Lithuania and the Philippines. Basketball and religion. Is it possible we have more in common? I’m sure they would embrace eating meat products on a skewer! As an Australian-Filipino I make this novel connection effortlessly as I haphazardly research what there is to do in Vilnius. I ask myself, ‘What is important to a Lithuanian?’
Typically with European nations life centres around football (called soccer in Australia). Here in Lithuania it’s basketball. As a kid I played, with varied degrees of success, many sports but I had an affinity towards basketball. I was attracted to the sport long before I even knew Filipinos were fanatical about basketball. Not just fanatical, but obsessed. Manny Pacquiao (famous, Filipino boxer, if you already didn’t know!) owns, plays, and coaches his own team: a fantasy for many Filipinos. Lithuanians are just as obsessed with basketball. And long before the likes of Ilgauskas, Sabonis, and Marciulionus made it into the NBA. Lives are planned and revolve around this favourite past time. Unfortunately I’m visiting Vilnius in the off season. So what else is there to do?
Although I grew up in Australia I was influenced from a young age, whether I appreciated it or not, by my traditional Filipino mother. Being Filipino more than likely meant you were Roman Catholic. No surprise here with over 81% of Filipinos christened Catholic. In Lithuania over 77% are Catholic. Religion plays a fundamental, central part in both societies and churches are a necessity to practice the faith.
The capital of this Baltic state, Vilnius has over forty churches earning it the reputation of ‘the city of churches.’ Not all are Catholic. However they seem to function together in harmony. History has shown that this is the Lithuanian way of living and ruling. Live in tolerance and allow people to practice what they believe in. This transcends religion and is a mindset we are both instilled with. Amongst the numerous churches are established pilgrimage sites like the Gates of Dawn. In addition there are other noteworthy non-church sights and combined with a rich, tumultuous history, made research on what to see a formidable task. Why visit one church over another? Travelling to Vilnius on my own cemented my decision. Book into a walking tour and be shown around the capital!
Vilnius has a compact Old Town and surroundings, easily accessible by foot. Urban Adventures provides walking tours and guides, like Rasa Aleksaite, who ooze passion, are well-read on many facets of their city including history and architecture, and have a friendly, warm demeanour. They want you to be as excited about their city as they are. Shepherded around the Old Town and the trendy, bohemian area of Uzupis you feel that you have seen the best Vilnius has to offer. In addition Rasa shared her own personal stories and experiences under the Soviet regime. However, it’s not all history and churches.
On the ‘Undiscovered Vilnius’ walking tour I enjoyed a shot of amber (yes, you can drink amber!) at the Art Center of Baltic Amber. Also, on the other-side of the River Vilnia, in Uzupis at a popular pub named Uzupio Kavine we drank a Lithuanian brewed beer from Svyturys (note, Filipinos enjoy a drop of beer as well) along with a traditional Lithuanian salty beer snack ‘kepta duona’ (rye bread cut into soldiers, fried and covered in garlic, cheese and mayonnaise). The drink breaks are evenly distributed along the three hour walk to ensure you don’t suffer from church or history fatigue.
Groups are purposely kept small to allow for guide interaction and today I was lucky enough to be the only one. The personalized walking tour I experienced with Urban Adventures and Rasa, made my trip to Vilnius memorable.
Following the walking tour I flicked through the day’s photographs, in the comfort of my apartment style accommodation, trying to retrace my steps. I found the task challenging, like a memory-test card game. Which church was that? Instinctively however, I noticed the differences. The stark white exterior of Vilnius Cathedral; the Rococo white interior of the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul; the red-brick Gothic of St. Anne’s Church; the pink, Baroque ceiling of the Church of St. Theresa; the unusual use of blue and green paint within the Orthodox Church of the Holy Spirit; the cupola with a crown belonging to the Church of St. Casimir; the bareness of several churches in the midst of restoration; pews or no pews. You notice, you remember.
One image I do recall, although unimpressed by the painting itself, is the famous ‘Image of The Divine Mercy’. A painting inspired by a vision experienced by resident St. Faustina in 1931. The original painting is now held in a stand-alone shrine next door to the Church of the Holy Spirit found within the Old Town. The painting is of a standing Jesus in a white gown, post crucifixion with a red ray and a pale ray emanating from his chest. The painting is inscribed with ‘Jesus, In Te Confido’, that is, ‘Jesus, I trust in you’.
With very little researched prior to arriving in Vilnius I had to trust I had done enough. I had to trust the walking tour would show me what I needed to see. I had to trust there would be more than just churches to see. I found an intriguing Old Town easily explored by foot with some remarkable historical sites. And yes there were many churches but they were worth discovering. Vilnius earnt my trust. I extended the same trust and courtesy to the Lithuanian people I met. In return I found them to be tolerant, hospitable and accepting. Although similar, unlike Filipinos they may not enjoy meat cooked on a skewer, but they would be open minded enough to let us enjoy our tradition in peace.
~ Jesse Gerwien
Monday, 28 September 2015 to Wednesday, 30 September 2015
Flights: Return flights with Wizz Air between London Luton to Vilnius International Airport; total cost GBP 65.
Airport Transfers: Taxis have a tendency to swindle their customers. Vilnius International Airport is close to the city centre and the Old Town and a one way journey should cost €5 to €10 however some customers have been charged up €30! To get the best prices use Ekipazas Taxi.
Book online: http://www.etaksi.lt/en/book-taxi-online
Provide them your flight carrier and number along with your arrival time and name and they will wait for you in the arrivals hall. Leave your mobile phone number and they will be able to text you.
Stayed: Old Town Stay, Klaipedos g. 7A-32, Room 2, Vilnius Old Town. Booked through Booking.com (http://www.booking.com/). Apartment style accommodation run by Mrs Saule; €54 per night, total for a 2 night stay was €108 and was payable by cash or credit card. Once your booking is confirmed via Booking.com or alternative booking agent Mrs Saule will email you and request approximate arrival time based on your flight. She will need to provide you with the keys and fob to enter the apartment block and will wait outside by the nearby bookstore. If you provide her with your mobile number you will be able to update her if there are any delays. For more information see my review on Tripadvisor: ‘Comfort of an Apartment in the Old Town’
Walking Tour: Provided by Urban Adventures Vilnius and booked through their webpage: http://www.vilniusurbanadventures.com/
Chose the ‘Undiscovered Vilnius’ walking tour for €39. See my review on Tripadvisor: ‘Vilnius Urban Adventures, ‘I Trust in You’
Dinner: Boom! Burgers, Gedimino pr. 1, Vilnius. I had the Boomburger with fries and a drink and it cost me €11.10 (See my review on Tripadvisor: ‘You’ll Want To Try Them All’)
Drink: Uzupio Kavine, Užupio g. 2, Vilnius 01200, Lithuania