CHAPTER 5:  IN WHICH WE DO YESTERDAY BETTER

Northern Exposure, Day 6:  Vilnius to Kaunas.  What a difference a day makes!  Yesterday's clogged Friday afternoon traffic and limited parking opportunities morphed into a Saturday morning of open spaces and empty streets.  Early rising even offered up a place to park adjacent to Cathedral Square, which would later be one of the busiest locations in Old Town.
Construction of the Vilnius Cathedral, the center of Catholic religious life in Lithuania, began in 1429 to replace the previous one destroyed by fire ten years earlier.  In the 700 intervening years, many additions, alterations and restorations have transformed what began as a Gothic structure into one with a Renaissance influence.  Perhaps the biggest change occurred during the Soviet era when all church property in Lithuania was seized by the government.  As a sign of their contempt for religion, Soviet authorities first used the cathedral as a warehouse.  Later it became an art museum and concert hall before being returned to religious use in 1988.
Many leaders prominent in pre-Soviet Lithuanian history are entombed in the cathedral's crypts and vaults, and in the predominantly Catholic country, the cathedral is viewed as the "heart and soul" of national pride and heritage.  It was on this spot where Lithuania's only king converted to Christianity in 1250, and the earthly remains of St. Casimir, the country's patron saint, lie in a chapel dedicated to his memory.
(Photo from www.travelbaltics.eu)
From Cathedral Square, we could see our next stop.  Another place with a powerful symbolic meaning for Lithuanians, Gediminas Tower is the sole surviving part of what was once the Upper Castle built in the same time period as the cathedral on a hill overlooking the town.  It was here that the tricolor Lithuanian flag was first raised after independence was declared in 1919 and again in 1988.
Today the funicular which usually ferries visitors to the tower was not operating, so we hiked up a stony serpentine path, switchbacking our way from the base of the hill to the top.  Inside the tower, museum exhibits on each floor display models of various Vilnius castles from different periods and offer other insights into Lithuanian history.
A climb up the tower staircase to the top was well-rewarded with panoramic views.  On one side, historic Old Town's ocean of red tile roofs and labyrinthine narrow streets.  On the other, across the River Neris, the steel and glass towers that populate the newer parts of the city.
After the much easier downhill stroll from the tower, we were ready for another climb.  In nearby Kalnai Park, between the banks of the Neris and Vilnia Rivers, we again battled gravity to reach the hilltop home of one of the city's most recognizable monuments, the Three Crosses.
According to local legend, seven Franciscan friars were beheaded on top of this hill in the 14th century for proselytizing.  Originally wooden crosses and a chapel were built on the hill in their memory.  By 1916, concrete crosses were erected to end the replacement cycle of wooden ones, only to be demolished as a religious symbol by Soviet authorities in 1950.  By the time the martyrdom story was debunked by historians, the Three Crosses had become an integral part of the city skyline and symbol of Lithuanian mourning and hope.  The current version of the crosses was rebuilt and unveiled in 1989 during the Lithuanian independence movement.
Back down on level ground, we strolled through Old Town seeking a spot for lunch.  After waiting with bare table more than half an hour at a sidewalk cafe, we finally realized that our server had disappeared, gave up on the meals we had ordered, and strolled over to another of Old Town's venerable old churches.
Actually our destination was a complex of two classically Gothic churches with an associated monastery.  Completed in 1500 and largely unchanged since then, the Church of St. Anne (on the left, above) incorporates 33 different styles of brick, countless arches, ornate towers, and hundreds of flamboyant embellishments created by the best artists of the time.  The imitative neo-Gothic bell tower (R) was added in the 1870s.  Adjacent to and slightly behind St. Anne stands the much larger Church of St. Francis and St. Bernard, consecrated in 1516 as the church of the Bernardine monastery nearby.
As we explored the Bernardine Church, we caught a glimpse in the St. Francis chapel of another of the many weddings we were encountering in Vilnius this Saturday afternoon.  At its conclusion, Ken caught up with the officiating priest and learned that July is prime matrimony season in Vilnius.  Between the two churches and their chapels, an average of ten ceremonies are held each weekend day this time of year.  In fact, we never were able to enter St. Anne's due to weddings.
Thanks to our confusion and parking challenges yesterday, we started today with quite a few places left on our 'to see' list.  Next was a 19th century Italianate building near the city center whose style announces its origin as a home to government offices.  Constructed when Lithuania was part of the Russian Empire, the edifice first served as home of the court of the Vilnius province.  As the Lithuanian territory was passed back and forth between Russia and Germany, the innocuous looking building became home to each occupier's secret police and most evil institutions:  the German Gestapo and the Soviet KGB.
Today the building houses the Museum of Genocide Victims, dedicated to chronicling the 50-year occupation of Lithuania by the Soviet Union, the Lithuanian resistance, and the oppression of the Lithuanian people by the Communist regime.  During its time as the local KGB headquarters, the building's lower floors served as a prison, interrogation rooms and execution center.  Left as they were when the KGB left the country in 1991, the cellar rooms exude an eerie desolation.
(Photo from Wikipedia)
From the darkness of the KGB cellar, we headed off to the colorfully ornate Russian Orthodox Church of the Holy Spirit in Old Town.  Just a few yards from the Gates of Dawn, we had somehow missed it yesterday.  Though the sanctuary itself is spectacular, its central feature is the prominent display of the relics of three young missionaries sent from Moscow to Lithuania in the 14th century.  Arrested for proselytizing in public, the trio was arrested and executed by the Grand Duke in 1347.
One last historic site was on our agenda before we finally left Vilnius.  At 1,071 ft., the Vilnius TV tower is the nation's tallest structure.  As Lithuanians hurtled toward freedom in 1990, their Soviet occupiers struggled to maintain dominance.  A critical means to control communication with the Lithuanian people, the TV tower became a symbol of defiance.  In January, 1991, after the freely elected legislature had declared Lithuanian independence, Soviet forces made a last ditch effort to forestall the inevitable.  Tanks approached the TV tower and plowed through lines of unarmed civilians in an effort to re-take the communication tower.  Fourteen peaceful demonstrators were killed in the attack, and their martyrdom is commemorated in a museum exhibit in the tower's first floor.  An elevator whisked us to the top floor, where we found, not more exhibits as we expected, but a revolving restaurant and bar with an unobstructed 360° view of the surrounding area.

By the time we left Vilnius, the clock was pushing 5 p.m., not exactly the late morning departure we had anticipated.  Only a couple of sites we had hoped to see along the journey to Kaunas had to be stricken from our agenda, and we arrived in the country's second largest city by 6:30, where we were greeted with a delightful surprise.  The local Best Western hotel had upgraded us to an oversized corner room stylishly updated and furnished in attractive Mission style with a large bay window seating area overlooking the street.  With breakfast included, the $80 price was quite a bargain.

After checking out a few local sites tomorrow, we'll be driving back to Riga in preparation for our flight to Minsk.

SATURDAY, 29 JULY, 2017
    •  Started in:  Vilnius, Lithuania
    •  Ended in:  Kaunas, Lithuania
    •  Miles driven:  76
    •  Miles walked:  6.78
    •  Weather:  62° to 74°, sunny
    •  Brides:  17
    •  Sidewalk cafes:  64
    •  Grand old churches:  6
    •  Colors in Russian Orthodox decor:  82

Loved:  Seeing so many wedding parties around town.  Today was clearly a day of love in Vilnius.

Lacking:  Our lunch!

Learned:  The extent of oppression that Lithuanians endured under Soviet and German occupations.
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More Photos from Today
STATUE OF GRAND DUKE GEDIMINAS (1275-1341) IN CATHEDRAL SQUARE 
A FEW YEARS BEFORE THE US BICENTENNIAL, A 650TH BIRTHDAY FOR VILNIUS 
AFTER YEARS OF NO USE, THE CATHEDRAL ORGAN REQUIRED RECONSTRUCTION. 
PALACE OF THE GRAND DUKES OF LITHUANIA, RECONSTRUCTED IN 2002
LOCAL MUSICIAN IN THE OLD TOWN 
SANCTUARY OF ST. FRANCIS & ST. BERNARD CHURCH
ST. FRANCIS SCULPTURE DISPLAYS ORIGAMI CRANES, A SYMBOL OF PEACE. 
FORMER EAVESDROPPING ROOM AT THE FORMER KGB HEADQUARTERS

CHAPTER 4b:  IN WHICH MIRACLES RAN SHORT

Northern Exposure, Day 5:  Vilnius, Lithuania.  Today would be our primary day to explore Vilnius, Lithuania's medieval capital and largest city with a population just over half a million.  As we quickly discovered, having a car to explore this expansive city straddling the River Neris was not an advantage.  But the distances were too far to cover efficiently on foot, so we made the best of it and spent a good bit of time searching for places to park.

Despite more than a century of annual destructive raids by Crusaders, Lithuania was the last European country to convert to Christianity, receiving official papal recognition as a Roman Catholic state in 1387.  After withstanding the Reformation and the forced church closures during the Russian Empire period, Catholicism remains the religion of more than three-quarters of Lithuanians.  During the Soviet occupation, the church survived by supporting Lithuanian nationalism and inspiring defiance by issuing a series of publications chronicling the persecution of the Lithuanian people.
CHURCH OF STS. PETER AND PAUL
Vilnius is home to a large number of churches, and our first stop was the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul.  Located on a small hill near the River Neris, the church is part of a monastery complex.  Its exterior, attractive as it is, gives no hint of the baroque confection that lies within.  Stepping inside the sanctuary, one is overwhelmed by more than 2,000 stark white statues, frescoes, and reliefs, spread lavishly across the ceiling and spilling down onto the walls.
The church building was completed in 1676, but it took another 25 years for two of the most famous Italian artists of the day to execute the religious and mythological decorations that have earned Saints Peter and Paul Church the title of "the Baroque gem of Lithuania."  Thirteen ornate chapels surround the nave, all adorned only in white except for paintings.  In a 1901-05 restoration, the church gained a boat-shaped chandelier of brass and glass beads to commemorate Saint Peter's occupation as a fisherman.
The next stop on our list took us to the Gates of Dawn, the only remaining gate from the defensive wall built around the old city of Vilnius in the early 1500s.  In keeping with common practice of the day, an image of the Virgin Mary was installed above the gate in the hope she would protect the city and bless travelers passing through.
Some 200 years later, a special chapel was built over the gate to house a newer painting of the Madonna, which had been embellished with gold and silver.  The chapel was built so that the icon is visible from the street (see the window in the photo above).  A better view of the painting can be seen here.  According to local legend, the Lady came to the rescue of the Lithuanian people during an invasion by the Swedish army in 1702, causing the heavy iron city gate to fall at dawn, crushing enemy soldiers and turning the tide for the home forces.  Later the image was credited with additional miracles and continues to attract pilgrimages by both Catholic and Orthodox supplicants.
Thanks to its small signs, we could have used a miracle in our search for the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum, a national institution that collects and exhibits material related to the history of Lithuanian Jews.  Named for a renowned Torah scholar, the primary facility is housed in a former Jewish theater.  Over a period of ten centuries, Lithuania's Jewish population had emerged into a highly developed culture, exerting significant influence in both their country and in world Judaism.
Before World War II, Jews in Lithuania numbered 160,000—about 7 percent of the population.  Their influence was felt widely in Lithuanian society.  By the time Germany invaded Lithuania in July of 1941, the country's Jewish population had swelled to 250,000 due to an influx of refugees from German-occupied Poland.  Over the course of the next three years, the Third Reich's genocidal attacks ravaged this population, killing more than 95% of Jews in Lithuania.  This part of the museum houses a scant collection of religious objects salvaged from the country's once thriving Jewish community.
A few blocks away, the Green House museum documents in gut-wrenching detail the decimation of Lithuania's Jewish population.  In addition to the dozens of heartbreaking individual stories of highly respected Lithuanian scholars, lawmakers, teachers, scientists, and other citizens who were brutally murdered for their religious faith, exhibits demonstrate the shockingly dispassionate but meticulous record that Nazis documented of the killings they carried out.
Even deceased Jews could not escape the Nazi degradation and cruelty.  Jewish cemeteries were dismantled and tombstones given away to be used as construction materials.  Nazi sympathizers among the local population used grave markers for such purposes as whetstones.
Emotionally exhausted by the disturbing information we had taken in, we returned to our hotel reeling in shock at man's potential for inhumanity.

Tomorrow we plan to see a few more sites in Vilnius before moving on to Lithuania's second largest city, Kaunas.

FRIDAY, 28 JULY, 2017


    •   Size:  25,212 sq mi (slightly larger than West Virginia)
    •   Population:  2.9 million (about the same as Kansas)
    •   Language:  Lithuanian (38% speak English)
    •   Currency:  Euro
    •   Capital:  Vilnius
    •   Geographic center of Europe:  near village of Purnaškės
    •   History:  First mentioned in written sources in the year 1009
    •   Sports:  Basketball is favorite sport & men's team currently ranks fourth in the world.
    •   Independence:  First republic to declare its independence from the USSR

About Vilnius
    •   Founded:  1323
    •   Population:  543,000  (metro 805,000 - similar to Dayton, OH)
    •   Elevation:  367 ft.
    •   Latitude:  54.4° N.  (100 miles north of Edmonton, AB)
    •  Started in:  Vilnius, Lithuania
    •  Ended in:  Vilnius, Lithuania
    •  Miles driven: 15
    •  Miles walked:  4.55
    •  Weather:  62° to 75°, sunny
    •  Decorations at Sts. Peter & Paul Church:  212,563
    •  Times we passed the Jewish Museum before we found it:  6
    •  Times we passed the Green House before we found it:  5
    •  Available parking places where we needed them:  too few

Loved:  The friendliness of locals we encountered as we explored the city.

Lacking:  Signage of the type we're accustomed to in the U.S. can make it challenging to locate points of interest.  We drove past a museum three times before finally resorting to searching for a photo of the institution on our smart phone.  The sign identifying the museum was a brass plaque to the left of the entrance.  Letters on the plaque were about 1.5 inches tall, quite difficult to read if traveling by car.
Learned:  Founded in 1323, Vilnius was not designed to accommodate automobiles.  Outside the Old Town, streets are plenty wide but finding a spot to park your car can be a major challenge, often involving shoehorning it into a tiny space through skillful manipulation.  

The Rest of the Story:  When we were planning this trip, we noticed that only 100 miles separated  Vilnius from Minsk, the capital of Belarus.  Daily flights between the two cities and the discovery that one could travel to Belarus visa-free for 72 hours when arriving by air in Minsk convinced us that we should add the city to our itinerary.  However. when we tried to book the flight, we found no availability on dates that matched the time we'd be in Vilnius.  Google as we might, we could not discover why.

Ultimately, we booked the flight to Minsk from Riga.  Today in our hotel elevator, we discovered the reason why we had to change our plans.  The Vilnius airport runway (yes, there's only one) is undergoing reconstruction from July 14 to August 17.  During that period, people wishing to fly to and from Vilnius are redirected to Kaunas, an hour away by car.  Now we know the rest of the story.

More Photos from Today
ST. PETER'S FANCIFUL FISHING BOAT 
NEW ORGAN ADDED IN EARLY 20TH CENTURY RESTORATION AT PETER AND PAUL
STUCCO CONFECTION
DOME INTERIOR AT PETER AND PAUL
COLORFUL INTERIOR OF CHURCH OF ST. THERESA NEAR GATES OF DAWN 
JEWISH STATE MUSUEM 
WHY WOULDN'T EUROPEANS WANT TO LEARN BRITISH ENGLISH?
OF MORE THAN 100 SYNAGOGUES IN PRE-WAR VILNIUS, ONLY ONE REMAINS.
GREEN HOUSE MUSEUM WITH HOLOCAUST EXHIBIT
AN EXAMPLE OF AN ATTIC HIDEOUT IN THE GREEN HOUSE 
USING A HAIR DRYER AND LAUNDRY BAG TO MIMIC A TUMBLE DRYER