Vilnius: Streets and Hills

Many historical places in Vilnius are under reconstruction, and the usual routes are often blocked. We tried to get to “Three Crosses” three times (the place was visible from our hotel!) and only got there before our departure. All other times, we ended up on the wrong hills πŸ™‚

Do birds know their numbers?!
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Vilnius Museum of Occupation

We had a list of museums we thought we wanted to visit on Saturday (our flight out was at 6-30 PM, so we had most of the day). The Museum of Occupation was something new on the list of Vilnius museums, and I saw that it was very popular. Since this museum was the furthest from our hotel, we decided to start there and see how much time we had left for other museums. 

But that museum impressed us so much that after spending 2.5 hours there, we realized we could not go anywhere else, so we spent the rest of that day walking along the streets of Old Town and talking about what we saw. 

There is no other museum like this in any of the former Soviet Republics, and I think that if such museums were open in all the Russian cities, maybe, maybe… maybe things would look differently today.

The museum is located in a former Lithuanian KGB building, and the KGB internal prison is still preserved in the basement. Exhibits on the first and second floors present the history of Lithuania’s fight for freedom from 1940 to 1991. 

After leaving the museum, Boris said: I am trying to figure out which parts we didn’t know. We knew most of the facts, but in some cases, we were not aware of the magnitude of the events, and in some, we simply never gave it enough thought, which I am now ashamed of. 

I knew about deportations in 1941, right before the start of the war, but I didn’t know that there were multiple waves of deportations after the war. The number of displaced people might not look so big until you think about the total population of Lithuania and realize that it was more than 10% of the total population.

We knew about the Forest Brothers, but I had no idea that they kept fighting until 1953! I didn’t know how well they were organized, how much support did they have in the country, and I didn’t know about their multiple unsuccessful attempts to get some support from the West. 

Knowing these facts, there is no wonder to see such overwhelming support for Ukraine everywhere in Lithuania! 

The exhibit explains how “a quiet resistance” rolled out after the Forest Brothers were defeated. And once again, it made me think about the time I visited Lithuania when I was a teen and a young adult. I am ashamed of myself now that I think about how we were coming there, the occupants, and how we were oblivious that we were seen as occupants. Also, I know many Russians who moved to Lithuania after the war and after the mass deportations, and they were completely ignorant about their role in the occupation. 

The part of the museum that talks about the labor camps was somewhat less impressive because I knew a lot about them. But the KGB prison left a completely grave impression, even though, theoretically, we knew how the suspects and the prisoners were treated. 

And one of the most impressive parts of the exhibit was the room where they presented the complete organizational chart of the Lithuanian KGB organization, with names and photographs! That’s where I thought – we should have had this for each KGB organization on the territory of the former Soviet Union! Then, maybe…Β 

I am not sure whether the pictures can add much, but I tried to make them informative. As for the prison, the most horrifying thing is that it is real, and not only real but also very recent.

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Vilnius Toy Museum

OMG, what a wonderful museum! It was just a block away from our hotel, but we didn’t notice it first because the entrance is hidden behind the heavy gates, and you need to press a buzzer, and they actually ask who are you and whether you really want to enter!

One museum with hand sanitizer everywhere :). Some old toys are behind the glass, but there are copies available for play, and you can touch and try pretty much everything. There were so many families, and kids were having the time of their lives!

And I want to mention, that Boris liked playing with lots of these toys πŸ™‚

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I think that it has been at least forty years since I visited Trakai, and all these years I wanted to do it again. Boris was there more recently but he was also surprised by the changes. When we entered the castle, he even said – but that’s a different castle! The castle was the same, it’s just that there was a lot of reconstruction work done in the past years.

Here is the information about Trakai Castle, and I will just say that it is beautiful, even when the weather is not so good :).

I didn’t remember from the first time I visited that there was and still is a large Karaim and Tatar population, our guide told us how they were invited/resettled by Grand Duke Vytautas, and that their culture is still preserved. Since by that time we were already on the road for a while, we started our visit to Trakai with lunch at a Karaim restaurant.

Lunch in Karaim restaurant on the lake – kibinai, traditional Karaites food
Ginger tea
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“Three Capitals of Lithuania”

On Friday, we took a private tour called “Three Capitals of Lithuania.” It was a pretty good deal: 160 euros for up to four people, with a private tour guide/driver, and it included a walking tour of the Old town, a trip to Kernave, and a trip to Trakai and the tours in both. I jumped on this opportunity because I wanted to visit Trakai – I remembered it since I was there a long time ago, probably forty years if not more.

It ended up being a decent tour. Granted, we had better tour guides in the past, but it was great to have a plan and to be able to visit two historical sites in one trip. I talked with our guide most of the way to get as much additional information about the past and present of the country as possible.

I thought I knew quite a bit about the history of Lithuania, but it turned out it was almost nothing. We knew it was the last European country to be baptized (in 1387). Still, we didn’t realize that the Great Duchy of Lithuania raised to its most might and glory being a pagan state. I am now reading about the history of Lithuania in the 13th and 14th centuries; how it took control over the Kievan Rus, which had already broken into multiple feudal states by that time. And the facts that I am reading about make me wonder who exactly stood against the Golden Hord and shielded the rest of Europe from the Mongols.

Lithuanians are cautious about using the ancient flag; as our guide said, “it was also an ancient Belarussian flag.” I believe that this goes more to whether the Great Duchy of Lithuania should be considered a Lithuanian or a Belarussian state. There was no written Lithuanian language until the end of the 19th century (same as with Finnish and Estonian languages). Our guide mentioned the official documents written in Polish, Latin, German, old Russian, and old Belarussian languages. And I already know that only about 10% of the Grand Duchy population were ethnical Lithuanians. I need to do a lot of reading to better understand that historical period, but at least I noted that I have a lot of blind spots in this area. And now – some pictures.

Breakfast in hotel

A tour of Vilnius Old town.

Vilnius Cathedral
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Beautiful Vilnius

Most of these photos were taken on our first day in Vilnius after we got down from the Gediminas Castle and walked around the city endlessly until we could not take in any more of its Medieval beauty.

There were signs of support for Ukrain everywhere, and there were refugees everywhere. The unmistakable families, mothers with children, older people, dressed a little bit too warm for the weather. We overheard the conversations, the Facetime calls with the loved ones, the talks about whether somebody should go to Germany. On Friday, our tour guide told us that there are about 50,000 official refugees in Lithuania, and with the family members joining those who worked in Lithuania before there could be twice more. It’s a lot for one-million Vilnius and for three-million Lithuania, but not even close to the load with Poland carries.

Still, the support expressed by everybody is enormous, and after learning more about the history of Lithuania we understand why!

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Gediminas Upper Castle

On our first day in Vilnius, we visited the Gediminas Castle Tower. Gediminas was a Great Duke of Lithuania who founded this political entity and wastly expanded its territory, founded Vilnius, and established strong relationships with many European monarchs. The Gediminas Tower is probably the best city viewpoint and a part of the Vilnius National Museum.

From the moment we landed at vilnius Airport, we realized who personally Lithuania takes the war in Ukraine. We hardly saw a Lithuanina flag without Ukrainian flag by it’s side, and lots of Ukrainian flags solo. There are lots of Ukrainian refugees in the city, I mention it know because there was a large group in the Gediminas Tower when we visited. As everywhere, they are mostly women with children. When we bought the tickets to the museum, we could choose a visitor sticker either of Lithuania red color, or yellow and blue.

Interestingly, the current exhibit in the Gediminas Toweris very timely – it is dedicated to the Baltic Way – see the photos below.

On the left side, the part of the castle is being reconstructed
The view from the top of the hill
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I am in Vilnius first time after 33 years. I visited it several times before when I was still in school (the Baltic countries were “affordable West”), and 33 years ago, it was our first romantic getaway with Boris. After that, he visited Vilnius several times for many conferences, but not me.

I was looking forward to DevDays Europe in Vilnius, but then as I mentioned, they moved online.
I could cancel the hotel, but as for the plane tickets, I could only move them to a different date. I thought: we talked about going to Vilnius before, so why not now?

I moved a hotel reservation to the end of the week, cut one day off our stay, and moved the plane tickets, so here we are now! The hotel location is perfect; the room is super cozy, the weather is sunny, and the food is great and half-price of what you have in Finland.

The Lithuanian cuisine highlight – the zeppelin
Fied (“second-day”) zeppelin
Lithuanian kvass – to die for!!!