The capital of the Republic of Lithuania is VILNIUS. Naturally, it is the largest city in the country: according to the data of 2001 the population of Vilnius is 600,000. Of them 52.8 % are Lithuanians, 19.2 % Poles, 19.2 % Russians, 4.8 % Byelorussians, 0.7 % Jews and the remaining 3.3 % comprising some other nationalities.
Current area of Vilnius is 392 square kilometres. Buildings cover 20.2 % of the city and the remaining area is prevailed with the greenery (43.9 %) and waters (2.1 %).
The Old Town, historical centre of Vilnius, is one of the largest in Eastern Europe (360 ha). The most valuable historic and cultural heritage is concentrated here. The buildings in the old town – there are about 1.5 thousand of them – were built in a number of different centuries, therefore, it is a mixture of all European architectural styles. Although Vilnius is often called a baroque city, here you will find some buildings of gothic, renaissance and other styles. The main sights of the city are the Gediminas Castle and the Cathedral Square, symbols of the capital. Their combination is also a gateway to the historic centre of the capital. Because of its uniqueness, the Old Town of Vilnius was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1994.
Vilnius is also the largest administrative centre in Lithuania with all major political, economic, social and cultural centres. The County of Vilnius covers the regions of Vilnius, Šalčininkai, Širvintos, Švenčionys, Trakai, and Ukmergė totalling to 965,000 ha.
History of Vilnius
The capital was first mentioned in the written sources of the 12 th century. And in 1323 Vilnius was named the city. Throughout a couple of centuries it became a constantly growing and developing city because in 1579 the university was established here. It was the first university of this type in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania but it soon developed into an important scientific and cultural centre of Europe. Of course, political, economic and social life was also in full swing here. This is proved by the statutes issued in the 16 th century. By the way, the last of them was in force until the 19 th century.
Rapidly developing Vilnius was open for foreigners coming both from the east and the west. Because of that, strong communities of Poles, Russians, Jews, Germans, Karaimes, etc. began to form here. Each of them made their contribution to the formation of the city: at that time crafts, trade and science were prospering in Vilnius. The city was developing rapidly and at the beginning of the 19 th century it was the third largest town in the region of Eastern Europe. Only Moscow and St. Petersburg were larger.
Legend about Vilnius
The establishment of the City of Vilnius has a very popular legend. Once upon a time the Grand Duke of Lithuania Gediminas was hunting in the holy woods of the Valley of Šventaragis. Tired after the successful day hunt the Grand Duke settled for night there. He fell asleep soundly and had a dream. A huge iron wolf was standing on top a hill and the sound of hundreds of other wolves inside it filled all surrounding fields and woods. Upon wakeup, the Duke asked the pagan priest Lizdeika to reveal the secret of the dream. And he told: „What is destined for the ruler and the state of Lithuania, let it be: the iron wolf means a castle and a town which will be established by the ruler on this site. The town will be the capital of the Lithuanian lands and the dwelling of rulers the and glory of their deeds shall echo throughout the world“.
Vilnius Coat of Arms
The Vilnius coat of arms is St. Christopher (Kristupas) wading in the water and carrying the Infant Jesus on his shoulders. The coat of arms was given to the city in the seventh year of its existence, i.e. in 1330.
In pagan times, i.e. until the end of the 14 th century, the Vilnius coat of arms featured Titan Alkis, hero of Lithuanian ancient tales, carrying his wife Janterytė; on his shoulders across the river.
Name of Vilnius
It is believed that the name of Vilnius originated from the river at which it is situated, i.e. from the name of the River Vilnelė, which had an original name Vilnia.
The Old Town
Just like all medieval towns, Vilnius was developing around the Town Hall. The central Pilies Street linked the governors’ palace and the Town Hall. Other streets, winding like rivulets in the spring, made their way between the palaces of feudal lords and landlords, churches, shops and craftsmen workrooms. Narrow, curved streets and small cosy courtyards developed to the radial layout of the medieval Vilnius.
Almost until the middle of the 16 th century, houses in Vilnius were built without any layout and order. Only in 1536, the duke ordered the houses to be built in rows and in compliance with the map prepared in advance by the magistrate. This is how the streets emerged. Unfortunately, due to frequent fires they used to change their direction very often or disappeared at all. Many streets had arches and gates at the beginning and end, even in the middle.
Now the main tourism routes start at the Cathedral Square and go to the Dawn Gate through Pilies Street.
Dawn Gate Street
Previously an important route was leading through this street from the capital to the famous castles of Lithuania such as Medininkai, Krėvė Lyda, etc. Therefore, Dawn Gate Street was also called Medininkų
Street and the Dawn Gate – the Medininkų Gate. No houses were built on the other side of these gates but the cemetery was maintained there until the 18 > th century. In 1503, the magistrate of the city ordered to build a guest house in Dawn Gate Street for foreign merchants wishing to stay for a night. Unfortunately, this building did not survive.
Among the remaining significant buildings in this street the following are worth to be mentioned: National Philharmonic, St. Joseph and Nicodemus Church, Orthodox Church of Holy Spirit, Orthodox Monastery and Orthodox Church of Holy Trinity.
Bekešas and Panonietis Hill
The hill on the other side of the Three Crosses is called Bekešas Mount. Kasparas Bekešas, born in Hungary, was the competitor and enemy of Batoras at the beginning, but later became his friend and fellow. He fought long wars with Steponas Batoras for the Duchy of Transylvania, but after defeat at Saint Pole reconciled with him. When Batoras was elected to the throne of Poland, Bekešas came to Lithuania and was a friend of the king and his faithful servant till he died. In Lithuania Bekešas commanded the Hungarian infantry. He died in 1580 in Grodno. His remains were brought to Vilnius but the Roman Catholic clergy refused to bury him in the Christian cemetery because he was a member of the anti-trinity movement. Then Batoras selected the hill for the place of eternal rest for his friend where Vadušas Panonietis, who ied at Polock in 1579, another military man of him was buried a year ago. On the grave of Bekešas, Batoras erected a tight masonry tombstone in the shape of octagonal tower, which was six and a half cubits wide and 31 cubits high. During the Swedish war of the 18 > th century, a hole was made in the tombstone and those unaware of it thought it was an entrance. The River Vilnelė flowing at the foot of the mount would wash it away every year until five walls of the tower cracked in 1838 and the other three collapsed after a couple of years. After the first falling, a cap and a skull were found in the ruins of bricks and stones. Now they are displayed in one of the museums in Vilnius.
Bokšto Street stretches from Didžioji Street to Subačiaus Street. Long two-storied houses are standing at the corner of Bokšto Street and Savičiaus Street. It is the former Augustinian Monastery built in the middle of the 18 > th century. In the 16 th century an orthodox church was standing there which burned down in 1655. Later it was reconstructed by the Catholics, burned down again, was reconstructed again and handed over to the Orthodox. Now the church belongs to the Unitarians. In 1807, the palace of the Augustinian Monastery was bought by the University and the Supreme Seminary was placed there. After the university was closed the palace sheltered Ecclesiastic Seminary. When the seminary was moved to St. Petersburg, the palace was taken over by the government and an orthodox ecclesiastic school was established there. In 1919, the University established by Steponas Batoras received the palace.
This street is one of the oldest in Vilnius. It starts at Subačiaus Street and continues to St. John’s Street. It merges with Pilies Street, which, sometime in the past, together with Didžioji Street were a single street called Didžioji Pilies Street. Interesting: the square at the Piatnickaya Orthodox Church used to be the fish marketplace.
Didžioji Street can recall both glorious times and hard times: the honourable Lithuanian troops used to march this street; it also saw the crusaders, Swedes, Russians and French to march here, grand dukes of Lithuania and rulers of foreign countries to ride here, ceremonial processions were held here.
Nowadays Didžioji Street together with Pilies Street is one of the most frequently visited places both by the citizens and the guests of Vilnius. Here you will find everything you can expect: luxury shops, cafés, cultural centres, embassies, night clubs, souvenir stands and the best city clamour.
It is a part of the old highway of Trakai, one of the oldest and one of the most magnificent streets in Vilnius. No doubt, Dominikonų Street existed in the 14 > th century, but we come across its name only in the document dated at the end of the 16 th century, i.e. 26 April 1592, saying that some nobleman Jurgis Kamajevskis complains to have been cheated and incurred significant losses here.
For many centuries Dominikonų Street had two churches: Church of Holy Trinity – one of the oldest hospitals for the poor in Vilnius – and the majestic Dominican Church of Holy Spirit with its mysterious and legendary vaults. There the Dominican Monastery was established for a couple of centuries.
It used to be called Senators Street because a number of representatives from the Seimas and state officials – senators resided at Dominikonų Street.
Among the most famous residents of this street were, of course, the Sapiegos. They had two palaces at the western wing of Dominikonų Street.
In the 16 > th century, Dominikonų Street was almost completely built with masonry buildings and some of them already had drinking water supplied from Vingriai springs through a wooden water supply system. Although the majority of buildings in Dominikonų Street were made from brickwork, they were severely devastated by all fires of the city,
especially in the northern side of the street. At the end of World War II, the magistrate building standing at the crossing of Vilnius Street and Dominikonų Street suffered from the Soviet bombings. The building was not repaired and was pulled down. The 20 th century was not favourable for the buildings on the southern side of the street. Hotel Europe burnt down. In 1960, it was pulled down together with the neighbouring building, former Pijor college, which suffered only minor damage during the war.
The Cathedral Square is one of the first places in Vilnius to be mentioned in written sources. In old chronicles and legends it was called the Valley of Šventaragis. In the 13 th century there stood the Lower Castle consisting of the administrative and defence centre, arsenal and religious institutions of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. By the way, the lower part of the tower standing now in Cathedral Square is the former gothic defence tower and the River Vilnelė used to flow behind it as the boundary of the castle’s fortification. When you cross the Cathedral Square, take a look at the brown line – it is the boundary of the former defence wall.