UNESCO World Heritage Site and UNESCO Memory of the World Programme
11.06.2011 - 11.06.2011 23 °C
Our exploration of Old Town began at Cathedral Square (Katedros aikštė).
Dominated by Vilnius Cathedral, which looks more like a court house than a place of worship, and the nearly rebuilt Royal Palace (destroyed during the Russian occupation in 1795 and due for completion two years ago in 2009 – the 1,000 year anniversary of the first written mention of Lithuania) the square also marks the spot where the Tallin – Riga – Vilnius human chain ended in 1989 – a peaceful demonstration against Russian occupation and now part of the UNESCO Memory of the World Programme.
Overlooking the square and much of the Old Town is Gediminas Tower. Reached by a short funicular railway the Tower is the most obvious remnant of the once grand Upper Castle defenses. From there it is a gentle to stroll to the most popular of Vilnius’ museums. Housed in the old Gestapo and KGB headquarters and prison the Museum of Genocide Victims provides a vivid history of Lithuania’s recent brutal and troubled past.
From the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that handed the country to the Soviets, to the subsequent takeover by the Germans and the then return to Soviet control until independence was gained in 1991. The practices and experiences of the Partisans, the prisons that were used to hold dissidents and the execution room were all clearly explained. Names of those who were murdered in the prison are carved into the stone walls outside, with countless more being exiled to remote corners of the Russian empire or imprisoned in Soviet labor camps. As with other museums on this trip it was disturbing but told a vital story that we would certainly hope is not repeated.
Exploring the rest of this UNESCO World Heritage site we walked through the Gates of Dawn, the only one of the citys nine gates that still remains.
From there a gentle stroll took us to the Bohemian district of Užupis. After cheekily declaring independence in 1998 the breakaway state has its own tongue in cheek President, anthem, flag and constitution that, among other things, gives inhabitants the right to cry, the right to be misunderstood and the right to be a dog. Each year on April Fool’s Day mock border guards set up at the main bridge into town and stamp passports, whilst parties rage day and night.
Enjoying the rebellious nature of the district we continued on to sample some of the microbreweries that have steadily being growing in stature around the country. Serving ‘live’ beer we enjoyed both the light and dark ales, ensuring just a few did not ‘go off’ as Live beer is apt to.
At night it is clear that Vilnius has become a party town for both Lithanians, Poles and those from further afield. Whilst not detrimental to our enjoyment of the city we passed a variety of Stag and Hen parties enjoying relatively cheap but often extremely strong beer (14% is available). With locals still outnumbering tourists we also partook of the pavement café culture enjoying both the local beer and watching the locals promenading on what was a warm and pleasant Saturday evening. After enjoying the food, drink and sights of Vilnius we were a little sad to be moving on tomorrow, to the North of the country.