James Kevin Mac Goris checks out the pretty Lithuanian capital Vilnius and discovers a city brimming with conﬁ dence
If you’re Belgian, as undoubtedly many Brussels Airlines passengers are, the new four times weekly direct flight from Brussels to Vilnius is not only an excellent new connection to a fantastic Baltic citytrip destination, it’s also an opportunity to invade the Lithuanian capital en masse and right a very important historical wrong. The fact is that Belgians are seriously misrepresented in modern Lithuanian idiom, and my first inkling of this was a slightly awkward moment during a recent trip to Lithuania when our guide, describing the stoic Lithuanian character of the country’s former president, said that even when the unscheduled end of his tenure was at hand (from her tone one could almost imagine the mob chanting for his blood) he remained ‘as placid as a Belgian’. Not as a Lithuanian – not as a mill pond – as a Belgian. My companions had obviously not been as placid as Belgians – when they asked where on earth this phrase came from, our guide proceeded to add enigma to mystification by informing us that the whole world knew that Belgians were very placid people who rarely spoke and certainly never asked questions, unlike you French (she addressed us) who are vaguely undisciplined and have a tendency not to listen to what you are told (she was a high school teacher before becoming a guide).
Intrigued, I’ve since checked out the origin of this most incorrect assumption – everybody knows that Belgians are Europe’s fun-loving style criminals in rectangular-shaped spectacles – and in fact it’s true. In a way. When Napoleon swept through Lithuania in the early 19th century on his way to bring an enlightened judicial code to mother Russia, his French cavalry horses absolutely terrified the local population – unlike the stout and stoic Ardennais draw horses used to pull the artillery… placid in nature and undeniably Belgian.
Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, is full of historical treasures big and small, and this year old meets new as the city celebrates both the 1000th anniversary of its founding (technically this means the place is 1001 years old) and the 2009 European City of Culture celebration, which it shares with Linz in Austria. It’s a great time to see how this city has triumphed, survived and been born again through an incredibly rich millennium of history as one of Europe’s crossroads. Although thousands showed up at the beginning of the year to watch a quite spectacular lights and fireworks show in the city’s Cathedral Square, for many the euphoria of being at the kick-off of a very special year has swiftly died down in the face of severe cutbacks in the year-long culture bash programme as Vilnius, like every other city in the world, faces up to the reality of the credit crisis. However, this has done nothing to dampen the citizens’ enthusiasm in welcoming visitors from western Europe.
Which does give a bit of a clue as to why Vilnius seems so unlike other eastern European cities – with its gaze historically turned towards the west, Vilnius has always welcomed artistic and cultural influence coming from its occidental neighbours. One thing that defines Vilnius architecturally are its churches, (of which there are many, 600
Previous page, main image Amble along the pretty cobbled streets of the old town and soak up its charm; Previous page, inset The Feast of the 3 Muses at the National Drama Theatre might look a bit spooky but it’s a fine piece of sculpture; Above The striking Belltower seen from the impressive porch of Vilnius Cathedral; Below St. Casimirs Church is just one of the 600 churches that make Vilnius a beautiful place to visit
being an oft-cited number) and they are mainly Italian inspired in design due to the strong Jesuit presence in the city – from the 17th century onwards Vilnius was the eastern outpost of the Roman Catholic Church, and not for nothing was it known as the ‘Rome of the East’.
Jesuit activities were also at the heart of Vilnius’ intellectual revival, with the first Jesuit University founded in 1579. Today, the University Quarter is recognised as a unique architectural ensemble with buildings inspired by the early Italian baroque and representing Lithuania’s golden age. However, despite several centuries following the Union of Lithuania with Poland in the late 16th century of constant bowing to the will of more powerful nations the city’s construction continued unabated and by the beginning of the 19th century (when Napoleon passed by) Vilnius was the third most populous city in eastern Europe exceeded only by Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Since achieving independence in 1990, Lithuanians have been busy restoring their city and today a walk around the old town is like an almost surreal wander through a marshmallow kingdom – the gracefully rounded domes, pillars and arches of churches and public buildings are restored to an almost unnatural smoothness and painted pretty pastel pinks, yellows, greens and beiges.
The identity of Lithuanians themselves has also undergone a serious makeover. In Vilnius, a population made up of Lithuanians, Poles, Russians and various other minorities, everybody gets on with each other and ostensibly the past is buried or even half-forgotten. All eyes are turned towards Europe, with accession to the Union having been recent enough to still be something to be quietly proud of. I have yet to see an eastern European city with less evidence of Soviet-era symbolism in its architecture or public installations. While one resident informed me quietly that during the soviet era the Ukrainians envied Vilnius for its freedom, and the Lithuanians in turn envied Warsaw, the only signs I could see left of Soviet domination were four handsome constructivist statues on a bridge (the worker, farmer, teacher and soldier), and the unmissable KGB museum in the organisation’s former HQ in downtown Vilnius.
On the contrary, political and ideological tolerance is actively championed here, with a strange international frontier existing Berlin-like within the city itself. Granted, this city enclave is not a separate country in the conventional or even the Frank Zappa sense of the word (he claimed that any true country required a beer and an airline), but the Uzupis Republic, which constitutes the bohemian district of the same name, which simply means “beyond the river”, has its own rules, and its own constitution, the last article of which reads “Don’t conquer. Don’t defend. Don’t surrender”. Something between Copenhagen’s free town of Christiania and Paris’ Montmartre, the area unilaterally declared its independence on April Fool’s Day 1998, which is celebrated annually at the incongruously shiny Angel of Uzupis Statue. The city’s former mayor Arturas Zuokas is a Uzupis local and, in defiance of Article 9 the Constitution (“People have the right to be lazy and do nothing at all”), he had a webcam installed in his office to demonstrate to the people of Vilnius how hard he was working. Which pretty much sums up the charm of Vilnius from the visitors point of view – it’s not ‘an enigma, wrapped in a mystery’ or even a paradox like its neighbour, but it’s certainly a lighter take on at least one third of that formula.