Saturday, March 14, 2015

Republic of Užupis

No trip to Vilnius is complete without a visit to Užupis.  The self-proclaimed Republic of Užupis is basically an artist commune located in the Old Town, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

The Angel of Užupis

Užupis is small; about 0,62 km² (148 acres) and home to about 7000 people.  Roughly 1000 artists live here.  According to the welcome sign the speed limit is 20 kph and a smile is required to enter.

Užupis translates to "the other side of the river", referring to the Vilnia River that Vilnius gets its name from.  It was once the Jewish Quarter.  During Soviet times the area became quite dodgy.  In the early nineties many creative types took advantage of the cheap prices and started moving in.  

Backpacker Jesus Statue
On 1 April 1997, the district declared itself an independent republic.  It's pretty tongue-in-cheek to declare independence on April Fool's Day.  While no country recognizes the republic they do have a president, a flag, a constitution, a 12 man army, and the Dalai Lama is one of four honorary citizens.

The constitution is displayed in 23 languages along a wall on Paupio Street.  It's a very interesting constitution.

  1. Everyone has the right to live by the River Vilnelė, and the River Vilnelė 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 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 be idle.
  10. Everyone has the right to love and take care of a 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.
  14. Sometimes everyone has the right to be unaware of their duties.
  15. Everyone has the right to be in doubt, but this is not an obligation.
  16. Everyone has the right to be happy.
  17. Everyone has the right to be unhappy.
  18. Everyone has the right to be silent.
  19. Everyone has the right to have faith.
  20. No one has the right to violence.
  21. Everyone has the right to appreciate their unimportance.
  22. No one has the right to have a design on eternity.
  23. Everyone has the right to understand.
  24. Everyone has the right to understand nothing.
  25. Everyone has the right to be of any nationality.
  26. Everyone has the right to celebrate or not celebrate their birthday.
  27. Everyone shall remember their name.
  28. Everyone may share what they possess.
  29. No one can share what they do not possess.
  30. Everyone has the right to have brothers, sisters and parents.
  31. Everyone may be independent.
  32. Everyone is responsible for their freedom.
  33. Everyone has the right to cry.
  34. Everyone has the right to be misunderstood.
  35. No one has the right to make another person guilty.
  36. Everyone has the right to be individual.
  37. Everyone has the right to have no rights.
  38. Everyone has the right to not to be afraid.
  39. Do not defeat.
  40. Do not fight back.
  41. Do not surrender.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Vilnius, Lithuania

Vilnius was granted city status in 1387 and today is the capital of Lithuania.  It's in the southeast part of the country and has a population of almost 543,000 while over 807,000 live in the greater metro area.  Vilnius is the country's largest city and, after Riga, it is the second largest in the Baltics.

Prior to WWII there were more than 100 synagogues in Vilnius.  In 1812, Napoleon called the city "the Jerusalem of the North." However, there's a church everywhere you turn in this city.  There are 65 churches in Vilnius.  The historic old town was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994. 

The Gate of Dawn was built between 1503 and 1522.  This is the last remaining city gate which was part of the city's defense system.  The other eight city gates were destroyed by the government back in the 18th century.
Vilnius Town Hall

The Choral Synagogue was built in 1903.  It is the last remaining synagogue in the city.

The Russian Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas is one of the oldest Orthodox churches in the city.  The original church was built in 1340.  The current church was reconsecrated in 1866.

The Russian Orthodox Church of St. Parasceve was built in 1865.

The Cathedral of St. Stanislaus and St. Ladislaus is a Roman Catholic basilica.  The current church dates back to around 1419.  The bell tower is not so common outside of Italy

The most famous church is probably St. Anne's.  The church was consecrated in 1500 and is made from 33 different styles of brick.

The Gediminas Castle Complex dates back to the 13th century.  During Russian occupation in the mid-1600's its defensive walls and towers were destroyed.  There is one remaining tower and the complex is part of the national museum.

The Green Bridge crosses the Neris River.  The original bridge dated back to the 16th century and it was the oldest in the city.  The present bridge was completed in 1952 and displays Soviet-era socialist statues.

Seimas Palace is the Lithuanian parliament building.  It was completed in 1980.

The Hill of the Three Crosses is a prominent landmark in Kalnai Park.  Legend has it that seven Franciscan friars were beheaded on top of the hill.  In the 17th century wooden crosses were put here until concrete ones were erected in 1916.  The Soviet government tore it down in 1950 but it was replaced in 1989.  A hike up the hill gives a nice view of the city.

Update:  In July 2015, the government removed the statues from the Green Bridge.  The statues were erected in 1952 and are corroded.  They have been removed for repairs but there are no plans for them to be returned.     

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Lithuania's 25th Independence Day

Yesterday, 11 March, was Restoration of Independence Day in Lithuania.  It marks the day, in 1990, that the country once again became an independent state.

Vilnius was quite crowded as people came out to celebrate 25 years of independence from the Soviet Union.

There was a parade, several speeches, and military bands from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia played for the crowds.

Here's a video I found on YouTube about Lithuania's celebration.


Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Pärnu, Estonia

Pärnu is a small city in southwestern Estonia that sits on the Gulf of Riga.  The city is a popular vacation getaway and its beach is a big hit with Estonians, as well as, with Finnish and Russian tourists.

Pärnu was founded in 1251 and it is home to just over 41,000 people.

The city is roughly half way between Tallinn and Riga.  A 2.5 hour trip from either capital city makes for a good day trip.

The Monument to the Proclamation of Independence of the Republic of Estonia was unveiled in 2008.  It's a life size replica of the balcony where Estonia first proclaimed independence in 1918.

The Eliisabet Church was built in 1747 and inaugurated in 1750.  It is reputed to have one of the best organs in the country and the church is popular for concerts.

The Church of Jekaterina is a beautiful Baroque church.  The church was built in 1768 with financing provided by Russian Empress Catherine II.

The Tallinna Gate is the city's last remaining gate.  The Baroque gate was part of the city's medieval fortification system.

The Pärnu Town Hall dates back to 1797.

The August Jakobson Memorial was completed in 1973.  It commemorates the Estonian writer, politician and social activist.

The statue of Johann Voldemar Jannsen was unveiled in 2007.  He was a famous writer and also penned the words of the Estonian national anthem.

The Red Tower was built in the 15th century and served as a prison.  

The beach is what brings people to the town.  March, however, isn't exactly beach weather. 

I've never seen frozen waves before.  Absolutely incredible!  There were even signs posted to warn people about walking on the ice.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Biķernieki Memorial

Biķernieki Forest is east of Rīga.  During the Holocaust this was the largest mass murder site in Latvia.  In 2001 a memorial opened to honor the more than 30,000 people who died here.

Jews, political prisoners, communists, and those who opposed the Nazis were killed here.  The victims came from Latvia, Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. 

In 1943 the Nazis began digging up the graves in an attempt to hide any evidence.  Today there are 55 burial sites that still contain the remains of around 20,000 victims.

The main memorial is a black granite cube with a quote from the Book of Job written in Latvian, Russian, German and Hebrew.

Earth, don't cover my blood.
Let my cry have no place to rest.

There are 4,000 granite stones placed nearby to resemble tombstones.  There are stones with the hometowns of the victims.  Berlin, Dresden, Münster, Leipzig, Bremen, Stuttgart, Düsseldorf, Osnabrück, Hannover, Wien, Terezín, Brno and several others.  

I definitely hadn't expected to see a Brno memorial while on holiday in Riga.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Rīga, Latvia

Rīga is the capital of Latvia and the largest city in the Baltics.  The city is home to 702,000 people, about 1/3 of the country's population.  The greater metro area has a population just over 1 million. 

Riga sits on the Gulf of Riga and the Daugava River runs through the city.

Big Christopher
Legend has it that there was a tall, strong man named Lielais Kristaps, "Big Christopher"No relation.  He used to carry people across the Daugava River.  One night he was awoken by a small child crying on the other side of the river.  He quickly fetched the child and began to carry him back across the river.  Half way across the child became so heavy that Kristaps barely managed to get back.  Exhausted, he put the child to bed and fell asleep himself.  The next morning Kristaps woke up to find a large chest of gold coins where the child had been.  When Kristaps died, the money was used to found the city and the first building was constructed where his cabin once stood.

Historically speaking...Riga was founded in 1201.  During the Middle Ages it was a Viking trading center.  In 1282 Riga joined the Hanseatic League.  Over the years it has been a part of Sweden and the Russian Empire.  After WWI, it was the capital of an independent Latvia before it was annexed by the Soviet Union.  During WWII it, and the rest of the country, was occupied by Germany before being retaken by the USSR.  In 1991 it once again became the capital of an independent Latvia.

Riga's Old Town is beautiful.  The city has the largest concentration of Jugendstil (German Art Nouveau) architecture in the world.  In 1997 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The House of the Blackheads was built early in the 14th century for a guild of German merchants.  It underwent reconstruction from 1995 to 1999.

Riga Castle dates back to 1330.  It is the official residence of the president and contains a couple of museums.

St. Peter's Church dates back to 1209.  It is the oldest church in the city.  I've been to many churches in Euroland but this was the first one I've been to that actually has an elevator up to the tower.

The House of the Black Cat is one of the city's landmarks.  On the roof are statues of black cats.  The story goes that a tradesman was not accepted in to a particular guild.  To express his scorn he built this house and put the cats on it, with their rear ends pointing towards the guild.

The Riga Cathedral was consecrated in 1207.

The Red Riflemen monument is for the Latvians who volunteered to serve Russian during the 1917 Russian Revolution.

The Swedish Gate is the last remaining gate from the old city walls.  It was built in 1698.

The Nativity of Christ Cathedral was built from 1876 to 1883.  It was built for the Russian Orthodox community when Riga was part of the Russian Empire.  During the 1960s Soviet authorities used it as a planetarium.  It was restored after Latvia regained independence.

The Central Market is located in the large hangers.  The Riga TV tower is 368.5 meters (1,209 feet) tall making it the tallest structure in the Baltics.

The Freedom Monument was unveiled in 1935.  It honors the soldiers that were killed during the Latvian War of Independence from 1918-1920.  Surprisingly it was never taken down by the Soviet authorities.

The Jewish Ghetto Museum honors the 70,000 Latvians that were killed during the Nazi occupation.

There is only one remaining synagogue in Riga.  Inside there is a Jewish museum worth seeing.

Latvian National Theatre

One of my colleagues is from Riga and has been telling me for a while how great her hometown is.  Well Jūlija's right.  It's an awesome city and one that I'm for sure going to visit again.  This is also the 50th country I've been to in 5,5 years since moving to Euroland.