A midsummer night's dream in Vilnius

by Judith.Baker

Vilnius, the pretty capital of Lithuania, has 100 types of beer and a thousand and one different events to celebrate its title of European Capital of Culture 2009

European Capital of Culture for 2009, Vilnius is the first city in the former Soviet Union to win this honour. Vilnius has hidden in the shadows of Europe for many years, but now she is out to party, and she scrubs up well. The city was so clean that I began to wonder if the Queen was visiting too, as the paint had barely dried on some of the civic buildings. Vilnius is as pretty as a picture, decked out like a bride for her big day, and the newly painted baroque buildings are pristine.

But behind the picturesque streets, churches and bars there lurks a dark side to the country’s history and the Lithuanians are not playing it down. Fancy being shouted at, barked at by fierce dogs, shoved about and humiliated publically? Neither did I, but in the interest of culture I threw myself into the spirit of Survival Drama 1984, a powerful psychodrama that Vilnius has included in its programme of cultural events for 2009. Held at a bunker in forest 25 metres outside the city, the experience invites visitors to partipate in a taste of what life was like under Soviet occupation. Although intriguing – and realistic – this is not a taste of history for the faint-hearted tourist.

The Russian babushka dolls and the furry Gorbachev hats on sale in the market seem cosier reminders of Lithuania’s Soviet connections. Back in the real Vilnius world, I found the old town picturesque, with cobbled streets and beautiful churches. Quaint woodcarver’s workshops where Pinocchio would feel at home stand cheek by jowl with designer shops that wouldn’t look out of place in Paris or Rome. The Gates of Dawn hold a miracle-working shrine to the Virgin Mary and Cathedral Square boasts a miracle tile, which is said to make your romantic dreams come true. One of the city’s monuments is, inexplicably, to the rock star Frank Zappa.

Vilnius is home to other quirky surprises, like Uzupis, a self declared independent ‘republic’ within the city, which has its own constitution where fishes, birds and people are equal and must respect each other. For 2009 some 50 artists have set up camp here and engage in a range of creative projects that will see children, old people, students and the disabled join forces to create unique works of art.

The passengers on the flight out from London were an unlikely combination of stag party, opera lovers and romantic couples. As it turned out, there was something for them all. This year’s calendar includes 'Art in Unusual Places' in September, when you can expect to find creative works in many unexpected spaces of the city. Street Musician Day, on the first Saturday of May, will see thousands of people go out into the streets to play music to suit all tastes. 

Midsummer Night's Dream

For the past two years, the Cultural Capital has held a Midsummer Night fiesta called 'Let there be Night'.  A celebration of culture and art, museums and music, it sees Vilnius Old Town become a hub of activity from 6pm until 6am the following morning, and the narrow streets buzz with live performances of drama, comedy and burlesque.

Determined to make the most of this night-time extravaganza, I went line dancing, watched processions, heard biblical love poetry and popped into exhibitions at museums and galleries. The streets were packed with visitors from all over the world, ranging in age from 8 to 80. The youthful vibe is contagious. There seemed to be no end of nightclubs and places to party. We didn’t see the stag party group again, which suggests they either found somewhere behind the many closed doors to toast the groom, or they never escaped from the bunker.

Bars offering Lithuania’s famous 100 types of beer are open throughout the night to sustain the crowds. Traditional Lithuanian cuisine is potato heavy, and a half metre of eel snaking across your plate or a ‘pitchfork’ of meat is best shared with a group of hungry friends. The signature dish in these parts is a ‘zeppelin’ – a grenade-shaped stuffed potato, which I defy even the hungriest hungover stag party to eat and still have room for seconds. But the city is crammed with restaurants serving food from every corner of the world, so no one will starve during the2009 cultural marathon. We bagged a midnight feast at an Italian bistro, which saw us through until breakfast. Our hotel was close to the aptly-named Gates of Dawn - which was breaking by the time we crawled to bed.

By contrast to the jollity of the night before, on Sunday morning we went to the Museum of Genocide Victims, a chilling museum where the dark days of the Soviet occupation come alive. The exhibits are housed in the old KGB headquarters, the actual building where anyone who had rankled the authorities was held, tortured and then either executed or condemned to the gulags.

Vilnius is,  I decided , a lovely place for a weekend break, whether you spend it just pottering around the Old Town or throwing yourself into the many cultural events that will continue throughout 2009. Those with a strong stomach can try the potato themed cuisine. Stronger stomachs may be required for the bunker experience... 

Recommended bars

Tiffany Pub (Pilies 34) serves 100 different kinds of beer, most of them Lithuanian. Beer snacks include hot cheese sticks and fried crab claws.

Uzupio Kavine (Uzupio 2) is the first bar inside the free republic of Uzupis. On a warm evening, you can sit on the veranda and watch the River Vilnia. 

Recommended restaurants

Lithuanian: Graf Zeppelin (Savičiaus 9)

Italian: Da Antonio Trattoria (Pilies 20)