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Vilnius: Capital of a Reborn Lithuania
Derek Monroe follows the path of destruction and creation in this northeastern European republic
Derek Monroe (internews)     Print Article 
Published 2005-03-14 11:33 (KST)   
Castle of Trakai
©2005 D. Monroe
Lithuania is the largest of the two remaining Baltic Republics, Latvia and Estonia. The region gained independence after 46 years of intermittent rule by the former Soviet Union. As the biggest capital of the three countries, Vilnius (pop. 600,000) has had a history that marks a turbulent past which marred its birth as well as its most recent come back.

Set up in 1320s as a center of politics and trade, with river access to both the Baltic and Black Seas, it has been under constant attack from the Teutonic states just to the west of it.

The union of Poland and Lithuania in 1386 effectively put control of the biggest country in Europe into hands of the Vilnius-based Jagiellon dynasty. After a series of decisive victories over the knights and securing its borders to the east, Vilnius embarked on a construction boom.

The Jagiellon Realm
The introduction of well-developed late-Gothic and Renaissance styles to this part of Europe made it a center of international trade and artistic refinement. Tied to the course of Polish history, Vilnius was also unable to avoid the Russian and Swedish invasions of the 1600s.

The dual kingdom fell into disrepair and then was divided between three major superpowers of the time: Austria, Prussia and Russia. With Lithuania becoming part of Russian Empire, Vilnius lost its original power by becoming a regional backwater.

Lithuanian Coat of Arms
The end of World War I heralded Lithuania's and Vilnius' rebirth. However, in 1919 the city was occupied by Polish forces and subsequently annexed despite the protests of the international community. Vilnius also became an eastern center of Polish and Jewish cultures, notwithstanding the original claim of Lithuanians to their capital city.

World War II brought a triple wave of destruction and genocide. In 1940 Lithuania was invaded by the Soviet Union, resulting in mass deportations of "undesirables" to Siberian gulags -- in which many perished. Again in 1941 the Nazis entered and slaughtered the Jewish and Polish population in the name of an "independent Lithuania."

In 1944, after the decimation of the Jewish population and culture in the region was complete, the Red Army's liberation from Nazi rule also brought a lot of destruction and reprisals against supposed collaborators. The country then became a Soviet Republic with its administrative capital of Vilnius. Lithuania finally became independent in 1991 as the disintegrating Soviet Union was not able to keep it within its ranks.

Vilnius' old town
©2005 D. Monroe
For first time visitors, Vilnius' fast pace of economic development is striking. Currently led by President Vladus V. Adamkus, an American-Lithuanian who renounced his U.S. citizenship in the run up to his candidacy for president, the country is on the ambitious path to regain lost time under Soviet rule.

The city center boasts beautifully restored churches and the office buildings of many trade unions that have used them for centuries. On the outskirts there are many modern shopping venues as well as an impressive, brand new convention center that have all brought the city into the modern era.

However, the newly gained independence produced many other problems that the city has to cope with. Just like in Poland, the gap between the have and have-nots has increased to crisis levels, leaving the relatively well-off Vilnius area isolated from the majority of the population that is dependent on farming.

The relatively high cost of living in the city has increased the divide throughout the population, leaving many with a stark choice of emigration in order to make a living. Organized crime also has concentrated its efforts to make Lithuania a transitional point of drugs and money coming from the east, as well as a regional drug distribution network directed toward Germany and its Scandinavian neighbors.

What to visit:

Old Town (Pilies and Didzioji Gatve): A beautiful stroll around old buildings and site of the Vilinius University, St Kazimiras Church, St Dvasios Orthodox Church)

New Town on Gedimino Prospektas: This is an area of restaurants, bars and a variety of state museums and galleries.

Gedimino Kalnas (Hill): Features the royal castle with a famous tower .

TV Tower: The Soviet-built structure that gives a viewer a pretty good view of the city.
It was a place of intense fighting during the 1991 war for independence.

Around Town:

The castle of Trakai: 28 km from the city is a summer residence of the king. It's situated on beautiful lake and surrounded by very old communities, including an old Jewish cemetery.

Paneriai Museum: 10 km from city center. The museum is built on the site of the Nazi extermination camp that killed over 100,000 victims in three years.

Public Transportation:

Getting around Vilnius is easy. Public transportation is plentiful and well organized. It's a bit more expensive than Poland, though. For the driving enthusiast, the unleaded gas is the cheapest of all neighboring countries except Belarus. However, although the border is only 28 kms away you don't want to drive there.

Places to Eat:

My favorite is Ritos Smukle (Zirmunu Gatve 68). It serves the authentic heavy Lithuanian food based on meat and potatoes. Their potato sausage is phenomenal.

The visitors again can have a wild variety of food based from pre-fab fast food to Indian, Italian or German. The menus of restaurants are often posted on the outside wall so you know what to expect. Prices are substantially cheaper than Riga or Tallinn and on pair with Poland.

Places to stay:

Youth Hostel prices start around 26 Lt (around $10). For families the hotel infrastructure is not as good as in Poland since many hotels being built cater to mostly well-heeled clientele. Another option is to stay in old town at B & B (see tourist info center in town center for more info). The prices range from 60 Lt for single to up to 260 Lt for whole apartment.

Costs: With the U.S. dollar plunging over 30 percent against the Lit (US$1= 2.6 Lt) in past two years, Vilnius is not so cheap anymore. However by economizing and eating as locals do, one can make it very comfortably on around $30 per day).

For the city its size Vilnius is a very safe city. The danger areas at night are close to train and bus stations at the south edge of the city. It's wise to guard own possessions while disembarking/embarking.

Useful Web sites:

Vilnius Tourism Center
Derek Monroe is an international business consultant/installation artist based in Chicagoland, USA.
©2005 OhmyNews

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