This year Lithuania celebrates the 1000 year anniversary for the first mentioning of its name. The first time Lithuania was mentioned was in 1009 in the Saxonicae Annales Quedlinburgenses, where apparently a Saxon missionary named Bruno of Querfurt was struck in the head after trying to baptise the people living in Lithuania.
The year of 2009 is therefore perfect for Lithuanian capital Vilnius to be the European Cultural Capital, though this has not been a success story until now.
One might actually draw comparisons between the old and bloody recordings of Saint Bruno and the rather scandalous beginning of the cultural capital.
Due to the financial crisis the funding has been cut, and at the same time the committee in head of the cultural capital has been claimed to be incompetent and slow, which resulted in the resignation of several committee members only two months into 2009. Rather a bloody fight, one might say.
But Vilnius doesn’t really need to be the cultural capital in order to be interesting.
Vilnius, with its 550.000 inhabitants, is not a large city. In fact it might in a globalized term be nothing more than a town. But it is the capital of Lithuania, and rightfully so.
Vilnius is in particular notorious for its many baroque buildings and have been named a capital of baroque as well as included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. Most of the baroque buildings were build while Lithuania was still in unification with Poland and the baroque style in Vilnius is therefore named Polish baroque as there are also examples of this architectonic building style many places in Poland. In Vilnius, it is especially the many churches that are evidence of the Polish baroque.
The amount of churches in Vilnius is only beaten by the amount of medium-sized malls which you see everywhere on for example Gedimino Prospektas. These places are mostly used by the more trendy and rich inhabitants, whereas the commoner goes to Acropolis to shop.
Acropolis is a hub of a shopping centre and larger than life. Here you can get everything including getting lost. It is placed in the suburbs and close to some of the more Soviet-looking apartment blocks that you find in any country that has been under Soviet influence.
The baroque churches and the Soviet apartment blocks are sharp contrasts in the Vilnius landscape. While the inner city and old town holds more than 40 churches, as of what I could count, the suburbs seem to be a grey and depressing city wall surrounding the magic of the churches.
But churches, shopping malls and apartment blocks are not the only attractions that Vilnius has to offer.
Here are some of my favourite things about Vilnius:
When Lithuania became independent in 1991 all the old statues of Lenin and Stalin were removed from the city and many places that previously housed these statues became vacant. A group of Lithuanian bohemians started a Frank Zappa Fan Club, as they saw him as a symbol of free expression, and proposed that the city of Vilnius should erect a statue of their idol in one of the vacant spots.
According to the old members of the Fan Club, the city wasn’t that into the project as mr. Zappa was known to be a “lefty”, but after convincing the council that Zappa had Jewish features the council gave in considering that Lithuania has a lot of Jewish history. The statue was made for free by Konstantinas Bogdanas, Lithuania’s prime sculptor who under Soviet times had made his living by creating statues of Lenin.
To Bogdanas and many others the erection of the Frank Zappa statue in 1995 became evidence of Lithuania’s liberalization from old times.
Today the statue of Frank Zappa has a twin which was given as a present from The Republic of Lithuania to the city of Baltimore, the birth place of Frank Zappa.
Not many cities in the world can boast of the fact that they surround an entire state. Rome can, and Vilnius can.
The Republic of Užupis declared independence in 1997. It is an old city part of Vilnius which lies next to the river Vilna and is often described as the Montmartre of Vilnius, due to the many galleries and art shops present. The artistic site of Užupis existed even before the end of Soviet rule, when the area was one of the most neglected and damaged areas of the city.
Having chosen April Fools Day as their Day of Independence, some might think that the Republic of Užupis is no more than tongue-in-cheek, but don’t be fooled. This small republic can boast of their own passport, president and currency. Furthermore, they have four national flags, one for each season, and their own army which according to rumours should exist of a bit more than 10 soldiers. The republic can also pride themselves of the monument, which stands on the main square. After months of excitement an angel holding a trumpet was unveiled on independence day in 2001. Prior to the angel the square held the statue of an egg, which can now be found on Pylimo Gatve in Lithuania.
However, the most important and famous part about Uzupis is their constitution.
Among the many rather interesting statements of the constitution, my favorites are:
A cat is not obliged to love its master, but it must help him in difficult times.
Everyone has the right to be idle.
Everyone has the right to sometimes be unaware of his duties.
Everyone has the right not to be distinguished and famous.
From the Užupis Constitution
Užupis means “on the other side of the river”
Gedimino Prospektas is what I like to call a beautiful main street. It is the boulevard of the new part of town (which is actually not that new) and it stretches all the way from the Cathedral and the Castle hill and down to the river Neris.
Every day after seven o’clock and during the entire weekend, the street becomes car-free. Somewhere in the middle the street tops on a small hill and when standing there on a car-free hour, one can see all the way in both directions. For some reason, I often feel as if in the wild west, gazing into the dusty horizon.
At the end at Gedimino Prospektas next to the cathedral stands the cathedral tower, which is separated from the cathedral itself by several meters. To many the tower looks more like a lighthouse placed inland for unknown reasons than a clock tower.
I love this place, the Cathedral Square with the lighthouse and cathedral and the statue of Gediminas in the background. Here, everything seems so white and light and as tourists start flocking to Vilnius, you will discover how they start spinning around themselves near the lighthouse, while Lithuanians watch them while hiding a smile. Wonder why that is.