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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Greeting the Spring in Snowy Vilnius

The crowd swelled, spilling over into the side streets. At every corner, bands struck up. Men in embroidered jackets and peaked black caps swayed to the rhythm of their accordions. Children tapped out tunes on homemade drums. On either side of the street, all manner of vendors had set up shop: jewelry merchants jostled with pie sellers; carpenters squeezed cheek by jowl against shoemakers. And everywhere people carried thick plaits of dried flowers, pink and blue painted bread animals and long sticks of sugar wrapped in bright tissue and silver foil.


Hans Christian Andersen would have been hard-pressed to find a better setting for one of his fairy tales. But this wasn't market day in some fictitious, pocket-sized town. This was Vilnius, Lithuania, 1996; and if you looked more closely, you could make out mobile phones stuffed carelessly into back pockets, shiny BMWs tucked away in winding back streets and the flashing neon sign of a fast-food restaurant.


We had come to Vilnius for the spring festival, which takes place every year during the first weekend in March. It attracts people from all over the country, who come to sell their wares in the Kaziukas Crafts Fair, or to buy wood carvings and wicker baskets at knock-down prices. The celebration also coincides with St. Kazimieras' Day -- the patron saint of Vilnius -- on March 4. No one seemed to mind that, though they were toasting the end of winter, there was still a foot of snow on the ground, and the thermometer stood at minus 10 celsius at midday. They were too high on the festive drug to even notice.


Lithuania is the largest of the three Baltic states and the one that most will remember for its relentless campaign against Soviet rule in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Vilnius, with its numerous landmarks, stands as a witness to these events and to the region's varied and emotional history.


No one can accuse the Lithuanians of being a passive people. There is the site outside the cathedral in Vilnius where 250,000 people gathered on Aug. 23, 1988, to protest against Soviet rule on the anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. A year later, on the pact's 50th anniversary, more than 2 million people held hands from Vilnius to Tallinn, forming an unbroken human chain across the Baltics.


All three states proved to be a thorn in the side of the Soviet Union. But of the three, Lithuania was perhaps the most troublesome. A student, Romas Kalanta, burned himself to death as an appeal for freedom from the U.S.S.R. And in December 1989, the Lithuanian Communist Party became the first to break away from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.


Two years later, 13 people were killed when Soviet paramilitary police stormed the television tower during a live news broadcast. Barricades were set up all around the city as protection against the troops, and parts of that fortification are still standing. There is something eerie about the concrete slabs outside the slick, mirrored parliament building in the New Town today. Along the top, the spirals of barbed wire have rusted, and the spray-paint graffiti demanding freedom from Moscow has faded. But flowers are still laid at the spot and a candle burns in front of an icon where President Vytautas Landsbergis and his citizens gathered for safety in 1991. "This could be the last session of the parliament of the Lithuanian Republic," he announced to the world. "We have done everything we can and now we must stand with our people and see it to the end."


While modern times have been eventful in Vilnius, the history of the city dates back to the early 14th century. It is said that Vilnius was founded in the 1320s by Grand Duke Gediminas, who camped there while hunting. According to legend, he dreamed of an iron wolf, which howled with the voices of a hundred real wolves. From this he surmised that he must build a city stronghold, impenetrable by his foes and as powerful as the baying of a hundred wolves. The city was established on Gediminas Hill, where the Gedimino Tower still stands today. It is a five-minute walk to the top, from where you can see the warren of alleys in the Old Town, the wider, more regimental streets of the New Town and the offensive, gray Stalinist blocks of the suburbs.


Across from Gediminas Hill is the Three Crosses Hill, where three lone white crosses have stood since the 17th century, erected in memory of three monks who were martyred by crucifixion on the spot. The present crosses are replicas: During World War II, the originals were demolished by the Soviet authorities. To reach them, walk through Kalnu Park to the foot of the hill, and then up the narrow path.


Below Gediminas Hill is Vilnius Cathedral, the most important symbol of Lithuania. While Estonians and Latvians to the North are Lutherans, Lithuania is predominantly Roman Catholic. Under Soviet rule, the cathedral was used as an art gallery, but Christianity now appears to have made a complete recovery, and mass is recited in Lithuanian at least five times a day. To look at the host of people, old and young, squeezed into the pews and lining the aisles of the cathedral on Sunday, you would hardly guess that Lithuania was the last European country to convert to Christianity. Until as late as the 15th century, Lithuanians still worshipped Perkunas, the god of thunder, and princes were burned on pyres, dressed in silver and gold, along with their treasures, weapons and hunting dogs.


Today, Vilnius is struggling somewhat to keep afloat in the free market economy, but, nevertheless, compared to that in Moscow, the standard of living here is relatively high: You can eat well, sleep in a bed and breakfast in the center of the Old Town, and still have enough money to outfit an entire florist shop with dried flower arrangements.


We stayed in a house two minutes away from Pilies, the main drag in the Old Town. There is an old Lithuanian proverb that says "Every Lithuanian wishes his neighbor's horse would die," but if the people next door to Veronica, the soft-hearted woman who put us up, had a horse, she would be hand-feeding it peppermint creams. From the moment we took off our muddy boots, she pampered us, and, indeed, all the Lithuanians we met lived up to their reputation as being helpful and warm. Just don't talk with them about politics. (Or about Russians -- they tend to overheat on the subject). As well as being in the center, Veronica's house was clean and large -- we were given the run of the entire second floor for $25 a night for two. There was even a Dynasty-style sunken jacuzzi in the bathroom.


Vilnius is a gold mine of restaurants, bars and caf?s that cater to every palate and pocket. The best Lithuanian food and beer in town is at Langas (The Window). Its dark, homely interior attracts Vilnius' artists and students in the late afternoon. Downstairs there is a 17th-century cellar bar and dance floor. For a taste of Vilnius' youth culture, Langas is second to none. Metaxa, a Greek restaurant on Gediminas Prospekt, is good for lunch. Two courses and wine came to 50 litas ($12.50) for two. Also recommended is Prie Parlamento, an English-style bar on the same street, which serves shepherds' pie and the sort of chocolate brownies most people would kill for. In the evening, The Three Friends has a Hungarian restaurant in the cellar, where you get generous helpings of goulash and a delicious creamy chicken and rice dish for not much more than a burger at a Moscow McDonald's.


But while Vilnius is a great place for European-style entertainment, there are also reminders of the city's darker past. Later, we visited the Museum of Lithuanian Genocide, in the ex-KGB headquarters. The museum is currently closed for repair work but the caretaker, himself an inmate for three months during 1944, is willing to show visitors around. Over 1 million Lithuanians spent time in the building during World War II. About 800 were shot in the yard at the back, while the others were sent to labor camps in the Soviet Union. Prisoners were kept in the basement: 20 to a small room, 40 to the larger ones. Sometimes, between interrogations, they would be isolated in a room without heat for 10 days at a time in only their underclothes. Showers were taken once every 10 days; meals were watery potato soup with bread.


We came out onto Gedimino Prospekt, along which, 50 years ago, many of the prisoners would have walked their last steps of freedom. The sun was setting, leaving splashes of pink paint behind the National Library. Suddenly the other tourist attractions in the city -- the museums, the galleries, the university -- seemed less important. We caught a trolleybus back to the Old Town, the chilling images of the Museum of Genocide still foremost in our minds.





Getting There


The easiest way to get to Vilnius is by overnight train from Belorussky station. The train costs 170,000 rubles ($35) and leaves daily at 5:17 p.m. The return journey costs a little less, the train leaving Vilnius at 3:23 p.m. every day. The trip takes 18 hours. You can also fly. Lithuanian Air flies on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in the morning and the evening, and tickets cost $100 one-way; Aeroflot flies Tuesdays and Thursdays, in the morning and the evening, and Saturdays in the morning only, and tickets cost $210 round-trip. The flight takes about 1 1/2 hours.





Accommodation


For prime location bed and breakfasts, go to Litinterp (Bernadinu 7-2, tel. 22-38-50), an agency that puts you up with families in the Old Town for $25 a night for two. Hotels include the newly constructed Karolina (Sausio 13-osios 2, tel. 45-39-39), at the foot of the TV tower, with sauna and tennis courts ($78 for a double). Also try AAA Mano Liza (Ligonines 5, tel. 22-22-25), an eight-apartment hotel in the heart of the Old Town, which is popular with business visitors ($72 for a double).





Visas


Of major Western countries, citizens of the United States, Canada, Britain, Australia, Japan and Italy do not need visas to visit Lithuania. Citizens of France, Holland, Germany and Spain do. Visas can be obtained within two days from the Lithuanian Embassy consular section at Borisoglebsky Pereulok 10 (tel. 291-7586) and cost $30.