Kalpana Sunder stumbles upon hordes of religious art and treasures in Vilnius.
“Do you know what the colours on our national flag signify?” asks my guide Geidre proudly. “Yellow represents the sun, green the hills and red is for blood and martyrs.” National pride is something that I encounter throughout my visit to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. Lithuania has had a tumultuous history with a sad communist past, but today there’s a new cosmopolitan swagger and vibe. Buildings in a palette of candy colours scroll worked balconies, domes, belfries and spires — this city is an architectural feast. Baroque, Gothic, Art Deco and even some remnants of grey Soviet-era architecture unite in attractive diversity. I enjoy the quirky flourishes: the white angels all over town, starting from the airport and on rooftops in Old Town, three nuns cast in metal gracing the top of the national drama theatre, and a concrete painted egg that stands in the middle of a square.
I start exploring the city from the mammoth Cathedral Square — the place where the city began. I gaze at the equestrian statue of Grand Duke Gediminas who invited merchants and artisans to come and live here in the year 1323, leading to the founding of the city. Legend has it that the gods told Gediminas in a dream “to create a city as mighty as the howls of one thousand iron wolves.” I walk on the Stebulas or Miracle tile located in the Cathedral Square from where the famous two million strong human chain extended all the way to Riga and Tallinn in 1989, in the dying days of the USSR. The Vilnia and the Neris run through the town, with their meandering banks filled with cyclists and walkers. Lithuanians seem to have a spiritual bond with nature, maybe stemming from their pagan roots.
I walk on Pilies Street, where noblemen and rich citizens lived and kings and envoys walked, in days of yore, on the way to their castle. Today it’s a sprawl of cafes, restaurants and souvenir shops as well as grandiose churches. Old ladies bundled in bulky coats and shawls, sell Baltic amber and linen. Forto Dvaras is the favourite local restaurant with cepelinai, a Zeppelin-shaped, dumpling-like creation made from grated potatoes and stuffed with minced meat on the menu. Wherever I go, there is a spire of a church or a golden cross shining in the rays of the sun.
Under the Soviet regime, the churches were downgraded for storage purposes, one was even converted into a museum of atheism, another was made a car repair centre. I stumble upon religious art and treasures from churches all over Lithuania, in the swish new Museum of Church Heritage, housed in the Church of Michael. I spend the afternoon looking at colourful vestments, Gothic style stone-studded monstrances and paintings. I am in heaven when I visit the flamboyant Baroque Church of St. Peter and Paul with more than 2,000 stucco statues of historical, Biblical and mythological figures, plants and animals. This is one of the most popular places to get married today.
We walk through the Gates of Dawn, the only defensive wall of the city that has survived. I peek into the wooden chapel containing a venerated icon of Mother Mary who is supposed to have special healing powers, that has long drawn pilgrims, including Pope John Paul II. My favourite church is the masterly St. Anne’s covered with more than 33 kinds of exposed clay bricks, of numerous shapes and sizes. They say that Napoleon was so enamoured with this petite church that he wanted to take it back to Paris in the palm of his hand!
I walk through one of Europe’s oldest universities established by Jesuit monks in 1579. The buildings in Baroque and Gothic styles with ornate arcades and courtyards remind me more of an art gallery rather than a university. I gape at the Baranauskas Hall with paintings of famous Lithuanians. For the quatercentennial (400 anniversary) of the university, local artist Petras Repsys created the breathtaking “Seasons of the year” — a mosaic of Baltic mythology in vivid black, blue and white painted on the walls and ceiling of the Centre of Lithuanian Studies. The piece de résistance is the professors’ reading room where priceless manuscripts lie beneath wooden cases, and busts of Greek philosophers look down at the beautiful room adorned with frescoes.
The past is never too far behind in Vilnius — it whispers from the plaques outside the Museum of Genocide Victims located in the old KGB headquarters — one plaque for every person that was executed inside. A visit to the museum with its cells, solitary confinement rooms, torture rooms and even eavesdropping devices that were used, is a sobering experience.
Once Vilnius had a prominent Jewish community and was called the “Jerusalem of the North”. More than 90 per cent of the Jewish community was liquidated under the Nazis and today only one of the 105 synagogues survives. Walking along the winding Stikliu Street in the Jewish quarter, which was once the glass blowers’ street, is a pleasant experience. There are classy ateliers selling stained glass, jewellery and art. You can indulge your sweet tooth at the French patisserie Poniu Laime. On my last day in the city I take a funicular to the fortress on the Gediminas hill, and look down at the panorama of the city: red roofs jostling with spires and domes, providing a counterpoint to the glitzy new city across the river with steel and glass skyscrapers. The perfect metaphor for a city with its feet rooted in the past but its head firmly focussed on the future.
GETTING THERE AND THINGS TO DO
Fly Finnair from Delhi to Helsinki and connect to Vilnius. Worth a splurge is the tasteful boutique Hotel Shakespeare tucked into a quiet lane in Old Town with each room decorated on the theme of a particular writer. Take a walking tour of Old Town, see some of the 40 churches in town with a wealth of architecture, and take a funicular ride to the castle for a bird’s eye view. Spend a day at Uzupis and take a day trip to the medieval town of Trakai. Pick up Amber jewellery, fine linen, pottery, glass and rough hewn angels in wood. Vilnius is one of the few cities in the world where you can take a hot air balloon ride over the city.