Most countries have one capital city. Lithuania has had four. Vilnius is the modern-day capital. Perched on the confluence of the Neris and Vilnia rivers, the old town is a UNESCO world heritage site (and, although I spent some days there recently, it wasn’t until the taxi ride to the airport that I found what I’d been looking for). Back between the two World wars, Kaunas, with its 1.7km long pedestrian streeting running east to west was the capital while the emerging state was seeking international recognition. Before this, it was Trakai, located between Vilnius and Kaunas, and before that, the first capital city, Kernave, is now also a world heritage site. Today’s Vilnius is a heady mix of old and new. It’s a strange city, one that unsettled me in ways I still can’t fathom.
Much of Vilnius is hidden. Old walls hidden behind new plaster. Houses, flats, and garden hidden behind street-facing buildings. It seems as if there’s another layer to it that you’re not supposed to see. Downtown, oldtown, is full of amber shops. But no-one seems in the slightest bit interested in selling you anything. I tried five – telling them I was looking for a big green amber ring – and I may as well have been asking for a piece of the moon. And it’s not as if it was a language issue. Speaking English seems to be a prequisite for a job in that part of town.
Vilnius is home to many magnificent buildings, mostly churches. I had a feast day with my ‘three wishes’ thing. This one, St Anne’s, took almost a century to build and was finished in 1581. The facade is made up of bricks in 33 different shapes. Apparently, Napoleon wanted to carry the church back to Paris in the palm of his hand when he first saw it during the Franco-Russian war of 1812. He must have had a big hand, that man.
I wandered in the direction of what I thought was the old town. Along a side street, I came across copies of the alternative Lithuanian constitution in many different languages, including English. Perhaps that, more than anything, gave me an insight into the mentality of the city. 8. Everyone has the right to be undistinguished and unknown. 5. Everyone has the right to be unique. 12. A dog has the right to be a dog. Other alleyways had been commandeered as art spaces where teapots and rubber tyres were put to good use.
When walking the streets of Vilnius, it’s important to make like a periscope. Stop and look around. Look up and down. Take the time to look into nooks and crannies, to walk down lanes and through gateways as you simply never know what you will find.
It’s an old city, with a recent past. A visit to the genocide museum was quite surreal. The guide, a young attractive girl with good English mixed up her tenses and spoke of how unfortunate it was for the prisoners as ‘we like to torture’. This inadvertent use of the present tense made me wonder how much actually has been relegated to the past. A report from a commission formed in the KGB prision a few days after the arrest of the head of the partisans in 1956 noted ‘ the right eye is covered with a haematoma, on the eyelid there are six stab wounds made, judging by their diameter, by a thin wire or nail going deep into the eyeball.’ That the Lithuanians fought and fought hard for their freedom cannot be doubted. As recently as 1972, Romas Kalanta, a member of the student resistance, set himself on fire in protest against the Soviet system and conformist society. I was only six then.. but it was still in my lifetime. I’m now 44 and I can’t think of any cause I’d willingly set myself alight for.
Perhaps what unsettled me most about Vilnius was the fact that I was so ignorant of its history, of its fight for freedom, a freedom I have taken for granted. The Lithuanian armed anti-Soviet resistance of 1944-1953 was one of the biggest and longest guerrilla wars in Europe in the 20th century. The last resistance fighter refused to surrender and shot himself in 1965, the year before I was born. The last hiding partisan came out of his hide-out in 1986, when I was 20.
The two keepsakes I brought back from Vilnius both broke en route. I am superstitious. And I’m wondering what that says….