I’m in Vilnius’ Vingio Park with over 100,000 other people watching a wonderful sight; over 10,000 participants of all ages in national costume on a massive stage in front of me singing their hearts out for Lithuania. I’ve got tears in my eyes, not quite what I imagined for a weekend in Vilnius, but the sound is extraordinary and I don’t understand a word they are singing, but I’m having an emotional moment just the same.
This is the finale of Lithuania’s national Song and Dance Festival, an extraordinary event that happens only once every four years; a total celebration of freedom. Remember, this is a country that has only experienced real independence since 1991 when the Soviet shackles finally came off and boy have they enjoyed every minute of it since. The previous night in the national stadium was another huge spectacle, with thousands of dancers from villages all over Lithuania performing some spectacular collective choreography. The Song and Dance Festival is a hugely important event in Lithuanian culture and it is a privilege to be a part of it.
The largest of the three Baltic states, (the other two being Latvia and Estonia) Lithuania has had to endure much territory change throughout her history and this is evident in the language and make up of her people. Once, it was a province of Poland, then Russia, even Napoleon had a go at occupying her on his way to the gates of Moscow and of course there was Germany before Russia once again took control until 1995.
Vilnius’s once pagan past is now firmly rooted in Catholicism, although there was a mighty Jewish community here right up to the second world war. so much so it was at one time called ‘Northern Jerusalem’ and the centre of learning for Yiddish in Europe. That all changed during the war when the entire Jewish population was practically wiped out in the holocaust.
The beautiful Old Town, now fast being restored to its former baroque and gothic grandeur is a joy to wander. The meandering cobbled streets, the higgledy-piggledy courtyards, the medieval buildings are a magnet for exploration. Even the old Jewish quarter has been restored and given full public recognition for the significant part it played in Vilnius’ heritage. Vilnus’ two rivers, the Vilna and the Neris wind their way around the old town and provide a pleasant diversion to all the history surrounding you as you wander around town. Over 40 multi-denominational churches will test even the most ardent church visitor, whilst the mystical ‘Gates of Dawn’ containing a portrait of the Virgin Mary, reputed to perform many miracles of healing are unmissable.
For a chilling reminder of the Soviet and Nazi occupation, go to the Genocide Victims Museum housed in the former headquarters of the KGB where untold numbers of atrocities took place.The cells and torture chambers in the basement were used right up to 1987 and have been left exactly as they were. It is a stark reminder to all of us not to take our liberty for granted. Didžioji str. 17/1
But Vilnius is not just all about the past. The Old Town is a magnet for the young and old with and an abundance of restaurants and coffee shops and plenty of upscale shopping opportunities from the latest designer labels, to the mysterious and precious amber, which is mainly only found along Baltic coastline. Amber is in jewellery everywhere in Vilnius, from the market stalls to the posh shops and some of it is good and some of it bad. Just make sure you get good advice before you buy.
Four more things you must do during a weekend in Vilnius:
Visit Trakai. Not far from Vilnius, it was the country’s capital in the 14th century. There’s an ancient castle, the former home of one of Lithuania’s most famous Kings, on an island in the middle of a glorious lake. www.trakai.lt
Meet the Karaim. Originally from the Crimea, the Karaim are a half-Turkish and half-Jewish people who settled in Trakai in the 15th century. They have their own language and customs and run the excellent restaurant Kybynlar offering up traditional Karaim cuisine. http://kybynlar.lt/index.php
Cocktails in the Sky Bar. Do what the trendy locals do and check out a wonderful panoramic view of the city from the Sky Bar on 22nd floor of the posh Radisson Blu Hotel. You might want to treat yourself to a drink too.
Frank Zappa’s statue. For no other reason than just seeing something entirely out of character with everything else. Why would anyone build a statue to Frank Zappa and plonk it by a block of flats just outside the Old Town? Kalinausko gatve 1
Recommended Hotels in Vilnius
Hotel Mabre This is a Vilnius hotel with tons of character. It’s a former monastery right in the heart of the Old Town and very close to the arty and alternative Uzupis District. Set in its own courtyard off the street, it’s got spacious rooms and quiet, efficient service. Maironio str.13
Radisson Blu Astorija Hotel Located in the upscale area of the Old Town and in one of the most beautiful historic buildings in Vilnius, the 5 star Radisson is the place to stay if you want to mix it with the rich and famous. An almost endless list of Royals, Presidents and film stars have stayed here and as you would expect, it has an air of luxurious confidence about it from the rooms to the restaurant.
Didzioji 35/2 01128
Recommended Restaurants in Vilnius
Very modern but high quality Bistro in the Old Town. Excellent menu with plenty of choices for lunch or dinner.
Stikliu g. 18
A traditional Lithuanian gothic cellar restaurant with lots of nooks and crannies in an historic street in the Old Town. Based on a hunting theme, there are obviously a wide variety of meats on offer, but also plenty of other choices. A particularly delicious Boletus soup should be tasted at all costs
Stikli g. 8/10, Vilnius LT-2001