One weekend in May, my wife and I visited Vilnius. A nephew of mine has found himself an internship in the capital of Lithuania which was a good excuse to get away from daily routines. It’s been a while since my wife and I travelled without kids just the two of us so fun to recall our city hopping back from when we were dating.
Travel smart, travel far
How easy it is to travel these days! With a smartphone and 4G, WiFi, GPS, electronic payment, no roaming charges, it’s no harder to get around and fulfil basic needs in Vilnius than travelling to the other side of Stockholm. While Vilnius does not have a subway or metro, distances are conveniently short and what cannot be covered on foot can easily be covered with a ride booked in an app. No need to speak the language, no need to call a taxi service or understand a ticket system for public transportation: Once the app is installed, you pick your destination and get an offer of cars with prices and parameters to choose from.
There is even a self-service shopping centre where you can walk in from the street and buy beer, wine, and liquor without uttering a single word.
Vilnius supports Ukraine
The support for Ukraine against Russia’s invasion is ubiquitous in Vilnius. All buses call out “Vilnius loves Ukraine”. Every bar, restaurant, souvenir shop, museum and public building have Ukrainian flags and decorations in yellow and blue. Every embassy has the Ukrainian flag next to their national flag, the EU flag and the Lithuanian flag. They are not shy about which side they support and over the weekend as we visited the sights and read up on the history of Lithuania, it became absolutely clear why: Hardly no other country/nation has seen so much oppression and aggression from their neighbours as this country of 2.8 million people squeezed into a fertile corner of the Baltic Sea between Latvia, Belarus, Poland and Kaliningrad (Russia).
Napoleon invaded Vilnius. Twice. Poland annexed Vilnius in the interwar period. Stalin liberated Vilnius in 1939 and gave it to Lithuania in exchange for taking over the entire country 9 months later. When Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, they kicked out the Red Army and began killing Jews and moving people around. From 1944 it was back under Soviet control and the NKVD began implementing their reign of terror which lasted until the Declaration of Independence in March 1990 as the first of the Soviet-occupied states.
Presents from the past
Old Town is a smorgasbord of churches and narrow picturesque streets with outdoor bars and cafes and enough souvenir shops with local specialities for any visit. Lithuanian food will get you the calories needed for an active day: Potatoes and rye bread can fill any stomach — especially when stir fried. The selection and quality are good and prices are less than half of Stockholm. Events and musicians make the streets of Old Town come to life.
The Soviet-days left landmarks of their own:
The Vilnius Palace of Concerts and Sports was home to many a concert and basket ball match until its was closed in 2002 for safety reasons. Built on top of a Jewish cemetery, its future is complicated.
The TV tower from 1980 with a rotating restaurant at 165 meter will give you the feel for the socialist pride in science and technology. With a memorial of those who stood up against Soviet tanks in 1991 and paid for an independent country with their lives.
The most poignant place we visited however, was the former headquarters of the KGB, now Museum of Genocide Victims. One thing is to read about Stalin and NKVD, another is being in a place that was built for the purpose of controlling and oppressing dissent and seeing facilities designed for breaking people and make people disappear. The room with padded walls. The room with a small platform above a floor bassin for cold water. The execution chamber.
It took some mental effort to go there. It took some time contemplating humanity to get back to the present afterwards. Knowing that places like this still exist and are used elsewhere in the world.
I now have a better understanding of the price of freedom. How lucky we Danes and Swedes are that WWII passed us so fairly light. How much suffering countries next to us have seen. How easily freedom and the values we believe in can be lost. How important it is to stand with Ukraine and not let Russia change the world order. Free countries must stand up against the bullies of this world.