The Gates of Dawn are a suitably grand way to enter the Baroque Beauty of the Baltics, Vilnius.
Established originally as a fortified settlement on a hilltop, by Gediminas, the city grew in the early years of the 1500s after the success of the combined Lithuanian and Polish forces against the Teutonic Knights.
Having beaten back the knights at the Battle of Grunwald in 1410, in partnership with his cousin Wadislaw II of Poland, Grand Duke Vytautas set about growing Vilnius into a bustling centre of trade, religion and learning.
The Old Town retains the mediaeval street pattern and splendid University that was established in 1579.
We climbed the steps of the 13th century belfry tower for panoramic views of the city. Gediminas Hill is topped with the 15th century brick castle built by Vytautas but ruined during the Russian occupation of 1655 – 1661.
Today’s version is a faithful restoration completed in the 1930s. Beneath the hill, Vilnius Cathedral stands on a spot used for pagan worship of the, by now familiar, Thunder God, Perkunas. Vytautas is buried in its crypts.
The cathedral was destroyed many times and its current edifice dates from the 1700’s in the classical style. Inside is cool, light and airy. It was re-consecrated in 1989 after being used as a warehouse, gallery and concert venue during the Soviet years.
Behind the cathedral, the bright white complex of the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania was also destroyed and rebuilt over the centuries. What we see today is a rendering of its final grand manifestation, the baroque palace built in the 17th century.
It was our first taster of baroque architecture which is Vilnius’ dominating architectural theme and leading to its affectionate name of ‘Baroque Beauty of the Baltics’.
Europe’s largest Baroque old town is a treasure trove of palaces, churches, museums and galleries.
Winding through them are the cobbled lanes of the original mediaeval streets now peppered with designer boutiques, amber jewellery sellers, bars, bistros and restaurants. Some streets have taken on a life of their own, Literati Gatve for example, which honours Lithuanian writers and thinkers with quirky motifs and artwork along its winding walls.
We meandered through some of the 13 great courtyards of the university which also boasts 15th century buildings, 300-year-old frescoes and the towering Church of (the) Saint Johns.
Closed now for the summer holidays, in term time 23,000 students attend it and bring a flair and vitality to the city’s heart.
Just outside the university walls, the Presidential Palace is open to visitors to wander freely through it at weekends.
We were in town on a Friday but leaned over its walls to watch an army of gardeners make picture perfect the vibrant beds of bright begonias.
Attempting to see the city’s sacred art collection, valued at 11million euros and only discovered in the 1980s after being hidden throughout the years of Soviet occupation, we took refuge from the hot sun in the Museum of Applied Art.
Of the sacred art there was no sign, but we did enjoy a collection of historical fashion dating from the 1700s to the 1960s. Its wide balcony offered a breezy picnic spot amongst the bizarre ceramics collection of strange bird-shaped figures, geometric oddities and frankly, pottery ‘splats’.
Cultivated, proud and Western-looking now, Vilnius has had its share of hard times. Occupied by the Polish, Germans and Russians, its population has known years of oppression and deprivation and in the case of its Jewish community, annihilation.
Having been privileged to visit the Jewish museums and memorials in other Eastern cities such as Krakow and Prague, we eschewed a difficult visit to the Holocaust Museum and instead walked out of town along the river to its historical Antakalnis Cemetery.
Here amongst the stone and iron worked tombs and gravestones of nobles and locals, are three important memorials which each tell something of Vilnius’ tale.
The largest is a wooded area of hundreds of simple headstones of named and unknown Polish soldiers. These were killed during the Polish annexation of Vilnius during 1919 and 1920, causing Kaunas to become the country’s temporary capital city. The area is separate to the burial grounds of the locals and with good reason, many are still angry about its inclusion here.
In 2003 more than 2,000 bodies of the Grand Army of Napoleon were interred in the cemetery with a memorial.
The soldiers died in the area surrounding Vilnius during the disastrous, and tragic, retreat from Moscow in 1812. Their bodies had been dumped into French-dug trenches, which the victorious Russians used as mass graves due to the frozen state of the ground. Vilnius suffered under the Tsars, who closed its Catholic churches and university.
Only Russian was to be spoken after 1840, causing the city to ferment a fierce nationalist revival, ultimately successful in September 1991.
Before that, a notorious attack was carried out on local people during the ‘January Events’ of 1991. Soviet Army forces responded to provocative protests by using live ammunition killing 12 people and injuring nearly 1000 more.
The graves of 12 of the 14 form a moving memorial and reminder of the city’s recent and dark past.
Back in the Old Town in the late afternoon heat a succession of wedding parties posed for pictures at all of the landmark sites. It prompted us to remark on the obvious absence of stag and hen parties that otherwise plague picturesque capitals in Eastern Europe. Long may this continue for Vilnius!
Early Friday evening had a sophisticated and casual feel to it as the pavements bars and swanky linen-topped tables of upmarket restaurants started to fill up with animated and well-dressed diners.
We enjoyed a cold but expensive glass of beer in one of the city’s bo-ho and out-of-the-way bars before heading back on an overheated and painfully slow-moving bus.
We had spent eight hours on our feet and walked more than 10 miles across this fascinating and charming capital city.