Passport magazine: Russian lifestyle
Home Archive February 2009

About Us

From the Publisher

Contact Us

Current IssueArchive
Restaurant GuideRestaurant ReviewsInternational Food BlogsWine TastingsTravelMoscow EmbassiesAirlines to RussiaMoscow AirportsCustoms and VisasResidence permitMoscow Phone DirectoryMuseums and GalleriesWi-Fi Hot Spots in MoscowClubs!Community ListingsMoscow Downtown MapMoscow Metro MapRussian LinksInternational Links
Advertise with Us
Our Readers - a profileAdvertising RatesDistribution List
Click for Moscow, Russia Forecast
Our Partners
Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


Vilnius. The Old and the New
Text Neil Taylor
Photos courtesy of the Lithuanian National Tourist Office

Moscow is proud of its 20th century, having become a capital then and with appropriate buildings to mark its new significance. Vilnius would prefer to forget this period in its history, except for the last ten years when it was again the capital of an independent Lithuania. It is much happier reviving the previous 700 years, from its foundation around 1200, and then flaunting all the projects which have started since 2000. The 20th century was a succession of bleak occupations under the Russians, Germans and Poles.


Visitors can best get the sense of Vilnius from the top floor bar of the Lietuva Hotel. Looking south across the river to the Old Town, buildings from the conflicting regimes and religions that used to rule over Vilnius now fight to stand out against each other. Fortunately, the UNESCO World Heritage status that this area enjoys has ensured that no modern intrusion interferes with this view, much as though many developers would have liked to destroy it. What looks like a Greek temple is in fact the Catholic Cathedral, built in what was simply the normal style in the 1820s. Beside it for 200 years was a gap, the result of neglect and plunder during the 17th and 18th centuries. However in the 16th century, it had been the Royal Palace, and that is what it will be again from July 2009. A laborious process of excavation and rebuilding will by then be complete. Above it is Gedimino Castle, looking much as it did when first built in the 14th century. When enjoying this view, remember that Vilnius has been a capital of a Lithuania 15 times larger than it is now, with its power stretching down to the Black Sea coast.

Walking across the bar and then looking north, east or west, the surroundings are however totally 21st century. The hotel now shares the limelight with the new town hall, a financial centre and shopping arcades. Visitors in the early 1990s will remember an area that had perhaps been salubrious in the 19th century but which no 20th century government had maintained properly. Arturas Zuokas, elected Mayor of Vilnius at the age of 32 in 2000, was determined to make changes. He accepted the Old Town as just that, a tourist attraction but hardly suitable as an economic centre needing to compete with Riga or Warsaw. This is what the New Town has now become. Zuorkas was also well known for turning around a totally run-down area of Vilnius called Uzupis, having been inspired by Montmatre in Paris. Artists and tourists are now equally happy here, particularly on April 1, when it regularly declares itself independent from the rest of Lithuania and even sets up a passport control.

Rooftops in the Old Town

No visitor in 2009 will be allowed to forget that Vilnius is European City of Culture, taking over from Liverpool in the UK which had this role in 2008. The New Year celebrations throughout the town set the scene for what will be a very public display of arts and culture. Yes, there will be star-studded concerts and grand openings, but the yearlong theme of the Festival is that participation should be as wide as possible and that much of it should be free of charge. Until now, the former Town Hall Square has been a place for strolling and for crossing over from one side of the Old Town to the other. This year it will instead be somewhere to linger and to absorb the diversity of Lithuanian music and art. Do not however just look for culture in the obvious places. A building site, an abandoned workshop, a bridge not to mention the airport, bus and railway stations all have roles to play in the City of Culture celebrations. Pictures will be displayed there and performers will bring them to life.

Whereas Estonia and Latvia have carved specific niches in the cultural field, Lithuania has succeeded in covering them all. Its classical orchestras are as talented as its jazz and rock bands; its painters can shock, sooth or stimulate as much as those from countries with a population ten or a hundred times as great as that of Lithuania. The detailed programme for City of Culture activities is on the website www.culturelive. lt/en Even with the program currently incomplete, it is hard to find a day without many competing events and exhibitions. However it will be at its most intense around mid-summer in late June and then again in early December when artificial illuminations all over the city will make up for the almost total lack of daylight.

Vilnius university

A walking tour of the Old Town can start from one Catholic centre, the Cathedral and finishes at another, the Gates of Dawn. The flamboyant interior of the Cathedral is a total contrast to its formal exterior. Do not miss the black, white and red marble extravaganza around the chapel that honours St Casimir, Lithuania’s patron saint. Many of the portraits along the wall of the nave date from Soviet times, when the building was converted into an art gallery. The restored Royal Palace is next to the Cathedral.

Walking now along Pilies, which crosses the Old Town, remember to divert westwards to the Amber Gallery. The Lithuanian and Kaliningrad coast is the major world source for amber and this museum shows its history and its current uses, which extend well beyond jewellery into medicine and engineering. The Church of St Anne is a further 100 yards or so from here. In June 1812 Napoleon greatly admired it and was a frequent visitor. In December of the same year he fled back though Vilnius to France ahead of his army after his failed invasion of Russia. The full extent of this failure only came to light in 2001 when the bones of 20,000 members of his army were discovered in Vilnius. They had mostly died in Vilnius from cold and malnutrition rather than in battle. Pilies is now such a happy street, full of cafes, colour and jewellery, that its earlier history is probably best forgotten.

To the east of Pilies is the University, Lithuanians love to tell Russians that it was founded in 1579, almost two hundred years before either St Petersburg or Moscow had one. Mingle outdoors with the students or climb inside to the Observatory and to the collection of 16th century manuscripts. Note the frescoes on the ceilings, some are centuries old but others date just from the 1970s and were then a welcome relief from socialist realism.

26 Pilies was where the Lithuanian Declaration of Independence was signed on February 24,1918, which is why this is now the National Day. It is now a museum commemorating this. Go onto the balcony for the best views of Pilies and of the University buildings.

The Gates of Dawn

Walking through the Old Town shows how many religions and ethnic groups Vilnius has hosted over the last 800 years. If the 20th century saw them fighting, the previous seven centuries saw Jews, Lithuanians, Poles and Russians largely at peace and working together. Visit any museum to see the heritage that this cooperation has bequeathed. Pilies broadens out into Town Hall Square. The museum located here, named aft er its founder Kazys Varnelis, in fact has nothing Lithuanian in it at all. Kazys Varnelis fled from Vilnius in 1944 and had a dual career in the USA as a modern artist but also as a collector and dealer in maps, furniture and first editions. On the restoration of independence, he returned home. Both his own work and his collection are now shown here so expect to see an 18th century mahogany table set against 1960s abstract art.

The Gates of Dawn, part of the former Old Town fortifications, stretch across the street two hundred yards to the south of Town Hall Square. A gold and silver image of the Virgin Mary looks down on pilgrims, many of whom are kneeling in the street. Others crawl up the stairs at the side on hands and knees to show their veneration.

Do not be ashamed if you fail to leave the Old Town during your stay. You will be following in the footsteps of most previous visitors who spend the morning in earnest sightseeing, the afternoon in galleries and the evenings in selfindulgence. In Vilnius, age is irrelevant. It suits 70-year olds just as much as 25-year olds. For a city now celebrating its 800th birthday, one cannot expect it to distinguish between the two.


FlyLAL ( the Lithuanian national carrier flies daily Mon-Fri from Moscow to Vilnius. The early morning schedule means that flying from Moscow on Friday and back on Monday allows three full days in Vilnius and only one day away from the office. There is a daily train between Moscow and Vilnius but it is only used by the very old, the very young and the very patient, given the need for a doubletransit Belarus visa.

When arriving in and leaving from Vilnius airport, do not waste money on a taxi or take the cumbersome local bus. Take instead the dedicated train, which came into service in September 2008. Costing two litas, or roughly €0.60, it must be a European bargain.


The bank at the airport gives a very good rate of exchange and, equally important, bank notes with low denominations. It is happy to accept roubles and all major currencies and to change back litas on departure. ATMs usually give out 200 litas notes, worth about 60€. The lita is fixed to the euro at 1€ = 3.45LT but do not expect euros to be taken in any shops or restaurants. Credit cards can be used everywhere.


The Reval Lietuva Hotel ( dominates the Vilnius skyline with its 22 storeys and its 300 rooms. Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh stayed there in 2006 but the hotel caters equally well for tourists and business travellers. A pedestrian bridge links it across the river to the Old Town.

There are many small four-star hotels in the Old Town itself, including the 50-room Narutis ( on Pilies, the main street through the Old Town, the 65-room Artis Centrum ( which overlooks the Presidential garden, and 80-room Congress ( beside the river.


It is not worth bothering to track down Lithuanian food. The major national dish is cepelinai, enormous dumplings made from potatoes and filled with chunks of meat, so far too close for comfort to basic Russian fare. However all the major European cuisines are now represented in Vilnius, with the same quality as in Moscow or in their home base, but at much lower prices. For a quiet evening in rural France, go to Les Amis, Saviciaus 9 which has only six tables and so every dish is freshly prepared. For a livelier time in Italy, Da Antonio Pilies 20 fits the bill, both with its food and with its wine. Brits who have skimped on lunch and tea will make up for this at Lokys (The Bear) given its generous portions of game. With a large group, go Chinese at Kinija, Konstitucijos12, over the river in the New Town.

 Copyright 2004-2012 +7 (495) 640 0508,,
website development – Telemark
OnLine M&A Russia Deal Book
Follow Us