Today, the faith of the last Europeans to be converted from Paganism to Christianity is surprisingly effervescent. From earliest morning, Ausros Vartų Street at the top of the old town resounds with hymns and canticles, the scent of incense and timbre of chants varying with each sect.
In a capital which changed name several times over the centuries (Vilna, Wilno, Vilnius...), a city which has been Polish, German and Russian - the latter until 1991 - religion is considered a steady, reliable resource. The incredible number of churches of every style, including even Byzantine Gothic, bears witness to this fact in a city which was once a bastion of anti-Reformation resistance. At every crossroad, there are up to five steeples within sight.
Tragically, all of the city’s synagogues, save one, have been destroyed. The Nazis exterminated virtually all of the Jews living in what was the intellectual centre of Judaism beginning in the 14C. During many centuries, this birthplace of the Yiddish language was called the ‘Jerusalem of the North’. The Soviets managed to eliminate the last vestiges of this civilization; after the war, a hideous stadium was built over the city’s oldest Jewish cemetery, and its gravestones were used to pave the streets.
With its airs of a provincial city ill-treated by History, Vilnius is the capital of a country which is still searching for an identity. In the streets and cafés a handsome younger generation, dressed like Parisians, seems eager to enjoy life, even if the ‘talent and brain drain’ is one of the country’s biggest current problems.
And yet, in the 14C, Lithuania was a vast empire which stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea and included what is now Belarus. The rebuilding of an exact copy, ex nihilo, of the Renaissance Royal Palace of the Grand Duchy should help bolster awareness of the nation’s history.
The Old Town of Vilinius
Its medieval maze of paved streets, many churches of different styles and faiths, and houses in hues of pink, pistachio and coffee are delightful indeed. With the exception of its churches, the Old Town is remarkably low-built. As an intellectual and political capital, Vilnius was never a city marked by the high-walled buildings of the bourgeoisie or merchant class. Aušros Vartų, Didžioji and Pilies streets are the defining lines of this neighbourhood.
At the top of the Old Town, Aušros Vartų Street, with its lovely facades and churches belonging to three different denominations, leads to the Dawn Gate. Located on the road to Minsk, it is the only one of the nine gates which used to guard Vilnius that is still intact.
The side which faces outwards has a rather austere visage, whilst the side giving onto the city houses a chapel - rebuilt in the 19C - devoted to the Virgin Mary. This pilgrimage site, especially venerated by the Poles, celebrates the miraculous icon of the Holy Virgin, a black-faced silver Madonna, chef-d’oeuvre of 17C Lithuanian silversmiths. The walls hold 7,000 votive offerings, also of silver.
Just next door, the Church of Saint Theresa: morning services are held in a mood of fiery fervour. This zealous intensity is maintained in the Church of the Holy Spirit - with the heady scent of incense and the bewitching Orthodox liturgy added for good measure.
Following Aušros Vartų Street, Didžioji Street becomes wider in the middle, where it gives onto the old Town Hall Square. On either side of the square there are two or three chic boutiques, plus a handful of historic facades, the Orthodox Russian Church of St. Nicholas, and a handsome classic pistachio green-coloured house where Stendhal once spent the night, now home to the French Cultural Centre. This last institution also runs the Café de Paris, a cosmopolitan bistro with jazz in the background.
On the opposite side of the street, you can learn more about Lithuania by stopping in at the Vilnius Picture Gallery, featuring a number of portraits of the country’s historical figures. This 18C palace has retained many elements of its original decor, whence its considerable charm.
Finally in the Old Town you’ll arrive at Pilies Street, a length of pedestrian derring-do where different styles (Gothic or Baroque) and materials (stone or brick) make for a very picturesque setting treasured by tourists. Indeed, the animated ambience of this lane bordered by a few cafés with outdoors terraces is quite engaging.
Continue by veering to the right as you descend - you’ll discover a network of small perpendicular streets which give fresh glimpses of the old town.
Take, for example, Bernardinų Street and stop at #11 to honour the memory of the great Polish poet Mikiewicz before going on to admire St. Ann’s Church, a chef-d’œuvre of Lithuanian Gothic whose brick is as sublime as lace. Set directly behind St. Ann’s, the Church of St. Francis and Bernadine, more austere, has been through hard times, as can be seen by the new roof and, indoors, the faded frescoes.
The end of Pilies Street opens onto the immense Cathedral Square. Impressive for its immaculate whiteness and the austerity of its neoclassic lines, it is the result of reconstruction work undertaken in the 18C. To imagine that the Soviets nearly turned this masterpiece into a tractor garage!
The belfry across from the cathedral - a remnant of the ancient city wall - is one the country’s most emblematic monuments, like a lighthouse standing over the Baltic. It is also a very convenient place for a rendezvous.
Nearby, the Renaissance Royal Palace of the Grand Duchy has been entirely reconstructed - a matter of national pride. The palace is overlooked by Gediminas Hill, where Vilnius was founded. Across from the Archaeological Museum you can take the funicular to the top for a fine panoramic view of the city.
Remembrance: Vilnius, Jerusalem of the North
Beginning in the 15C, Vilnius was to become the greatest centre for Jewish culture in Europe. Soon there were as many synagogues as churches, as well as numerous renowned religious schools (yeshiva).
In the 16C, today’s Stiklių, Žydu, Gaono and Mesinių streets ran through the Jewish Quarter. This neighbourhood fathered one of the world’s greatest Talmudic authorities: The Gaon of Vilna. In Žydu Street, his bust reigns next to a school where the city’s largest synagogue used to stand. It was in this quarter, in the 19C, that the Yiddish language would take form. Romain Gary and Marc Chagall were born here in the early 20C. Practically nothing is left of this culture: the Nazis murdered the entire community in two sweeping massacres which took place ten kilometres outside of the city in the forest of Panerai.
A centre has been created with the hope of giving this stricken world a new lease of life: the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum is the social and cultural hub of the Lithuanian Jewish community. Its several branches include the Holocaust Museum.
The University and St. John’s Church
Vilnius is very proud, and rightly so, of its university, the oldest in Eastern Europe. Founded by Polish Jesuits in 1579, its buildings are linked via thirteen courtyards, composing a veritable journey through Lithuania’s history and architecture, from Gothic to Baroque to Renaissance.
The most striking of the courtyards is the Grand Courtyard, which serves as a backdrop to the majestic Baroque facade of St. John’s Church. The library is another of the university’s highlights; it contains some five million works and incunabula - sign up at the entrance for a group tour. This town unto itself runs perpendicular to Pilies Street; it is attended by some 25,000 students.
Vilnius Tourist Information Centre