02 October 18
Posted at 2:56
I made my first journey outside of the UK in September 2016 to the Baltic States of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia. To minimise expense I planned wherever possible to travel on Interail passes and stay in AirBnB rooms throughout the project. The Baltic states were the only EU countries that are not part of the Interail scheme so I decided to use the bus network. I flew to Vilnius where I rented an AirBnB room in a grand old house in the centre, the host’s mother who also lived there is Alexandra Jacovskyte. I learnt that Alexandra is a renowned photographer and stage costume designer. Meeting Alexandra, talking with her and seeing her work was a pleasure.
Aleksandra , my landlady's photo book on Vilinius.
I would describe Vilnius as bohemian. Music and art seem to be everywhere. I took a walk along Gedimino Propspektus the evening I arrived in Vilnius. It is a main street that leads to the Cathedral and to Gedimas Hill during September the street becomes what must be one of the longest street markets in Europe. There is a wonderful atmosphere with food and drink stalls at regular intervals. Potato Crisps are fried in the open air using a contraption that slices a potato into a spiral, the potato is then stretched onto a wooden sort of kebab stick , the spiral open out into perfectly formed potato crisps that are then deep fried.
Early next morning I took a walk through the empty market to Gediminas hill and tower and opened my eyes to the Baltic Way. A human chain of two million people stretching from Gediminas Hill in Vilnius to Tallinn in Estonia via Riga in Latvia on 23rd August 1989. This ultimately resulted in the three states gaining their independence.
Gediminas castle and tower stand at the top of Gediminas Hill, the highest point in Vilnius Old Town. On 23rd August 1989 the tower was the starting point of the Baltic Way.
The Baltic Way
It was the largest and most effective demonstration in the Baltic State's campaign to regain their freedom.
So the Baltic Way started at Gediminas Tower and so did I. Having been pleased with aerial shots taken in Boston I thought I would take the same opportunity here.
View of Vilius from Gediminas Hill
The view across the River Neris in the early morning light is breath taking.
Old Town from Gediminas Tower
A view from higher up in the tower looking out over the Old Town.
Vilnius is compact but also has a lot of variation. The skyline is notable for the numerous churches. They are predominantly Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox. There is only one Synagogue remaining in Vilnius following the attempted extermination of Jews by the Nazis and more latterly the Soviet Union occupations.
Before WW2 there were over 100 synagogues in Vilnius, the city was even called the 'Jerusalem of Lithuania' but today only the Choral Synagogue remains standing and in use. Also of note is the absence of a Muslim presence. There are in fact four Mosques in Vilnius (although I never came across one). There is certainly an absence of the visibility of the Muslim religion that we are used to in Western Europe. Lithuania is the only Baltic State with any mosques. In September 2015 all three states discussed the possibility of banning the Burqa following the influx of Syrian refugees to Germany. Politicians in Lithuania resolved it would be a nonsense as no one had ever seen a Burqa being worn in their country. It appears that to date migration from the Middle East and North Africa has not impacted the Baltics. Christianity though is always visible especially beneath the Gates of Dawn where from the street you can look up and see through a glass window the painting of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Chapel of the Gates of Dawn. Everyday locals and visitors stand in the street below praying, especially when services are taking place on Sundays. You rarely walk far in Vilnius without seeing clergymen or nuns.
In terms of history, the Kingdom of Lithuania was created on 6th July 1253. During the 14th century the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was the largest country in Europe encompassing present day Lithuania, Belarus, parts of Poland, part of Russia and the Ukraine. For over two centuries a two state union of Poland and Lithuania existed as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. During the late 1700s the Russian Empire took over much of Lithuania. Then after WW1 Lithuania became independent with the Republic of Lithuania being formed on February 16th 1918. Freedom did not last long though in 1940 Lithuania was occupied by first of all the Soviet Union and then by Germany. At the end of WW2 the Soviets reoccupied Lithuania. Then in 1990 Lithuania became the first Soviet republic to declare independence. Lithuania joined the EU in 2004, it then adopted the Euro on 1st January 2015.
The objective of Project 28 is for me to visit, and photograph all 28 member countries of the EU at the time of Brexit before there is any change to freedom of travel for UK citizens throughout the EU, so before Article 50 is completed. Today Brexit, the stability/future of the EU, being brought about at least in part by migration across and into the EU, is seen as a major problem both within the EU and across the globe. We hear through the media about unprecedented change and unprecedented migration. Just looking briefly at Lithuania's history one can see that change on an even greater scale has happened repeatedly throughout history. This is not the place to go into the detail but each of the events referred to above have caused mass migration. As no doubt will become obvious as I visit more countries. The persecution of the Jews saw massive movements of populations and indeed the elimination of many. I intend to highlight where history has seen change with similar human and economic impact as some are predicting for the EU. But for now, back to Vilnius today.
Even within Vilnius there is an area which has declared itself and independent republic, with it's own constitution. The Republic of Uzupis. After reading about it I could not wait to visit. When I asked Aleksandra about it I immediately sensed her distaste for it and embarrassment that it even existed. I decided not to bring it up again but set of for a visit.
Republic of Uzupis
Uzupis means "beyond the river". This small area of Vilnius is encircled by the Vilnele River, it is connected to the rest of Vilnius by seven bridges.
The area is described as 'bohemian and occupied by friendly artists'. Uzupis was declared a republic on 1st April 1997. The constitution is posted in nine languages on a long wall in the centre. Uzupis has a national anthem, a president, prime minister ambassadors and a sheriff.
The centre piece is the Angel of Uzupis
The Angel of Uzupis
So it's a quirky tourist attraction I guess. On my three visits there I didn't really meet many bohemian artistic folk, I saw some evidence of sculpture and art alongside the river and many of the bridges are adorned with padlocks although I'm not sure that idea originated here. I did spend an enjoyable hour or two in one of the cafe bars chatting with locals. Chatting in Vilnius is not a problem, I didn't meet a single person who didn't have and grasp on English, whether young or old, busker, folk sleeping on the streets, whatever, everyone can understand and speak English - which was not the case when I visited the other Baltic states of Latvia and Estonia. Frank Zappa never visited Vilnius, he probably was unaware of its existence yet bizarrely Frank is the patron saint of Uzupis! There is even a commemorative bust of Frank in Uzupis. He appears to represents the aspirations of Lithuanians post the soviet period!
Having said I didn't meet the artists referred to in the travel blurb I did find Vilnius in general was at one with all things artistic. My landlady was an artist and photographer. I met numerous street musicians and enjoyed random concerts on stages dotted all over the town and covering all genres of music (all part of the end of summer festival that appears to run throughout September and into October). There was also a lot of interest in Lithuanian culture and history, be it beer production, open air traditional food stalls, or folk in traditional dress. All could be found in the very long Gedimino Street during the fiesta period.
Then there is the street art. Vilnius has had a street art festival annually since 2013 and artists from around the world are attracted there. Some caught my eye.
The mural on the end wall is by Brazillian artists OsGemeos, twins who did this piece for the 2015 festival. Their grandfather was Lithuanian, he is depicted in the giant's left hand. The smaller piece of Putin and Trump with splif and enganged in blowback was originally a piece of them kissing, painted by Dominykas Ceckauskas (co-owner of Keule Ruke) and graphic designer Mindaudas Bonanu and was an interpretation of the 1979 photograph The Socialist Fraternal Kiss. The kissing image was defaced. In September 2016 Ceckauskas and Bonanu repainted "Trump-Putin V2.0" they changed Trumps election campaign words "Make America Great Again" with the phrase "Make Everything Great Again" Great being coloured green symbolising their pro-cannabis stance. The artwork has full backing of Vilnius's mayor. Post Soviet Lithuania, well at least Vilnius, values young creative people and values the freedom to criticise well known public and political figures without fear of reprisal.
One or two parts of the old town have buildings dating back to the 16th Century when this street was just inside the "Defence Wall" that surrounded the city until the late 18th century. This build and street featured in an episode of a TV series called Moscow Burning.
Vilnius Full Of Space
I've still not discovered the meaning of this slogan, I came across it a number of times in the town. At first I thought it must refer to the empty building(s) but on investigation I found it features in a couple of short films on skateboarding and ice-boarding. The phrase is often used on social media but I’ve been unable discover the origin.
Vilnius was the first town I visited for the project outside of the UK. If this was the kind of experience in store for me from the next 26 countries I was surely in for an awesome time. In just a few days I had learnt so much, me some wonderful people. I pondered why anyone would risk their freedom to travel!
Here are a couple more images of Vilnius;
Traditional Lithuanian Dress.