Historic Centre, Vilnius, Lithuania
The main street of Vilnius, lined by government buildings, cultural institutions and shopping centres, is currently called Gediminas Avenue.
I say ‘currently’ because it has changed names several times over the course of modern history since it was built in 1836. It was originally called St George Avenue but was renamed Mickiewicz Street (in honour of the Polish poet) in 1922 when the city fell under Polish rule.
During the occupation by Nazi Germany, it was renamed again to Adolf Hitler Street. Later, under the Soviet Union, it was called Stalin Avenue and then Lenin Avenue. The current name has been in placed since 1989.
I mention all of this because it’s an easy way to understand that Lithuania’s capital is a city that has seen a lot of political change over its existence. It has been occupied by foreign powers, burned to the ground, welcomed foreign immigrants en masse, been allied with neighbours, and fought for independence.
There has rarely been stability in Vilnius. Historically, this has probably been partly because it’s in the direct path between two major capitals – Berlin and Moscow. But now the city finds itself at peace and the influence of its past has become one of its greatest cultural assets.
On my first day in town, I start to explore by foot and soon reach the end of Gediminas Avenue. The main street finishes at the centre of the historic city, where the most important landmarks can be found. Rising up ahead of me is a castle on a mountain (not to be called ‘a fort on a hill’, as I’m repeatedly told by the locals, even though that’s more what it looks like.)
I walk up the path to the top of the mountain/hill to see what remains of Gediminas Castle. It is here that the founder of Vilnius, Gediminas the Grand Duke of Lithuania (for whom you’ll notice the main street is now named after), constructed a wooden castle in the early 1300s after legend says he had a dream of an iron wolf howling from the site.
There’s nothing left here of the wooden castle. In fact, there’s not even that much left of a stone castle that was the last fortress to sit on the site. But from the ruins that remain, you can look out and survey the booming city that Vilnius has become.
The first thing I notice is how many church spires there are, rising up from the orange-tiled roofs of the buildings in the historic city. These will serve as landmarks as I make my way though the streets over the next few days. Each significant in its own right, together they form a kind of map that I use to navigate.
Church of St Francis
One of the most beautiful ones I can see is the Church of St Francis. Later, when I walk over to the church that sits by the side of the river, I see up close how special it is. The monumental red brick building is inherently Gothic but with Renaissance and Baroque features added later. Interestingly, you can see evidence of how it, like the name of the city’s main street, has changed over time as different occupiers used the building for various functions – including as a fortress, a warehouse, and an art gallery.
However, the most important church you can see from the castle on the mountain is directly below – Vilnius Cathedral. From ground level, the Neoclassical facade makes it look more like a Roman temple. Inside, I find a more traditional Catholic design, filled with artworks.
The cathedral is where the Grand Dukes of Lithuania were coronated, where some of the leading figures of Lithuania’s history have been buried, and where a congregation still gathers regularly to worship. It is not just the historical centre of the city, but also the cultural centre for much of the population.
Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania
Right next to Vilnius Cathedral is another large and impressive building – the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania. Don’t be fooled by how it looks, though. It was only officially opened in 2013!
The palace you see here today is a complete reconstruction of the old palace when it was at its zenith. It was once an important and powerful building that eventually fell into disrepair and was completely torn down in 1801.
The decision to rebuild it was controversial at the time with a range of complaints by locals – including that the money should be spent on restoring buildings that still existed and that it would ruin the views and landscape of the area. While I can’t really comment on those specific concerns, as a tourist, I think it’s a marvellous addition to the historic centre of the city and the museum inside has a great collection telling the story.
However, as I wander around Vilnius over the next few days, I think more about it. Perhaps the rebuilding of the Palace of the Grand Dukes represents the same thing as the renaming of the main street. After centuries of different occupations, of wars, of shifting borders, Vilnius – and Lithuania – are again in a prosperous period of peace. The city wants to celebrate its history but it wants to celebrate the periods it is proud of and that capture the heart of the country. There are plenty of examples throughout the streets of beautiful buildings and squares to be cherished.
Vilnius drew me in immediately with its warm and charming atmosphere and, by the time I leave, it has not let go. In this story I have talked a fair bit about the history and the main tourist attractions but there is much more to the city than that. There is also a spirited contemporary culture that I hope to be able to see more of some time. But, in many ways, you need a strong foundation of the past to be able to build a dynamic future. And that’s what we can see here in the historic city centre.