Favourite Vilnius

A cat is not obliged to love its master, but it must help him in difficult times.

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

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:

Frank Zappa

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.

Užupis

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

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.

The lighthouse

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.

Zofka

BURN!!!

Inside the shop, when I told the clerk that a trash can was on fire outside, the answer I received was “Yes, doesn’t it smell bad”.

Do you know the supposedly American expression of “a good burn”, often used by the character Michael Kelso in That 70’s Show?

Well in Lithuania they really like a good burn.

Having lived in Vilnius for a little more than two months, I have become quite accustomed to the Lithuanian version of a good burn. I live in an apartment block between Neris and the old town, and in the driveway into the yard we previously had several large plastic containers for garbage use.

But one morning coming down the stairs, my colleague and I noticed that the containers were no longer there. Instead, we found some small sculptures made out of melted green plastic and a huge black spot on the wall. Our containers had, you might say, experienced a good burn over night. Today, the melted plastic has been replaced by solid metal containers that hopefully can survive a bit more.

But the containers in my apartment block are not the only ones falling victims to a burn. Also the trash cans in the street have a tendency to be smoking around the clock, and as late as yesterday did I see a blue trash can enjoying a full blaze just outside a travel agency in  Gedimino.

Inside the shop, when I told the clerk that a trash can was on fire outside, the answer I received was “Yes, doesn’t it smell bad”. When I finally got out of the shop, I found the trash completely burned out.

I have wondered, how come so many trash cans fall victim to “a good burn” and how come it seems so common to Lithuanians, and my answer is surprisingly simple.

The trash cans in Lithuania have an ashtray at the top, and when a cigarette is disposed of, it does not fall into a separate container from the ashtray, but directly down to the garbage underneath. Other times I have seen Lithuanians simply throwing their still lit cigarettes directly in the trash can. I guess it helps limit the amount of garbage that has to be handled and burned later.

So well a bit of advise. If you ever go to the Baltics don’t be frightened by the smoky dustbins, they are quite a local custom.

Update

I read an article recently that the number of fires in Vilnius had increased 43 pct. in Q1 of 2009 compared to the same period the previous year.

I finally after a long time got the chance to take a picture of a Lithuanian fire truck. It is rather old fashioned and really cute, in my opinion. It should be said that the Vilnius fire brigade also holds more modern trucks, however, I know by fact that this one is frequently in use as I pass the fire station daily.

Zofka

There is Something about Vilnius

I constantly think that Vilnius holds some secret that I have yet to discover. Perhaps it is best to explain it by saying that there is simply something about Vilnius.

It is freezing, and I constantly feel a bit ill and with a throbbing in my throat. It has been snowy white for long periods through February while ice flakes have made their way down the Neris River, which floats by my house. March is more optimistic and the sun shines through, but it is still a while, I am sure, until I can enjoy the spring in the Lithuanian capital.

I have resided in Vilnius for two months now, and start to get the feel of the city. It is a very vibrant city though winter tends to have a grip on the people, as it supposedly has anywhere in the world.

Vilnius is a small capital city of approximately 550.000 people and I am constantly surprised that such a small city can hold so much. I still feel that I have not in the least seen all there is to see.

But perhaps my feeling of having to know the place inch by inch wouldn’t exist if I saw any similarity to my own home in Copenhagen. So much is different here, on the other side of the Baltic Sea.

Many things are rather new to me. The heating system, the curd and the love of transparent plastic bags, just to mention a few. But also just the entire feel of the city.

I constantly think that Vilnius holds some secret that I have yet to discover. Perhaps it is best to explain it by saying that there is simply something about Vilnius.

Whether I will discover any of Vilnius’ many secrets is still to be seen. I am in Vilnius for a six months period, working as an intern. I will be so lucky as to experience how the city comes to life in the Spring after a cold and long winter.

Maybe that is the secret that has been withheld me, the secret of Spring, of that feeling in the air. Something which will become Vilnius very much. But as I wait for springtime, I might use the time to say a bit about how Vilnius came about.

Gediminas

As many other European cities, Vilnius has a folklore tale about its origin, and as with the tale about the origin of Rome, it includes a wolf. But, personally I think, the story of Vilnius is much cooler as the wolf depicted in the story is an iron wolf.

One day Gediminas, Grand Duke of Lithuania, went on a hunting trip. This would have been somewhere in the 1310’s or perhaps the 1320’s.

After a long day he camps at the crossing of the rivers Neris and Vilna and during the night he has a dream – because all good tales and legends include a dream.

He dreams of a huge iron wolf, howling on the top of the hill by which he has camped. In the woods around the hill, thousands of other wolfs can be heard howling back at the huge iron wolf.

As he wakes up and leaves for his castle in Trakai, he asks a pagan priest, what this dream has meant and he receives the following answer;

What is destined for the ruler and the State of Lithuania, is thus: the Iron Wolf represents a castle and a city which will be established by you on this site. This city will be the capital of the Lithuanian lands and the dwelling of their rulers, and the glory of their deeds shall echo throughout the world.

Gediminas followed the advise, moved his capital to Vilnius and is today, in Lithuanian folklore, recognised as the founder of Vilnius, as letters written by him are the first written sources mentioning Vilnius.

For this reason Gediminas has given name to many places and sights in central Vilnius; Gedimino Prospektas, Gedimino Hill, Gedimino Tower – on top of the hill – and so forth.

My favourite, however, is the statue of Gediminas, revealed in 1996 and placed on the Cathedral Square, just next to the street, the tower and the hill. This statue depicts Gediminas on his horse and makes the impression that he was a Japanese Samurai warrior.

In addition to Samurai-Gediminas and his horse, the statue includes a depiction of the iron wolf, which today is the symbol of Vilnius. But in difference to the description in the tale, this huge iron wolf is about the size of a modern day chi-hua-hua in comparison to Samurai-Gediminas and his horse.

Regards

Zofka