Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Vilnius Old Town: Gates of Dawn to the University

The Gates of Dawn

We have just arrived in Vilnius, capital of Lithuania. I am very pleased to be here again as I did a consultancy project on the development of top civil servants here in the late 1990s and thought it was a lovely city, albeit with plenty of scope for renovation. I am keen to see what it is like now.

Lithuania is a small country (25,000 square miles, the same as Latvia - three times the size of Wales) with a population of 2.9 million; Vilnius accounts for 540,000 of these.  Lithuania was once an important regional power: a kingdom of Lithuania was created by Mindaugas in 1253 and the 14th century Grand Duchy ruled over Belarus, Ukraine and parts of Poland and Russia. A Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was created in 1569 and lasted for over 200 years until Lithuania came under the control of the Russian empire.  An independent state was created in 1918. Lithuania was occupied by the Germans during the Second World War and part of the Soviet Union from 1945 until 1991, when it became independent. There are small minorities of ethnic Poles (6%) and Russians (5% of the population - many fewer than in the other Baltic states).

The weather looks very dubious, but we will try to have as much of an introductory walk as possible. We start from The Gates of Dawn (above), the only surviving gateway from the early 16th century city walls - you can still see the holes which were used for cannon.

In a chapel on the inside is the miraculous painting of The Madonna of Mercy, painted in the 1620s and encased in silver in the 1770s. The chapel itself dates from 1829.

We continue along Autos Vartu gatve (gatve is street) and just after St Theresa's church is the entrance to the Church of the Holy Spirit, the Russian Orthodox church dating from 1634.

Just a little further on, on the left is the wonderful Basilian Gate, a Baroque extravaganza of 1761 designed by J K Glaubitz. It leads to an enclosed courtyard which houses the Church of the Holy Trinity.

Now on the right you find the church of St Casimir. It was originally built by the Jesuits in 1604-1635, but has undergone many rebuildings and travails since then, including being used as a granary by Napoleon's army and becoming a museum of Atheism under Soviet rule. It was re-concecrated in 1991.

Beyond it lies Town Hall Square. The former Town Hall now houses the Tourist Information office at the front and a really excellent fish restaurant at the rear. It dates from the late 18th century and was designed by the Classical architect Laurynas Stuoka-Gucevicius.

The Square itself is lined with attractive houses and seemed to us to be reminiscent of English 18th century market towns.

We headed down one of my old haunts, the characterful Stikliu gatve, and turned left into Dominikou gatve where we admired the newly restored Baroque doorway to the church.

Now we headed up Vilniaus gatve to pass the Baroque St Catherine's church, looking much sprucer than when I last saw it.

Continuing along the street we passed something that definitely didn't exist in 1997-8: The Bubbles Champagneria. We came back in the evening to check it out and had a very enjoyable glass of rosé champagne in a very nice bar. A bit pricey, but good fun.

We carried on up Vilnaus gatve, passing the former site of the Public Administration Training Centre, where I worked during my project. At the end we turned right into the main street of Vilnius, Gedemino prospekt, and passed the government building, another work location. Outside is a new statue of Vincas Kudirka, the doctor and poet who wrote the words and music for the Lithuanian national anthem in the late 19th century.

Gedimino has improved greatly in the last 20 years and further down on the right is the new national theatre, with this electrifying trio outside.

At the end, ignoring the cathedral which we will visit tomorrow, we turned right into Universiteto passing the Presidential Palace, once a 14th century nobleman's palace but rebuilt in the neoclassical style in the 19th century.

Further along on the right was the main entrance to the University which was founded by the Jesuits in 1579. It consists of a series of courtyards, like a giant Oxbridge college. This is the beautiful, mainly renaissance-style, Great Courtyard which dates from the 17th century.

It leads into the exquisite Observatory Courtyard, dominated by the astrological observatory.

The first great surprise comes in the M K Sarbievus Courtyard where the Littera bookshop has ceilings covered by wonderful frescoes painted by Antanas Kmieliauskas in 1978.

On the first floor of a building in a corner of the same court is the Philology Centre where there are even more remarkable frescoes, The Seasons, by Petras Repšys and painted 1976-1985. They represent subjects and symbols from Baltic mythology. We especially liked this Tree of Life (?), but the whole thing was wonderful.

This was a wonderful example of ending a walk on a high note.

Conditions: cloudy with sunny intervals.

Distance: only a couple of miles.

Rating: five stars. Vilnius has retained its charm, but is in much better shape than when I last saw it. The University is a real delight.

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