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We rolled into Vilnius, Lithuania just before 10 pm last night after a four-hour long bus ride. It was pouring rain, which is typical for here (apparently the weather is awful in one way or another at least 60% of the time), and late, so we grabbed dinner at a vegetarian bar and crashed out at the hotel. Today, it was supposed to pour--our cab driver assured us that this time, the entire city would be flooded--but our luck held and we were able to do a walking tour of the Old Town and the Republic of Užupis.

Vilnius has a messy, dilapidated charm. I think, perhaps, my lack of bonding with Riga was due to the fact that it's kept in such good repair; letting a city crumble a bit is much more aesthetically pleasing. It's slightly less Westernized--people here speak Russian as much as they do English, though mainly Lithuanian--and just, well, weirder.

Let's start with the bleak history--95% of Lithuania's Jewish population died in the Holocaust, the largest percentage of any country. There were no concentration camps in Lithuania. Until recently, it was taught that the Nazis murdered the Jewish population; the country is now only coming to grips with the fact that it was the Lithuanians (who had greeted the Nazis with flowers, as liberators, following a brief occupation by the Soviet Union).

The large synagogue in Vilnius was destroyed in WWII. After the war, the Soviets re-occupied Lithuania and saw no point in restoring the synagogue, so they built a kindergarten over it. Much of the synagogue was underground, however; the pre-war Jewish population was considerable, but no building could be taller than the Catholic cathedral, so they built down instead of up. Archaeologists continue to uncover remnants of the original building. There were two Jewish ghettos in Vilnius, one for intellectuals and one for everyone else. The majority of Holocaust victims were either deported to camps in Poland or killed in a small town about 15 minutes away.

With that chilling bit of history aside (although one can't put it aside, of course), Vilnius today is a lively, welcoming place.

Lithuania is a pagan country only reluctantly Christianized. When its leaders decided that the population should be converted to Catholicism to align with Poland's political power, they offered everyone who agreed to be baptized a wool shirt--at the time, a considerable expense. Most people agreed to be baptized to get the shirt, and then went right back to worshipping pagan gods. Good on 'em.

The cathedral is still pretty impressive, though. Apparently there's no point in going in as most of the churches are empty.

From the Old Town, we crossed into the Republic of Užupis, which is probably one of my favourite places ever just on principle. An artists' district, they decided that independence from the Soviet Union wasn't enough and in 1997, declared independence from Lithuania as well. It has its own anthem, flag, and standing army of 12 children. On April Fool's Day, you can get your passport stamped when you cross the bridge into Užupis.

Jesus was the first backpacker.

We met a very important person: the feline ambassador of Užupis. He has one job, which is to translate the constitution into cat. Not sure if he's done that.


Užupis has the best constitution of any country in the world, and you can read it in several different languages here.

This is the main square in the country, and there's a great story involving the sculptor promising an angel and producing an egg instead because he got behind schedule, then claiming that the angel would hatch out of the egg the following year, which of course it did. The more important story is that on April Fool's Day, this fountain is said to turn water into beer, but only for an hour. You need to hang around the square for the whole day listening to performances in the hope that the beer will flow.

This is the literary street, with small plaques commemorating the work of various authors. They started out with Lithuanian authors, but there aren't really that many, so they added tributes to authors who had connections to Lithuania in some way.

Here's the one for literary critics.

Here's the one for Thomas Harris, because Hannibal Lecter was born in Lithuania.

Then we just kind of wandered around and I took a bunch more photos.

A quick technical note: I have used up almost all of my image-hosting space on DW, and Photobucket is now charging for its unreliable, crappy image hosting. Anyone have recommendations?
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