|Lead us to the right path|
There are two things that Lithuanians are passionate about - team sport and religion. In a predominantly soccer-crazed continent, Lithuanians go wild for basketball. And when it comes to spirituality, a vast majority of them are Roman Catholics. So it comes natural that both sport and religion co-exist happily in this tiny Baltic country with . . . major, major followers.
|Taking a break from selling tourist souvenir art|
while enjoying a national favorite - cold beetroot soup
Like most parts of Europe, Lithuania has an ongoing love affair with Old Town. Called Senamiestis, this historic center of Vilnius has seen the ups and downs of the city since its founding in 1323. Today, it retains much of the splendor of its architecture, be it baroque, gothic, renaissance and neoclassical. In recognition of its universal importance, the Old Town of Vilnius was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994.
|Gate of Dawn|
With a city map given by our hotel, we walked towards the Old Town. Our hotel happens to be at the far edge of Old Town and it took us some time to get our bearings right even if from our hotel window, it looked deceptively near. But have no fear, as we soon found out, the locals were actually helpful in guiding us to the right direction. From outside, the Gate of Dawn doesn't look much like any other gate except that this is the only one surviving among the original defensive fortifications around Vilnius built between 1502 and 1522.
|Chapel of the Gate of Dawn|
|Holy Mother of Mercy|
Passing through the gate, we find elderly men and women pausing and making a sign of the cross before continuing on their way. From the Old Town side of the gate, we found out that there's actually a chapel perched on top, aptly called the Chapel of the Gate of Dawn. Painted sometime around the 15th century, the icon of the Holy Mother of Mercy is venerated here by thousands of pilgrims coming from different parts of the globe. Even the late Pope John Paul II came to pray here.
We barely walked far from the Gate of Dawn and we were immediately dwarfed by St. Theresa's Church, a fine example of early baroque architecture. This church was built around 1650.
Moving on, we soon found ourselves standing in front of a Jesuit contribution to the old city - the St. Casimir's Church. Constructed in 1604, this church was dedicated to Lithuania's patron saint, Prince Casimir Jagiellon. Its glorious crown up top signifies the saint's royal bloodline.
Of all the churches in Vilnius, these two are the most iconic: the St. Anne's Church and the Bernardine Church, posing like a perennial movie love team dressed in gothic, baroque and renaissance style. They're a favorite with tourists and rightly so. Even a visiting Napoleon in the summer of 1812 wanted to carry St. Annes' Church - if only he could - back to Paris in the palm of his hand.
Just as we reached the area in front of the sprawling Vilnius University, we got hungry and at the same time, got tired from all that walking. There was another nearby church beckoning us for a visit but we got distracted instead by this crowd of Lithuanians watching a live TV quiz show. We wondered if the questions have anything to do with Old Town - the whole thing was in Lithuanian but it was interesting to watch their reaction to participants answering questions.
|Cold Beetroot Soup|
|Roasted Pancakes with Minced Meat|
Finally, there's nothing like ending the day eating what Lithuanians eat. As traditional as we want it to be, we ordered Roasted Pancakes with Minced Meat and one that really piqued my curiosity, Cold Beetroot Soup. The pancake had this delightful hint of a pasta dish while the soup was a great revelation - so rich and creamy I finished the whole bowl, never mind that it was, well, cold.