Put yourself in March, it’s 2018, cold and the UK is mostly wet. So what does a normal person do for a city break? Probably not Lithuania. But, craving a getaway we boarded a last minute flight (booked a few days before) and departed for Vilnius.
We arrived, as expected, to an iced river, cold bitter wind and a somewhat indifferent response from the locals. Culturally, the Lithuanians are reserved and very direct, but their warmth is felt in other ways.
Our views were impressive and interesting. From promenades to pretty streets, old and new, all mixed together with a smattering of just the right amount of dirt that reminds you this is a city that works, lives and breathes.
Okay, so sunshine and beach bathing isn’t our thing, right? I mean you have read more than just this post so you should know we don’t do Alicante in the peak season (though it would have required less winter clothing!). We had to adapt to the weather even the Foreign and Commonwealth Office says “Be prepared for extremely cold and possibly hazardous weather if you intend to travel to Lithuania in the winter (October to March).”
The websites and photos do a disservice to a country that holds its warmth in other ways. No, you won’t be greeted like a king and given gratuitous praise and compliments. Mostly, those are false anyway, right? Here, be prepared for a colder initial welcome but a much warmer reception once you actually bother to integrate or explore. They have a bohemian nature that just loves to brim over given half a chance as we saw from shops to bridges to walls and floors – this is no repressed state, but quietly seemed creative beyond words.
The architecture stood with grace and a typical style we have not seen before. It has a mix of the Renaissance sharper lines and deeper detail, to the Baroq and Classical styles and beyond. But the Baltic twist, with wooden structures and higgledy-pigglety mis-match of buildings and styles in a compressed area made for an interesting walk. Okay, so it’s old town is not classically defined with city walls and dramatic ramparts, nor does it have a clear cut “area” of buildings to gawp at, since you need to actually go looking for these treats. Take the Gates of Dawn, as an example, and you will find part city wall, church, house and hotels smattered with restaurants and surrounded by modern styles from many centuries of further building. It’s the medieval trapped in the modern.
Our journey continues to Uzupis, which is an absolutely surreal gem nestled on the edge of Vilnius past all the main attractions and buildings. Accessible over a series of bridges, this bohemian city is a self proclaimed republic, showing the very wry humour only the Lithuanians could muster. With a constitution, annual parade and a president, the laws are most interesting! Take just a few as examples:
Everyone has the right to die, but this is not an obligation.
Everyone has the right to celebrate or not celebrate their birthday.
A dog has the right to be a dog.
Everyone has the right to idle.
At this point, I must admit I had a secret plan brewing which was my reasoning behind choosing this very bridge over this very river. I had been planning to propose and this is the place I had in my mind for months. And now I was seeing it, but without Kat having any ideas, so with a wry smile we walked on to explore this quirky republic. What I will say about all this, they have one heck of a street art fascination! Here are a few of the main pieces we passed in this very area.
The centre of the Uzupis square comprised restaurants, a cat hotel (after all, a Cat has the right to be a Cat), and a statue dedicated to freedom – The Angel of Uzupis.
What’s with the Soviet wedge adorning your screens? We passed this on the way to the KGB museum, and built on an old Jewish cemetery we felt instantly wary. Believe it Or not, it’s the Palace of Concerts and Sports of Vilnus – Brutalist architecture at its height. Neither palatial nor playing concerts currently as you can see.
Why are we here? Ah, well as with all best laid plans, the unexpected can reasonably (and often does) become expected. Kat, wanting to understand more about the Lithuanians and their culture had been pushing hard to go to the old KGB building, now named The Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights.
You can imagine my pocket burning with the ring, desperate to set a mood that would allow its unveiling, only to be presented with that option?
The museum honours the victims of the occupations from the German initial assault, the Soviet forces following, then the forced deportations, the holocaust and heartbreak all intermingled with hard labour camps and political repression.
It’s hard to understand the Lithuanian reserve, that cold layer, they project on outsiders. Until you see this museum that is.
Sitting in the former KGB headquarters it houses the historical evidence, and first hand witness testimony, to the torture imposed by occupation from 1940 when the Soviets first entered, 1941 when the Germans captured the city, to 1944 when the Soviets recaptured the city and held until 1991.
1,000 prisoners were killed by the KGB between 1944 and 1964 alone, the names of whom are adorned on the walls of the building.
Truly awful is the fact that 1,200,000 Lithuanians died as a direct result of occupations – representing 40% of the pre-occupation population. A number that includes 200,000 Jews, 95% of the pre-occupation population.
With so many sent so far away, so many who died, the lack of all basic human rights, its small wonder that the Lithuanians rarely send platitudes and paltry off hand remarks to make “small talk”. They prefer to sing, dance, and stoically persevere.
Heavy right? Well, it was. But moving and touching and a prefect precept to the task at hand in some sense. For we have the freedoms deprived of so many so should not waste them with hesitance or delay.
I shall hand over this story to Kat to write and explain the how and what fors!
Adam had insisted on going to uzupis and I had no objection but was a little confused when he repeatedly asked whether I preferred the angel statue or the bridge with the padlocks. Unsure of the relevance or importance of two landmarks we had already been to I answered ‘the bridge’ and then found myself standing in minus 5 on said bridge being asked to take my gloves and video Adam “doing something funny”. Feeling lost, cold and a bit fed up I complied, but the next bit is a bit of a blur. I suddenly realised he was down on one knee with something shiny in his hand and words were coming out of his mouth. I’m afraid he was there for an awkwardly long time as I cursed and squealed at the top of my lungs, causing passers by to laugh.
Of course I said yes in the end and looking back it was a beautiful place and very romantic. The ring was an emerald with two diamonds and had a wonderful back story too. Just to warn you girls, proposals are not clear cut like the movies! I was definitely not expecting it (hence my reaction!) but I was well and truly swept of my feet 🤗
With the whirlwind of the day it was only right to go to a bar. Not just any bar, but Vilniaus Alus of Pilies Street. With a massive selection of beers from around the world it was easy to spend days here. Right up there with Bambalyne on Stikliu Street for atmosphere and soaking up the hours – we can attest to both!
Walk for hours and the old buildings, abandoned architecture and graffiti art come out to play with your camera 🎥
What’s left after a lot of drinks, walks, celebration and culture? Wander to the Basteja (Bastion), the fortress at the centre of the city defences for hundreds of years!
The views of the surrounding Vilnius cityscape really brought the visit to a nice conclusion for us. Happily engaged, suitably satisfied with our excursion and ready for a new set of travels ahead.