FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Nine highlights from Vilnius

Posted in Lithuania, Vilnius by folkestonejack on August 26, 2019

A three night stay in Vilnius gave us enough time to see many of its highlights, helped by the extremely compact nature of the old town. It only takes around 20 minutes to walk from the Gates of Dawn, the only surviving 16th century gateway into the city, to the banks of the river Neris at the northernmost fringe of the old town.

A view of Vilnius from the bell tower of St John’s Tower

Although it has seen its share of damage and destruction, Vilnius has suffered less from the ravages of war than other cities in Europe. It is still easy to see how it has charmed visitors throughout history, including Napoleon. It is said to be Europe’s largest baroque old town, though in truth there are plenty of architectural treats in gothic and classical styles too.

Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania

The scale of the Lithuanian empire at its peak, stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea, was vast. The Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania lay at its heart, having evolved from a sprawling castle complex into a renaissance marvel, until it was torn down by Tsarist Russian occupiers in 1801. Two decades of construction culminated in its impressive re-creation in 2018, on top of the foundations of the original buildings.

Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania

There are four routes that you can the through the Palace, allowing you to pick and choose exactly what you want to see. We opted for the complete ticket on this occasion, but can easily see ourselves coming back to do only the new exhibitions on a future visit. Personally, I enjoyed the first route the most (history, archaeology and architecture) with its comprehensive walk through of Lithuanian history and fascinating exhibits (my favourite would have to be the 15th century floor tiles depicting a whale swallowing the prophet Jonah).

It was interesting to read about the overlaps in European history, such as the involvement of Henry Bolingbroke (later Henry IV) in the siege of Vilnius in 1390 or the installation of a member of the Vasa dynasty as Grand Duke of Lithuania in the 1580s. It has to be said that there was plenty of detail to absorb, but the unfamiliarity of this history made it worth spending the time. I didn’t feel the need to take so long on the second route (imagined historical interiors) or the third (weaponry, everyday life and music).

Floor tile showing Jonah being swallowed by a whale

The fourth route took in the temporary exhibition ‘Wall Stories. The Disappearing Heritage of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. A Photography Exhibition‘ (18 May–1 September 2019) which was absolutely fascinating. It was quite sobering to see the photographs Raimondas Paknys has taken of so many churches, monasteries, castles and manor houses in such an advanced state of decay in Belarus, Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine. It certainly made me view the sights we have enjoyed in a new light and appreciate the ongoing battle to maintain them.

Gediminas’ Tower of the Upper Castle

Gediminas’ Tower is the only surviving tower of the brick built Upper Castle, albeit damaged and re-constructed many times in its long history. It offers a terrific rooftop platform with 360 degree views across the city and an audio-visual presentation of Vilnius through the ages.

Improvement works are taking place on the hill at the moment, so the panoramic views of the city can only be observed from the top of the tower. The gently sloping route up the southern side of the hill is closed during the works so the only options are the steeper cobbled path and wooden staircase on the northern side or the funicular (if it is running).

Gediminas’ Tower of the Upper Castle

At the time of our visit the tower also included a small but fascinating display on the 30th anniversary of the Baltic Way, an astonishing political protest that saw two million people create a 419.7 mile human chain across the three Baltic states. The photographs on display include one showing the chain in front of the Gediminas’ Tower.

Cathedral Basilica

The Cathedral Basilica of St. Stanislaus and St. Vladislaus is another sight that has seen much re-building. The current classical cathedral is the sixth re-build of the church on this spot since the first cathedral was constructed in 1251. The alterations to the cathedral can be traced all the way to the twentieth century, when the Soviet authorities converted the building into a picture gallery.

Cathedral Basilica

The baroque-styled chapel of St Casimir is a highlight of the interior, including an unusual three handed painting of St Casimir. The story goes that the painter had intended to change the position of the hand in his composition and painted over the surplus hand, but despite his efforts it re-appeared three times. Finally, he decided that it was as St Casimir wanted and left it in.

St Casimir is the patron saint of Lithuania and his statue is one of three that was placed atop the cathedral in 1792 only to be removed by the Soviet authorities in 1950. The three statues were restored to their position in 1997.

Church of St Anne
Šv. Onos bažnyčia

The gorgeous red-brick gothic confection that is the church of St. Anne is one of the images that first drew my attention to Vilnius and it was every bit as stunning as the pictures had suggested. The church dates to the turn of the 16th century and uses 30 different kinds of brick to create its elaborate and gracefully soaring form. It is said that Napoleon, who spent 18 days in Vilnius in 1812, voiced a desire to take the church back to Paris in the palm of his hand.

Church of St. Anne

Next door is another gothic church and monastery, dedicated to St Francis and St Bernardine, which shouldn’t be overlooked on account of its more restrained exterior. The combination of wooden baroque fittings with rib, star and crystal vaulting is stunning.

Three Crosses Monument

The three crosses, sited atop the tallest hill in Vilnius, are visible from many spots across the city, including the square outside the cathedral. The sight is not new – wooden crosses appear in drawings as far back as the 17th century. A more permanent version was created using concrete by architect and sculptor Antanas Vivulskis in 1916 after funds were raised by the residents of the city. The Soviet regime blew this up in 1950 and the remains are scattered below the current monument, built in 1989.

Three crosses monument on Crooked Hill

The terrace in front of the three crosses provides a splendid view at sunrise and sunset. I chose the later, taking the sloping road up from T. Kosciuškos g. (which runs alongside the Neris river) and then made my descent via the steeper wooden steps to the south (taking care to navigate the occasional broken step) and along the narrow path beside the river Vilnia until the bridge near St Anne’s church.

The view was certainly worth it, but if the walk up seems far too daunting there are plenty of places to get good views in Vilnius with less effort – and a few with lifts!

Church of St Peter and St Paul
Šv. apaštalų Petro ir Povilo bažnyčia

There are no shortage of churches in Vilnius, but it’s really worth making the effort to visit the church of St Peter and St Paul, a short walk away from the old town. The external appearance of the baroque styled church, completed in 1701, gives only a few hints of the splendour of the interior decoration. An astonishing 2000 pieces of stucco decoration have created a stunning visual spectacle that hits you the moment you step inside. As you wander around, soaking up the detail, that first impression deepens.

Church of St Peter and St Paul

The detail that artists P. Perti and G. M. Galli have worked into the interior is quite extraordinary. You have columns borne on the shoulders of figures dressed in classical outfits, battlefield scenes, fantastical creatures like winged mermaids, biblical stories and so much more.

You could quite easily spend hours here trying to pick out all the stories on display in stucco form, from early Christian martyrs to the last judgment. In addition to all this, there are some rather wonderful later additions including a pulpit shaped like a boat and a chandelier representing Noah’s ark.

The stunning creations of P. Perti and G. M. Galli

It seems that all these artistic wonders did not go unnoticed by the Soviet authorities, who repaired the damage caused by the Second World War and then carried out considerable renovations from the late 1970s to early 1980s.

National Museum of Lithuania, The New Arsenal

The museum in The New Arsenal had not been in our plans at first, but the lure of an exhibition of artwork by Bronius Leonavičius drew us in. I was glad that it had, as we wouldn’t otherwise have seen a rather extraordinary collection of historic carved wooden figures and crosses, by far the most interesting room in the museum and worth the price of admission on its own. It has been a while since I have been followed round the museum by one of the museum attendants – something that I became quite familiar with in Eastern Europe on my visits a few decades back (thankfully without the loud sighing when I didn’t spend long enough in a room!).

The exhibition of works by Bronius Leonavičius was small but stunning, presenting his wonderful illustrations of agricultural life for the classic Kristijonas Donelaitis poem about the seasons. These draw particularly on the landscape of Vištytis, where it is said that when the crow cries it can be heard in three countries. It was sufficiently compelling that we found ourselves visiting a second exhibition of his works at the Kazys Varnelis House Museum. Both exhibitions run until 10th November 2019.

St. Johns’ Church Bell Tower

One of the best viewpoints in Vilnius can be found at the top of St. Johns’ Church Bell Tower, right in the middle of the old town. It is both the highest and oldest belltower in the city, re-built with baroque styling after a fire in 1737. A small lift with capacity for 4 people takes you almost to the top, with just a wooden staircase and a slightly awkward brick step to navigate to get to the open air viewing terrace.

Looking up towards the higher floors of St. Johns’ Church Bell Tower

Given the slightly tricky route up to the open air terrace I was surprised to find a bride up there in a long white wedding gown – it certainly put my own clumsy clambering up to the top into perspective! I’m sure it must have made an amazing backdrop for the wedding photographs as would the university below (we could see couples in a couple of the courtyards posing in their wedding outfits).

Tasting Menu at Amandus

I am not a foodie, but I do enjoy a good tasting menu to explore local flavours and creations that I might not choose on my own. One restaurant caught my eye – Amandus. I made a booking and thought nothing more of it, which made the surprise of the evening all the greater. I had stumbled on the very best meal of my life…

Amandus is the creation of a young award winning Lithuanian chef, Deivydas Praspaliauskas, and has been open in the heart of the old town for just a couple of years. The atmosphere in the basement restaurant was rather wonderful and throughout the evening there was a frisson of excitement each time a dish came together at the pass (all diners are served each course at the same time).

So many wonderful flavours. It’s hard to pick out favourites from such a consistently wonderful sequence of appetizers and mains, but among the dishes I loved were tapioca and squid ink popcorn crisps; quinoa doughnuts; cucumber with a smoked sturgeon dip; beetroot and licquorice bread; sea bass ceviche with hazlenuts, fennel and cucumber; duck and carrot broth poured over a pearl barley risotto with confit duck; steak with 60 day aged garlic sauce and flavours of rosemary and star anise.

The explanations that Deivydas gave as he served up each dish helped breathe more life into the combination of ingredients, but especially with the dessert – hedgehog in the fog. The dessert, influenced by a classic cartoon, was as much of a spectacle in its assembly as it was a delight to eat: liquid nitrogen ice cream poured over sorbet, meringue and crumb. Simply dazzling.

A parting gift from Amandus

As if this wasn’t enough, Deivydas explained that he had fulfilled a cherished dream of becoming a chocolatier and wandered round the restaurant with a treasure chest of chocolates, selecting bars for each table as a parting gift. It topped an evening that was quite wonderful from start to finish. We had no particular plans to re-visit to Vilnius, but think that will have to change now!

Observations, tips and other stuff

It is worth noting that there are some money saving options for visiting the sights run by the Lithuanian National Museum (Lietuvos nacionalinis muziejus) that we only discovered at the end of our trip and too late for us to take advantage of them. These are only mentioned on the Lithuanian version of the website.

One is a Historical Triangle ticket (7 euros) which is a one-day ticket covering three sights (New and Old Arsenals and Gediminas Castle Tower) and the other is a three-day ticket to all six of the museums they operate in Vilnius (12 euros). The latter would have been quite useful had we known about it, but it was only offered to us at one of the last museums we entered!

Most of what we planned worked out alright, but there were a couple of failures. The outdoor display of railway vehicles was open but unhelpfully swamped by equipment and advertising for a beer festival, while the famous street art of Putin and Trump we hoped to see had gone. Instead the wall had been painted pink with the message ‘Make empathy great again’. I’m not sure how long it has been gone, but visitors were still reporting visits while I was planning the trip.

One sight that got left off our schedule at the planning stage was Vilnius University Library, after reading that tours are currently unable to enter the most beautiful halls due to restoration works. Something for the next trip.

Gallery

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