If you read my post, "Ukraine – 'they ain’t goin’ back'", you know my belief is that very few, if any, of the post eastern bloc countries are “going back” to authoritarian or totalitarian rule. The 30 to 40 year old demographic who are old enough to have memories of hardship but have had a taste of democracy and capitalism will rise up. I wrote, “they like it and they want it for their children”.
Well, if Ukraine ‘ain’t goin’ back’, Lithuania is definitely never going back.
We arrived in the Vilnius central station by bus from Riga, Latvia, bus travel being popular and very affordable in Eastern European countries. We towed our suitcases the few blocks to our little boutique hotel just outside the old city gates. I was so impressed with the manager, who was a 30-something, extremely presentable young man and who could have been on the cover of GQ, that I commented to him that he, and so many of his demographic, seemed extremely well put together. He replied, very cautiously, that the 30 to 40 year olds in eastern Europe have "different" memories than many Americans of that age. He didn’t have to explain further.
Truth be known, I knew nothing about Lithuania, but it was kind of on the way to Minsk, Belarus, so why not? Britannica.com, ‘Lithuania’, informs us that Lithuania is a small country of not even three million people which was under Russian rule since 1795 (except a very brief stint when controlled by Germany during WWII) before becoming independent in 1991. It is the largest of the Baltic states, borders Poland, Latvia, Belarus, and Kalingrad (Russia), and is a member of NATO and the EU which, as we know, is now more important than ever. 41% of the population is 30 to 59 years of age. The prime minister of Lithuania is, yes, a 47 year old female who has a Masters Degree in Economics and speaks five languages.
Vilnius is the capital of Lithuania. Wikipedia tells us that the population is roughly 592,000.
Vilnius oozed energy.
If there was ever anything to tell us that Lithuania is young and vibrant, it was Street Music Day, which happened to be occurring during our stay. We watched a world drum/dance band and, in a most uncharacteristic moment, I joined a street procession to the tune of When the Saints Go Marching In that lead us to an open-air big band/swing concert. One of those moments when everything is aligned, and we thought freedom would reign forever.
One of our coolest memories of Vilnius (and which speaks to its creativity and funkiness and desire for freedom) is that it contains a tiny little republic called the Republic of Uzupis. According to bbc.com,’Uzupis: A tiny republic of free spirits’, it covers less than one square kilometre and is a republic of, well, ‘free spirits’. It started as an April Fools’ joke but evolved into having it’s own government, constitution, and currency. The whole point was to “create a space where people could disconnect from the distractions of modern life and reconnect with what’s important”. It is now a centre for art and cafes. We spent quite a bit of time there, especially enjoying one little cafe where the proprietor told us he watched live-streamed Montreal Canadiens games. I suspect it is really busy now with people trying to 'disconnect'. Who could pass up a republic whose mayor was once the cat at the local bookstore? (When we went to find the ‘mayor’, we were told by the older proprietor who did not speak English as well as the 30 year olds, "he die by very fast car”; when I suggested that they could maybe find another cat, I was told “No, cat must find you.”; a post card had to suffice). Such a good time.
Speaking of funkiness, Vilnius is rich with street art, one of my favourite parts of travelling. It is dramatic, and they hold nothing back in their views.
Some of the best experiences in travelling are the random encounters. In Vilnius we met a young man with a “Canada-EH?” tee-shirt. When we asked if he was from Canada, he said no, he just liked the tee-shirt – but he said, “We don’t know what it means.” Try defining "eh" to a foreigner in a foreign country - it's not as easy as it sounds!
Vilnius’s main area is ‘old town’, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is entered through the Gates of Dawn which is also a Christian pilgrimage site; and Pilies Gatve (Castle Street) is cobblestone, lined with stately churches, shops, hotels, and cafes. It is overlooked by the Gediminas Tower which is a great hike to overlook the city (theculturetrip.com The Top Things To Do And See in Old Town, Vilnius).
As so many European cities, Vilnius has it’s share of grand cathedrals. One of the most awe-inspiring is St. Anne’s. Cathedral Square is home to the Vilnius Cathedral, behind which is the Hill of Three Crosses, another great hike and vantage point overlooking the city.
But Vilnius never forgets, either. It has not always been street art and dancing. A more sobering activity is to tour the KGB museum (Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights). Again, they hold nothing back. It was unfathomable.
Vilnius has all types of restaurants. Our favourite was a pub with craft brew and traditional food. One plate was definitely enough for two. We ate there twice. (The big table of food was being shared by a few fellows, not us!)
Govilnius.it, The Official Website for Tourism and Business in Vilnius, glows with optimism and opportunity for visiting, education, and business development. It is worth checking. A little search revealed that both the President and Prime Minister of Lithuania and the mayor of Vilnius all graduated from Vilnius University which was founded in 1579. That is a pedigree.
So, do you see what I mean? Vilnius is a small capital by European standards, but it was also one of our favourites - maybe it was because we were so surprised at the energy and excitement and funkiness that seemed to define it? Maybe it was the fact they were dancing in the streets, that they have their own little ‘free town’ republic once overseen by a cat, that they have smart young men and women managing the businesses, that over 40% of the population is between 30 and 59, that their prime minister is a 47 year old, very bright, woman? Mix all of this in with world heritage buildings and some cobblestone streets, and Lithuania is definitely not going back – and I’ll stand by that.