The city of Vilnius is celebrating its 700th anniversary this year, 2023. It is the capital of Lithuania and is best known for its huge Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site. I visited Vilnius recently for a regional educators conference. This is my fourth visit to the city and walking along the Neris River or through the narrow streets of Old Town never gets old. I love the city and have had many good times there!
A big part of my ancestry is Polish but I seem to go to Lithuania more than Poland. The two countries have a long history together and formed a federation for over 200 years from 1569 to 1795. I feel like I am getting to know my ancestry when visit. I didn’t realize that Poland is so much larger than Lithuania, with 38 million compared to 2.8 million Lithuanians.
As with most European cities I visit, the people are generally taller, thinner, and better looking than Americans. There were lots of impressive-looking people. The Lithuanians have very light skin, mostly blue eyes, and most commonly light brown hair. Basketball is the most popular sport and the height really helps. I remember one of my favorite NBA players, Šarūnas Marčiulionis who played for the Golden State Warriors. Almost every day during my stay, the outdoor courts in front of our hotel in the park were full of young people playing pick-up hoops.
The highlight of my walking around the city was visiting the former Lukiškiu Prison. I was mainly interested because my children are fans of NetFlix’s series Stranger Things. The show filmed the fourth season of the show there. Prisons are not happy places and this particular prison has a long, sad history. Many Lithuanians and Poles were held there before being executed for sent to the gulags (remote prison camps). The Germans in World War II used it as a concentration camp for Jews and Poles. There were once so many Jews in the city that Napoleon called it “Jerusalem of the North”. Tragically, the city today does not have a significant Jewish population. The prison closed a couple of years ago and the owners conduct tours through it and tried to capitalize on the Stranger Things popularity by opening an Air B&B, but officials stopped it in respect to the many victims who died there. In the courtyard, however, I did see a bar and summer dining area, and other parts of the building have art studios.
I also noticed a lot of support for neighboring Ukraine. There were flags and organizations asking for donations everywhere in the city. I can see why because it is sandwiched between Russia and Belarus. They may also fear Putin trying to connect Kaliningrad to Belarus. The country has one of the highest GDPs of the former Soviet Republics and I guess they have a good share of refugees. Our flights were a bit longer between Istanbul and Vilnius because we avoided Ukrainian air space.
Another highlight was a special reception held at the Vilnius Town Hall. The neoclassical-style building was redesigned and constructed in 1799. It was a special night as teachers from the American International School of Vilnius performed and we had some nice appetizers and drinks. An office off to the right on the second floor was awesome and we all took pictures behind the desk. It looked like the backdrop for a coup d’ tet video announcement. The room oozed power and intimidation.