I’m always in search of the quirky and charming, and I certainly found plenty of both in the lovely city of Vilnius. I’d never visited any of the Baltic countries, so I didn’t know what to expect. From Wikipedia, I learned that Lithuania is a brand-new country, independent since only 1990, with a population of three million. But facts and figures don’t tell you about the soul of a place, and I went in search of Lithuania’s soul.
And to do some book business, of course!
I was invited to the Vilnius Book Fair by my wonderful publisher Jotema — the first time they’ve ever invited an American author to their country. I was a little nervous about not speaking Lithuanian, but soon discovered that most young people in Vilnius speak English, putting monolingual Americans to shame. Luckily, I also had the loving attention of Aiste Matjosaityte, my publisher’s foreign rights manager, who escorted me everywhere.
Aiste soon discovered that I do love my coffee breaks!
My visit started off with a TV interview at my hotel.
Followed the next day with a visit to the Book Fair, where crowds of book-lovers, young and old, mobbed the aisles. I signed for a long line of readers.
And got the chance to meet the terrific Jotema publishing team:
There was also plenty of time to wander the streets of Vilnius. Few Americans visit the town, which is a shame, because it has so many charms. There are the narrow, picturesque streets…
Lots of shops featuring the region’s famous Baltic amber:
Churches, museums, and historic buildings. (Here is the town hall.)
And did I mention bookshops? I couldn’t believe how many bookstores there are in this city, just about one on every other block. This seems to be a town that loves its books.
And just a short distance out of town is another wondrous spot: Trakkei, famous for its island castle, built in the 1300s. Here I am with our guide Viktorija:
But it’s also a city of ghosts, and everywhere I wandered, I could not forget the tragic history of this city, and of Lithuania. During the Nazi occupation of WWII, almost all of its Jewish population — said to be 40% of the city, which was then vibrantly multi-ethnic — was murdered. This was followed by the Soviet occupation, which brutally hunted down Lithuanian partisans who were fighting for independence. One absolute must for every visitor is the KGB museum, which once served as a notorious prison. Here I came face to face with the heartbreaking history of this city, and the courage of its freedom fighters. I was astonished by how many of them were women, who served as messengers and spies and nurses. They too were executed, or disappeared into prisons and were never seen again. In the basement of this building is the very room where thousands of prisoners were summarily executed by gunshots to the head. I stood all alone in that room for a long time, thinking about the men and women for whom those walls were the last thing they ever saw.
When I walked out of the building, it was like getting a second chance at life. I took no photos of the museum. It was simply that disturbing.
Despite that dark history, Vilnius is morphing into a place with a vibrant sense of its own culture — and its own humor. One of my favorite little spots was their “Literature street”, where authors are honored with sometimes hilarious plaques.
Not all the authors are Lithuanian — I spotted the names of Thomas Harris and Jonathan Franzen on the wall! Please please, a Tess Gerritsen plaque some day???)
Then there is the TRULY quirky, a little neighborhood I visited twice just because I couldn’t believe it existed. As you approach the river, you come to a bridge with this sign announcing you are about to enter the Republic of Uzupio. It has its own president, its own constitution, and even its own passport stamp. It demands that you must enter with a smile.
Attached to the bridge are hundreds of padlocks, which seemed to serve no purpose:
Until you take a closer look at the padlocks and discover that they’re each engraved with a couple’s name:
It’s tradition in Vilnius, when a couple gets married, to attach a padlock to the Uzupio Bridge, as a good-luck charm that their union will last. Of course, I took the symbolism in a slightly different way!
The history of Uzupio starts off tragically. Once a neighborhood of Jews, it was transformed into a ghost neighborhood by WWII. The downtrodden were the first to move in to the abandoned buildings, and for a time it was a seedy, dangerous section of Vilnius. Gradually artists and bohemians discovered it, and they transformed it into the wacky counter-culture place it now is.
In their “square” is a statue of the Archangel Gabriel, who represents their “Saint of Creativity”:
Of course I had to take a photo of one of its charming local inhabitants:
And finally, here is the Constitution of Uzupio, translated into a whole host of languages, and posted on a wall for the world to see. If the whole world followed this constitution, we’d live in a much better place:
For the complete Constituion, you can find it here
Good luck finding a constitution with articles like these:
THE CONSTITUTION OF THE REPUBLIC OF UZUPIO
1. Everyone has the right to live by the River Vilnele, and the River Vilnele has the right to flow by everyone.
2. Everyone has the right to hot water, heating in winter, and a tiled roof.
3. Everyone has the right to die, but this is not an obligation.
4. Everyone has the right to make mistakes.
5. Everyone has the right to be unique.
6. Everyone has the right to love.
7. Everyone has the right not to be loved, but not necessarily.
8. Everyone has the right to be undistinguished and unknown.
9. Everyone has the right to idle.
10. Everyone has the right to love and take care of the cat.
11. Everyone has the right to look after the dog until one of them dies.
12. A dog has the right to be a dog.
13. A cat is not obliged to love its owner, but must help in time of need.