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Two Years & Twice Around the World...  

Lithuanian Flag LITHUANIA


August 31. VILNIUS  "Touring Old Town Vilnius" Invigorated by our new surroundings we set off to do a walking tour of Old Town Vilnius, the largest old town area in Europe.  Just beyond the Vilnia River that separated Uzupio from the old town area stood the charming and lovely St. Anne's Church (1581), a gothic beauty made of 33 different kinds of red brick. It said to have been a favorite of Napoleon that he wanted to take back to France in the palm of his hand.  It is quite a large church but its fragile gothic spires and warm red color gave it a precious atmosphere, more intimate than its size would lead you to believe.  Moving up towards Pilies Gatve we stopped off at a small antique shop, selling various collectibles and making us wish our budget were larger.

We started our mapped out tour of the city at the Gedimino Kalnas, the old castle perched atop Gedimino Hill and a present day museum on the castle history.  The weather started out with spotty sun but was showing signs of change.  We plodded our way up the road that wound around Gedimino Hill to enter the brick castle turret, really all that remains of a much more vast fortification. 

Without stopping to see the exhibits we made a beeline for the top for a view of the city.  To the east a quiet rumbling Vilnia River separated the old town area from Uzupio and the prominent hill with three crosses.  The crosses were originally built in the 17thc. in memory of the three monks that were crucified.  They were knocked down by the Soviets and have been reconstructed.  Toward the south was the heart of old town Vilnius with the cobble stoned Pilies Gatve (street) leading away from the base of the hill.  Churches dotted the cityscape with the most visible being the great Cathedral just below the hill, where the old town gives way to the still charming "new town" of Vilnius.  The cathedral was built on a site originally used to worship Perkunas, the old Lithuania Thunder God.  Lithuanians were the last pagans in Europe and even after their Grand Duke Mindaugas accepted Christianity so he could be crowned king in 1251, the religion was not widespread for over another century, two centuries after neighboring Estonia and Latvia has been Christianized.  Pagan influences still remain to this day.  A cathedral stood on this sight since the 1200's but the current cathedral is done in a classic style that was built between 1783-1801.  The grand brass statues that adorn the roof are of SS Helene, Stanislav and Casimir, replicas of the wooden originals destroyed by the Soviets.

To the north of Gedimino Tower the city crossed the wide Neris river and gave way to a real "new" town of concrete buildings and Soviet ugliness.  In the far off distance towards the south stood a huge TV tower, where Soviet tanks killed 14 people and injured many more as they tried to get past the crowd of people who encircled the tower.

From Gedimino Hill we walked up Pilies Gatve, peeking at the droves of amber jewelry for sale.  Piles Gatve gave way to the wider Didzioji Gatve where the restored St. Nicholas Orthodox Church stands.  The park in the middle of Didzioji's two halves was filled with semi-temporary cafes and pubs, great spots for a rest stop in better weather. Looking ahead stood a large concert hall where the street veered to the left and became Ausros Vartu Gatve or turned right and became Vokieciu Gatve, another spilt boulevard with a pedistrian park and more cafes nestled in the middle. 

Continuing up Ausros Vartu Gatve we passed the old St. Casimir's Church, a large pink baroque church that was built by the Jesuits in 1604-15.     Ausros Vartu Gatve had its share of amber shops as well but was most interesting for its combination of churches of various denominations.   We past the golden gates of the Holy Trinity Basilian monastery and wandered into the courtyard to look around until the rain started to pick up again.  To dodge the showers we grabbed a seat under the umbrellas of a cafe along Ausros Vartu and watched the tiny finches hover on the railings and make dive bombs for abandoned plates when people got up to leave.  Within a half hour the rain had fallen off again so we continued up the narrow street.  On the left stood the Orthodox Church of the Holy Spirit that was notable for the fact that it housed the bodies of three 14thc. martyrs that lied covered in velvet with just their velvet slipper-ed feet sticking out from under the cloth.  Just up the street from the Orthodox Church stood the Catholic St. Teresa's Church but the unquestionable highlight of this multi denominational stroll was the icon of the Virgin housed in the Gates of Dawn. 

The Gate overhung the narrowest section of the road just before it opened onto a bustling boulevard.  It was a pastel blue with white trim gate and in a wide open window in the center of the gate you could see the glorious icon of the Virgin peering down on you.  It took us some time to figure how to enter but along the left side of the street as you faced the virgin an inconspicuous door led to a staircase up to the altar.  There was a constant flow of worshippers filing into the tiny chapel.  We quietly stood outside and watched people silently praying for some time while others quietly took photos of the virgin for worship at home.  The Virgin is said to have been brought from Crimea in 1363 but was more probably from the 16thc.  It is one of Eastern Europe's leading pilgrimage destinations and a replica adorns St. Peter's in Rome.   After sufficient observation we ventured into the chapel and sat on a bench alongside the wall.  As space freed up we moved toward the center to get a closer look at this important lady.  The icon was lovely with her body covered in gold gown, hallo emanating in delicate spires from her gold covered head topped with a bejeweled crown.  Her softly painted face and dainty hands peeked out from within the metal garments.  The walls were covered in silver medals of various shapes including hearts and arms and legs, each representing the thanks of someone who believed they had been healed by the Virgin.

That highlight concluded our walking tour for day and we had covered a good portion of old town Vilinius.  We returned to our hotel along the outside wall of the town and stopped at look out point where a small population of teenagers had congregated to take in the city view.  After a leisurely rest along the massive wall we wound our way through new streets and back to Uzupio. We were undoubtedly falling in love with Vilnius.

LITHUANIA Vilnius Aug 30 Aug 31 Sept 1-2 Sept 3 Sept 4-5

ESTONIA Tallinn Sept 6-8

FINLAND Helsinki Sept 9

ESTONIA Tallinn Sept 10-11

LATVIA Riga Sept 12-13

LITHUANIA Vilnius Sept 14-15