We arrived in Vilnius last night to find that we were booked into a different hotel than we thought. There are two Radisson Blu hotels here and we thought that we were staying in the one right in the old town. It’s not a big issue – ours is just across the river in the new business district and only a ten minute walk to the entrance to the old town or a $6 taxi fare to the Cathedral Square in the centre of the city. We also have the advantage of a great view from our 17th floor room across the town which was very dramatic in last night’s evening light.
Vilnius is the capital of Lithuania, and its largest city, with a population of 540,000. It is located in the southeast part of the country and is the second biggest city of all the Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia).The first known written record of Vilnius as the Lithuanian capital is known from Gediminas’ letters in 1323. Gediminas was Grand Duke of Lithuania from 1315 or 1316. He is credited with founding Lithuania and expanding its territory which, at the time of his death, covered the area ranging from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea.There is a statue of him on horseback next to the cathedral and the main street that runs from the Cathedral and becomes the main shopping boulevard is named after him.
We spent most of today wandering around the old town which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994. The name of the city comes from the river that flows past it – Vilnia River, which in Lithuanian means ‘a surge’. It looks very gentle to me but perhaps it surges as it floods occasionally.
Before World War II, the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact had partitioned Lithuania and Poland into German and Soviet spheres of interest. In 1939, the Lithuanian government accepted the presence of Soviet military bases in various parts of the country. For a brief period in late 1939 the Red Army withdrew from the city to its suburbs and Vilnius was given over to Lithuania. The Lithuanians immediately attempted to Lithuanize the city, for example by Lithuanizing Polish schools. However, the whole of Lithuania was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940 following an ultimatum from the Soviets demanding, among other things, that unspecified numbers of Red Army soldiers be allowed to enter the country for the purpose of helping to form a more pro-Soviet government. After the ultimatum was issued and Lithuania further occupied, a Soviet government was installed with Vilnius as the capital of the newly created Lithuanian SSR. Between 20,000 and 30,000 of the city’s inhabitants were subsequently arrested by the NKVD and sent to gulags in the far eastern areas of the Soviet Union (Siberia). The Russians controlled Lithuania until the fall of the Soviet Empire in 1990 and this country was one of the first to secede and gain independence.
I noticed a plaque on the town hall today with a saying from George W Bush saying that “Anyone who would choose Lithuania as an enemy has also made an enemy of the USA”. I’m a bit surprised that George Bush would have known where Lithuania was. I remember Dame Edna Everage telling us in one of her shows that she had given George W Bush an atlas as a Christmas gift and he expressed his amazement at how many pages it had in it.
As we walked through the square, we noticed a lot of very beautifully dressed young men and women walking around town with their families and carrying bunches of flowers. From a few questions, we found that today is graduation day at the Universtity and these proud families were celebrating their sons and daughter’s success. The University of Vilnius is one of the oldest and most famous establishments of higher education in Eastern and Central Europe. It was founded in 1579. Giving graduating students bunches of flowers is a very nice custom indeed. in fact, there are many displays of colourful plants around the city and they make a beautiful display. The little cafe where we had a snack for lunch had many boxes of flowers between the tables and they looked wonderful.
I feel very comfortable in this city. It is a quiet and gentle place – a far cry from the mad traffic of Russia and its crowded places. It was nice to have a very late morning and to still have time to amble around the old town and see many of its interesting places. tThere are over 55 churches here and I think we saw half of them today. As you can see in this photo, they even get some unexpected visitors.
We will see what else we can find tomorrow as we continue exploring the city.