As our host, Andrius, drove us to a meeting in downtown Vilnius, Lithuania. We came upon a strange little place tucked tightly into a corner of the Old Town. The sign read, Uzupio Res Publica, with international symbols meaning Speed Limit 40 Kilometers, Mona Lisa loves you, Don’t Drive in the River, and Keep Smiling. The Z has a small v on top of it signifying it is pronounced somewhat like the Z in azure in English. Later, signs had it spelled Uzupia or Uzupis or Uzupio depending on the sign painter’s preference.
Andrius began to answer my rapid–fire questions:
“Uzupio is our Republic of Angels.”
“Uzupio has 148 acres and about 120 residents on the banks of the River Vilnelé.”
“It has one main street along the river, several lanes, and courtyards full of art galleries.”
This sign welcomes you into the Republic Of Uzupio, an “independent” nation located within Vilnius, Lithuania.
Out the fogged windshield I saw dilapidated buildings, giant murals painted over windows and doors, yards full of statuary made from auto axles and tires and bicycle frames, and clotheslines hung with dirty diapers, underwear, and banners labeled Uzupis Sheraton, Chanel, and Harrods.
Andrius continued: “Officially, Uzupio is a part of Old Town. Unofficially, it is a separate republic with its own constitution. It has its own president, its own bishop, two churches, an embassy in Moscow, a representative to the United Nations, and four official flags— one for each season. Uzupio is the sister city of Montmartre, the artist colony in Paris.”
In the Uzupio Kavine Pub, next to the Uzupio Bridge, we were told we had to buy a visa before we could order. We didn’t have our passports with us, so it was stamped on our hands. The stamp, a hand with a red hole symbolizing the blisters of a worker, was obviously a takeoff on the Soviet iron fist.
Uzupio was founded as a result of the first public protest by Lithuanians against Soviet rule.
Jim, Andrius, and I ordered the local brew made from “27 different roots and grasses,” a Montmartre salad “tossed with the verve of an effete French artist,” and slices of Bohemian roast “from the heartland of independent Europe.” This was as close as Jim could get to a hamburger, his diet of choice.
In conversation with the delightful Uzupian waitress, we learned that the republic began in 1987 at a nearby park when the first public protest demonstration was held against Soviet occupation. The protesters, who became the Lithuanian Freedom League, celebrated the exit of Soviet troops and the re–establishment of the independent state of Lithuania five years later. The large illegal artist community then rose up and founded Uzupio on the heels of the Soviet army.
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