If you take a walking tour of Warsaw with friendly local legend Pse, it’s just like being there … and feeling like you are a local, such is the insight into the city he energetically imparts! More than a vicarious experience! I did three ‘Psexceptional’ walking tours in the four days we were in Warsawa – the “Old Town” tour, the “Food and Beer” tour & the “Communist Warsaw” tour. By the end not only did I have a palpable feel for the city, but I felt like I was almost an expert on Pse’s mannerisms and speech patterns as well!
Pse is a very enthusiastic guide, very switched on and knowledgeable about all aspects of the city. Despite his not being a Varsovian by birth. I felt we were getting a real insider’s window into the city – warts and all, not just some glossy attempt to put a spin on the place, portraying everything we saw as beautiful and wonderful as sometimes occurs with tours. Pse packs a tremendous amount into his tours, full of informative snippets on the little idiosyncrasies and eccentricities of Warszawiacy, some good, some not so good. He had us on the go, a good pace but not rushed … continually showing us new things & places all through the two hours, not once did he slow down or stop to get a lody despite the fierce heat of the day!
The Food and Beer tour was probably my favourite (kind of a fast food pub crawl), going to various interesting little out-of-the-way cafés, fast food parlours and. back lane bars. For a small charge (about 20 PLN) we sampled so many different types of piva – lagers, porters, pilsners, kozlaks, ales, American-style, Pekin-style, etc. plus culinary oddities such as the “John-Paul II” paczki (a donut of Papal proportions). One of the non-alcoholic beverage ‘highlights’ was the “wonderfully insipid” Oranzada (this sugary ‘treat’ was the soft drink of choice of the old Communist Party). I enjoyed the visit to Soviet Warsaw’s first American-style milkbar (next door to the home of Poland’s double Noble laureate in Science, Madame Curie). We also got an informative commentary on the story behind the construction of the dynamic Warsaw Uprising monument.
On the last night of the visit I did yet another fascinating tour with another guide (Pse must have been resting his larynx!) called “Warsaw Crime” which visited locations in the city with a secret criminal past – the site of assassinations and attempted assassinations of atheist presidents and “Black September” Middle East terrorists, weddings gone wrong, and an improbable plot to liquidate Hitler on the corner of Jerozolimskie and Nowy Swiat right at the start of the World War in 1939, etc.
Pilies Gatve is the street that bisects Vilnius’ Old Town. This old cobblestone road is full of footpath cafés and restaurants. Running off Pilies are numerous old alleyways and lanes, some of which lead to flower-filled courtyards. Also on Pilies are some large churches and a small square with the obligatory souvenir stalls. Actually Senamiestis and Vilnius in general seems to be full of churches, I previously mentioned Cathedral Square and its Basilica, of itself a masthead of Lietuvos orthodox spirituality. Not surprising then that one of the city’s sobriquets is “the city of churches” (another reflecting its staunch Catholicism is “Little Rome”).
In or off Pilies there are a number of old ecclesiastical buildings with a range of styles – Gothic, Renaissance, Neo-Byzantine and Neo-Classical. The standout Catholic ones include St Catherine’s & St Anne’s, the latter church Napoleon reputedly took a distinct shine to when he ‘visited’ (a statement attributed to him is that it enchanted him so much he wanted to take it back to Paris in the “palm of his hand”!). and the very large Orthodox Cathedral (Our Mother of God) on Maironio street. Given what a staunchly Catholic country Lithuania is, I was a little surprised a the large number of Russian Orthodox churches in Vilnius – clearly the former imperial ‘footprint’ of the Russian giant is still evident in the country.
Didžioji G. has two of the most impressive cathedrals in St Parasceve and St Casimir (the latter with its unusual, small, black crown dome). In front of the beautiful pastel-shaded St Parasceve are billboards with historic photos and stalls selling paintings. Looking at the Vilnius churches you discover a chequered history, there is a pattern of most of them burning down, being rebuilt in stone, being desecrated and misused, and finally being returned to their religious function. At the south end of the Old Town, in Aušros Vartu G. you can see the only remnant of the historic wall to survive, the 15th century city gate, the Gates of Dawn (Aušros vartai) with its decorated chapel and Medieval arch. Also in Aušros Vartu are gift shops selling the Baltic Sea mineral that Lithuanians refer to as their ‘gold’, amber (worth a look inside but quite pricey).
On the western side of Senamiestis is Vokiečiu G. or German street, with its long, grassy walkway and food kiosks down the middle. Once the main area for German inhabitants of Vilnius (hence the name!) but there remains very little sense of its ‘German-ness’ today. Further to the west in Naujamiestis (the New Town) there is more trace of German past occupancy of Vilnius in the shape of a German War Cemetery.
Similarly, nearby Pylimo G. was once home to Vilnius’ large Jewish community, which before WWII numbered around 100,000 (45 per cent of the city’s population). Vilna Jews are now reduced to a few thousand in total who are mostly quite aged. The Jewish Ghetto of the 1940s is memorialised only by one or two monuments and signs. The pattern of impressive Russian Orthodox churches continues on the western side of the Old City, of special note are the Church of Saints Michael and Constantine and the Church of the Apparition of the Holy Mother of God both with beautiful Neo-Byzantine cupolas, a must-see for church architecture aficionados.
Gediminas is a name that crops up quite a bit in Vilnius – the main street, the central castle and tower, restaurants, etc. Gediminas was the powerful ruler who consolidated the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the early 14th century. Gediminas Prospektas, the city’s main avenue, runs from the north-west down to Cathedral Square & the Old City. The several previous names of Gediminas street (including Adolph Hitler Avenue) reflect ongoing periods of foreign rule (Polish, Nazi German, Soviet Russian). Gediminas Pr as befitting the major avenue in Vilnius contains most of the important buildings, the parliament, financial houses, international hotels, etc, as well as a busy “eat street” sector. Walking the length of Gediminas Avenue allows you to take in some of the Centras district’s most interesting sights. Foremost amongst these for me is the facade of the Lithuanian National Drama Theatre with its fantastic, striking sculpture of three dark-garbed ‘witches’ (they looked like witches to me(?), like something out of Macbeth) in dramatic pose.
Further up on the opposite side is Vincas Kudirkas Square (named after a famous Lithuanian writer), a pleasant, calming patch of greenery set back from the street enabling visitors a respite from all that shopping and sightseeing. A fine, modern, linear sculpture of Kudirkas takes centre stage in the eponymous Square.
The eastern end of Gediminas stops at the large Cathedral Square (Katedros aikštė) which contains several significant architectural structures. The first ones you come to are the early 15th century Vilnius Basilica and its bell tower. The basilica, the most salient Catholic structure in Lithuania, is very grand in scale with white columns and domed roof in the neoclassical style. Although it is impressive and worth a look inside, I was more intrigued by the accompanying bell tower several metres way from the facade entrance. Bell towers like this, 57m high and free-standing, are fairly unusual outside of Italy. I was immediately reminded of Pisa and the Leaning Tower. This bell tower of course lacks the unique feature that makes Pisa so world famous, it’s exaggeratedly angled bent. The Vilnius bell tower is not however 180 degrees straight up, so it was suggestive of some comparisons with Pisa! Sharing the Square with the cathedral is the Gediminas monument (a relatively recent addition), an imposing sculptural representation of the Lietuvos warrior-king, unmounted, atop a very solid block of granite. On the other side of the cathedral, in the park near the National Museum, there is yet another sculpture of Gediminas which differs in form and style from this one.
To the right of Vilnius Cathedral (almost backing on to it) is the white Palace of the Grand Dukes. The palace is an attractive and impressive reconstruction of the original medieval rūmai (Royal palace). The Ducal Palace was part of the old lower castle and had an integral historical connexion with Poland. During the era of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth it was the centre of political power for both Lithuanian grand dukes and Polish kings. Later, after its glory days, it fell on harder times – at one point being quasi-demolished, then occupied by the German Wehrmacht during WWII and by the Soviet Youth Organisation. The current palace building is now a museum. Unfortunately our tight schedule precluded a visit inside, we had been allocated enough time only to do either it or the upper castle (the castle tower).
The castle tower, to give its full official name, Gediminas Pilies Kalnas (that man again!) is raised up on a hilltop above Cathedral Square. One of the local guides explained that, owing to Lithuania being a pretty flat country, hills, like this one, are commonly described as ‘mountains’. This concept is reinforced linguistically, the Lietuvos word for ‘mountain’, kalnas, is the same word used to delineate a ‘hill’, ‘hill’ is synomous with ‘mountain’ hence the Kalnas in this case, in reality merely a mound-shaped hill, covers both ideas. There are two ways up Castle Hill: riding in a funicular transporter (for a fee), or slogging it by foot from the park below, climbing a curved ramp-way with lots of loose, rough stones on it. The ramp slope is a fair distance to walk, but it is staggered, so not too steep. At the top on the hill mound you can observe the residual bits and pieces of the original castle complex (old arsenal, garden, castle keep & the tower – not much else of the original survives). As with the tower, from the edge of the hilltop there are great views of the Neris River directly below, and of the city beyond.
The castle part (the lower castle) of this fortification is long gone leaving only the (upper) tower, which possibly explains why it is referred to officially in Lietuva as Gedimino pilies bokštas (Gediminas’s Castle Tower), a kind of compromise on the original entity – it is also known as Aukstutines Pilies Muziejus (Upper Castle Museum). The national flag (or variations of it) has been raised and lowered from the tower top at regular intervals over the last five centuries (reflecting Lithuania’s fluctuating fortunes at the hands of external aggressors – Russia, Poland, Soviet Union). Patriotic Lithuanians cherish the flag and the castle tower as the enduring symbol of independence and nationalism. Across from the tower on the mound is another remnant of the earlier fortification. The tower (as it survives) is not terribly spacious, and houses a small museum. Most visitor interest, once inside the building though, is in negotiating the 78 steps which allows you to survey commanding views all around Vilnius.
Below the modest ‘mountain’ of Gediminas Castle is a large, attractive park (Bernardine Gardens), a tranquil green space with fountains, statues, an alpinarium and ponds. Try to spot a very cute bronze sculpture of three Lietuvos hounds (Skalikas) on one of the pathways. These gardens, backing on to the slim Vilnelė River on the east side, are an ideal location to stroll through or recline in.
At the Town Hall in Vilnius we met up with Martina, a local student who was our guide for the walking tour. Martina’s tour took us down back alleys and lanes to lots of little out-of-the-way places, cafés and delapidated churches with tiny niches of green space around them. Apart from guiding us to see some of the best features of this small, attractively green city, the tour provided through Martina’s commentary an introduction into the way Vilnoise (and Lithuanians) think. We heard some little anecdotes that gave us a good insight. One of these involved George W Bush’s 2002 visit when he gave a speech strongly supporting the tiny country’s sovereignty. Lithuanians were so impressed with Bush’s words that they etched them on to a commemorative plaque at the Town Hall (Miestas). The Lietuvis government’s pride at being singled out for special notice by the US President turned to dismay however several months later when they discovered that Bush had recycled the self same speech, word-for-word, to all the other European countries he visited on that European tour. A bitter disappointment for the government in Vilnius, but despite this deflating backhander I noticed that they still kept the plaque up!
Later in the walk we passed a long external wall decorated with paintings, pieces of ceramics with writing on them and other adornments. Martina explained that this practice was common to the city and told us about the visit to Vilnius by Thomas Harris, American author of Silence of the Lambs. Harris was apparently unimpressed and less than complimentary in print about Lithuania. Despite the adverse assessment the locals still posted Harris’ article up on the wall! Puzzled, I asked Martina why they would do that. The rationalisation she gave us was that because Lithuania is a small country, every mention it gets from the outside world, even if negative, it is still recognition and therefore important for them to record it on the wall! This very quirky, acute awareness of their own smallness suggests to me that some kind of collective complex prevails.
We explored the southern part of Pilies Gatve where Martina gave us some tips on which shops in the street have the best deals on amber (a Lietuvis speciality). Leaving the district of Senamiestis we crossed over a little bridge on the Vilnelė River into a whole new world – or so it would seem! The east side of the river is called Užupis (literally, “other side of the river”). As you walk over the bridge (keeping an eye out for the mermaid sculpture on your left below the bank), you will see a sign proclaiming “UŽUPIS RES PUBLIKA”. Outsiders might call the enclave of Užupis an artists’ ‘colony’, except that the locals call it the artists’ ‘republic’! It orginated in 1997 (pointedly on 1st of April!) when Užupis’ bohemian residents unilaterally declared ‘independence’ and formulated their its own (jocular) ‘constitution’, flag (the palm of a white hand), president and government, 11-man army, passport stamp issue, etc – democrazy(sic) gone mad some might say!
The origins of the Republic idea stem from 1995 when Užupis artists randomly adopted Frank Zappa as a sort of weird, hip “patron saint”, erecting a statue of him in the neighbourhood. Not that the experimental American rock musician had absolutely any connection whatsoever with Vilnius or Lithuania, but the local arty types just apparently took to him and decided to honour his memory.
The “Free Republic of Užupis” is not officially recognised by anyone (outside of the avant-garde neighbourhood itself). I suspect that the city authorities (back across the river in Vilnius) accept it and humour Užupis”separatism’ because of the obvious financial payback for Vilnius tourism! Užupis is a sort of more grass-roots, wackier version of Paris’ Montmartre! Art works of various shapes and sizes, some of them, like the numerous manifestations of graffiti popping up everywhere almost organically. Užupis is flush with quirky, modernist sculpture parks & quaint little bookshops. Overall I got the impression that Užupis’ artists and residents don’t take either their art or the ‘Republic’ too seriously. And of course Užupis, as befits a community that endorses democratic modes of expression has its own DIY decoration wall for budding artists.