We’re lucky. The weather has been dripping and drizzling while the clouds have masked the sunlight. But on this Saturday afternoon, some rays catch us unawares and we wander through the streets of Vilnius’ Old Town with our guide. His name is Kristupas and he could be a reincarnation of a medieval scholar with his leather coat and his dramatic turn of phrase.
Vilnius’ Old Town or Sena Miestas as it is known in Lithuanian, distinguishes itself from other Baltic old towns in that it is the largest, locates on a river with hills surrounding it. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1994, it has a rich architectural history spanning many cultural transformations from gothic, through renaissance and baroque to neoclassical. Renovation has been carefully observed and the streets are spotless.
We stop at one of the many churches in Vilnius. This one’s the Russian Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas with a legendary history of fires and changes in styles of architecture. It is now a Byzantine shrine without having lost its original gothic influence.
On Literatu Street, the walls are covered in what one might call memorabilia or artworks paying tribute to literature workers including writers, poets, translators, many of international fame. It’s a private initiative and all the works are donated for free by the artists. All the plaques are the same size but come in all kinds of shapes made of ceramics, wooden, metal and glass.
Amber, Nordic gold, is beautifully displayed in the museum-gallery called Gintaro Muziejus-Galerija. In the cellar, we learn that amber is a light-weight substance which often traps insects inside the sticky resin it’s made of. How to test whether it’s real or plastic? Rub it hard in two hands and if the smell of pine hits your nostrils, Bob’s your uncle. Floating in saline water is another indicator but few of us walk around carrying a pouch of salty liquid just in case we come across a pair of amber earrings we can’t live without.
Kristupas tells us of the Republic of Uzupis created by twelve Lithuanian artists who created their own constitution with that tongue-in-cheek humour so typical of the Lithuanians. Its motto: Don’t fight, don’t win, don’t surrender. On 1 April every year, everyone entering the area across the River Vilnelé, has to show his/her passport. On the next day, everything returns back to normal.
We go past the Shakespeare Hotel and even our amusing guide cannot think of a reason why it would be called that. He’s pretty sure though that it’s owned by an American chain.
Since he’s an historian, we have to stop by the History Department of the University. He tells us that this subject was over-subscribed in years gone by but no longer, the reason being that the professor and students alike would swig away at bottles of hooch ‘hidden’ under desks, everybody would giggle and have a good time and it became the most popular subject to study. Then drinking in lecture halls was banned and its popularity diminished to a handful of studious types. He was of the former ilk, needless to say.
It’s people like Kristupas and the artists of Uzupis that give you a hint of what Lithuanians are like. They love to laugh, at themselves and at others and they don’t mince their words when politics or the Russians are the topics of discussion. Strong opinions, that’s what these people have, and they’re not afraid to express them.