JOHN’S JOURNEYS: The Baltic buffer-states.III
John Burke reaches Lithuania
Photos are Copyright John Burke.
Pilgrims pray above the gateway to Vilnius
Riga is barely 60 miles north of the border of a onetime grand-duchy whose greatest ruler, Gediminas, carved out an empire that lasted from 1325 to 1795. Lithuania today is little larger than its northern neighbour, but its population is as big as those of Latvia and Estonia together. It has had two capitals and its twin archbishoprics are equal, thanks to a dynastic union with Poland that left uncertain frontiers and overwhelming Catholic influence.
The northerly city of Kaunus was the capital from 1920 to 1940 when the entire region enjoyed its first period of independence since the tsarist era, and it remains the purest Lithuanian city in a land whose native language is incomprehensible to its neighbours. Even so, the 3¾ million inhabitants include 300,000 of Russian extraction and 250,000 with Polish as their mother tongue.
Kaunus too has many churches
Although an industrial centre today, Kaunas boasts some of Lithuania’s finest artistic and literary collections in imposing buildings. The historical corner, including a castle and townhall as well as a seminary and the largest cathedral in the land, are in the west end of the town where the Nemunas and Neris rivers meet.
Visiting the monastery of Pazaislis, however, means a bus-ride from the other side of Kaunas to a reservoir that is the largest sheet of water in Lithuania. The country’s finest example of Italian baroque has a chequered history, being desecrated by Napoleon; seized by Orthodox monks; allocated to Catholic nuns; used as a so-called psychiatric hospital; and finally restored by the same Sisters of St Casimir.
The mediaeval stronghold of grand-dukes
Another bus goes to a natural expanse of water with more yachts as well as lakeside restaurants where you can wash down meat pies or pork dumplings with local wines or farmhouse beers, not to mention spiced apple-juice. On an island stands the brick-built fortress of Trakai, reached by a wooden bridge 300 yards long. Known as the cradle of Lithuanian statehood, Trakai is only 16 miles west of the present capital, which itself is the same distance from the Belarussian border.
Vilnius too remembers a turbulent past, having been seized by Poland in 1922 to be renamed Wilno. In 1940, it was absorbed into the Soviet Union so that freedom half a century later brought it back into national territory. Incidentally, unlike its neighbours, Lithuania’s border with Russia is short and in the south-west, because Stalin gained half of East Prussia as an enclave in 1946.
Vilnius is distinguished by a profusion of baroque buildings in what is the largest old town in eastern Europe, sloping upwards from the south bank of the Neris. With a skyline of spires, crosses and cupolas, it is called the City of 100 Churches, but not all are baroque, least of all the Orthodox cathedral uphill from the Naurutus Hotel.
Gediminas guards the Catholic basilica
Palladian is the Catholic cathedral whose separate bell tower is a favourite rendezvous, while St Anne’s displays 33 varieties of intricate designs in red brick that are said to have impressed Napoleon. He was neither the first nor the last warlord to devastate what are now the Baltic states, so Vilnius too has its military memorials and museums such as two arsenals and the Gediminas Tower as well as his statue.
Flowers are continually placed at the most poignant memorial, standing outside the Museum to Victims of Genocide in the former headquarters of the KGB. It portrays how 300,000 Lithuanians were deported, mostly to Siberia, being replaced by Russian colonists. Cells remain in the basement where the NKVD/KGB tortured and shot anyone even suspected of patriotic or religious resistance.
This museum makes for a harrowing visit.
A section of the city’s wall can also be seen at the so-called Gates of Dawn, an archway over which a chapel was built in 1671 for a gilded image of the Virgin Mary.
Supposedly miraculous, it certainly survived the Russian bombardment in 1779, various fires and half a century of religious persecution. This shrine is even more important to Lithuanians than the tomb of St Casimir, a Polish prince who was once their grand-duke. It is inside the cathedral basilica that was downgraded to a museum of culture under the Soviets.
They also tore down three crosses, since replaced in stone, on Bare Hill that provides a panorama of Vilnius, but Russian bulldozers never managed to flatten the Hill of Crosses, located only 25 miles south of the Latvian border. Lithuanians had begun planting crosses there after tsarist repression in 1831, and the tradition continued under communism – with pious people replacing crosses as they were removed. Today, there are a good 100,000 crosses of wood or metal, ranging in size from the kind at wayside shrines to crucifixes attached to Rosaries.