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hundred years ago, it was said that no matter in what direction a person looked in Vilnius, at least four churches always would be seen. The skyline remains a marvel of spires, domes and crosses.
Visitors can wander through this salad bowl of nations and imagine the hustle and bustle of bygone years. Much of that spirit has returned to the city since it was granted independence by the Soviet Union in 1991, although the last Soviet troops did not depart until 1993. In 1990, Lithuania was the first Soviet state to declare independence.
Lithuania has been a crossroads of East and West for many centuries, even as the gatekeeper of the amber route to Rome. Later, having driven off the German Knights of the Sword in 1236, Lithuania emerged as a unified state under Grand Duke Gediminas. It was the grand duke who first consolidated its multiethnic diversity in 1323 by inviting merchants, artisans and religious folks to come and settle around the capital of Vilnius.
Among the Slavs, Tartars, Germans, native Lithuanians and Jews, Vilnius came to be known as the Rome of the North, and to Yiddish speakers as the Jerusalem of Lithuania. Throughout much of its history since the 18th century, Lithuania has been dominated by or been a part of other nations, including Russia, Poland, Prussia and Germany, and then the Soviet Union from 1940 to 1991.
Since 2004, Lithuania has been a member of NATO and the European Union. The nation has gained visible achievement in a short time.
Though always an international city, Vilnius is decidedly Lithuanian in its spirit. A visitor hears the lilt of the Lithuanian language everywhere — in the marketplace, in the new and old districts, and flowing out of the cafes and pubs.
The best way to see Vilnius' Old Town may be on a bicycle, but strolling around affords plenty of time to savor the sites. Vilnius is large enough for visitors to make new discoveries for weeks on end and yet small enough for them not to get lost. Still, there are bike paths for the adventurous, and cyclists can pass through Vilnius' Center district, home of many stately neighborhoods and beautiful parks.
It's a quick spin across the Neris River to the New District with the Forum Palace — a sports, entertainment and business center — and even to the new Municipal Center overlooking the river.
One can bike to the Television Tower, the symbolic center of Lithuania's independence movement, except during the holidays, when it becomes a huge Christmas tree. There's also the Kalvariju flea market and bazaar, the forested park at Verkiai and the Hill of Crosses, about eight miles away near the small city of Siauliai, which also can also be reached by bike. The crosses, thousands of them, may have originated in the medieval period as a warning to invaders. The Soviets would remove crosses, but more would appear in their place.
Many visitors like to walk about Old Town, visiting the Amber Market on Pilies Street or the Contemporary Art Gallery. For a beer at the end of the journey, stroll into the Republic of Uzupis, home to the bohemian community. Another attraction of the area is the small but sparkling Vilnia River.
This is the area favored by working artists, who open their studios to the public. Sculpture pieces are tucked along the river, and local cafes play host to poets and university students.
No trip to Vilnius would be complete without visiting some of the most breathtaking religious structures in Europe.
St. Nicholas Church, built in the 16th century, was the only Lithuanian-language church in Vilnius between the two world wars. A little farther to the east is the Church of St. Teresa, and adding to the diversity is the nearby Russian Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity, now belonging to the Uniate Basilian monks.
The most famous is the Cathedral of Vilnius. The church in its current, restored form dates from the late 18th century and is a stunning example of classical architecture. Closed by the Soviets, the cathedral was desecrated and plundered and became a warehouse in the 1950s. Since 1990, it has again belonged to the Catholic Church.
St. Anne's Church is perhaps the finest example of Gothic Lithuanian architecture. Thirty-three types of bricks were used in its construction and, according to legend, Napoleon Bonaparte was so enraptured by the building that he vowed to take it back to France on the palm of my hand. Lithuania enjoyed freedom when Napoleon liberated the country — briefly — from Russia.
There is a synagogue on Pylimo Street, an Evangelical Lutheran Church in Old Town and quite a few Russian Orthodox churches, including one jewel of a church that combines the Baroque, Gothic and Russian Byzantine: the Russian Orthodox Church of St. Michael.
In Vilnius, there's no could have danced all night. The Lithuanians do just that. All of Lithuania seems to be a haven for dance and song. What else could you expect in a country famous for its folk songs and singing festivals? It was the Singing Revolution that became a major force in the Baltic nations' move toward independence from the Soviet Union. On Aug. 23, 1989, 200,000 people joined hands to form a human chain from Tallinn, Estonia, to Vilnius, and they were singing.
So it's little wonder that this nation of music and rhythm should continue to savor its deep tradition. Somehow the polyphonic background of the folk music has spread into the field of jazz and classical music. Even the incredible theater scene pushes the edge between ritualistic performance, music and tragic and comic cabaret.
For travelers who are ready for some of the most exotic and tasty cuisine in Europe, a trip to Lithuania is a must. Visitors who spend some time have been known to wager that Lithuania has more recipes for forest mushrooms than it has inhabitants.
Imagine a cuisine in which the ways of preparing potatoes have come down to a fine art, such as the national dish of cepelinai, potato pancakes smothered in thick cream. Lithuanian dark bread is delicious with the incredible borscht, smoked meats and cheeses. Most of the soups are homemade, and the pastry shops are a marvel with berries, cakes and delicious tarts.
As for alcohol, every town has its brewery, and the beers are exquisite and diverse. What better way to start or end your day than with a glass of brew in a pub that resembles a cavern for trolls or high up in a restaurant overlooking the city?
Vilnius has been referred to as a jewel of a city, but it is soft, like amber, misty and mysterious, and it is hilly, nestled along a river in an emerald forest of pine.
After exploring Vilnius for a few days, rent a car or take a bus to the countryside and visit the lakes and forests so close at hand.
A first destination might be Trakai, the country's capital in the 15th century. It's a beautiful village with the spectacular Trakai Castle on an island in Lake Galve. The stone castle was completed in the early 15th century.
The castle, built in the Gothic style, houses an interesting Historical and Applied Art Museum and makes a dramatic backdrop for a number of annual events, such as the Medieval Festival in May and the Festival of Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet in July.
The lakes and forests surrounding Trakai enhance the setting; this is an ideal destination for a lazy day of swimming, boating or strolling along the shore.
In summer, a lake steamer runs from the castle to the northern end of the lake, where the Tyszkiewicz family built the summer residence of Uztrakis Palace and brought in the famous French landscape gardener Edouard Andre to lay out a beautiful wooded park. The rest of eastern Lithuania is characterized by deep forest, scrub-pine woods and lakes.
The Open Air Museum at Rumsiskes is by a lake created in 1958 and is well worth a visit. The main exhibits of the ethnographic museum are actual dwellings, farm buildings and objects of folk technology transferred from different regions of Lithuania. Guides in colorful dress explain how life was lived in the past.
The farmsteads and small villages are grouped into a complex of 140 buildings. Tourists are invited to join in games typical of Lithuania in the 19th century, such as racing on a long board with cutouts for the feet. Each team must move the long board with four or five people trying to coordinate the pace. It is a hilarious game to watch as long as you're not the victim on the board.
Leaving Vilnius and heading for the Baltic coast, we come to the sea gate of Lithuania and the port city of Klaipeda. The third-largest city and the oldest town in Lithuania, Klaipeda is a port that does not freeze in winter; actually, it is the northernmost ice-free port on the eastern Baltic. A small yet energetic city, it deserves a stop, especially for its atmospheric Old Town, a few good museums and a lively year-round night-life scene.
Seven sea-ferry routes link Klaipeda with cities in Sweden, Denmark, Germany and Poland plus Kaliningrad, Russia, the chunk of land on the Baltic between Lithuania and Poland that the Russians retained. Local ferries connect Klaipeda and the Curonian Spit using local waterways. Klaipeda also is the home port for two yacht clubs, and there is a cruise-ship terminal. A maritime museum and aquarium are housed in a large 19th-century fort. These attractions feature an exhaustive exhibition on marine life; dolphins and sea lions perform daily.
Nearby is the Klaipeda Picture Gallery with a small collection of 20th-century Lithuanian paintings. The gallery also mounts seasonal exhibitions by contemporary artists, but more contemporary art is on display at the Martynas Mazvydas Sculpture Park, peppered with all manner of abstract creations.
A short hop by ferry from Klaipeda is the long, sandy promontory that makes up the Curonian Spit. The story goes that Neringa, the giant daughter of the goddess Laima, gathered up sand in her apron and deposited it on the spot in order to provide a bulwark strong enough to protect the local fishermen from the storms that continually ravaged the Baltic coast. Neringa also is the name of a town in the area.
The spit, a long, thin peninsula that includes a national park of more than 44,000 acres, separates the Curonian Lagoon from the Baltic Sea. Covered with sand dunes, it has been preserved to counter the natural erosion process by deforestation. It is one of the most exotic natural wonderlands in the Baltic.
Formed over millenniums by deposits of wind and wave-driven sand, the spit closed off the Nemunas delta from the open sea, forming the Curonian Lagoon. Never more than 21/2 miles wide, the spit has a few villages on the eastern side, while the western shore is one long, silky stretch of beach.
The whole Lithuanian spit has been placed under the protection of the Curonian Spit National Park to preserve the pines and dunes and ensure the survival of the species living there. The best way to explore the spit is by bike or on foot; there is an extensive network of forest trails and surfaced cycle paths.
A short drive up the coast leads to Palanga, Lithuania's favorite beach resort. This fishing village was first developed as a resort by Polish-Lithuanian aristocrat Jozef Tyszkiewicz. The beaches are the same white sand as elsewhere on Lithuania's coastline, with bars that stay open all night. A local guide told us that there is a Ladies Beach where you can get a very good tan without stripes.
After a day at the beach, head for Palanga's beautiful Botanical Gardens and more of landscape architect Andre's work. Visit the town's charming Amber Museum and learn more about the history of this lovely stone. Afterward, relax at one of the many seaside cafes.
Resort towns such as Neringa and Nida have managed to preserve their old fishing-village charm. My favorite place is Nida, where the German Nobel laureate Thomas Mann had a summer house. His cottage has a breathtaking view of white sandy mountains fading into a choppy Baltic Sea and, on the other side, green pine woodlands and the calm Curonian Lagoon. A hike through Neringa National Park with its famous wooden statues is a good way to start the day.
The dunes are the highlight of any visit to Nida. Stand on top of the dunes, and breathtaking views appear in all directions. One of the largest is the 165-foot-high Parnidis Dune, marked by a modern sundial at the top. Blown off its pedestal by a gale in 1999, it has been reconstructed only partially and looks like the mysterious remnant of an ancient civilization.
Many paths lead to the beach, a glorious place for strolling even on bad-weather days. Or take a break from the beach and the fast-paced night life to visit another Amber Museum on the coast. According to Lithuanian folklore, amber came into being when Perkunas, the king of the gods, discovered that Jurate, queen of the Baltic Sea, was having an affair with the mortal fisherman Kastytis despite being betrothed to the water god Patrimpas. Perkunas showed his displeasure by zapping Jurate's undersea palace with a thunderbolt, scattering a myriad of golden-colored fragments across the Baltic.
Valued as an ornament since Neolithic times, amber provided the ancient Baltic tribes with an important means of exchange, putting them at the supply end of trade routes that went south beyond Rome.
There are about 250 colors and varieties of amber, ranging from light yellow to dark brown. Amber can be almost white or have blue, green or violet tints. In all three Baltic states, charms, bracelets and necklaces made from amber remain the principal offering of souvenir and gift shops.
Traditional Lithuanian festivities echo elements of the mythological beliefs of the ancient Baltic peoples. Uzgavenes (Shrove Tuesday) is a merry feast when crowds of masked people dressed as devils, witches and ancient village folk attempt to drive away the winter.
Rasos (Midsummer's Day) falls when the shortest night of the year comes with its own brand of magic, recalling ancient pagan rites. It's a time of bonfires and gatherings, folk songs and ritual dancing throughout Lithuania.
The Kaziukas Fair has been the traditional spring event held in Vilnius for about 400 years. The spectacular occasion dazzles all those who see it as the streets fill with woodcarvings, metal sculptures, ceramics and local textiles. Traditional country folk music and beer, of course, accompany the happy activities.
Lithuania welcomes guests from all over and always shows its hospitality. It is to be experienced and enjoyed.
By David A. Clarke Jr.
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