Vilnius and home

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We stayed at the somewhat grandly named Vilnius City Apartments, which were 15 minutes walk from the old town, and near the bus and railway stations. They were of reasonable quality, without being "luxurious", and there were some problems - no dining table for example - which were sorted eventually.


During World War I, Vilnius and the rest of Lithuania was occupied by the German Army from 1915 until 1918. The Germans found a city that appeared to be Polish, and their commander referred to it as "the jewel of the Polish crown". The Act of Independence of Lithuania, declaring Lithuanian independence from any affiliation to any other nation, was issued in the city on 16 February 1918. After the withdrawal of German forces, the city was briefly controlled by Polish self-defence units which were driven out by advancing Soviet forces. Vilnius changed hands again during the Polish-Soviet War and the Lithuanian Wars of Independence: it was taken by the Polish Army, only to fall to the Soviet forces again. Shortly after its defeat in the battle of Warsaw, the retreating Red Army, in order to delay the Polish advance, ceded the city to Lithuania after signing the Soviet-Lithuanian Treaty on 12 July 1920.

Poland and Lithuania both perceived the city as their own. The League of Nations became involved in the subsequent dispute between the two countries. The League brokered the Suwałki Agreement on 7 October 1920. Although neither Vilnius nor the surrounding region was explicitly addressed in the agreement, numerous historians have described the agreement as allotting Vilnius to Lithuania. On 9 October 1920, the Polish Army surreptitiously, under General Lucjan Żeligowski, seized Vilnius, and designated the area as a separate state, called the Republic of Central Lithuania. On 20 February 1922 after a general election in Central Lithuania, the area was annexed by Poland, with the city becoming the capital of the Wilno Voivodship (Wilno being the name of Vilnius in Polish). Kaunas then became the temporary capital of Lithuania. The predominant languages of the city were still Polish and, to a lesser extent, Yiddish.

Under Polish rule, the city saw a period of fast development. Vilnius University was reopened under the name Stefan Batory University and the city's infrastructure was improved significantly. By 1931, the city had 195,000 inhabitants, making it the fifth largest city in Poland.

World War II began with the German invasion of Poland in September 1939. The secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact had partitioned Lithuania and Poland into German and Soviet spheres of interest. On 19 September 1939, Vilnius was seized by the Soviet Union (which invaded Poland on 17 September). The USSR and Lithuania concluded a mutual assistance treaty on 10 October 1939, with which the Lithuanian government accepted the presence of Soviet military bases in various parts of the country. On 28 October 1939, the Red Army withdrew from the city and Vilnius was given over to Lithuania. A Lithuanian Army parade took place on 29 October 1939 through the city centre. The Lithuanians immediately attempted to Lithuanize the city, for example by Lithuanizing Polish schools. However, the whole of Lithuania was annexed by the Soviet Union on 3 August 1940. A Soviet government was installed with Vilnius as the capital of the newly created Lithuanian SSR. Up to 40,000 of the city's inhabitants were subsequently arrested by the NKVD and sent to gulags in the far eastern areas of the Soviet Union.
On 22 June 1941, the Germans launched Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union. Vilnius was captured on 24 June. Two ghettos were set up in the old town centre for the large Jewish population — the smaller one of which was "liquidated" by October. The larger ghetto lasted until 1943. During the Holocaust, about 95% of the 265,000-strong Jewish population of Lithuania was murdered by the German units and Lithuanian Nazi collaborators. In July 1944, Vilnius was taken from the Germans by the Soviet Army and the Polish Armia Krajowa. Shortly afterwards, the town was once again incorporated into the Soviet Union as the capital of the Lithuanian SSR.

The war has irrevocably altered the town — most of the predominantly Polish and Jewish population was either exterminated during the German occupation, or deported to Siberia during the first Soviet occupation. Many of the surviving inhabitants were deported to Siberia in the beginning of the second Soviet occupation. The majority of the remaining population was compelled to relocate to Communist Poland by 1946, and Sovietization began in earnest. Only in the 1960s did Vilnius begin to grow again, following an influx of rural Lithuanian and Polish population from neighbouring regions as well as from other areas of the Soviet Union (particularly Russians and Belarusians).

On 11 March 1990, the Supreme Council of the Lithuanian SSR announced its secession from the Soviet Union and its intention to restore an independent Republic of Lithuania. As a result of these declarations, on 9 January 1991, the Soviet Union sent in troops. This culminated in the 13 January attack on the State Radio and Television Building and the Vilnius TV Tower, killing at least fourteen civilians and seriously injuring 700 more. The Soviet Union finally recognised Lithuanian independence in August 1991.
Today Vilnius is a European city, most of the signs of Soviet occupation have been removed, and the old buildings have been restored. As in the other Baltic countries we found "rent a bride" much in evidence as the young ladies toured (here in stretch limos) the city in full battle dress in order to have their photo taken against the appropriate backdrop.
We wandered in and out of many churches and occasionally in and out of cafes. They have the quaint custom here of charging you by the weight of the cake you consume. You get the assistant to cut the size of slice you want, then it is weighed to determine the price
This was a restored water mill complex on the outskirts of the city which appeared to cater mainly for weddings - there being 3 or 4 receptions going on simultaneously when we were there.
Vilnius is perhaps not as "twee" as Riga, the streets are wider and the buildings not as old, but, for me, none the less a pleasant city to walk around.

Trakai is a historic city and lake resort 28 km west of Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. Because of its proximity to Vilnius it is a popular tourist destination, The castle was built in the 14th century, fell into decay, was refurbished by king Sigismund I the Old, who set up his summer residence there. After his death in 1548 the castle gradually fell into disrepair again. During the wars between Russia and Poland between 1654 and 1667, the town was plundered and burnt. In the aftermath of the war with Muscovy in 1655, both castles were demolished and the town's prosperity ended. The castle ruins remained a historical landmark. During the Great Northern War (1700–1721) Trakai was plundered again, as famine and plague swept the country.

After the Partitioning of Poland in 1795, the area was annexed by the Russian Empire. After World War I, the area was captured by the restored Republic of Poland. In 1929, the Polish authorities ordered reconstruction and restoration of the Trakai Island Castle. The works in the Upper castle were almost complete in 1939, when the Polish Defensive War started and the area was soon annexed by the Soviet Union, then by Nazi Germany during Operation Barbarossa. In 1944, during Operation Tempest, the town was liberated by joint forces of the underground Polish Home Army and Soviet partisans. After World War II it was again annexed by the Soviet Union and made part of the Lithuanian SSR; subsequently many of the city's and area's ethnic Polish inhabitants left for the recovered Territories of the People's Republic of Poland.

In 1961, the reconstruction of the upper castle and a high tower construction were completed; however, the works came to a halt as a result of Nikita Khrushchev's speech of December 21, 1960. The Soviet First Secretary declared that reconstruction of the castle would be a sign of glorification of Lithuania's feudal past. Works in the lower castle were not resumed until the 1980s and were completed by the Lithuanian authorities in the early 1990s. Today the Island Castle serves as the main tourist attraction, hosting various cultural events such as operas and concerts.
Us? Well we were happy to look at the cygnets, and enjoy both a glass of beer and the view out over the lake to the castle
Eventually it was time to head for Riga and home. Logistics led up to spend the last night in Jurmala, a resort town on the coast close to Riga. We stayed at the Jomas Seta hotel which was close to the main (pedestrian) street - the room was a bit boxlike - but it was acceptable (just) for one night. Jurmala attracts few foreign tourists, other than Russians, so tends to have a different feel to it that other places we visited. Today it is probably the most "Russian" town in the Baltic states.
While Latvia was a part of the Soviet Union, Jūrmala was a favourite holiday-resort for high-level Communist Party officials, particularly Leonid Brezhnev and Nikita Khrushchev. Although many amenities such as beach-houses and concrete hotels remain, some have fallen into disrepair.
Jūrmala has long sandy beaches facing the Gulf of Riga and wooden houses in the Art Nouveau style. The distinguishing architectural feature in Jurmala is the wooden houses dating from the 19th and first half of the 20th century. Most of the buildings were built by Baltic German and Latvian architects. The town has an official list of 414 historical buildings under protection, as well as over 4,000 wooden structures
So it was to Riga airport and the joys of Ryanair back to the joys of Stanstead. Oh that there was a more agreeable way of travelling, other than the air buses of Ryanair and Easyjet with their claim to cheapness but with their persistent penny-pinching way of extracting money from you for virtually everything except the air you breath in the aircraft cabin - there's an idea for you Mr O'Leary


Our Itinerary in the Baltics