Day 218 Vilnius, Lithuania.

We have spent another wonderful day in Vilnius. Having an entire day to fill, I had promised Howard a visit to the National Museum of Vilnius, which is combined with a trip around the famous Bishop’s Palace. I must admit to not being a great museum buff, but Howard stood for what seemed like hours, absorbing all the historical information on the boards. There was an exceptionally good 3D presentation on the building of the Bishop’s Palace over the ages, for which you had to put on special glasses. Seeing the excavated foundations the original palace and city walls was also quite cool. However, after two hours, my enthusiasm was starting to wane, which was a shame, since they saved the best until last – a walk through the Bishop’s Palace itself. There were some intriguing tiled fireplaces, and lots of grand furniture, thrones and crowns, and the opportunity to climb up to the observation tower to get wonderful view across the city. Howard seemed to enjoy himself, though, and when we stepped outside, the sun had put in an appearance again.

We spent the rest of the day on a walking tour around the Old Town, following a route in the Lonely Planet guide. We paid to go into the grounds of Vilnius University, which boasts thirteen quads or courtyards. It was absolutely beautiful, very reminiscent of the Oxford and Cambridge colleges. We also got to peek inside the Church of St. John’s, which was incredibly ornate and had the most splendid organ.

After a break for lunch, we continued on our tour, of sorts. The guide book had said that mindless wandering through the Old Town was a pleasure, and indeed, we often walked off track, down an alleyway, or stepping into a courtyard here and there, and got a real feel for this great Baroque city. We passed by several places we had seen yesterday, but the light was better, and fortunately the rain stayed off.

Tonight, we are walked off our feet. We sat outside our hotel in the early evening sunshine, and enjoyed a drink, listening to an exceptionally good busker on his violin.

It has been a pleasure getting to know this city. It has an incredibly turbulent history, including being a major force between the Baltic and Black Sea, sometimes in combination with the Poles, being invaded by Tutonic Knights, the Swedes, the Soviets and occupied by the Nazis, and then re-occupied by the Red Army at the end of WW2, who effectively ‘forgot to go away’ for the next 45 years. Despite all this, and the complete decimation of it’s large Jewish population, this city and indeed Lithuania as a country, has managed to maintain it’s identity, and now with independence has been re-born. The Lithuanians are clearly proud of their country, and their entry into the EU and NATO has cemented their role in mainland Europe, despite their large Soviet neighbour.

I would recommend Vilnius to anyone. It has a vitality about the place, and there is music and arts on every corner. The locals are welcoming and have not yet been worn down by mass tourism. Probably the most touching part of the whole city, for me, is that solitary ‘star’ tile in Cathedral Square, with the words ‘miracle’. The story of how this nation cast aside Soviet oppression by peaceful singing and linking arms, rather than through violence, is frankly inspirational. It is a story that will stay with me, long after this trip is over.

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