I’ve been fascinated by Vilnius for years mostly because it sounds like some sort of futuristic domed city on some distant planet only the Starship Enterprise would visit, or failing that, The Jetsons. The reality is despite the clutch of gleaming modernist new builds over in Snipiskes and the TV tower everything is much more traditional, medieval even (so just Under the Dome then).
That’s not all, while the other two have cool flags; Estonia’s blue/black and white, Latvia’s maroon and white, like a deeper elongated Austria but not so for Lithuania. If China’s Guangdong is Argentina tilted on its side then Lithuania is a slightly more squishy Africa and if that isn’t enough, it’s bolstered by a flag of red, gold and green. And no I’m not about to link that to Karma Chameleon. What I’m getting at is Lithuania appears to be the black sheep, and completely at odds not just from the other two Baltic states but anywhere else in Europe.
Humour aside, there are churches, in fact the saying goes that if you can’t see a church then you’re not in Vilnius. OK, my title might be a little misleading, according to Wikipedia there are only 65 churches, and while I’m not certain of the stats relating to the cities women I can say they are (to me) equally resplendent, noticeably more attractive and have the most wonderful scents.
There’s the gates of dawn although I’m not sure if this influenced the Floyd or not. In the glow of the Old Town afternoon, more familiar faces appear on the streets; the family from Tallinn with the son who resembled Napoleon Dynamite, the British Asian girl with the unique features, though the American family skip class this time round perhaps they were done with churches and old towns, yet amid the churches and wide boulevards everything feels upbeat, it’s a nice place to be.
But it hasn’t always been the case, like many other cities in this part of Europe, Vilnius has had a traumatic past with invasions and annexations until finally in 1991 came the Baltic spring if that is the correct term to use. During the occupation much art and culture was seen as subversive to the regime and Frank Zappa became an inadvertent cult figure for the rebel movement hence his slender statuette on Kalinausko Gatve.
Onwards from there is the presidential palace, in the midst of the flag raising ceremony during the early evening. They hoist the flag up to its perch then.., bring it straight back down and up and so on, not quite sure whether that was the ceremony or they were just practicing so I march onto the oldest university in the Baltic with its ornate library door. Perhaps the only universe you’ll come across. Or is it…
Uzupis is another eccentric republic possibly taking its cue from Christianshavn in Copenhagen. Their constitution is in many languages and a hoot to read. Unfortunately they are in reflective metal and rather difficult to shoot. I’m told it’s an artists’ hangout, a cultural must see though there is zero happening through the specks of rain other than a few eateries and the odd gallery. Even the flag hoisting was more exciting. It would have made more sense had Literati Street been in Uzupis as it’s effectively an inside out gallery and would have fitted with the oddball ethos perfectly but there’s no easy way to plan a city.
Heading back to the Old Town’s Vokieciu Gatve and more specifically to the wonderful Crustum cafe – think free cookie – is perfect for a brief interlude. Crustum is one of many cafes in the area and on Sopeno Gatve near the bus station lies another; Joffe’s Duonine – my first destination next morning.
Their delightful assistant recommends the cream croissant which is met with an enthused affirmative from myself. As always, I’m attentive to the music being played and the vibe I’m getting from Joffe’s is Now That’s What I Call 1987 (ie Bon Jovi, Belinda Carlisle etc). When I ask about it, she declares a love of music from that era. Meanwhile, her father (I presume) with ice blue stare and menacing moustache peers over the counter to give me the look only male relations can give.
Following that is a cold front of the meteorological kind. After a change of hotel and clothes, I manage a late afternoon stroll to the white cathedral but a trip uphill to Three Crosses in such damp conditions is a non starter, it feels more like autumn than mid-summer. Hearing the cathedral bells is beautiful and confirms that this is indeed Europe and could be nowhere else.
Soon after to compensate a day lost to the weather, I install myself in a nearby cafe on nearby Gedimino Prospektas for Chocolate Orange cake and Nut tart (well it was my first holiday in 3 years so live a little). The Vero cafe is a new one in that they ask what beans I want to which I’m utterly dumbfounded. Whatever it was I settled on seemed to work and all was well with the world (cue rainbows and buses shot).
Vilnius ticks many boxes but for the first time, there’s no Baltic coast, no beach and for the first time no trams. It is however really bloody nice! Yeah there’s graffiti and the odd prostitute but despite the initial confusion with the street layout it’s definitely my favourite of the three. Return to Planet Vilnius? You bet.
University of Vilnius