I check in, put my stuff in my room and decide to visit the area. Taking a map and some brochures at the front desk of the hotel, I cross the street and head for the Cathedral and its bell tower.
The Cathedral of St. Stanislav and St. Vladislav is the most important place of worship for the country‘s Catholics and the venue for the main Christian, folk and national festivities. Many prominent people of the Lithuanian Grand Duchy – noblemen, bishops and dukes – are buried in the vaults of the Cathedral. The Sovereings Mausoleum located beneath the Chapel of St. Casimir contains the remains of the Grand Duke of Lithuania and King of Poland Alexander. He is the only ruler of Poland and Lithuania buried in Vilnius. Vytautas the Great, a grandson of Duke Gediminas and the most powerful Lithuanian ruler, is buried in the vaults of the Cathedral together with his wife Ona. Two wives of Žygimantas Augustas, Queen Elisabeth of Austria (Habsburg) and Queen Barbora Radvilaitė (said to have been the most beautiful woman of her time), are also buried here. The walls of the Cathedral also provide shelter for the urn with the heart of King Vladislovas Vaza (Wladyslaw Vasa). The ancient wall of the temple dating back to the 13th-15th centuries, and the oldest Lithuanian fresco painted in the 14th century, have survived in the vaults of the Cathedral. Free entrance, but no pictures allowed, like in almost every single church or religious monuments in Vilnius.
The bell tower is a particularly important element of the arch-cathedral basilica and a symbol of the city. In the 13th century, the tower was part of the ramparts. Almost the entire first level of the ancient tower has been preserved until today. In the 16th century, this defensive tower became the bell tower of the cathedral, and it acquired its current appearance in the early 19th century. The height of the cathedral bell tower reaches 52 meters. It is possible to visit the tower, but I didn’t. Inside is an exhibition of bells, the old town clock and reconstructions of the historic bell tower and the cathedral. So I did not missed much, though observation desks, at the last floor of the tower, would have allowed me to admire a beautiful panorama of the city and surrounding monuments. I walk around the square and admire the statue of Gediminas.
The monument to Lithuanian Grand Duke Gediminas was created by the Lithuanian American Vytautas Kašuba and Mindaugas Šnipas. Besides being the founder of Vilnius and Trakai, Gediminas was also one of the most famous rulers of Lithuania. His fame can only be compared to the fame of his grandson Vytautas the Great. Gediminas lived between 1275 and 1341 and ruled the Grand Duchy of Lithuania for 25 years. He moved the capital of Lithuania from Trakai to Vilnius. He was better known as a diplomat who attracted the attention of Europe to Lithuania than as a military chief. It was in the letters of Gediminas to Western Europe that the name of Vilnius was mentioned for the first time in 1323. This year is considered to be the year of the founding of Vilnius. Gediminas succeeded in expanding the state borders and the sphere of influence of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania far to the east and south. Under the rule of Gediminas, Vitebsk and Volyn were annexed while the lands of Kievan Rus fell into a vassal dependence of the Duchy. On their trip west, the army of Gediminas even approached Berlin. The area of the Lithuanian state doubled during the times of Gediminas.
I then realize that behind the statue is a red brick tower on a nearby hill. Looking at my map, I see that a paved path leads to it and I’m right next to its entrance. After 5 minutes of a short climb, I arrived at the tower of Gediminas Castle.
The Vilnius Castle Museum was opened in 1960, and in 1968 it became a subdivision of the Lithuanian National Museum. The exposition of the Vilnius Castle Museum displays reconstruction models of Vilnius castles of the second part of the 14th and the beginning of the 17th centuries, armament and iconographic material of old Vilnius. An observation deck on the top of the tower is the best place from which one can admire a magnificent panorama of Vilnius.
From the tower, I haven’t only admired the city but I also saw a sculpture representing three crosses on a nearby hill. As there were people around it, I thought that the place had to be accessible, so I went back down the hill along the same paved stone path and started to search for the path to the Three Crosses. As there is no sign or directions, it was tedious, but I finally came across a dirt road that lead me up the hill to finally get behind the Three Crosses. Not sure this was the right way to take, but I got there, that’s the point.
It is believed that the three crosses were first erected here in the 17th century to commemorate a group of monks from a nearby monastery, who were martyred in the 14th century. According to legend, seven were killed and seven were tied to wooden crosses and floated down the Neris River, with the instruction to return to the west from whence they had come. The monument has changed many times. The current one was built by the architect and sculptor, A. Vivulskis in 1989 at the beginning of the Rebirth movement. It was built to replace the one that had been removed by the Soviet authorities in the 1950s, pieces of which still remain on the slope on the far side. The Hill of Three Crosses is also known as Kreivasis (crooked) Hill, or Plikasis (bare) Hill or Tauro Hill (the gleaming white monument marks the site of the former Crooked Castle, which is believed to have stood there (in Latin, referred to as the curvum castrum).
Once again, I admire the city from this viewpoint. Well, as it goes “What goes up must come down”, I start my way down to the Cathedral Square. Reaching the bottom of the hill, I take a look at my watch and see that I still have some time to spend for sightseeing before dinner. So I take the opposite direction to the cathedral and after a few minutes got face to face with a superb complex of red brick . This is made of two religious buildings which have virtually merged. The first is the St. Anne Church and just behind, Bernardine Church.
The church of St Anne is a masterpiece of the late Gothic period. There is no nonsensus about its originator or its construction period. Popular legend says that Napoleon Bonaparte, who was fascinated by the beauty of the church, wanted to take it back to Paris in the palm of his hand. Unfortunately, the reality is not that romantic: during the march of the Napoleonic army through Lithuania, the church was consigned to the French cavalry forces. St Anne’s Church, which has survived to the present day without changing for over 500 years, has become a symbol of Vilnius.
A full name of the Church is the Church of St Francis from Assisi (Bernardine). The building is monumental. In case of need it could have been used not only for prayer but also for defence. This is testified by 19 aleois in the northern façade. Gothic pointed-arch windows and buttresses stand out on the façade; the 17th-century renaissance pediment is adjusted to the Gothic part with a 19th-century fresco. In the times of the Soviet occupation, the Church was closed down and converted into a warehouse. After Lithuania re-established its independence, the Franciscan monks came back to the Church.
Finally, I go back on my steps to reach my hotel. Along the way, I pass an Indian restaurant, Sues Indian Raja. Yes, it is not very “local” food, but I have a soft spot for the Chicken Tikka Massala on the menu. Finally, no regrets, it was delicious and quite cheap!
New day! After a breakfast I would call “average” qualitatively speaking, I begin my second day tour which will surely be beautiful, weather speaking. I plan to go up through one of the city’s main street and down by another parallel street. I don’t know it yet, but the number of churches is impressive, it’s almost like being in Rome! Of course, I didn’t visit them all: some were closed, others welcomed ceremonies, etc. It is also not allowed to take pictures, although this doesn’t prevent some tourists to often break this rule. For my part, as long as it is clearly specified, I respect it. Often as well you have to pay if you want to take pictures. If the location is worth it, why not. Anyway, let’s hit Pilies street, to start.
Pilies Street is the oldest and most flamboyant street in the Old Town of Vilnius. The street appeared in place of the former road from Vilnius Castle to the south, towards Poland and Russia. This was the main road to the castle, with its branches finally turning into side streets. The name of Pilies Street was mentioned in historical annals as early as 1530. Kings, legates of the Pope and envoys from other countries passed this street on their way to the castle. Noblemen and rich citizens built their houses in Pilies Street. Vilnius University occupied a whole quarter of the city beside Pilies Street and university professors used to live there. The Botanical Garden of Vilnius University was established in one of the courtyards at the end of the 18th century. Church processions also went along Pilies Street. The broadest parts of the street were occupied by markets: the so-called Great Market near the Town Hall and the fish market next to St. Paraskeva Church (Pyatnickaya). The street is distinguished for its architectural variety: Pilies 12 and 14 are Gothic, Pilies 4 is a Renaissance building of an episcopate college and the pediment of the Sts. Johns Church is Baroque.
Talking about Sts. Johns’ church, here is its clocktower.
One of the picturesque parts of the Vilnius University building is the Church of Sts. Johns and its bell tower. The full name of the church is the Church of St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist. The construction of this church lasted for almost 40 years and was completed in 1426. At that time, it was a Gothic building. In 1571, the church was transferred to the Order of Jesuits and became a part of the university complex. Besides masses, it has also witnessed student protests, theatre performances and welcoming ceremonies for kings. In Soviet times, it was turned into a warehouse. Later, the University Museum was established there. Today, the Church of Sts. Johns performs its main functions once again. It was visited by Pope John Paul II in 1993. The bell tower of the church, which is 68 meters high, is among the highest buildings in the Old Town.
I continue my way, strolling in the few shops in the street. Just before arriving on the Town Hall Square, I can see St. Michael Orthodox church on my left.
This sanctuary was built in 1514. In the 18th century the Gothic Orthodox Church was damaged by fire, and thus, restored in the late Baroque style. Later, by order of General Governor Muravyov, the Orthodox Church was remodelled in the Russian Byzantine style (a marble board in the wall of the chapel is dedicated to Muravyov). Notwithstanding the changes, a number of Gothic elements remained in the facade and interior.
I step now on the Town Hall Square. I take a drink on one of the terraces around and read a few lines about the City Hall.
In 1387, Lithuania became a Christian state and Vilnius was granted Magdeburg rights. Thus, there appeared a need for headquarters for the city authorities. As the main square of the city was located here, it was decided to build the Town Hall in the same place. The building housed the magistrate (in other words, the city councillors) as well as court rooms, the treasury, archives, an arms and ammunition warehouse, and rooms for preserving standards of measurement. A prison was established in the basement. The Town Hall building was Gothic to begin with and changed with time. The Town Hall was reconstructed for the last time by the architect Laurynas Stuoka-Gucevičius at the end of the 18th century. During that reconstruction, the Town Hall turned into a Classical building. In the 19th century, the Town Hall was transformed into a city theatre where a famous personality – Polish composer Stanisław Moniuszko – conducted the premier of his opera. Among all the Polish composers, only Frederic Chopin could be considered more prominent than Moniuszko. In the 20th century, an art museum was housed in the Town Hall. Today Vilnius Town Hall is a representative building. Many different events are organised there during the year: concerts, literary evenings, presentations of books, exhibitions and festivals. The pediment of the Town Hall is adorned with the coat-of-arms of the city of Vilnius – St Christopher carrying baby Jesus on his shoulders.
I continue my way and see another church on the left side, the Church of St. Casimir.
The Church was built by the Jesuits: work began on it in 1604, just two years after St Casimir had been canonised. It was dedicated to the memory of Saint Prince Casimir. The legend says that as many as 700 people rolled the cornerstone from Antakalnis to the centre of the city. Today the stone can be still seen in the wall of the façade. The Church was completed in about 1616 and its interior was finished in 1618. It is one of the first Baroque churches in Vilnius. It is thought that Povilas Bokšta designed the church and Jonas Frankevičius performed works on it. It is important to note that in the 18th century, under supervision of Tomas Žebrauskas, the dome of several tiers with a tall lantern and a crown on its top, was built. This is the only dome of such a size in all former lands of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Later the Church was taken over by the Russian Orthodox Church, made into a cathedral, and rededicated to St Michael. The famous Russian writer Fiodor Dostojevski prayed in this Orthodox Church. In the first half of the 20th century, it was returned to the Jesuits, but during the Second World War it suffered greatly, and was closed. In 1961, it opened as a museum about atheism, and continued to be used as such until 1988. In 1989, the Church was returned to the Catholic church.
Still using my map to guide me, I plan to go to one of the ancient gates of the city. Before that, I pass the church of All Saints.
The Church was built between 1620 and 1630, in a late Baroque style, so-called the Carmelite Baroque. The large five-tier bell tower was built next to the Church in 1743. In the same year, a two-storied building was added on the ground floor and on the first floor, a library famous in the 18th century were installed. After the Church and the friary were closed down between 1832 and 1886, a large part of treasures of art were scattered. In 1904, on the initiative of Priest Čudovskis, it was restored. During the restoration, the wall paintings, which were also in the basement of the Church, were badly damaged. In 1991, after the Church was returned to the Catholic Church, the shrine was renewed and some of its pictures were returned to it. During Soviet times, it was made into a folk art museum. Finally, the Church has returned again to the Catholic Church and is open to visitors.
Just opposite is the church of St. Catherine.
It is the first church to have been extensively restored since Lithuania regained its independence. The church was substantially renovated, with complex restoration work being performed on the interior. The central nave of the church of Saint Catherine is ideal for concerts. The acoustics are excellent, and the venue is used for cultural events, as well as for rehearsals and concerts of the Šv. Kristoforo kamerinis orkestras (Saint Christopher’s Chamber Orchestra), the choir “Jauna muzika” (“Young Music”), the boys’ and young people’s choir “Ąžuoliukas” (“Little Oak”) and other artistic collectives and performers.
Finally, I arrive at the end of this long series of streets and right in front of the Gates of Dawn.
The Gates of Dawn is one of the most visited shrines in Vilnius, and is famous not only in Lithuania but also abroad, worshipped by the representatives of other creeds too. This is the only surviving gate of the first original five gates in the city wall that was built between 1503 and 1522. The gates were first mentioned in 1514. The painting of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Mercy, in the Chapel of the Gates of Dawn is known all over the world. Many churches in other countries have copies of this painting. The picture, which is also called “Vilnius Madonna”, was painted in 17th century in the Renaissance style, in tempera on oak boards, later repainted in oil. Since the middle of the 17th century, it has been said to have miracle-working powers. The Holy Mother of God of the Gates of Dawn has been granted the title of Mother of Mercy twice.
The place is very interesting and worth a visit. I go back towards my hotel taking the street which passes through the gate. I stop at a few shops on the way, but don’t see anything very interesting and the prices are quite high. A little further down the street, I pass by the church of St. Therese.
This is one of the early Baroque buildings in Lithuania. The façade of the Church of St. Theresa is attributed to Constantino Tencalla, the court architect of Wladyslaw Vasa. The example of Maria Della Scala – a church of the Discalced (Barefoot) Carmelites located in Rome – was used for this project. Expensive construction materials – Swedish sandstone, marble, and granite – were used in the façade of this Church. It belonged to the Monastery of the Discalced Carmelites. The Carmelites is a religious order with eight hundred years of history. The name of the order comes from Mount Carmel in Palestine. The present interior of the church was created in the second half of the 18th century and has been preserved. The impressive high altar is among the most amazing in Lithuania.
A little further down, hidden behind its wall is the church of St. Michael the Archangel .
The Church of St Michael was built by the Chancellor of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania Leonas Sapiega between 1594 and 1597 for a convent of Bernardine nuns, and also to serve as a family mausoleum. Its construction was completed in about 1604. During the war with Moscow, the Church was burned and plundered, however, it was restored between 1663 and 1373. The adjoining bell tower was built in the 18th century. During tsarist times, the Church was closed down, but returned to the Sapiega family in 1903 and restored through their efforts. Later the Church was repaired once again and in 1956, it opened as the Museum of Architecture. The interior of the Church is various and of great interest. The early 17th-century marble altar and a few 17th-century tombstones have survived. The one commemorating Leonas Sapiega and his two wives is the largest memorial in Lithuania. In 2009 the Church opened as the Church Heritage Museum.
I see on my map that Vilnius has its own artists district called Užupis. So I make a detour to have a closer look of the place.
Užupis is sometimes compared to Monmartre in Paris or Christiania in Copenhagen. Užupis is a “republic” of artists. It has its own anthem, constitution, president, bishop, two churches, one of the oldest graveyards in Vilnius (Bernardine Cemetery), seven bridges, and a guardian (the bronze angel of Užupis). The constitution of the Republic of Užupis is displayed on a fence at the beginning of Paupio Street. This is one of the oldest districts in Vilnius and is mentioned in historic documents as early as the 16th century. In earlier times, vanes of numerous mills could be seen turning here. It was the poorest suburb of the city and was inhabited mostly by craftsmen. At some point in its history, a red-light district was located nearby. In Soviet times, Užupis was badly neglected and had the notoriety of being the most dangerous district of Vilnius. In time, artists came to settle in the cheap accommodation in Užupis; moreover, the Art Academy was situated right across the bridge. Alternative fashion festivals, concerts, exhibitions, poetry evenings, performances, and original Užupis festivities are now organised here. At the present time, Užupis is one of the most prestigious and expensive districts in Vilnius.
The name Užupis means “place beyond the river”. The Vilnia River, often called Vilnelė, is an integral part of the district. A sculpture of an angel was placed in the central square in 2002. The bronze angel, also created by sculptor Romas Vilčiauskas, has become the symbol of Užupis.
The place is charming, but my preference still go to Montmartre in Paris. I take again a different direction to see the presidential palace, also called “Prezidentūra” (President’s Office).
Whichever way you chose to approach Daukanto Square, a narrow street will suddenly broaden and blend into the square predominated by a Classical building from the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century: a former nobleman’s house and the present-day Office of the President. Presently, the President of Lithuania and his Chancellery occupy the building, and leaders of other countries are received here. The flag of the President of Lithuania, which flies above the building, is lowered when the President leaves the country. Three national flags are hoisted in front of the building; two of them can be replaced by the flags of high foreign visitors. Every Sunday at 12:00 a solemn flag hoisting ceremony is held. Participating in the ceremony are soldiers of the Honour Guard Company of the Lithuanian Armed Forces dressed not only in ceremonial uniforms but also in medieval armament. The soldiers dressed in reconstructed uniforms of the guards of the Palace of the Grand Dukes of the 14-century Algirdas’ epoch carry the message that the present-day Lithuanian Armed Forces are guardians of the honourable history of the country, a part of its centuries-old history.
According to one of my brochures, another church is worth a visit, even if it is in the opposite direction of my hotel – the Church of the Apostles St. Peter and St. Paul. All right, let’s go.
The church of St. Peter and St. Paul is a masterpiece of the 17th-century, famous for its exceptional interior where one can see about 2000 stucco figures. Once there was a wooden church there, which was destroyed during wars with Moscow. The present Church was built by Hetman Mykolas Kazimieras Pacas who wanted to perpetuate Vilnius liberation from Russians. The Church acquired its present appearance in 1676, later it was adorned with stucco frescoes. The frescoes are beautiful and a pure white color is omnipresent. Very impressive, it was definitely worth the 15 minutes walk to get there.
Another day is almost gone, as I look for a restaurant where to eat. I eventually find a nice one right next to the Indian restaurant I went to yesterday. It is called “Zoe Bar And Grill”, where I devour a great beef burger, along with a mixed salad and a good portion of fries, yum! Excellent and downright cheap.
New day, new breakfast and check-out. Opinions on various Internet sites recommended to visit the Castle of Trakai. I therefore take a shuttle leaving next to my hotel in the early morning to visit this area.
28km away from Vilnius lie beautiful hills, forests and lakes, all round the town of Trakai, popular for Lithuanian people and a recommended trip for tourists. The peninsula on which the city expanded is surrounded by Galvė, Totoriškės and Bernardinai (Luka) lakes. This city, known for its beautiful nature and its legendary castle of Trakai, was once one of the pillar of the Lithuanian state, an important military and political center, the throne of the Grand Dukes and the capital of Lithuania. I chose to visit the castle and its museum.
Talking about the museum, you can find inside it many 16th–17th century tiles, coins, pottery, bone chessmen and other items which have been discovered while excavating the Castle site. These are now exhibited in the Trakai History Museum. The museum also contains ethnographic and applied art collections. The exposition installed in the central palace covers the period from the oldest times up to the middle of 20th century. It contains archaeological objects found in the castle of Trakai and in the town. There is a newly opened hall for coin treasures.