2018-04-13 / Travel

Lithuania, a new democracy, a new friend

Part Three: Vilnius, founded 1323
By Warner M. Montgomery, Ph.D.


The gothic brickwork of St. Ann’s church has no equal in the whole of Eastern Europe. The gothic brickwork of St. Ann’s church has no equal in the whole of Eastern Europe. I landed in Vilnius with my friend, Dr. Jim Fisher. Our mission was to speak at the 2004 UNESCO conference at the Law University of Lithuania.

Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its rich history and beautifully restored buildings. The conference, organized by Dr. Jurate Morkuniene, was entitled “Learning to Live Together: Problems and Solutions in the XXI Century.”

Jim and I were the only Americans on the agenda. Other speakers were from Austria, Poland, Latvia, Russia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and, of course, Lithuania. In order for Jim to meet with friends and to speak at several other universities, we arrived several days early and planned to stay several days after the conference.

We were met at the airport by Dr. Andrius Sprindziunas, a professor of philosophy at the Law University with whom we were to stay until the conference began. He took us in his propane–fueled car to his home in the new suburbs of Vilnius where we met his wife, Jurga, and his children – Elena, Algis, and Augustus.

Jorga, a retired–until– the–children–grow–up art teacher, served us a light meal. She noticed I was sniffling and brought me her age–old cold remedy, thyme tea with honey followed by vitamin C in lemon water. I quickly recovered.

Later, we visited Old Town Vilnius built when the city was the crossroads of merchant routes from the Baltic to the Black Sea, from Western Europe to the Middle East. Some of the castles built before the 14th century to protect these routes still exist.

Andrius and Jurga told us the Grand Duke Gediminas dreamed of an iron wolf howling from one of the numerous hills above the Neris River. A tribal prophet interpreted the dream as meaning if the grand duke settled here his reputation would spread far and wide.

In that year, 1323, the grand duke founded Vilnius. He sent letters to the Pope in Rome by which Vilnius and Lithuania became well known throughout Christendom. He condemned aggressive invaders, fostered international co– operation, and declared tolerance of diverse religions and views.

In 1387, the Lithuanian state adopted Christianity, and the City of Vilnius received Magdeburg rights. In the 16th century, the Lithuanian rulers’ palace was a famous hearth of science and culture with treasures that, according to a Papal nuncio in 1560, were hardly surpassed by the treasures of Venice and the Vatican.

One of the greatest scientific libraries was established there. Later, the books were handed over to the Jesuit Collegium, founded in 1570, and finally donated to the library of Vilnius University (the first university in Eastern Europe).

We discovered that the Old Town of Vilnius contains many prominent structures. European styles have left their distinct traces in the city’s architecture: Gothic, Renaissance, baroque, and Classical.

St. Ann, St. Bernardine, and St. Michael churches represent the Gothic and Renaissance architecture of Old Vilnius. The brick gothic façade of St. Ann’s church has no equal in Eastern Europe.

The Church of St. Peter and St. Paul is an example of late baroque architecture and sculpture. St. Casimir’s Church is a marvellous monument of baroque architecture which gave rise to the construction of buildings with domes.

The Cathedral and the Bell Tower commemorate the founding of the city. The Radvilu Palace, the Chodkeviciu Palace, and the M.K. Ciurlionis house represent the great wealth that flowed through Vilnius before the holocaust and World War II. By contrast the KGB Museum records the horrors of Soviet times.

We got passing views of the Philharmonic Society Hall, the Opera and Ballet Theatre, the Youth Theatre, the Academic Drama Theatre, seven art galleries and a modern art centre. These were only teasers, however. That night after dinner, Jurga, Algis, and Elena entertained us with traditional Lithuanian songs. I felt truly acculturated.

Next week: Uzupio, a strange republic

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