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Old church in Vilnius that hasn't had "the treatment" (yet...)
Eagerly awaiting the world music concert
Excellent world concert in Vilnius

After breakfast in the bright modern room downstairs, we walked into the city centre for a day of exploring the old town. The first “sight” we came to was the Baroque old Dominikonų bažnyčia (Dominican Church), the first of many churches throughout Vilnius. Like so many churches in town, it was a story of restoration now following damage during WWII and many years of neglect during the Soviet days. Religion was of course an unacceptable …erm… thing as far as the communists were concerned, and many churches were put to alternative uses during this period, for example as stores of some kind, or just left to gradually decay and crumble. We saw churches at various stages of this process, from crumbling walls sprouting weeds at the top (the one by the Gate at the end of our walk), to ones in semi-restoration or just with large patches of missing plaster and frescoes, to fully restored to their former glory. Together with the old town houses painted in various colours, yellow, green, blue, white, etc.

Vilnius looked like a lovely old medieval town, with a maze of streets in a typical medieval rather confused layout. Perfect for mooching around. We made our way to the grand Cathedral Square, at the northern end of the old town but in a way the centre of the new state. A large open square and a very Greek/Roman looking church with columns and a big frieze, and a separate bell-tower standing separate in front of the cathedral. Statues of former kings (?) stood in niches along the outside, looking unintentionally comical in their dramatic poses. A stage was being set up on the square, for a world music concert this evening, to coincide with the Unesco World Heritage convention which was taking place in Vilnius. Next to the cathedral a large building was being built with red bricks, a complete reconstruction of the former royal palace. An ambitious project, and it looked like it was progressing rapidly. It should be a real draw once finished, a centre-piece for tourism and cultural things. We climbed the small tree-covered hill behind the palace, up along the old cobbled path and up to the stocky tower at the top, which we also climbed, from where we had excellent views over the town, confirming the large number of church spires dotted all over the old town.

On the other, northern, side of the river we could see the new office towers being built, and old ugly Soviet-era brick tenements being pulled down. This will obviously become the new business district. We took the self-service funicular, which we operated ourselves, rather like a lift, downhill and walked round to the National Museum, a good excuse to get out of the heat! Inside we toured the galleries with a range of interesting exhibitions, including a modest art exhibition by a Lithuanian painter. Virtually all paintings on display were marked as “property of the artist” and hardly any were part of a collector’s collection. There was also a gallery with recreated traditional wooden peasant homes, log cabins with stoves in the corner, on which the old people and children slept as it was the warmest spot in the house, and galleries about Vilnius’ and Lithuania’s Hanseatic past, and more. An excellent museum.

We walked back round to Cathedral Square and went for another coffee at one of the cafés on the street leading into the centre of the old town. The modern “cyclos” were waiting for punters, with their very 21st century bike contraptions, with the plastic cab covered in advertising for Nokia. We continued to amble through the streets of the old town, in and out of some more churches, some more interesting than others. There was a Russian orthodox one, a gothic red brick one, etc. We also took a look inside the university quarter, walking from one courtyard to another. The university was all but abandoned now as it was out of term time, but it was clearly a grand venerable old institution. Along the triangular square in front of the town hall the square and cobbled streets were currently being restored and remodelled, another bit of Vilnius which is being groomed for the future. Past this and down to the southern gate, more churches and a chapel of sorts, but by now we were happy to call it a day. Off to the side of the gate was the “crumbliest” church, with families living in houses in poor repair directly around the church and next to it (like a courtyard). I was struck/touched by two begging people who sat under the gate, especially the old woman. When I gave her ten litas, her two sharp incredulous blue eyes looked up in surprise.

Earlier we had stopped for a lunchtime drink at a café along the brook/canal running through a part of town. Now we went and found a little courtyard at the back of a café on a side street, with locals rather than tourists. We had a couple of beers and played cards, switching to cribbage as I had won the marathon gin-rummy game (first to 10,000 points, we started it in Malaysia I think). Inside the café there was a lovely big bar with lots of wood and potential for atmosphere on a cold autumn evening, but now of course empty in favour of the terrace at the back. We had a bite to eat here and then walked back to Cathedral Square to watch the concert.

By now, 8pm-ish, the square and walls and steps surrounding it had filled with people, though there was still plenty of space in the crowd to easily move around and not feel crowded. On the stage we watched a series of world music acts, African, Cuban (they were the best ones), a fantasy Lithuanian band, a full-on French band with North African music and their own on-stage lighting which pulsed bright white lights. There was a festival atmosphere and some people dancing. Cameras relayed close-ups from the crowd onto a big screen at the back of the stage.

Finally we decided to head back and caught a cab back to the hotel. Across the road workmen were working on a construction site. I think they carried on working all through the night! Still managed to get some sleep despite all the heat and noise. We were both pretty knackered after a lot of walking and trudging around town. Excellent town, Vilnius.