Old Town Vilnius: Skedaddling Back in Time

Old Town Vilnius: Skedaddling Back in Time

St. Petersburg was an interesting juxtaposition to Vilnius: flat and vast, imposing scale of colorful grand palaces and parks with bridges crisscrossing the Neva and canals wending through neighborhoods versus quaint, medieval city of hilly narrow cobblestone streets, outside cafés and a sense of intimacy.  I don’t know what it is about Vilnius that affects me. Perhaps it’s Gediminas’ Castle Tower looming as a silent sentinel of war visible from every part of the the city accompanied by more symbols of faith than I have ever seen concentrated in one place.


In simplistic summary, today’s Vilnius heralds back to the latter medieval period when Lithuania’s rising fortunes helped it prevail when a centuries old historic partnership of reigning kings (Polish) and dukes (Lithuanian) and strategic marriages between the ruling families in Europe, gave rise to one of the most powerful and long lasting dual-nations in the world, (imagine a swath from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south encompassing Prussia, Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Crimea) inexorably followed by unrelenting challenges from all sides i.e. the teutonic knights, Vikings, Austrians, Prussians from the north and Germans from the west and Russian incursions from the east with the eventual and repeated partitioning from the early 1700s through 1918, by these nations thus contributing to Lithuania’s waning. In their wake, as well as following two world wars and five decades behind the Soviet iron curtain, Lithuanians nevertheless retained a sense of their identity: the language is uncorrupted and lovely, the people courteous and open, tolerance and faith coexist within a strong national identity and one of palpable independence.


Speaking of faith, given that one of the original main gates, The Gates of Dawn, passes through a busy section of the remaining walled city and under a stunning chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary, it should come as no surprise that Old Vilnius has approximately 50 churches: hard to be an unrepentant sinner!

Even in a religious context, however, Vilnius’ religious history is one of conflict tempered by creative resolution: Poland was a nation of Catholics whereas Lithuania was one of the last holdouts maintaining paganism. Ultimately Catholicism prevailed until Russian Orthodox was adopted in the southeastern territories as Lithuania expanded into Russian speaking lands. Eventually, the creative solution was to fold the subordinate Orthodox subjects into the dominating ruler’s Catholic faith by creating the hybrid Uniate faith whereby the faithful could practice Eastern rites including marriage of clergy but follow Catholic doctrine while giving allegiance to the Holy See. In this stealth manner, the Catholics converted many Orthodox believers. Makes you wonder why the church can’t be as creatively open today! In the end, during the partition of 1830s, ruling Russia ended tolerance of the Uniate faith and forced a mass conversion to Orthodox. It wasn’t until a century later that the Uniates were given back their churches and permitted to worship openly. That said, with Catholic, Uniate, Russian Orthodox faiths dominating the scene, the streets are dotted with churches, several of which changed their denomination depending on who was in power …

Why so many words about “faith”? Well, part of my journey to Vilnius was to find the history of my great great grandfather, a Russian Lithuanian Uniate Priest who was forced to convert to Russian Orthodox and who in turned converted others and then having died in 1850 left a 9 year old boy, great grandfather Alexander, for the Orthodox church to take in and educate at the Vilnius Theological Seminary … there’s irony in having to find the needle church in a haystack of 50 possible church(es) … but that’s another story … Oh, but to digress further for just a moment … during this journey into the past, a meeting was arranged by the fabulous hotel staff with a National Lithuanian Archives archivist, Naringa, who is: fluent in English and 5 other languages, thank you very much, full of positive energy and, I decided, my new best friend. Alas, I may not hear from her for a few years since that is the current backlog before she is likely to see my file rise to the top of her heap! But, I do have a file number assigned and with luck our combined efforts may eventually fill in many gaps … anyway … thank you, Naringa!

We were very lucky that the weather was glorious and Vilnius was dressed in freshly potted flowers, lilacs in full perfumed bloom, chestnut trees adorned in their white candelabra flowers and the hillsides carpeted in spring green grass awash with bright yellow dandelions. Everyone was out and about, enjoying the cafes, parks, and shops: great fun enjoying a meal and local beer on tap while taking in typical and a few “oddly interesting” passers by:

European cities seem to have a thing for Rock n Rock: Paris has Jim Morrison’s grave, Lake Geneva has Freddie Mercury ashes, Prague has Lenon’s Wall and Vilnius has a monument to Frank Zappa … bet you didn’t know that … okay then …

I unreservedly and highly recommend our hotel, The Narutis. It’s combined mansions date to the 15-16th centuries, is charming and immaculate with a dynamite breakfast in the “brick cellar” and is centrally located on Pilies St. and its sidewalk café is directly across from Vilnius University. Once upon a time, it housed University faculty and students. Our room faced St John’s campanile (45 meter high) which is part of the perimeter of the University …

… Vilnius University, founded in 1569 and home to 23,000 students, is stunning with gothic, baroque and classical styles of architecture. It has unusual passages throughout the “campus” …

… and their bookstore is renown for the “frescos”  on the ceilings …

During our stay, we skedaddled up the Gediminas’ Tower of the Upper Castle, the St. John campanile and Vilnius Cathedral Basilica tower each providing differing 360 degree fabulous views of the city! St. John’s campanile surprised us with a Foucault pendulum demonstrating by its movement the effect of the earth’s rotation. Vilnius Cathedral tower affords unparalleled views of the ducal palace and the Gediminas’ castle complex.

I leave you with parting shots of a very photogenic, medieval as well as modern and  vibrant city …

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The St Petersburg Skedaddle

The St Petersburg Skedaddle

Best time EVER to Skedaddle to St. Petersburg: May 5 – 10th incorporating Victory Day which is always celebrated on May 9th and Russians often take a weeklong Spring holiday ending on May 9th. Plus the entire city is festooned with national flags, and banners of all sorts displaying the holiday’s orange and brown stripes

… AND we had amazing weather: crystal blue skies, bright sunshine and high 60 degrees with lovely breezes. Vanished from my mind were expectations of grey, dreary, drizzly skies with people only out and about when necessary. In fact, many families and older folk leave town for their dachas and beaches and the city is flooded with an abundance of lovely young people who relaxed outdoors enjoying the tremendous public parks with couples everywhere; walking, sitting, cuddling, kissing, and laughing. This is also apparently a choice week for weddings.


Also during the week, military divisions practice marching for the May 9th main event – so many photo ops.


Golly … President Putin certainly likes colorful uniforms – and the triple medals make soft shish-ling sounds as they pass – very pageant oriented!

Once revelers return for the May 9th main event, Victory Day 1941-1945, the entire city turns out in full as they celebrate and memorialize those many millions who perished during the siege of Leningrad and WWII. Victory Day feels like our Memorial Day and Veterans Day rolled into one and it is a dawn to night series of events: VIP grandstands are erected in Palace Square where a show of military force parades by …

… and every street leading to the square is jam packed with spectators.



Several hours later a second parade of remembrance takes place where children, grandchildren and great grandkiddos march while hoisting placards of photos of their loved ones who perished. The enormity of the tragedy transcends time and remains palpable today … wars bind us all and should remind us of the sanctity of life, but alas …


… the sea of dead march on as a tidal wave of loss …

Later at dusk, the torches on the Rostral columns, lit earlier, become beacons …


… the spectators pack the bridges and embankments as well as boats on the Neva in anticipation of the popular finale: fireworks as the Russians shout “OOOOO-RAHS” to every burst of color


En route back to the Renaissance St Petersburg Baltic Hotel, a Marriott Hotel on Pochtamtskaya Ulitsa next to St Isaac’s Cathedral, I snapped this magnificient landmark



What a heady day. Next year, 2017, should be interesting as Russia “celebrates” the centennial of the Russian Revolutions, the first of which occurred in February 1917. It should be a banner year for spectacular events and perhaps worth being a part of …

Several notes to those who either have not been to St Petersburg or who traveled there during the “cold war”. The Pulkova airport is small and efficient and not very busy so we were processed very quickly. The roads in May are fabulous as they are resurfaced annually after winter due to frost heave damage. There are very few foreign tourists during this time. The city is SPOTLESS and drivers are polite and defer to pedestrians in crosswalk who reciprocate by NOT jaywalking, EVER! The city is HUGE with many parks, rivers, bridges and canals intersected by very wide avenues. If you are a walker, this is your city: in one day we covered 12 miles and had hardly made a dent! In my mind, the few elements lacking: sidewalk cafes and places to dine casually al fresco. There were NO LINES to the Hermitage – seriously! The flat sightseeing boats plying the waters of the Neva and city canals were ubiquitous – most narration is in Russian. Speaking of which, all signs are in Cyrillic which can be a significant source of confusion easily mitigated by a good map.

We love Russian food so for us, St Petersburg was a delight. Want a vodka experience? Dine at “Russian Vodkaroom No. 1/Russkaya Ryumochnaya No. 1” on Konnogvardeyskiy and try their horseradish vodka!



Yes, I too thought they were “messing” with me with this glass!

How about a dining experience with a killer view of St Isaac where the cocktails and food are great too? Take the lift to the 6th floor “Mahcapga” (pronounced Mansarda) which just so happened to be across the street from our hotel (lucky us!) on Pochtamtskaya

And if you want to have a high end, intimate dinner that felt very European along the Moyka Embankment on the canal …

… try “Dom”, no more than a quick sprint around a couple of corners from the hotel, also recommended by our concierge, Natalya.

A word about concierge services: Natalya was fabulous! In addition to dining recommendations, she directed us to a side entrance to the Hermitage for use by hotel guests which would have saved us a great deal of time if there had been lines. She went way beyond the call of duty trying to assist me in obtaining a contact at the former Imperial Medical Academy without which access is impossible. She, and all staff at this boutique hotel, was friendly and very helpful. Consider staying there as the location is wonderful and buffet breakfast is plentiful and fresh: we had a view of St Isaac’s from our room located in the front of the hotel where the rooms were larger with high ceilings.


There is so much more I wanted to say about St Petersburg because in part, for me at least, it was genealogically a going home event. Instead of words, I’m tossing in a few extra Travel Log type images … I hope you enjoy them as much as I enjoyed taking them!

We found Russians delightful, friendly, happy, helpful … very chill

Finishing with Church on the Spilled Blood, marking the site of Tsar Alexander II’s assassination in 1881 which is actually a memorial building and not a “church” per se



… and St Peter and St Paul Cathedral on the island fortress built by Peter the Great where most of the tsars are entombed – the bell tower is the world’s tallest Orthodox bell tower. Tsar Nicholas II and most of his family and a few servants were belatedly laid to rest on July 17, 1998 (the date marking 80 years after their murder) in the Chapel of St Catherine the Martyr …

Hope this was fun for you … join me on Next Skedaddle … to Vilnius, Lithuania!