Vilnius is a city of many faces, many names, of mysteries and contradictions and this is why it is thrilling the imaginations. The legend of Vilnius foundation tells it was born in a dream, where the iron wolf announced the fame of the city with the howl. The medieval Germans called it wilde – since it was in the wilderness amidst the impenetrable forests, whereas the Jews of the world recall it as the Northern Jerusalem, and we ourselves would sometimes like to call it the Athens of the North. Some are surprised to find this gem of the Italian Baroque, the UNESCO World Heritage Site, in such a remote corner of the Europe, but in fact it is less than 20 kilometres from the geographic centre of Europe.
Vilnius indeed can be called a northern Jerusalem also for a reason that its historical Old Town consisted of four quarters: Catholic Polish and Lithuanian, Protestant German, Jewish and Russian Orthodox. There so many cultures and national influences entangled, that, though today Vilnius is very much Lithuanian, but at the same time it is like a miniature Europe in one town. You are not convinced? Come and discover it yourselves.
Imagine Vilnius’ cultures in different seasons of the year. The spring will be undeniably Catholic – it begins on the 4th of March with the feast of Saint Casimir, the Vilnius’ born prince, whose relics are preserved in the Cathedral. He is not the sole saint of Vilnius (there were 4 more Catholic saints, 2 blessed and 3 Orthodox martyrs and the shrine of the miraculous image of Our Lady of the Dawn Gates), but nonetheless the most important, who draws to the streets even the non-religious crowd, since for more than 400 years his feast is celebrated with an enormous street fair. Its most prized purchase – verba, a twig intricately weaved with dried flowers, which is only produced in Vilnius and 15 surrounding villages. Verba is the vilniusites’ inventive answer to the cold climate and the fact that often there is still snow on the Palm Sunday. Though when it gets warmer, the real spring comes to town suddenly, sensually – and if you happen to be when the lilacs and jasmines are in bloom, and their scent intertwines with the incense from the doorways of the Baroque churches decorated with angels by Swiss-Italian master Pietro Perti, it can become dizzying, you can fall in love or start writing sonnets. The poetry, probably, is floating in the air – and no wonder, since it is the famous Vilnius University, founded in 1579 by Jesuits, was the home of two world classics, Adam Mickiewicz and the Nobelist Czesław Miłosz.
Vilnius in summer probably will appear very German – clean, orderly and with lots of outdoor taverns with cold beer under parasols. The majority of them is concentrated in the Town Hall Square and the German street, which formerly divided the Protestant part from the Jewish Quarter, which was largely demolished by Soviets in the post-war years and rebuilt in Stalinist style. But in the blissful summery amnesia under the parasols all the historical dramas get forgotten, especially if the music plays. Music is another speciality of Vilnius, since the city has old traditions and in his own day even Ludwig van Beethoven used to adress his letters to Vilnius, to his muse, the famous soprano Christine Gerhardi Frank, who by some is even identified with the mysterious „immortal beloved“. Though it is not a secret, that Vilnius was the discovery scene of another world talent, the violinist Jascha Heifetz and the city where Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis lived and worked. Therefore do have a look at the concert dates. Lithuania has a disproportionally large (to its population) percent of classical musicians and vocalists performing on the prestigious world stages and there is a possibility to hear them in their motherland during the summer, maybe under the German Gothic vaults, or under the sky, surrounded by the spectacular architecture of Austrian Johann Christoph Glaubitz, which is inscribed in the world history of art as the „Vilnius‘ Baroque school“.
With the autumn mists of the Vilnius‘ valley the Old Town is shrouded in veils of nostalgia and transparent sorrow – the memories come alive about the Vilnius‘ Jews, who lived here since the 14th century with the grace of privilege by Lithuanian Grand Duke Vytautas. Vilna is the city of Jewish magnificence, mysteries, losses and tragedy like no other. It is the birthplace and the tombstone of Vilna Gaon, one of the world‘s greatest thinkers and theologists. Vilna – is not just the city of Jascha Heifetz, but also of Prix Goncourt double winner Romain Gary, described by him with love and sorrow in La Promesse de l‘aube, painted by Marc Chagall and Chaim Soutine‘s artistic career commenced also here, in the Vilnius Academy of Art.
If you will visit in winter, when the town is under snow, the Old Town chimneys are smoking and the fur-clad pedestrians hurry through the streets, it could appear almost Slavonic and Orthodox. Though the city is still healing the scars of Soviet occupation, but it is in peace with the Orthodox community who has been living here for centuries, starting with Ruthenian Francisk Skaryna, who in 1517 has published the first printed volume in Vilnius. Do go into one of the incense infused Orthodox churches with domes and gleaming iconostases. It is for a reason, that visiting prominent Russians would fall in love with Vilnius – it was familiar, but at the same time appealingly Western and European. It has inspired the work of Mstislav Dobuzhinsky, one of the most important Russian painters, the Nobelist Joseph Brodsky glorified it in his verses, and Rodion Shchedrin paid tribute with “Lithuanian Saga”.
You are wary of history? Wander the streets and do not be surprised by a strange déjà vu – you have probably seen some corners on the big screen, since it was the location for many world famous films. Take the opportunity to pose (or maybe to commemorate the honeymoon kiss) in this background, that inspired the great number of artists.
Come to Vilnius to find the Europe, come to Vilnius to find your inspiration. Come to Vilnius to fall in love.
Novelist and art historian, laureate of Vilnius’ Saint Christopher’s Award