Old Town Vilnius

My first four days in Lithuania were spent visiting my in-laws at their home in a small town called Alytus. Despite the fact that Lithuania has a lot of natural beauty (Alytus being no exception) with many lakes and forests — it is in stark contrast to the lifeless cement buildings that fill the towns.  Unfortunately, these depressing grey buildings are left over from the Soviet era and are common in Lithuania. It wasn’t until we left for Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, did I truly realize just how grey the town was.

It took over an hour to drive from Alytus to Vilnius and I had fallen asleep on the way there. When I woke – all I could see were vivid red, pink and orange buildings everywhere.  Buildings in so many different styles — gothic, baroque, neo-classic — lined up the banks of the two rivers (the Vilnia and the Neris) that run through the city. Large looming churches that were centuries old created a cluttered skyline. It felt like waking up in technicolor.  Vilnius was so different to the plain cement town I had been looking at for days. I felt a little bit like Dorothy after having fallen asleep in Kansas and waking up in Oz. But, in reality I had awoke to Old Town Vilnius.

Old Town is considered the most beautiful part of the capital. This area of the city is one of the largest surviving medieval old towns in Europe and is inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Pilies Street is the main road in Old Town and translates as “Castle Street.” This could have something to do with the fact that Gediminas Tower, the last remaining vestiges of a castle, stands on a steep hill directly overlooking the road. Pilies Street is a popular place for locals and tourists to buy souvenirs or gifts from the numerous shops selling amber jewelry or from the vendors at the market. In fact, I picked up all my souvenirs from Pilies street including an amber ring, a lambs wool snood, an artists tea cup, hand knit lamb wool socks and a 1915 coin from Tsarist Russia. The last two items were from market vendors.

In other parts of Vilnius, the recent history of the Soviet Union is still as plain as day. But, Old Town serves as a reminder of the rich culture that pre-dated Lithuania’s period as a Soviet state. The House of Signatories, located on Pilies Street, is where Lithuania re-established itself as an independent state from the German Empire in 1918. Numerous plaques throughout Pilies Street name famous Lithuanian scholars, philosophers or authors that lived or worked in Old Town. The oldest academic buildings that serve as facilities for the University of Vilnius are in this area. Given that the university has been in existence since 1579, it’s no surprise much of it is in the Old Town.

Nearby is Literatu street which is an area that is dedicated to anyone of the literary world in Lithuania. The street is covered with wall paintings and ceramics showcasing literary works.

Unfortunately, the time spent in Vilnius was short and there is so much of the city I didn’t get the opportunity to explore.  I’m already making a list of things I need to see in Vilnius the next time I visit my in-laws! While Old Town is vast, there is a more modern side to Vilnius to see as well as the famed Uzupis, which is considered Vilnius’ version of Paris’ Montmarte neighborhood. Until next time…

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Trakai Castle: Lithuania’s Medieval Capital

IMG_0384Trakai Island Castle was one of the sites I wanted to visit the most on my first excursion to Lithuania. Trakai was at one time the capital of Lithuania and served as a major center for the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (Lithuania only ever had one king and then was ruled by dukes onward). The castle was first built in the 14th century and is unique as it sits on a small island in the middle of Lake Galve. Trakai Castle’s location gave it strategic importance during wars and military campaigns as it was very difficult to capture.

The castle unfortunately fell into disrepair sometime after the 17th century and it wasn’t until the late 19th century that preparations were made to start restoring it. It took over a hundred years to complete the restoration due to both world wars and funding. The restoration was complete by the early 1990s and today is one of Lithuania’s biggest tourist attractions. The castle has been turned into a national museum that features various artifacts from the castle as well as other items that likely would have been used there during its time as a royal residence and fortress.

For those looking to visit Trakai, it is a 30-minute drive outside of Vilnius. There are several rustic restaurants nearby where you can find Kibinai (a traditional Lithuanian pastry, not unlike a Cornish pasty). It’s easy enough to hire a boat to take you around the castle’s island as well as the rest of the lake. Lastly, there are several kiosks selling various postcards and souvenirs — including Lithuanian amber (the country’s biggest export). I did stop and pick up several postcards and considered picking up some amber jewelry but found that I could get the same quality of amber in Vilnius for a cheaper price.