Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Getting to Know Vilnius Old Town

Looking north along Didzioji Street — a few steps out the door from where I'm staying. That's the steeple of St. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral, one of 30 some churches, from the 14th through 18th centuries, in the old town —mostly Roman Catholic, some Orthodox, a couple Protestant. During Soviet rule all the churches were "re-purposed" as administrative buildings, museums & often, I'm told, warehouses. They're beautifully restored and represent many European architectural styles.
The old town of Vilnius is a joy to wander and behold. Within my rather limited travel experience, I can compare it to the old cities in Quebec and Montreal — brick & stone buildings that seem ancient compared to almost all USA cities; narrow, curvy cobblestone side streets that disorient you at the same time as you feel charmed by the tangible sense of history.

Vilnius Old Town is much bigger in area than either Quebec or Montreal old cities, but still quite walkable. When you think you're lost, you keep walking in circles & soon come out on one of the two or three main drags, recognizable by being wider and straighter than the side streets. 

Like Quebec's old town, Vilnius is a United Nations (UNESCO) World Heritage Site. I have no trouble appreciating why that's so. This place began as a city in the 14th c. (if not earlier).  It's a cocktail of tribalisms — Lithuanian, Polish, Russian, German (all languages you'll hear if your ears are tuned). And Jewish. For centuries until WW II, Vilnius was a thriving center of Jewish culture. Twentieth c. history here is tragic beyond words (though I'll no doubt have more to say about that).
Gediminas, Grand Duke of Lithuania, who founded Vilnius sometime in the early 1300s. The story is he woke from a dream after pitching his hunting camp here. In the dream, a wolf was howling & invulnerable to arrows (see wolf, lower right). The blue sky is from about 8 p.m. last night via iPhone cam (7/17).

The main streets of Old Town are clean with attractively restored buildings, many shades of brick, usually painted — carefully chosen pastels & coordinated trim, russet tile roofs — and I expect UN funds are part of this, since Lithuania is, by American standards, a poor country. There's an overwhelming abundance of cafes & restaurants, sidewalk cafes everywhere — Lithuanians (also, I'm told, many Russians on holiday) seem to love evenings on the town for dinner & drink. Sidewalks bustle and cafes hum with talk at 10 p.m. and later — even on weeknights. Probably not so much in winter, but July is comfy, so far in the 70s and cool enough for a light jacket or sweater after dark, which comes late — sunset 9:45 p.m. today, with light still in the sky at 10:30, and dawn early, 5 a.m.

Restaurants & food in general (I shop at the local grocery and often, so far, eat at my rental condo) are cheap by USA standards. I'll report further on cuisine (which most people like to know about) when I've had a little more experience.

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