Raise your hand if you’ve been to Vilnius before! The city is rising on the cultural map but is still seldom visited. It is the capital of Lithuania, a Baltic country small in size yet rich in history, art and culture. I did not know much about it until I attended a heartwarming ceremony last month to celebrate the work of my friend’s father, Romas Viesulas, one of Lithuania’s most prominent graphic designer and print-maker. I left charmed while my wallet did not complain too much i.e. the perfect attributes for a week-end of discovery in Europe.
On the topic of artists in exile
First, a few words about Romas Viesulas: he would have been 100 years old this year, a centenary that he shares with his home country (the independence from the Russian empire was signed in February 1918). Romas Viesulas emigrated to the US as a refugee, forced to leave his homeland because of Soviet occupation after WW2. He had a successful career as an artist and university professor in Philadelphia but he always kept an emotional bond with his country, much like the many emigrants of his time – and of today.
Photo above courtesy of the Romas Viesulas estate
The celebrations ie. the country’s anniversary and the artist’ retrospective are a perfect excuse to visit Vilnius for a short break. The city is a gentle surprise with its mix of medieval and baroque architecture, dotted with churches and cafes at every corner. The cobbled stone streets are easy to navigate, by foot or by bicycle. There are several museums well worth a visit; they help shed a light on the complex history of Lithuania. On the culinary front, several young chefs are revisiting their Eastern European roots with exciting Nordic twists. Think marinated harengs and organic borscht. Healthy and colourful all at once. Miam.
Vilnius’ old town has been extensively renovated since being declared part of Unesco heritage in 2012. It feels safe, clean and welcoming. In addition, the 2h direct flight from London (with Ryanair, can’t have it all) and direct connections from many European cities make it an easy break with the children.
Other places of interest:
The self-declared “republic” of Uzupis (means “over the river”) was formed on 1st April 1997 with a president, foreign ministry and even a constitution. It is perched on the fringes of the old town, and while it is becoming a bit of a hipsters hangout, it is still home to hole-in-the-wall pubs and unique art installations. It’s well worth exploring, and stopping for lunch on a sunny day in one of the pubs by the river.
Vilnius University Bell Tower: great view of Old City rooftops.
The Gates of Dawn, where Christian iconography (even the Mother Mary is depicted) is juxtaposed with pagan symbols of sun and moon.
Church of St Anne: passing through on his way to Moscow, Napoleon said he wanted to put this gothic gem into his pocket to take it home with him (St Francis Church next door is austere but grand).
Church Heritage Museum: across the street from St Anne, small but splendid
The Frank Zappa monument for those who are fan
The Muses: statue by Stanislovas Kuzma at the National Drama Theatre in Gedemino Prospektas.
Vilnius Gaon Museum: on a more sombre historical note, excellent complement to a walking tour of the vanished Jewish ghetto.
The Pacai Hotel, open since last summer, is a stylish and conscientious hotel in the heart of the old town. Its 14-horses brasserie is hailed as one of the best in the country, with excellent service and a farm-to-table restaurant, . The hotel is already a member of the Design Hotels network, in recognition for the audacious renovations of an aristocratic mansion and is perfectly located on the main square of the old town.
The global food scene is starting to notice Vilnius. Luckily, it’s still easy to get a table at those restaurants:
14 Horses, the restaurant of Pacai Hotel, a gem for lunch or dinner.
Sweet Root: a favourite ‘locavore’ restaurant in ‘Užupis Republic’
The Gallery, inside the National Gallery of Art with large bay windows overlooking the city.
The Kitchen, hidden in a courtyard right next to Hotel Pacai, with pretty views over the old town main square.
Crooked Nose & Coffee Stories, a coffee laboratory of sort.
And read the story behind this impressive and modern wine cellar, by local architects
TRAVEL GOOD: a grant for displaced artists
In honour of Romas Viesulas’ lifelong status as a refugee artist, his estate is currently fundraising for a grant for artists in exile from all over the world. With the old Jewish saying in mind “An enemy is only someone whose story you haven’t heard”, the Centenary Grant will be awarded to one or more artists whose practice is informed by their experience of displacement. It’s a formidable initiative. Population displacements were immense during Romas Viesulas time. Sadly, they haven’t stopped. You can donate here.
GOOD TO KNOW
This piece from NY Times
Bookmark Vilnius In Your Pocket for practical guidelines.
No need to rent a car (a taxi from airport to the old town is approx Eur10-15). The city center is small and easy to walk around.
This short time in Vilnius left me wanting for more. I would go back in the spring time with the children in the back of the car. We would drive around the silent countryside, spend time on the pebble-stone beaches of the Baltic sea. And feast on more marinated harengs and picked vegetables.