After a difficult overnight journey across the Baltic Sea, my traveling companion and I finally arrived in Lithuania. The ferry we took got us to our destination in one piece, but it was far from comfortable. Sleeping on the floor of the boat in a room full of drunken men was not the most luxurious experience, but it did serve its purpose. We docked in Klaipeda, a town in north-west Lithuania in one piece with a few marriage proposals to boot. From Klaipeda we caught a bus to Kaunas, Lithuania’s second largest city and, after a few days of rest, made our way down to Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius.
I fell in love with Vilnius almost immediately. The people were passionate and humorous, laid back yet warm and loved to socialize. According to legend; the Lithuanian Grand Duke Gediminas founded the city in 1316 while on a hunting trip. The gods told Gediminas in a dream to create a city “as mighty as the howls of one hundred iron wolves.” The Duke heeded their advice and did just that when he created what is now known as modern Vilnius.
Vilnius is the focal point of Lithuania and was the setting for independence demonstrations in the 1980’s. Over the centuries, Vilnius has been annexed by the Germans and Russians several times. The Poles also took control of Vilnius and even Napoleon seized the city once on his way to Moscow. It has been a city of pagan rituals and was once dubbed the ‘Jerusalem of Lithuania,’ as Vilnius housed one of the largest and most influential Jewish communities in all of Europe. Duke Gediminas invited Jews to the city and when Vilnius was a part of Poland in the 1920’s, more followed. Sadly, most Lithuanian Jews were holocaust victims (35,000 were murdered in the Paneriai Forest just outside of the city) and many of the survivors left for Israel or the United States. Today, Vilnius only has one synagogue where the small remaining population go to worship. However, Vilnius is still quite multicultural, has many diverse places of prayer and now is the Roman Catholic center of the country.
Coming into Vilnius, the sight of old Soviet tower blocks are a stark reminder about the city’s horrific past. In fact, I’d visited the other two Baltic countries, Estonia and Latvia, first and noticed the Soviet presence more so in Lithuania than the others. This may have been due to Lithuania’s closer proximity to the Belarusian border or the fact that many of these buildings were still in use. At any rate, this only added to Vilnius’s intrigue.
Senamietis, the ‘Old Town’ of Lithuania, is the largest medieval town in The Baltics and, in my opinion, the best preserved. It flaunted an array of terracotta, mustard, pink and white colored buildings mostly in the baroque style. There were also gothic and renaissance influences present throughout the city.