Approaching its 700th anniversary, Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, is attracting more tourists from all over the world every year. Everyone knows about Prague, Budapest, Krakow, but all visitors to this city agree that the Vilnius Old Town is just as irresistible. Moreover, with its 65 churches, impressive baroque and neo-classical facades, and narrow, cobbled streets, it has a mystical and charming quality perhaps no other European city has.
The city was founded by Gediminas (1275-1341), the Grand Duke of Lithuania. According to a well known legend, he dreamt of an iron wolf howling on a hilltop. He asked a pagan priest, Lizdeika, what the dream meant, and the priest told him: "What is destined for the ruler and the State of Lithuania, is thus: the Iron Wolf represents a castle and a city which will be established by you on this site. This city will be the capital of the Lithuanian lands and the dwelling of their rulers, and the glory of their deeds shall echo throughout the world." In the next seven centuries, the city changed dozens of rulers, it was run over by German, Russian and Polish forces, but it never lost its inexplicable lure.
Today, the reconstructed fortress with a tower visible from afar still stands atop the hill overlooking two rivers and the entire city. The smaller river, Vilnele, meanders through a beautiful park and garden, along the Old Town, and flows into the wider river, Neris, at the foothill of the castle mount. The commercial centre of the city, with a large indoor stadium, high rises and shopping centres is located on the other side of Neris.
Prior to World War II, Vilnius was one of the largest Jewish centers in Europe. Because of the great number of its Jewish inhabitants, Napoleon called it "the Jerusalem of the North."
Napoleon's arrival in Vilnius at the beginning of his Russian campaign in June 1812 was a lot more glorious than his retreat. Before entering the city through its northern entrance, the Gate of Dawn, he studied it from one of the seven hills surrounding it, appraising its strategic location. When the French Emperor saw the lovely gothic Church of St. Anne, he declared he wished to carry it home with him to Paris "in the palm of his hand."
The defeated French army stumbled through the city on its way back from Moscow in December of the same year. According to a historian, the citizens of Vilnius witnessed at the time the tragic retreat of perhaps the most demoralised and defeated army in history.
When I first arrived in Vilnius in September of 1997, I was overwhelmed by the unassuming beauty of its architecture and its salubrious atmosphere. At the time, Lithuania was still going through a difficult period of transition from a Soviet state to an independent pro-Western country, and most of the buildings had not been renovated, but that might have given them an extra charm that the latter, spotless appearance had somewhat lost.
I was especially impressed by the look of the Vilnius University, with its thirteen lovely courtyards. Founded in 1579 by the Jesuits, it is one of the oldest universities in Northern Europe. The Faculty of Philology, my work place for the following three years, was full of unexpected atria with delightful frescos, winding wooden steps and long, mystical corridors. This was the first time I realised how important the atmosphere of a place emanating from its design and experience accumulated in its walls and objects can be for one's enthusiasm at work and in social life.
Vilnius was full of young male professionals from the West, especially from Scandinavia, who were savouring their stay in a place with inspiring surrounding, cheap beer and beautiful women.
While Kaunas, the capital of Lithuania between the two world wars, when Vilnius was part of Poland, is considered the administrative centre of the country, Vilnius is known as its spiritual centre. It is dominated by the Roman Catholic Basilica, simply known as the Cathedral, which stands on a spacious square across the base of the main Vilnius artery, the Gedimas boulevard. Baroque and rococo are the dominating styles of most churches, both Catholic and Orthodox, but there are also those built in the gothic and neo-classical style.
Old-Believers, Protestants, Greco-Romans also have their temples in the Lithuanian capital, and there is also one remaining synagogue. Apart from having 12 churches, the sizeable Orthodox population of Vilnius even has a monastery in the Old Town. Right next to it, above the Gate of Dawn, there is a famous wonder-working icon of the Virgin Mary, venerated by both Catholics and the Orthodox.
The population of Vilnius, like that of the entire country, is on a sharp decline since Lithuania's renewed independence in 1991, but young people and tourists remain attracted to the delights of this bustling capital of 550.000 people. Most remarkably, I am yet to meet a visitor who is not amased by its unpresuming glamour.