Vilnius - the Baltic hipster
My stay in Vilnius was very short. I arrived in the morning and left late in the evening. So, all I can tell you is a compilation of hours walking around and joining one of those amazing free tours that I can only recommend.
The part of the city I have experienced wasn’t the Old Town, so don’t expect a list of monuments-to-see. What I will tell you about are some interesting spots and city quirks that make Vilnius worth a visit that is longer than one day.
For a long time, The Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania were a union. Until today there is a large Polish minority living there (12%) and I could actually communicate with some people in Polish rather than in English. But I must say they behave quite rudely and don’t want to fully integrate into the Lithuanian society. One of the rarities is that the greatest Polish epic poem called “Pan Tadeusz” starts with “O Lithuania, my home country…” – nationality as we know it today didn’t exist then. And personally, I must say I’m embarrassed that it took me so many years to visit our neighbour.
The country had a very tormented history, as most of the regions that got under the Soviet Union’s hammer. Lithuanian language, one of the last Baltic languages still in existence, was forbidden. Many people who were smuggling books in Lithuanian from Prussia are now considered national heroes. Although these days only spoken by about 4 million people, it is one of the oldest spoken languages in the world and like Latvian, it is related to Sanskrit. And as a bonus trivia, this is the longest word in it: nebeprisikiškiakopūsteliaujantiesiems.
Vilnius was lucky to become connected via rail with St. Petersburg, Moscow and Warsaw so the station district got strongly developed. It was one of the most important trading places in the region. There is a quite interesting story about the declaration of independence document, the first one, from 1918. The government first actually gathered 1905 but due to very uneasy times they have decided to wait with the declaration and it didn’t get signed until 1918. However, the document got lost. First to come in and take over were Soviets, then the Nazis and Soviets again – nobody knew who actually took it. A one million Euros award was announced for anyone who can find it and return it to Lithuania in time for the 100th year celebration, which was this year. One professor, I think his name is Ludas Madzilus (if I’m spelling it right), decided to search in German archives because a lot of refugees from USSR were going through there. One of the archives said they thought they have it so he went there to check it and indeed it turned out it was the long-lost document. But because it got announced on TV on the 1st of April no one in Lithuania initially believed it. And the negotiations started as the archive wasn’t willing to just give the document back for free. All ministers and the president got involved! In the end Lithuania got it back as a rental, so no million for Ludas who is now treated as a national hero.
There is another famous person that you can encounter on the streets of Vilnius. A lady called Rosie. She is the only one beggar who is actually respected and supported. Rosie is an elderly woman who dresses very colourful in clothes full of flowers and impressive hats. She usually walks through the Old Town towards the station. I unfortunately didn’t get to see her.
One of some interesting sights in town is the market. The building used to serve as stables because within city walls the streets were too narrow for horses and carriages. It was constructed near the station for convenience. After it outlived its usefulness it got converted into a market which played a big role during Soviet times as shops were mainly empty. After the dissolution of the USSR, the market got closed and only thanks to some hipsters it got re-opened about ten years ago. Markets still do play a very important role in Lithuania. Retirement money, pensions, are ridiculously low so people like buying from old ladies selling their produce, often illegally. Very sought after and illegal as well is also Russian medicine. People still think it’s better than what they can buy in pharmacies.
Foodwise Lithuania is quite similar to its neighbours. Potatoes and pork were and still are the most important ingredients in the diet. Smoked pig’s ear belongs to one of the delicacies. Traditionally almost all parts of the animal were used, often preserved for the winter. Another example of a famous dish is skilandis: pig’s stomach stuffed with various meets and smoked. One surprising thing I learned is that many Lithuanians treat cucumbers as fruit and often dip them in honey to have for dessert.
There are many other quite interesting things about Vilnius and Lithuania I could list here. For example, the city has talking statues project. You just need a special city map downloaded on your phone, then you just swipe the QR code and you will receive a call from the famous person of which the statue you are looking at. For more info click here.
There is also a video game based on something that happened in Vilnius not that long ago. Igor, a drug addict, was caught by the police but somehow managed to flee and steel a Kalashnikov from one of the guards. A manhunt has begun, massive panic, 3000 policemen looking for him. He just went home and was taking a shower when they finally captured him. In the video game Igor runs around the whole city evading the police.
One last thing that might shock many of you. The bagel was a Lithuanian invention. It was a Jewish immigrant who opened a bakery in New York and started selling them there. So now you know. I only found out thanks to one of the massive graffities that the city is covered with. I love urban art and for me it was an immense treat just to walk around town and be able to admire them. One of the most famous ones is the famous Putin and Trump sharing a joint (they used to kiss, but it has been re-painted) and of course the whole Užupis Republic area (a UNESCO Heritage Site). Very bohemian and popular with artists. Often compared to Montmartre in Paris in its golden age. You can find some visitor info here and Wikipedia naturally.
It seemed to me that Vilnius has become a very hipster city, and I mean it in a nice way. They took what they had after the dissolution of Soviet Union and they turned it into something worth experiencing. It couldn’t have been easy with Belarus on one side threatening to build a nuclear plant very close to the border with complete disregard of EU regulations and the Kaliningrad Russian territory on the other side, with news about Ukraine coming in every day.
I for one am glad I finally managed to visit my neighbour and I’m hoping to get more people to at least have a weekend break there.
For more images from Vilnius click here.