A Guided Drive & Walk Through Vilnius
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In the 1400s, Lithuania was Europe's largest country, stretching from the Black Sea to the Baltic – a vast melting pot of Jews, Muslims, Orthodox Christians, Germans, Russians, Poles, and native Lithuanians. Vilnius was its intellectually advanced, religiously tolerant, and solidly prosperous walled capital city, ruled by Grand Dukes in elaborate palaces. Great churches, learning institutions, and other public buildings were erected in Old Town – each masterfully embellished in the architectural styles of the day.
But by 1795, Russia's relentless rise had shifted the geopolitical playing field, and Lithuania found itself the pawn of its far-larger neighbor, with Vilnius reduced to a repressed shadow of its former greatness. After World War I, control of the city changed hands between Bolsheviks, Lithuanians, and Poles ten times before settling into an uneasy calm. Amazingly, the national character was not broken during the many years of turmoil. A stubborn resistance to dictatorship remained, bubbling under the surface – and in 1990, Lithuania became the first to pierce the Iron Curtain, proclaiming independence from the Eastern Bloc.
It was a high point that descended into mayhem when, a year later, Soviet troops streamed in on the heels of a Gorbachev ultimatum: Rejoin the USSR, or else. To make the "or else" part very clear, tanks circled the 1,071-foot Vilnius TV Tower, visible from any part of the city, where large crowds had gathered in defiance.
Almost immediately, a small TV station in Kaunas, 60 miles away, broadcast an appeal to the world to stop the Soviets. New and larger crowds confronted the tanks outside the Lithuanian Supreme Council, continuing and expanding the peaceful protest. In the face of overwhelming global pressure, the Soviets retreated. And a free Lithuania moved into its future, while the USSR disintegrated within a year.
You'll see few signs of that old turbulence in today's Vilnius. Street life is once again vibrant, cosmopolitan, and progressive. Old Town is as enchanting and atmospheric as ever. And the once-nefarious KGB headquarters building has been turned into the Museum of Genocide Victims. In this city, the oppressed have definitely outlasted their oppressors.
Zappa plays Uzupis
The once-seedy riverside quarter of Uzupis is a freewheeling Bohemian enclave of art galleries and graffiti-enhanced sidewalk cafes. A self-declared republic since 1997, Uzupis has its own eccentric constitution, anthem, president, bishop, peace-loving army, official flags (one for each season) – and a statue of rocker Frank Zappa. "We were desperate to find a symbol to mark the end of communism," said Uzupis resident Saulius Paukstys, a lifelong Zappa fan. When authorities asked what Zappa had to do with Lithuania, Paukstys replied honestly: Nothing. But the statue now stands where Lenin's once did
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