#WKNDTravel: A day in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius
It’s perfectly fine if your social media feed in Dubai missed out on the photos of swimmers in an annual winter competition, in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius earlier last week. Men, women, young and old alike, from across Lithuania, got together in the second largest Baltic city on March 6 to compete in freezing water with temperatures dropping to -2 degrees Celsius. For the world it may have been just another ‘insignificant nothing’ annual custom running for years, but for those who have been to Vilna, as she’s also called (besides Wilno, Wilna and Via), it was another aide-mémoire of a destination often forgotten in many an itinerary.
In North East of Europe, of course, Vilnius is the very epitome of a perfect weekend break, for how easily it is accessible from most cities in that part of the continent by air and road (I had actually taken an overnight bus from Warsaw). And it’s pretty much got everything — from lively bars (although Covid protocols may be a bit of a bummer right now), epic views ornamented by a skyline of church spires and wrapped in an abundance of history, a striking old town with a thriving coffee shop scene and some great door and wall art you won’t find anywhere else. But for the rest of the world, Lithuania is still that odd mushroom-shaped country located somewhere in the Baltics that travellers are still coming to terms with. (There’s no direct flight from the UAE to Lithuania yet!)
But if you happen to be there, do soak in the sights of the famous red-orange roofs of Vilnius from above and breathe in the fresh air, while cycling around the Old Town where cobbled streets hold centuries of history that couldn’t always be well-preserved.
In between good coffee and food, here are three things you could do in a day:
The Church Trail
It may have been over three decades since Lithuania became the first Baltic state to proclaim its independence, but the vestiges of the Soviet era remain alive through its churches. And there are 28 of them — roughly, one for every 700-odd — spread across almost every corner of the old town. Now hallmarks of a traditionally devout Catholic nation, these ornate churches had once ceased to be places of worship to become sports halls, museums and even warehouses during Soviet rule. Pilgrimage on your mind or not, do walk under The Gate of Dawn (Image C) or Sharp Gate, a city gate guarding over six centuries of history and one of Lithuania’s most important religious and cultural monuments, attracting pilgrims from all over.
The Genocide Museum tour
The city’s former KGB prison, like the one I have seen in Tallinn, houses a Genocide Museum that provides a disturbing yet captivating insight into the life that was under Soviet and Nazi rule.
Visit country within a country
No trip to Vilnius can be complete without a walk along the streets of its most unusual neighbourhood — Uupis. A Unesco World Heritage Site, Uupis means “beyond the river” in the Lithuanian language. Popular with artists due to its bohemian atmosphere, it can be compared to Montmartre in Paris or Freetown Christiania in Copenhagen. The district declared itself an independent republic on April 1, 1998, and has its own constitution extolling, amongst other things, the rights of cats, dogs, and humans to be happy, unhappy or even silent.
Vilnius, the capital
Declared the European Capital of Culture in 2009, Vilnius is the seat of Lithuania’s national government. Known for the architecture in its Old Town, a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1994, it is often called “the Jerusalem of Lithuania” for its influence, as one of Europe’s largest Jewish centres until World War II. Napoleon also called it “the Jerusalem of the North” as early as in 1812.
Lithuania in a nutshell
Lithuania lies on the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea, to the southeast of Sweden and the east of Denmark, with Latvia to the north, Belarus to the southeast and Poland to the south. Spread over an area of 65,300 km2, it is home to over 2.7 million people, who speak Lithuanian; one of the only two living Baltic languages.
In the 14th century, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was the largest country in Europe.
In World WarII, Lithuania was first occupied by the Soviet Union and then by Nazi Germany.
On March 11, 1990, a year before the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union, Lithuania became the first Baltic state to proclaim its independence.