Thursday, 20 October 2016


8th-9th Oct 2016

Vilnius Town Hall

It was another 4 hour bus journey south from Riga to Vilnius. Again, I didn't notice where we crossed the border; somewhere near the Latvian town of Bauska I think, with a stop for a leg stretch at Panevezys. There's nothing to tell you, such as a big sign saying "Welcome to Lithuania" or, as in the case of most British towns and villages "Lithuania welcomes careful drivers". I never quite understand the point of those anyway; as if 'towns' can actually welcome anyone, let alone careful, or even dangerous, drivers.  The countryside was still flat as a pancake, but more agriculture is apparent in Lithuania; a sort of cross between Estonia and Latvia.

I must say, these buses are really quite comfortable and supply free wifi with plugs for chargers together with comprehensive internet driven 'entertainment' consoles; something yet to catch on in many more supposedly tecnologically advanced countries. Arrived at the Vilnius bus/train station at the south of the city at 3.30pm and booked into the Panorama Hotel, very close by. It didn't look very inspiring from the outside, but proved perfectly satisfactory inside.

I took an initial wander downtown. The southern entrance to the quaint Old Town is through the Gates of Dawn. Last remaining of the five city gates, it houses a Chapel (of Mary) where miracles are said to be worked.

Vilnius, unlike anywhere else I've seen in the Baltics, so far, is not built on flat ground. It slopes downhill from the south to the Neris River which seems to seperate the old bit from the new bit.

On passing through the gates there is a large 'baroque' church, St Theresa's, of the Carmelite persuasion. I profess absolutely no knowledge of what these different religious classifications mean and, frankly, I'm not that interested. All I noticed was this enormous 'stretch' limousine parked outside. I think it was waiting for a wedding party to emerge. A stretched car-melite perhaps.

As with Tallinn and Riga, the city is packed with architecturally impressive churches and cathedrals of various denominations. They deserve a whole chapter on their own, but I will forego most of them...just mention the biggies en-passant.

Left: The view south from the steps of the Town Hall. There are lots of smart wine bars, restaurants, tasteful shops and boutiques around the area which is remarkably clean and tidy. Also some very upmarket, if small but elegant, hotels. The Grotthaus, at which I could not afford to stay, was one of these.

Moving south one passes the impressive  university campus and the Presidential Palace (right). It was used by Napoleon during his advance on Moscow and by General Mikhail Kutuzov when chasing him back to Paris. They are supposed to do a ceremonial changing of the guard here at 6pm, but I never saw any guard to be changed. Perhaps summertime only. 

I was here for three days, but on the second day it pissed down with rain, so I contented myself with indoor sight-seeing following a normally 'open-air' bus tour around town. The bus tour was fine except, due to the rain, the windows were up and closed. Lots of tourists (several Japanese) were on board and as a consequence the windows all steamed up (I don't mean the Japanese were specifically responsible for this) and, despite the audio guide and the wiping of windows, it was difficult to know where one was or looking at and photos were out of the question. I remember being told we were passing various churches with interesting stories attached. 
Also the sole of my shoe had sprung a leak which proved rather uncomfortable, but not as uncomfortable as after I bought a cheap new pair of shoes (forever the miser) in a charming and upmarket shoe shop. These caused untold pain later as my heels were rubbed raw. The suffering I go through....but pathetic compared to the appalling suffering so many citizens of the Baltics experienced under German and Soviet occupation. Silly even to mention a comparison I suppose.
Anyway, I decided to visit the building on Gedimino Prospektas, one of the main east-west drags, which housed the former HQs of firstly the Tsarist judiciary, then the Gestapo, then the KGB. It contains a museum, the Museum of Genocide Victims, dedicated to the thousands of Lithuanians who were executed, imprisoned or deported to gulags by the Soviets from WW2 up to the 1960s. Before that the Gestapo used it and were responsible for the murder and deportation to concentration camps of tens of thousands of the flourishing Jewish community. The large Jewish communities suffered terribly in all the Baltic states (as elsewhere) during WW2. It was totally inhuman and brutally barbaric behaviour by the Gestapo and the Soviets and really makes you wonder how and why supposedly even 'semi-civilised' human beings can bring themselves to inflict such cruel and dire atrocities. I can't even grasp the logic for it considering the inevitable international condemnation and repercussions. 

Left: This is the building concerned; a rather innocuous looking place from the outside.

Right: Along the wall on the lower level outside are memorial plaques honouring (some of) those who perished during the Soviet occupation. They were mostly men in their 20s and 30s who were executed for either real or suspected anti-Soviet activities.

Left: Inside were long corridors either side of which were  cells of varying size, together with guard-rooms, communication centre, communal washrooms etc.

Right: The exercise yard.

Left: Down in a cellar area was, most horrendously conserved, the execution chamber from Soviet days. This featured a wall with clearly seen, and most probably genuine, bullet  pockmarks in it. There was a video display, and I assume this was a re-enactment, but incredibly and gorily realistic, of the process of a series of prisoners being shouted at, shackled, man-handled into the room and perfunctorily shot through the back of the head. Blood and  brains everywhere before the place was sluiced down in time for the next victim to meet his fate. They then showed the bodies being dragged up a metal  chute and piled into a truck outside. A very alarming demonstration indeed.

Right: ...and while we're on the gruesome side, there were several montages of photos of the corpses of Lithuanian partisans killed 'in action', or shortly afterwards. There were similar photos in the Tallinn and Riga war and remembrance museums. They don't pull their punches here.

Left: Outside, a simple memorial to the Jews murdered by the Gestapo.

Right: The small Holocaust museum on Palmenkalnio Gatve not far away. More gruesome photos of mass executions and pitiful stories about families being arrested and split up before being dragged away to execution or deportation.

That's enough for a rainy day I feel. Hopefully it will be fine tomorrow for a good walk-about.....after buying some elastoplast to strap up my chafed heels.

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