History, Shoes and Food
My tour of Vilnius starts at the Panorama Hotel, where the bus arrives from Kaunas Airport and ferries in passengers on Ryanair flights. A friend drives the short distance to Downtown Market Guesthouse, with charming market themed animal, flea market or flower rooms, whose hosts bring you breakfast in bed. Located just past the Gates of Dawn, where you can find a bizarre museum featuring the Last Supper in wax figures.
We walk down the hill into the old town, along the park where a fleamarket is held on Sunday mornings, past the music library where my friend performed on the stairs with his band back in the day, and Jaunimo Youth Theatre. My first taste of Lithuanian cooking is the chicken potato pancakes in rock’n’roll Bix Bar, which I’m happy to recommend! Another local dish is delicious white cheese with spices, best enjoyed with beer, or a sweet version baked with honey.
My personal guide takes me on a meandering route, determined by important kicker (foosball) bars, past and present, along the edge of Užupis (Artist’s Republic), across Fluxus Bridge past the former youth park – now Sereikiškių Park. He tells me the stories of the church. Napoleon wanted to take home in the palm of his hand, the statue of Adomas Bernardas Mickevičius, famous Lithuanian poet – claimed as a national poet by Poland – and three crosses up on the hill, which have a surprisingly relevant presence even today, as noted the theatre posters we find along this route.
Since his interest in monuments and old buildings is equal to mine (which is to say hardly any, as regular readers may know, I prefer to learn more about local personal history than the official version), we eschew actually going to any of these historic places. Although he does tell me the legend of the guy on the statue, Grand Duke Gedimina (1316-1341), who founded Vilnius based on a dream. Legend goes that he heard a lone iron wolf howling in a dream, which sounded like hundreds of wolves bellowing in unison. He summoned the High Priest to interpret and decided this was an auspicious place to build the city.
There’s a “miracle stone” in front of the cathedral where legend has it you spin three times and make a wish. I think you’re meant to be barefoot and I’m not sure in which direction, but guessing clockwise as usual in pagan rituals. Lithuania has a strong pagan tradition, being the last country in Europe to become Christianised, with many associated contemporary feasts and festivals. In Lithuanian mythology, the Moon is masculine and receives prayers for healing, while the Sun is the feminine Saulė, one of the most powerful goddesses, she provides the warmth of nature and fertility. The word for “world” is “pasaulis,” translated as “under the sun”.
Wandering along Gediminas Avenue, the main axis through town, we head up Vilnius Avenue and stop for refreshment at the White Elephant Cafe – very cosy and home to a fine variety of tea, chai and Indian inspired vegetarian food – past the famous Lithuanian boys choir and music school, and the V2 Concept Store which stocks an excellent range of Hunter gumboots and beautiful sweet smelling Melissa rubber shoes, including the Vivienne Westwood collection.
Next door is the Centre for Contemporary Art where we indulge my nostalgia for the tasty deep fried black bread with garlic and a local beer. My favourite dining experience is Jalta, where the delicious regional menu is elegantly presented on the covers of old records, and the atmosphere of faded glamour perfectly matches the slow food philosophy, offering recipes for preserved apples and caramel.
Fluxus, Art & Games
Vilnius is the birthplace of Fluxus founder George Maciunas, and the city has a lively history of philosophical debate and playful interrogation of the established hierarchies of culture and art, in the spirit of Fluxus: ‘all life is art’. That explains the references, from CAC’s Fluxus Cabinet, to the cultural centre and studios in a squatted ex-government building aka Fluxus Ministry, and the Fluxus Bridge, where the sign ‘Art in Space and Space in Art’ offers a moment of esoteric contemplation on my initial journey of discovery through the city.
Next day I have an appointment with Vytautas, Artistic Director of Nida Art Colony who gives me a guided tour of the Vilnius Art Academy, housed in a sprawling complex of ancient buildings next to the monks still in charge of the famed Napoleonic-lusted after church. Highlight of the tour is lunch at the spectacularly beautiful vaulted ceiling canteen. Artist Isabella Rozendaal has a book about Vilnius canteens, you can join the tour for lunch in a different canteen every Thursday. We check out the new building of the Academy across the road, their gallery presenting the painting prize exhibition, and visit the film and media department where the rooms have panoramic views of the city and brand new equipment. Another colleague, Rasa takes me for afternoon tea at the Shakespeare Hotel, where the bar features overstuffed armchairs along with decadent cakes and whisky.
The evening includes a trip to Briusly (Bruce Lee, Islandijos 4) club for experimental Lithuanian poetry and avant-garde night as part of Tarp Festival. The sonic experiments drift into territory closer to minimal techno than the abstract sound I’m used to hearing in this context, one group mixing theremin, didgeridoo and techno beats. A night visit to the bridge my friend has found for me over the River Neris leading to Vingis Park, in order to hear the intriguing sound of the cables. One day I may be lucky enough to find a Lithuanian husband, as traditional calls for the man to carry his bride over a bridge, symbolising the start of their new life together!
The night ends with a visit to Play Club for a few games of kicker, which I’ve find myself enjoying with a beginners enthusiasm! The vibe of this seriously cool indie bar is low key and friendly, and when the music kicks in there’s likely to be some dancing going on.
Cemetery & TV Tower
The weekend features a trip to romantically crumbling Bernardinu Cemetery, along the Vilnia River from Uzupis, where Movilas talks me through his virtual cemetery, lastsleep his equally romantic and elegant burial site for anything or anyone you’d like to remember or forget.
Our next destination is the TV Tower, which I find strangely and inexplicably beautiful, a minimalist concrete column reaching elegantly into the sky, with a magnificent view from the Milky Way cafe. The tallest structure in Lithuania, the tower played a significant role in regaining independence from the former Soviet Union during the ‘Singing Revolution’, linking arms and singing in the face of tanks and bullets. My friend tells me that he, aged 8, and his grandmother joined the thousands of people who held the line here in the 1991 blockade against Soviet troops and tanks. She was there earlier on the day in which 13 unarmed civilians were killed and 600 injured, as the courageous Lithuanian citizens linked arms and sang to defend national independence and oppose Soviet military seizure of the tower. There is a small museum on the ground floor dedicated to the January 1991 battle, with striking images of the tanks surrounding the tower and damage to the controls, while outside memorials indicate places where Lithuanian citizens died.
Contemporary Art & Underground
Next day I visit the exhibition of recent Lithuanian Contemporary Art from the past ten years at the CAC. The show provides a comprehensive overview of work presented through a selection of intelligent categories, from documentary to institutional critique, fictions and other realities. The activities of the Pro-Test Lab offer an intriguing entry to local politically engaged art practices, as do the Kultflux, a nostalgic history of Baltic sea resorts is presented in view finders, a collection of stolen soap is another small relic of the passing of time, while video documentation of people dancing in the street to impromptu radio makes me smile.
I take a long walk across the river to the National Gallery, with an overview of Contemporary Lithuanian Film and Video Art. The buildings along this side of town are the Wall Street of Vilnius, a strange architectural mix from dilapidated and crumbling houses to the sparkling skyscraper of a bank and the unfinished office block that curves into the air with eerie holes open to the sky. Following Tautvydas’s directions on the bus through town to find the decrepit cable factory Kablyje, where art festival, Absurdo Meno Dienos Baigėsi ‘absurd art days are ended’ features a memorable video work juxtaposing four different funerals, including one voodoo dace and the far more solemn cortege to the final resting place of Princess Diana. A lovely girl offers me a cup of tea, brewed with fresh Lithuanian herbs, which helps against the damp and chill air, then we head down the road to the Snekutis bar, famous for locally brewed beer (Sv. Stepono g. 8). After that it’s party time at the art academy sculpture studio with Jurij’s Moldovan beats!
– Jodi Rose