Lithuania: Part One

Vilnius and Trakai

By: - Jul 09, 2015

Flying from Warsaw to Vilnius, we joined the other four members of the full group of thirteen to start the main trip — The Baltic Capitals and St. Petersburg. On the border of the Old Town, our hotel, the Mabre Residence, was a former monastery, part of it dating back to the 17th century. A beautifully landscaped courtyard led to the lobby, where staff welcomed us with a champagne cocktail. Following a brief rest and orientation meeting, we went for a walk in the neighborhood.

The magnificence of the Old Town became evident right away, as St. Anne’s Church emerged from amidst trees in its flamboyant Gothic splendor. The 16th-century church, built from many different kinds of brick into an intricate whole, underscored its landmark stature. In front stood a tall tree clothed in a colorful patchwork net by a local knitting club, celebrating the arrival of spring, while attracting attention to a nearby gallery. A little further stood another elegant church, the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Theotokes. Continuing our walk, we entered Literatu Street, honoring the city’s writers on artwork such as ceramics, metal or glass, mounted on the wall the entire length of a building as an outdoor gallery. The fantasy of local artists playing against historic buildings along narrow streets was enchanting. Our walk ended with a welcome dinner at a local restaurant with a veal dish, salad, and cheese cake.

In the morning the hotel’s breakfast spread comprised a variety of pickled and smoked fish along with an assortment of cheeses, cereals, breads, and fruit. Afterwards we embarked on a tour of the capital city with a local guide, first walking the cobbled streets of the Old Town and then by bus. The Cathedral Square is a major center in the Old Town, which boasts a skyline of baroque, gothic, neoclassical, and renaissance architecture, all included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. The Vilnius Cathedral, which dominates the square, has gone through countless modifications since first built in 1251; its present neoclassical form dates from the 18th century. 

Also located in the Old Town is the Vilnius University Architectural Ensemble. Opened in 1579, the buildings are organized around 13 linked courtyards with different chronology, reflecting the founding of different faculties. We visited the vestibule of the Philology Center, which features frescoes covering the upper walls and arches. They are entitled The Seasons and represent subjects and symbols from Baltic mythology, illustrating an archaic world order. We stopped by a bookstore in the Library Courtyard, which also houses the Old Observatory. Between the fourth-floor windows of the building are imitation pilasters with frescoes of six astronomical instruments. Above them are baroque window borders with the signs of the seven major planets.

The Gate of Dawn is where we exited the Old Town. Above the 16th-century city gate is the Chapel of Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn. In the middle behind a glass window is an icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary Mother of Mercy, intended to guard the city from attacks and to bless travelers. Many pilgrims from neighboring countries bring votive offerings. People walking underneath say a silent prayer. Thus ending the walking part of our tour, we boarded the bus to go on to the Church of Saints Peter and Paul and the Presidential Palace.

Outside the city walls, the Church of Saints Peter and Paul is a late baroque masterpiece built to celebrate victory over the Russians in 1668. Decorated by two Italian sculptors, the interior, consisting of the main nave, six chapels and the transept, has over 2000 stucco moldings representing religious and mythological scenes and a boat-shaped chandelier made of brass and glass beads. The 20th-century altar containing a wooden figure of Christ and a painting of Our Lady of Mercy breaking thunderbolts of divine wrath are among the church’s memorable images.

The Presidential Palace is the official residence of the President of Lithuania. The building, which has a late classical appearance, has had many reincarnations over the past 600 years based on historical changes in the country. The current president, Dalia Grybauskaite, was elected in July 2009. The presidential flag flies over the building when she is in residence or in the city. The flag was down during our visit of the palace grounds.

Vita suggested we have lunch at an Italian bakery and coffee shop, newly opened by a friend and her husband in a 17th-century building. Unlike others leaving the country for job opportunities elsewhere, the young couple had decided to start a business doing what they both enjoy — cooking. Here we had a choice of a variety of pizzas, quiche, or salads. Afterwards we visited the kitchen, accessible by a stairway two levels down. To see the transformation of an underground cellar into a space equipped with modern kitchen equipment by these young entrepreneurs was heart-warming. As we paid our bills, we were glad to have supported their efforts.

Departing from the group, I spent the afternoon back in the Old Town during time on our own. I enjoyed discovering charming courtyards off narrow streets and other ornate churches, some with vendor stalls nearby. Since the euro is the currency in Lithuania, I was content just looking at amber shops, natural linen products or felt goods such as bags, hats, and clothes, although they are less expensive there than in other European countries. I met up with the group for dinner, which we enjoyed at a traditional Lithuanian restaurant over grilled fish, rice, and greens.

The next day we journeyed to Trakai, a town on water and the capital of Lithuania in medieval times. We drove to the edge of Galve Lake and took a boat ride around Trakai Castle, a red brick Gothic fortress built by Vytautas, Grand Duke of Lithuania in the15th century to fend off German knights. Entering the castle via a drawbridge, we walked about the different levels, facing an interior courtyard lined with balconies. The wood railings and doors added an attractive contrast to the brick building. The stained glass windows with images of knights in armor and hand-woven tapestries on the walls provided the decorative accents of the interior. Restored during the Soviet period, the castle is now used for weddings and receptions.

A meeting with the members of the local Karaim ethnic group was an opportunity I had been waiting for, as they belong to an old Turkish tribe — the Kipchaks. A few families were brought to Trakai from Crimea in the late 14th century so that the men would be guards for the castle. Now some of their 60 descendents who still live in Trakai run a traditional restaurant, called Kybynlar, where we had lunch. Arturas, the manager, led a cooking demonstration of kibinas, a pastry pocket of Turkic origin. Donning aprons and caps, we rolled out fist-sized dough, and then filled it with browned spiced mutton and onions. After folding the filled dough into a half-moon shape, we sealed it by pinching and turning the edges. While our creations were baking, we enjoyed a clear broth followed by a salad of pickled shredded beets and carrots with baked kibinas on the side. Walnut cake accompanied by tea or coffee topped this enjoyable meal. Bidding goodbye to our hosts, who belong to a diminishing population of 6000 Karaim worldwide, we took the train back to Vilnius.

Upon returning to the city, some went shopping; others walked up to the Gediminas Castle and Tower. Dating from the 13th century, the castle and defense walls reflect Lithuania’s tumultuous history. The castle has been partially restored, but the tower is back to its full glory, proudly flying the Lithuanian flag of yellow, green, and red bands. Although there are benches along the way, the walk to the top is a bit of a hike; alternatively, a funicular runs up and down the hill for a nominal cost. The ascent is worth the climb for a panoramic view.

A novelty in the city is the chocolate shop, where all furniture in one room is made of chocolate. In order to photograph it, I decided to indulge in one of their specialties — melted solid chocolate served in a coffee cup and enjoyed by the spoonful! Back at the hotel for a scheduled “smart talk,” a term coined by Vita for a lecture by a local expert, I looked forward to hearing about Lithuania’s struggle for independence.

Vidas Rachlevicius, a journalist, began his talk with the 1939 Soviet occupation, followed by the country’s full integration into the Soviet Union in 1940. Communist ideology and the Soviet way of life destroyed all business, as well as all that was unique to Lithuanian culture. In 1941 the German army arrived, giving Lithuanians hope that German occupation might be helpful to them. Instead, the Jewish population perished; young men were forced to join the Soviet army while others joined the German army. Stalin and Hitler were similar evils; the KGB and Gestapo simply changed places. Both the Soviet and the Nazi flags are evil in Lithuania, which does not recognize Victory Day celebrating the end of World War II. No arms were used during the Singing Revolution; the last Russian soldier left in 1993. Current relations with Russia are like “cold water.” Putin considers the collapse of the Soviet Union a big mistake.

Lithuania had to recreate itself from scratch; psychologically, it was difficult to start thinking about people’s own welfare, as in communist ideology all decisions are made for them; all they have to do is be loyal and not ask any questions; there is no responsibility for citizens. For two years after the Soviet withdrawal it was a free-for-all; the country did not even have its own currency, since it had been using the ruble. 800,000 Lithuanians left for other EU countries. This was a big loss for a country with a population of 3.5 million.

This informative talk prepared us for the following morning’s visit to the Museum of Genocide Victims, unofficially known as the “KGB Museum,” as it occupies a building that housed the former KGB (Soviet secret service) headquarters and prison for almost 50 years. Listed as a historical monument, the building plan has been kept intact, with some rooms recreated to bear witness to the Soviet occupation, reprisals, and the anti-Soviet guerilla war between 1944 and 1953, which took the lives of over 20,000 people. We walked through the building, noting the interrogation, detention, and isolation cells behind steel-clad locked doors, as well as the straight-jacket room, all padded to absorb the sounds of screaming inmates. One room included bags of shredded documents left behind by KGB executives as they departed in 1991.

Delving into the recent history and cultural wealth of this small but brave country enhanced my curiosity to discover further a part of the world I knew little about. I looked forward to the rest of our itinerary, as we departed for Lithuania’s seaport city of Klaipeda.

(To be continued)