declared itself an independent country called: Užupio Respublika. They have three mottos: “Don’t Fight”, “Don’t Win”, “Don’t Surrender” and a constitution with 39 articles. The articles are sometimes unusual, with an emphasis on liberty and personal choice, e.g.,
A dog has the right to be a dog.
People have the right to have no rights.
People have the right to be happy.
People have the right to be unhappy.
Vilnius also has a lovers’ padlock bridge where couples show their commitments with engraved padlocks. These bridge adornments are becoming widespread.
There are many other images that I will share of Vilnius in future posts. But at the end of this long day I was happy to find a very small wine and cheese shop only a block from my hotel. It was a jovial neighborhood gathering place. I asked if they had any Lithuanian wines to try. But the owner said that wine grapes do not grow in the Baltic countries. That far north it is just too cold and the growing season is too short. So I asked if they happened to have any montepulciano from Italy. Well, it turned out that they were Italian wine experts and had three different montepulciano wines. And they had some great local sheep cheese. The room was filled with music and laughter. I couldn’t understand the Lithuanian conversations. But I could understand the rest of the situation. It was a great place to end a great day in Vilnius.