Town Elsewhere in Vilnius
A good starting point for any tour of the old city
is the Gates of Dawn (D-5), at the southernmost point of the
old city. This last remaining part of the old city wall (much of the
fortifications in Vilnius were destroyed by the Czar’s army in the
1800s) was converted into a chapel in 1671. A main draw of the chapel
is the gold and silver icon of the Virgin Mary, which is
revered by Catholics in the region, from Poland to Belarus. The chapel
is a mecca to thousands of pilgrims every year. As an act of devotion,
some climb the cement steps to the icon on their knees.
Continue down Ausros Vartu and you will pass the Church of the Holy
Spirit (D-5), an Orthodox church and site of the Holy Spirit
Monastery, part of which has been rented to the Italian Ambassador
in order to raise money for the church. Go further down the street and
take a left on Stikliu: this area was once the heart of the city’s
thriving, prewar Jewish community. A few steps away is the
recently-erected monument to the celebrated Jewish scholar, Gaon of
Go straight on Stikliu and you come to Dominikonu and the Dominican
Church (I-2), one of many supposedly haunted sites in Vilnius.
During a plague that swept the land in 1657, a cellar in the monastery
was used to accommodate an overflow of corpses. In the late 1800s,
area residents began to complain about incessant moaning coming from
the cellar area, where, upon investigation, police found hundreds of
mummified, long-forgotten bodies. It is said that faint, eerie wailing
can still be heard by those passing by the Church in the early morning
Go down the hill on Dominikonu to Universiteto street, site of Vilnius
University (H-3). You’ll find some of the old city’s most
splendid architecture within the grounds of Vilnius University, which
was founded by Jesuits in 1579 to stem the influence of the
Reformation in Lithuania. The university was closed by Moscow from
1832 to 1917. Today, some 14,000 students attend the school.
Wind your way across the old city on Sv. Mykolo to the 16th century St.
Anne’s Church (H-4), a fine example of Gothic architecture. When
he came through Vilnius, Napoleon is said to have been so taken by St.
Anne’s that he wanted to haul it back to Paris and set it down
alongside Notre Dame.
From here, you can see the Hill of Three Crosses (C-5).
Historical rumor has it that seven Franciscan monks who foolishly
tried to convert Lithuanian pagans were murdered here. Four were
tossed into the river while three were hung out on the hill to dry.
The first crosses were erected in the 1600s to honor the martyrs.
Stalin had them torn down; the prewar crosses rest at the foot of the
mound where new ones were raised in1989. The hill offers a
breathtaking view of the city, especially in the autumn or winter. A
winding trail leads from Kalnu Park up steep steps on the south
side of the hill to the top.
Heading down Maironio and through the park brings you to another hill.
Castle Hill (F-4) is the site of the oldest settlement in
Vilnius, though there isn’t much left to show for it. In the 14th
century, Grand Duke Gediminas dreamt he saw an iron wolf howling on
this hill, which towers over the old city, between the Neris and
Vilnia Rivers. The wolf’s cry signified to him that a great city
would arise at this location, and he proceeded to construct it. From
the original settlement, only a few structures remain, including the Gediminas
Tower (F-4)—the only major remnant of the 13th century Upper
Castle still standing; there is a history museum inside the tower.
At the base of the hill is a series of barrel-shaped structures
covering the excavation site of the city’s ancient castle, the Lower
Castle (G-3); the castle was the residence of the nation’s grand
dukes for more than three centuries.
Next to the hangars is the Cathedral (G-3), originally built as
a temple to the thunder god Perkunas. By the 19th century, after
scores of transformations, it had been almost completely revamped in
neoclassical style. After the Soviet takeover in the 1940s, the
Communists turned the church into an art gallery. It was converted
back to a church in the late ’80s. The church is still the resting
place for many famous figures in the history of Lithuania-Poland,
including royalty. Flanking the Cathedral is the distinct Bell
Tower, one of the city’s leading landmarks and a favorite
meeting place for local Lithuanians.
St. Casimir’s Church: (J-3) Didzioji 34, off
of Rotuses Square. Named after the patron saint of Lithuania, St.
Casimir. Because Casimir was in the Lithuanian-Polish royal family,
the church is topped by a golden crown. In Czarist days, it was
removed and replaced by an onion dome. The crown was restored in the
Church of Saints Peter and Paul: (B-6)
Antakalnio 1, just to the northeast of the old city; tel. 234-0229. Although plain
from the outside, from the inside this church is truly breathtaking.
The walls from top to bottom are alive with frescos in animal and
human forms—no two of them exactly the same. This church was
originally built in the 14th century, but was then rebuilt in Baroque
splendor in the late 1600s. The some 200 artists who worked on the
interior were directed by the Italian masters Pietro Peretti and
Giovanni Maria Galli.
Presidential Palace: (H-2) S. Daukanto Sq 3/8,
tel. 266-4011. The huge presidential palace, or prezidentura, was built in the
14th century; it has undergone dozens of renovations throughout the
centuries, most notably by architect Laurynas Stuoka-Guceviàius.
Napoleon stayed here on his way to Moscow in 1812.
Museum of Genocide Victims: (C-4), at Auku 2a, off of central
Gedimino; tel. 249-6264. Open:10-17; Mon. closed. This is one of the
only museums of its kind in the former Soviet empire. For a haunting
sense of the terror that swept the land under Soviet rule, you’ll
want to drop in to this museum in what was the much-feared KGB
headquarters until 1991. You can tour actual cells where prisoners
were held and tortured. On a recent trip, President Adamkus found the
entry for him in the KGB log book, from when he was a prisoner in the
Pilsudski's Heart: At the Rasu Cemetery on Sukileliu, southeast of the
old city. Pre-war Polish leader Jozef Pilsudski, who forcibly incorporated Vilnius into
Poland in 1920, always said his heart lay in this city. To prove the point for posterity,
he directed that his heart be cut out and buried in Vilnius after his death. His heart's
in this cemetery; the rest of him is in Waweï in Krakow.
Vilnius TV tower: (B-1) In the Karoliniskes district,
northwest of the city center, Sausio 13-osios 10, tel. 252-5333.
city's TV tower was the site of the bloodiest episode in Lithuania's drive for freedom in
the early '90s. In the morning hours of January 13, 1991, Soviet troops stormed the tower,
which was surrounded by hundreds of unarmed demonstrators, including many women and
teenagers. Thirteen civilians were shot dead or crushed by advancing Soviet tanks. Many
historians regard the massacre at the Vilnius TV tower as a landmark event which helped
hasten the collapse of the Soviet empire. Crosses and flowers are placed at the base of
the tower in memory of those who died; there is also a small exhibition devoted to the
massacre inside the tower itself. The street itself was renamed to commemorate the date of
The top of the TV tower also offers spectacular views of the entire Vilnius
Vingio Parkas: (C-2) A 20-minute walk uphill and west
from the city center. A vast, beautiful park, once the estate of a prominent Lithuanian
aristocrat. Russian Czar Alexander I first heard of Napoleon's invasion in 1812 while at a
ball on the estate. The pre-invasion bash was described in Tolstoy's War and Peace. Trails
wind through 395 acres of pine forest; an ideal place for a walk or jog. Pleasant in the
daytime, but dimly lit at night. In winter, this is a perfect place for cross-country
skiing. Most large public events in Vilnius are held somewhere in this park.
Yiddish Vilnius: You wouldn't necessarily know it by
walking the streets today, but Vilnius was once one of the cultural centers of the Jewish
world. Known before World War II as the Jerusalem of the North, Vilnius was home to more
than 60,000 Jews, most of whom spoke Yiddish, a 1000-year-old German dialect. Vilnius was
considered the capital of Yiddish culture and learning and was home to the famed Yiddish
Institute of Higher Learning (YIVO) and the Strashum Library. The first Jews came to
Lithuania in the 14th century, lured to the area by tolerant Lithuanian regimes. On the
eve of the war, some 240,000 Jews lived in Lithuania-virtually all of whom were killed
during the Nazi occupation from 1941 to 1944. Today, there are few reminders of Vilnius'
Jewish past, save for Hebrew letters on a gutted, hidden-away building near the train/bus
station on Raugyklos street. There are some 6000 Jews left in Lithuania; around 200 of
them are Holocaust survivors. Few speak Yiddish anymore, and there are fears that the
culture will soon die out completely. For more details and guidance visit the Jewish
Museum on Pamenkalnio 12 (C-4), tel. 262-0730.
Eight kilometers from Vilnius,
town of Paneriai. This eerie pine forest became a killing field during
the Nazi occupation when up to 100,000 people, mostly Jews, were shot by German soldiers
and local collaborators. The pits and trenches where the mass executions and burnings took
place are still visible. A small museum recounts the horror. Also, see the Synagogue
on Pylimo 39 and the small museum on Pylimo 4. Before the war, there were almost 100
synagogues in Vilnius.
Zappa: What do Frank Zappa and Lithuania have in
common? Nothing. But that hasn't stopped Vilnius from erecting a monument to the late
great rock legend. The four-meter-high Zappa bust, at Kalinausko 1 (C-4) in the city
center, was unveiled in 1995 after intense lobbying by Zappamaniacs. The zany iconoclast,
who died several years ago of cancer at the age of 52, achieved cult status in much of the
former Communist bloc for his anti-establishment themes. He allegedly intended to visit
Lithuania before he died, or so his fans here say. Some older Lithuanians thought the idea
of a monument to a quirky American rock star with a penchant for four-letter word lyrics
was, at best, nuts. The monument is said to be the first and only one dedicated to Zappa
anywhere in the world.
Back in the USSR: The only Soviet nostalgia sight left
in Vilnius are the Bridge Statues on Zaliasis Tiltas (B-4), glorifying The Soviet Worker,
are gaudy and pompous. They make good landmarks and are memorable backgrounds for tourist
In Lithuania’s pagan days, a mere six centuries
ago, forests were sacred, literally. Lithuanians still view their
forests as a sanctuary from everyday pressures. Consequently,
Lithuania has a lot to offer the outdoor enthusiast: fishing, hunting,
hiking, mushrooming, swimming, camping, horseback riding and canoeing.
The Soviet occupation left the all-too-common, Communist-inflicted
scars on Lithuania’s environment: fouled rivers, contaminated sites
from over 400 military bases, and decrepit, smoke-chugging factories.
At the same time, collectivization here, as in Estonia and Latvia,
left abandoned farms which were eventually reclaimed by the
surrounding forests. Today, over 27 percent of Lithuania is covered
with forests, which are highly treasured by Lithuanians, young and
old. Lithuania also has at least one herd of wild European bison, with
a number of sightings reported near the Belarussian-Lithuanian border.
If you hunt down and kill one of these rare beasts, Lithuania’s
forestry department will draw and quarter you.
Anyksciai: In the north of the country is the
small winery town, famous for the forest a little to the south. The Forest
of Anyksciai has been an inspiration to many works of literature,
most notably The Grove of Anyksciai, written by Antanas
Baranauskas in response to the Czar’s government felling trees from
the revered area (see CITY PAPER No. 35 for the poem.) Within the
forest is also a huge boulder, which, while hiding from Soviet forces,
sculptor Bronius Pundlius created a monument to pioneering Lithuanian
aviators Steponas Darius and Stasys Girenas. It is not hard to see
where the inspiration of the poem came from.
Aukstaitijos National Park: Located 100
kilometers northeast of Vilnius, this 40,570- hectare national park is
a paradise of rolling pine forests, lazy rivers and sparkling,
interconnected lakes. Contact its tourism and recreation center at
tel. (368) 52-597 or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
for information on camping and accommodations, including tent,
sleeping bag and canoe or surfing board rentals. www.ignalina.lt
Ballooning: For the daring and/or crazy, you
can also see Lithuania by hot air balloon. You can book hour-long or
even longer trips; one hour costs about 110 dollars. Contact the
Balloonist Center at Pylimo 45, tel. 273-2703; www.ballooning.lt
Biking: Lithuania’s relatively flat, so it
can be an ideal country for cycling. Info on routes and organized trips at www.bicycle.lt
Fishing: Some of the finest pike waters in
Europe are found in Lithuania’s lakes, where lunkers of 5 kilos or
more are caught every year. Lithuania’s rivers offer especially good
trout fishing. Ice fishing in winter is wildly popular, though only
for the hardy or foolish.
Horseback riding: Ýemoji riese, Zirgu 12, tel. 246-9091. Or at
Gineistiskiu, tel. 231-9007. You
can rent a horse with or without taking lessons. If you want to ride
free, you can ask to clean the stables as payment. For other options you can also look at www.horse.lt
Center of Europe: A small stone monument a bit north of Vilnius designates the spot considered by the French National Geographic Institute as the center of Europe. The point, 50°54 latitude, 25°19’ longitude, is now an out-of-the-way site that draws curious tourists. Little do they know that in Ukraine and Slovakia there are also similar monuments declared valid by other geographic institutes.
Europos Parkas: tel. 237-7077; an open-air contemporary art museum at the center of Europe (see above). It’s a big park
with large-scale works by contemporary artists, including the Largest Sculpture
made of TV set that was also registered in the Guinness World Record Book. Open daily 9:00 to sunset.
Neringa (Curonian Spit): A breathtaking peninsula off
the southern Lithuanian coast, some 350 km from Vilnius. This sword-shaped sliver of land
runs for some 100 km parallel to the coast. One of its wonders is the feeling of complete
isolation; you may find yourself on your own for miles, strolling through the endless
chain of sand dunes. Neringa, sometimes called the Baltic Sahara, which was much loved by
Nobel Laureate Thomas Mann, who wrote about "the fantastic world of traveling dunes,
pine forests filled with moose and birch between the bay and the Baltic Sea." The
prettiest town is on its southern end, Nida, which has the Thomas Mann house/museum.
Further north, near Juodkrante, is Witches' Hill, which boasts hundreds of playful and
grotesque wooden statues.
Trakai: The nation's medieval-era capital, and a sight
not to be missed. Trakai, 25 kilometers west of Vilnius, is best known for the
distinctive, red-bricked Castle sitting in the middle of a nearby lake. It was once the
castle of Lithuania's Grand Dukes. In Trakai, it is easy to conjure up images of ladies in
distress and knights in shining armor. The area is also home to the Karaite community, a
Turkic and Judaic people who came to Lithuania to serve as bodyguards to the Grand Duke in
the 14th century. Tourist info in Vilnius is at Vilniaus 22 (C-4), tel.
262-9660, or in
Trakai itself at Vytauto 69, tel. (528) 51-934. www.trakai.lt
Palanga: The tourism destination for many Lithuanians,
Palanga (pop. 20,000) has a beach that seems to stretch forever. There are two must-sees
in Palanga: Birute's Hill-is a tall sand-dune which originally boasted a pagan temple to
Thunder god Perkunas that was guarded by Vestal Virgins. Grand Duke Vytautas, smitten by
one of the guardians, Birute, kidnapped her and made her his wife. The hill is now topped
with a chapel and a statue of Birute rests at the foot of the hill. The second and most
interesting tourist site is the Amber Museum, which has tens of thousands of different
amber pieces on display, including some bigger than you can imagine. These days, Palanga
is the place to go for active youngsters in search of bars and nightclubs, of which the
town now has plenty. In summer, Palanga gets noisy.Tourist info at
Kretingos 1, tel. (460) 48-811. www.palanga.lt
Kaunas: Lithuania's second city was actually its first
during the interwar period-and residents of Kaunas won't let you forget it. Many consider
Kaunas more Lithuanian than Vilnius, whose population and history is more varied. The city
offers a pretty old town, including the ruins of Kaunas Castle and the Vytautas
Church-built by Grand Duke Vytautas in the 14th century. There is the fascinating Devil's
Museum, which houses a collection of various devils and devil figures (Hitler and Stalin,
not coincidentally, are also represented here). Kaunas is also home to the M.K. Ciurlionis
Art Gallery (Putvinskio 55), a museum dedicated to the great Lithuanian painter and
composer. Tourist info at Laisves 36, tel. (37) 425-088. www.kaunas.lt
Siauliai/Hill of Crosses: A wonderful day-tripper about
250 km northwest from Vilnius, Siauliai boasts many interesting and strange museums. The
main site in town is the large St. Peter and Paul's Church, which has the tallest church
spire in Lithuania. From Siauliai you can reach the Hill of Crosses, which is 10 km north.
It is a moving monument to the tenacity of religious belief. Hundreds of thousands of
crosses adorn the hill, from the largest posted crosses to the small personal crucifixes
left by travelers. The Pope, among millions of others, paid a pilgrimage to the site and
left his cross. The Soviets bulldozed the site several times during occupation, but it was
stubbornly rebuilt by believers. You should leave your devils in Kaunas, but make sure you
leave a bit of your soul here with a cross-it is a remarkable feeling of spiritual unity.
Tourist info at Vilniaus 213, tel. (41) 523-110. www.siauliai.lt
Also, see Klaipeda
Town Elsewhere in Vilnius
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