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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3 thoughts on “Old Town Vilnius: Skedaddling Back in Time

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