Vilnius – a lesser-known Baltic gem

Alan Dearling concludes his tales from Lithuania in Part Three of his stand-alone articles

Vilnius is the capital of Lithuania. It’s a lively, bustling city. A mix of the medieval and modern. A city of many histories filled with churches, cathedrals, castles, forts, a diversity of religious faiths, and the secularity of clubs, music venues, concerts, exhibitions, museums, galleries and open spaces. Sadly, it has suffered at the heart of at least two genocides by the Germans and Russians in the Twentieth century. There were about 200,000 Jews who died in Lithuania, most from Vilnius, during World War 2 under German occupation (1941-45). There are a number of museums and cemeteries where the deaths and deportations of Lithuanians are remembered in the pre- and post-War years, 1940-41, then from 1945 up to 1990, under the oppressive, occupation regime as a ‘constituent republic’ within the Soviet Union. Overlooking the city is Gediminas Tower, a small castle perched on a hill, which also houses a museum. Likewise, the impressive, recently renovated, circular Bastion is home to a museum of weapons and pipes for tobacco smoking! The Cathedral Square and bell tower are major visitor attractions but were mega-quiet in bad weather.

Here’s a link to the Museum of Occupations (aka the KGB Museum): http://genocid.lt/muziejus/en/

And the Green House – a sombre reminder of the fate of the city’s Jewish population: https://www.jmuseum.lt/en/expositions-2/i/196/holocaust-exhibition/

There’s also a relatively new Museum of Modern Art, the MO Museum: https://mo.lt/en/?gclid=EAIaIQobChMIoauEhcy6_gIVg-7tCh2MqgANEAAYAiAAEgJqsfD_BwE

 There are plenty of other galleries and museums across the city, plus many opportunities to visit the myriad places of worship, most are Catholic, but there also many of which are Orthodox.

However, the Covid pandemic, inflation and the spectre of the war in Ukraine are all still impacting the lives of locals, and to some extent the visitor numbers to the city and the country of Lithuania as a whole. There’s plenty of signs of optimism, but it is tinged with a few reality checks. Here’s a statement from Ministry of Economy towards the end of 2022: “Signs of recovery in tourism are already visible. In the first half of 2022, 456,000 foreign tourists stayed in Lithuanian accommodation establishments, which is 4 times more than in the same period in 2021.  More than half the level of 2019.”

The UK is struggling with inflation and so too is Lithuania.

“Lithuania’s annual inflation rate eased to 16.6% in March 2023, from a 10-month low of 18.7% rise in the previous month. This was the lowest reading since March 2022, as prices increased softer for food & non-alcoholic beverages (27.6% vs 30.2% in February), housing & utilities (34.9% vs 37.8%), and transport (2.7% vs 10.6%).”  Source: Statistics Lithuania.

I’ve been visiting Lithuania and Vilnius as an ‘artist in residence’ and one of the ambassadors in the Free Republik of Uzupis on many occasions from 2016 onwards. Making sense of, understanding the current state of play, is still something of a hard call, since this has been my first trip back to the Baltic State after the Covid pandemic. I’ve been a participant in the Uzupis 1st April Independence celebrations a number of times and I have to say, Uzupis and Vilnius seem quieter – many fewer people on the streets. Some of my favourite bars and venues have closed, such as the two Snekutis pubs in Uzupis and by the Egg statue. There seems to be continuing tensions between the populist government and night-time venues (especially the smaller ones) over the curfew time (which has often been 10pm). The city hasn’t really bounced back into its previously vibrant party mode, post-Covid.

Music on my visit

Very unusually the only music I saw live was during the Uzupis 25 year birthday celebrations was from my friend and fellow Uzupis ambassador, Brayden Drevlow playing piano and some jazz music in the Uzupis Kavine.

https://www.braydendrevlow.com

I also ran some of my own impromptu musical ‘noise’ sessions with folk in bars like at Devinke, encouraging punters to play a mini-hang drum. But, Vilnius is home to some lively and sometimes edgy performance spaces. Loftus, Tamsta (linked to a major music equipment store) and Kablys, ‘The Great Hook’ (where there is a hostel too, but the outside area seemed closed on my visit) are three of the most popular. And once the weather improves

– I experienced a lot of rain, sleet and snow – Downtown Forest Hostel: https://downtownforest.lt/  where I stayed, provides a great outdoor venue for bands and performers. In past visits I’ve had a great time imbibing the vibes, food and beverages witnessing the fine Lithuanian folk-pop sounds of Kamaniu silelis and Baltic reggae with Ministry of Echology. On each visit to Vilnius I always call into the Baltik Shop, Ragaine, where the knowledgeable staff get me listening to the latest Baltic music – particularly, new, slightly psychedelic folk music, mostly sung in Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian. Lots of jaw’s harp and other indigenous instrumentation and vocalisations and harmonies to die for. All worth checking out.

Official music video by Kamaniu silelis performing ‘As Bijau’ (2022): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9YpAZxZNkCU

Kamaniu silelis: https://kamaniusilelis.bandcamp.com/

Ministry of Echology voyaging into electronica and EDM: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eqEFaza6jP8

Tribal sounds from the powerful, Virginia Pievos, ‘Oi toli toli’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_hnBsloVCsA

Ragaine, Baltik Shop: https://www.discogs.com/record-stores/store/ragaine/

I met up with Tomas Jonusas from Grybai for lunch in the remaining, and pretty funky Snekutis bar, where some of the most authentic Lithuanian food is available all day long. Great bar with a night-club sort of atmosphere. Tomas owns Grybai (the Mushroom Manor Farm) some 80kms from Vilnius, and I worked with him to establish his own festival site where, with other friends, we put on the Magick Gathering. Now, a few years on, a number of Lithuanian music events have been hosted there including Menuo Juodaragis and Braille Satellite (a DiY indie festi which will be taking place again in 2023). My own health post-Covid, is likely to preclude, sadly, my own personal major involvement. A real shame, but I wish them well. It’s a special place set in a quite wild woodland/forest, small lakes for swimming and a natural authenticity often missing in many more commercial event sites.

Doc Wör Mirram ‘Trip to Litauen’ July 2017 (Braille Satellite festi) at Grybai: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l44bhu0Ui0w

Braille Satellite: https://www.braille-satellite.pro/

Mėnuo Juodaragis: https://www.facebook.com/MJRfest?locale=lt_LT

Meeting the police!

I was pulled over by two police near the market in Vilnius. The male member of the duo then interrogated me for about twenty minutes. He was pretty intimidating. And they have guns, of course. Our ‘conversation’ with him inside the police car and me having to lean in the window went something like this:

Policeman: So, why did you cross the road?

Me: There was no traffic and I wanted to get to the other side.

Policeman: But you come from England…you have same laws as us…you know you have to use the crossings.

Me: We don’t have this law.

Policeman: Oh yes, you do, I have visited your country…

Me: I’m sorry we don’t, but thank you for telling me about your law…

Policeman: We need for you…you must pay a fine…

Me: I’m sorry…we just don’t know this law…

(I then skedaddled, as fast as possible away from the major crime scene).

Later I checked up on-line about traffic laws for pedestrians. There are indeed a few. None of which the UK has. They also had enforcement fines – some pretty hefty ones during Covid. This is what I found out:

“Fines for breaking the quarantine rules will range from 500 to 1,500 euros for individuals and from 1,500 to 6,000 euros for businesses. Police will be given the right to impose fines.”

And Rule No. 1950 for Vilnius:

“87. Pedestrians must go to the other side of the carriageway only through pedestrian crossings (also underground and above the road), and where there are none, at intersections along the line of sidewalks or curbs. Pedestrians must not cross the crosswalk. When there is no crossing or intersection in the visibility zone, it is allowed to cross the road at a right angle in both directions in places with a good view, but only after making sure that it is safe to go and will not interfere with vehicles.”

I think I must have crossed the completely empty road about 100 metres away from a pedestrian crossing!

Lithuanians also face fines of up to 40 euros if caught crossing the street while using mobile devices. And I was told that you can be fined up to 40 euros for smoking a cigarette within 5 metres of a bus stop!

Finally, gentrification…

My temporary home in the Downtown Forest Hostel (seen with its eco-pods in the distance at top of the first photo) is located about five minutes from Uzupis in the Old Town area of Vilnius. My memory of it was it being in the middle of an area of old houses, many a bit run down. A few are still there, but now since my last visit in 2019, the whole area has undergone a major regeneration. It felt odd, rather unsettling, not just because the architectural styles seem to be lifted more from Scandinavia than the Baltic states, but also because there has been no attempt to upcycle – this is wholesale gentrification.

It’s now trendy, filled with up-market shopping malls of almost Bauhaus design containing coffee bars, cocktail lounges, expensive, high-end shops and boutiques. Definitely it is now the ‘in-destination’, the place to visit, and even more – the place to live and work.

 

Vilnius is indeed evolving! But, I end this final article from my Lithuanian visit with a pic of a selection of playing cards from The Hague Tribunal pack which I purchased in Vilnius. Putin’s Russia is never entirely forgotten…

 

 

 

 


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