From Poland and Belarus, I slowly made my way through the Baltics. My first stop: Lithuania! It’s a country I’ve been admiring for some time, and one that poured its heart out with stories of history and religion.
Lithuanian’s history is extensive, its name dating back to 1000AD and its presence reaching even farther. At one point the largest country in Europe, Lithuania now covers approximately 65,000 square kilometers and is settling into its new life as a member of the EU. In 1991, Lithuania regained its independence from the Soviet Union. Thirteen years later, in May 2004, Lithuania became a member of the EU and since, the population has seen residents moving to other EU countries where they are equally as able to work, but often with higher pay than in their homeland.
Yet at the same time, during my visit to Lithuania’s capital city of Vilnius I found many expats who had moved there for a more affordable cost of living and a comfortable lifestyle. There were travelers from Belarus, Ukraine, the UK, and as far as South America who were thinking of settling down. Conversations with shop owners led to tales of couples seeking a better life than the one they knew in nearby Russia and Belarus. Similarly, it seems that now is the time for those families which fled during wars to return back to their homeland to discover and rediscover life in Lithuania.
Click here to see photos of Vilnius up close:
What makes this land worth returning to?
As one of the Baltic States, Lithuania offers a bridge between Western Europe, Scandinavia, and Russia. Packed between forests abundant are religious sites, historical structures and a separate republic pledging a right of passage to the river running nearby.
Vilnius itself is like a shopping mall for churches. If ever someone would be up to the task, they could easily visit a different church in Vilnius each week for a year and still find more to be discovered. Some churches remain closed outside of scheduled mass, but those which allow visitors open their doors to extravagant displays. Each has its own collection of oil paintings, wooden and bronze sculptures, velvet benches and organs waiting to be played. When guests carefully step on the floors, the moaning of old wood acts as a reminder of its age and fragility. And when visitors once again step outside, they’re bound to catch site of another cross-capped dome nearby.
With over three-quarters of Lithuanians identifying as Roman Catholic, it’s easy to see the dramatic influence history has had on the area’s religion. Before World War II, nearly half of Vilnius’s population was Jewish, but during Holocaust over 90% of Lithuanian Jews were killed. Since then, their gravesites have been vastly destroyed as well. Walking through a park on the outskirts of Old Town, I was trying to get a good view of Old Town from a slightly higher elevation. Instead I found myself in front of a stone building covered in graffiti and surrounded by plastic “Do Not Cross” tape. A sign posted by the government told the tale in both Lithuanian and English. It says, “This building is an example of Soviet Barbarism… built using ravaged Jewish Gravestones…”. Take a look:
Sadly enough, as I’ve continued to travel through the Baltics, I’ve found other examples of similar acts. Today, Judaism is not a popularized religion with 6500 Jews throughout the country, and even discussion of the religion is very hush-hush.
Moments like these, seeing the sign and seeking further explanation, are the type that lead to a greater understanding of history and of the world for myself… and hopefully for you as well!
Wow that took a turn! But it was an important one.
Click here to see photos of Vilnius up close:
For now though, I will turn back once more to Vilnius and its unique entity: Užupis. Užupis is an area near Old Town which has claimed independence from Lithuania. It has its own constitution, own mayor, own ARMY (though reports put the army’s total existence at 11 men). The area, like much of Vilnius, went through a time of unrest during Soviet Rule and during the war. It has turned itself around entirely Today Užupis is one of the most prestigious communities to live in throughout the city. Wooden houses line the streets in certain areas, while quiet cafes and deserted buildings make up the rest of the republic. Its constitution is posted on a wall, inscribed in over twenty languages into reflective plaques so that visitors from all over the world may acknowledge what makes this place special.
Included in the constitution are notes such as
No one has the right to violence.
Everyone has the right to appreciate their unimportance.
No one has the right to have a design on eternity.
Everyone has the right to understand.
Everyone has the right to understand nothing.
Everyone may be independent.
Everyone is responsible for their freedom.
Everyone has the right to cry.
Everyone has the right to be misunderstood.
Everyone has the right to live by the River Vilnelė, and the River Vilnelė has the right to flow by everyone.
and… Everyone has the right to have faith.
Click here to see photos of Vilnius and the Constitution of Užupis up close:
For the full list, take a look at the photo I’ve included for you here, and let me know.. what would you change? Would you omit or add anything? Would you live in a ‘Republic’ such as this? Or perhaps.. would you turn their army of eleven into an army of twelve?
Lithuania is rapidly changing in so many aspects. It’s a place to keep your traveling eye on, and one that, along with its neighbors, begs to be visited and whose religions a republics are ready to be discovered by more inquisitive souls.