Driving from Riga to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, took us further inland, away from the Baltic Sea coast and quite near the more or less closed border to Belarus.
The driving distance was roughly the same as driving from Tallinn to Riga, only about four hours. However, this time my husband was the sole driver. Normally we share driving duty, switching over every hour, but I had fallen in our apartment in Riga and cracked some ribs which made every tiny move, at times even breathing, quite painful and shifting gears pretty much impossible. This unfortunate injury also made the run-around we received from our Airbnb hostess in Vilnius even more unpleasant.
This city of about half-a-million people covers a hilly landscape along both banks of the Neris and Vilnia rivers. We had rented an apartment in the heart of the Old Town of Vilnius surrounded by interesting sights in an easy walking radius of 15 minutes. More importantly under the circumstances, however, was the fact that the building was equipped with an elevator, an underground parking garage, and a concierge. This being Old Town, the street in front of the building was a narrow one-way lane without any conceivable option to park even temporarily. I had to carefully and slowly climb out of the car to hunt down the apartment keys and the garage gate clicker while Barry tried to merge our car with the building without actually touching it to allow traffic to pass. The concierge turned out to be a grumpy old guy who spoke only Lithuanian.
At least I assumed it was Lithuanian.
He had never heard of us, the garage spot we were promised was taken by another party, and he couldn’t find any keys for the requested apartment number.
At least I assumed that’s what he said.
I grew increasingly anxious when I remembered that I had a phone number for the Airbnb hostess. Fortunately, I reached her immediately and was asked to hand my phone to the Lithuanian guy. They talked for a bit then she explained, without actually explaining anything, that there had been “a problem” with the apartment so it wasn’t rentable, currently. But, she continued cheerfully, she could offer a solution and she texted me the address of another one of her apartments, much bigger, she said, but she kindly let us have it for the same price owing to our initial inconvenience.
Disappointingly, this one wasn’t in Old Town, if still walkable. It was quite convoluted to get into the compound and then into the apartment through the retrieval of several keys from coded lockboxes distributed over two successive courtyards. The apartment was in the rear courtyard backing up against derelict housing, by the looks of it. The entire area was in poor condition, the yards unpaved and muddy with deep puddles and potholes – you can imagine how that played out across my ribcage! To reach the front door of the apartment, one had to climb over a couple of concrete steps set unevenly into a slippery mount of moss and mud. Inside it was cold with basic furnishings, not even an electric kettle to make some soothing tea. Our arrival in Vilnius had turned into a sad disappointment. After further negotiations, we scored yet another address. Still not quite in Old Town, still a muddy yard, but closer in, and with very convenient parking right in front of the house. Third time’s the charm!
There is a legend relating to the founding of Vilnius by Grand Duke Gediminas [~1275 – 1341]. The Grand Duke was hunting Wisent, a European bison, in a sacred forest near the confluence of the rivers Neris and Vilnia. Exhausted from the hunt, Gediminas and his entourage fell asleep in their tents. The next morning, Gediminas remembered a vivid dream of a huge wolf made of iron standing proudly atop a hill next to a river. The mighty iron beast was howling louder than a hundred wolfs. Gediminas asked his Krivis [priest] Lizdeika for an interpretation of this dream. Lizdeika told the Grand Duke: “Lord, the Iron Wolf represents your dynasty. You must establish a town in this very site which will become the dwelling of the rulers of Lithuania, and like the roar of the mighty Iron Wolf, the glorious deeds of your House shall echo throughout the world.” Thus Gediminas founded Vilnius in 1323 as the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the seat of the House of Gediminas. He designated the very hill on which the Iron Wolf stood in his dream as the location for his castle. Over the centuries, the image of the Iron Wolf has become a symbol of Lithuanian resistance and perseverance under the fist of occupational forces.
In conformation with its Christian tradition, the modern coat of arms of Vilnius features Saint Christophorus, Kristupas in Lithuanian, carrying Christ across a river.
However, when the coat of arms was first awarded to Vilnius in pre-Christian 1330, it allegedly showed a legendary Lithuanian hero, the Titan Alkis carrying his wife Janteryte across the river Vilnia. It wouldn’t have been the first time Christianity appropriated characters, customs, and celebrations from older cultures!
Among other leaders, Emperor Napoleon stopped by Vilniaus Rotušė during his hasty retreat from Russia, as did President George W. Bush following his much briefer and less disastrous visit in Russia. Queen Elisabeth II paid a visit as well, although not returning from Russia.
Pretty much the first area we visited in Vilnius was the Town Hall Square, Rotušės aikštė, which has been the center of town activities for a good six centuries.
In the past as now, this is where Vilnians get together for shopping, for fairs and markets, and for special events. Originally, the market square was surrounded by small houses mostly belonging to Christian butchers and salt sellers, and iron and grain merchants. Jewish butchers were not allowed to trade in the square. Violations of the trade regulations were punished by flogging and fines. The merchandise of convicted offenders was donated to refugees and hospitals (!). When we look around the square these days, the houses are large and elegant and the upscale shops are offering many diverse goods. In addition to stores, there are restaurants, museums, and churches.
This gorgeous BMW i8 hybrid with gullwing doors and other snazzy doodads belongs, I’m guessing, to Lithuanian entrepreneur Jurgis Adomavičius, the founder and CEO of a large logistics company, UAB Bunasta, who is very active in supporting start-up logistics companies in the Baltic region through a Lithuanian non-profit and also through his YouTube channel Pagal Jurgį meaning ‘According to George’. Sadly, Jurgis wasn’t around when we passed by, so I couldn’t ask him for a spin in his Flitzer.
Continuing south past the Town Hall, we encounter the baroque marvel of Saint Casimir.
Walking the short 500m/1640ft from the Town Hall to the top-rated Vilnius tourist site, the Gate of Dawn, one passes numerous hotels, restaurants, bars, cafés, shops, one art gallery, three current & former monasteries, one important statue, one philharmonic hall, one private university, and three churches – not counting St. Casimir – to finally arrive at the infamous chapel of Holy Mary, Mother of Mercy in the Gate of Dawn itself.
Dr. Basanavičius [1851 – 1927] Tautos Patriarchas, Father of the Nation, devoted his entire life to the Lithuanian National Awakening, above all self-determination and the re-introduction of the Lithuanian language. His dream became reality on February 16, 1918, when Basanavičius, as the eldest member of the Lithuanian Taryba, the State Council, was the first to sign the Act of Independence, establishing Lithuania as a democratically governed sovereign nation. He died nine years later to the day. Dr. Basanavičius’ headstone was engraved with a quote from one of his articles from 1882: Kada jau in dulkes pawirsim, jei lietuwiszka kalba bus twirta pastojus, jei per mūsų darbus Lietuwos dwase atsikwoszes tasik mums ir kapuose bus lengweu smageu ilsėtis [When we have turned to dust but through our toils, the Lithuanian language is standing strong and the Lithuanian spirit is restored, then, even in our graves, we will rest easier and happier]. His statue is facing the grand building of the Lithuanian National Symphony, which during Dr. Basanavičius’ time was the home of the State Council.
Continuing toward the Gate of Dawn, we first passed
But before we reached the church of Santa Teresa, there was more to see in this small corner, namely the Church and Monastery of The Holy Trinity – Vienuolynas ir Šv. Trejybės cerkvė.
The compound of the Monastery included the Ruthenian Uniate Holy Trinity Church, originally dating from 1514. Then there were the quarters of the monastic religious Order of Saint Basil the Great also known as the Basilian Order of Saint Josaphat which are part of the Ukranian and Belarusian Greek Catholic Church. The formerly devout quarters were subdivided for the use of a business university and the Pas Bazilijonus Hotel, as well as the offices of the ‘Mindshare’ organization. It wasn’t clear to me if there was still a functioning monastery also – the whole thing was quite confusing, really, so we quickly moved on toward the next church and monastery up the road. While all of this was going on, my very patient husband waited for me, waited and waited. Thank you!
This appeared to be quite a lively spiritual center. Any number of clergy and seminarians moved to and fro through that pretty-in-pink gate. The beggar on the sidewalk seemed to be well known, as a number of guys in cassocks shook hands with him as they entered the compound. All across the Baltic countries, we encountered such beggars, both male and female, stationed just outside of church portals, some of them kneeling motionless for hours on end with their hands outstretched pleadingly.
Just a few steps further uphill, we then passed St. Theresa Church.
Just past the lost balloons, the BBQ place across the street,
and the worshiper entering the shrine through a door designated for pilgrims,
we finally approached the Gate of Dawn.
or, as the current Pope puts it “to shelter beneath the mantle of the Holy Mother of God”. Sub tuum præsidium confugimus sancta dei genitrix is the first verse of a hymn praising the Virgin Mary as Θεοτόκος or theotókos. The earliest known record of this hymn was written on papyrus in ancient Greek dated to the 3rd century. And this is where it gets interesting. Theotókos, literally God-bearer has no true Latin equivalent. Dei Genitrix means Mother of God while the Greek term is so much more explicit and specific, she-who-gave-birth-to-God if you will. German is the only other language I know that uses that term in Gottesgebärerin, while the French simply say la Théotokos, the English the Theotokos. The title theotókos for the Virgin Mary was decreed once and for all during the Council of Ephesus in 431 CE which ended the Nestorian Schism. Archbishop Nestorius of Constantinople was of the opinion that Mary could only be considered Christotókos, having given birth to Christ as her flesh and blood son. But he denied her the honor of having given birth to a god. The majority of bishops considered Nestorius’ teachings heresy because through this distinction he seemed to also deny the Hypostatic Union of Christ as both God and Human. While Patriarch Cyril of Alexandria argued the true Church had to be based on the fundamental gospel that Christ’s divinity and humanity are one and the same, the Hypostatic Union in question. Cyril won, Nestorius was defrocked and the Virgin Mary’s title of theotókos became dogma. Fascinating, isn’t it? Then as now, a whole bunch of male officials concerning themselves with the birthing practices of us women.
Built during the early 16th century, the Gate of Dawn is the only remaining gate in the original defensive wall around Vilnius. As was customary then, each gate was adorned with a religious image or artifact to protect both the town and the travelers passing through the gate. The icon of Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn also called The Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Mercy was painted by an unknown artist around 1630. The large icon, 220cm x 163cm, in the Northern Renaissance style mimicked the appearance of traditional Byzantine icons. It was painted with Tempera paint on eight joined oak planks. The icon became known to perform miracles very quickly and the Discalced Carmelite monks next door built a dedicated chapel for the painting in 1671 around which time the image began to be covered in silver and gold also. The image of Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn is revered by members of both the Catholic and Orthodox faiths and it became so important that not even the Soviets dared to touch it during their 50 years of occupation. You’ll find fascinating details and images in the hyperlink above!
The cluster of ladies on the right had just come from the Chapel, chatting away before disbursing. It was time for us to disburse as well and look for a nice place to relax and have an apéro.
P.S. Not so much where is Waldo? as where is husband? Can you find him?
* These two images were taken from the public domain. Flag: Armed Forces of the Republic of Lithuania; Coat of Arms: Wikipedia, author Bongo4561]