Visiting a local market is something I'm fond of doing whenever I travel and this trip to Vilnius gave me that chance once again. A local market - devoid of touristy, kitschy stuff we usually see at tourist spots - is like a window to the soul of a destination. This is where we see, as visitors, what local produce are available and what the locals buy which goes straight to their homes. Besides, it's always exciting to see and feel that rush of activity as people go about their business: the sellers displaying their goods and the buyers perusing what's on sale.
|Clean and orderly market|
|Fruits and veggies|
On an early start of another day, we passed by Hales Turgus, a local market whose facade seemingly doesn't indicate what's going on inside. But once we entered the main door up through those steps, we got a sense of the mercantile aroma wafting all over the cavernous belly of this old building. One thing I immediately noticed was how clean it was. There were sections for fruits, vegetables and baked goods, sections for meat, sections for clothing and housewares. It was a wonderful glimpse at how Lithuanians start their day at such an orderly market.
|The Town Hall|
|The Town Hall Square|
From the market, we walked into the Old Town part of Vilnius, stopping right at Rotušės aikštė (or Town Hall Square). In the middle of this open space is the 18th-century neoclassical Town Hall, now occupied by local artists instead of politicians, as the building is currently home to the Lithuanian Artists' Center. This is where former US President George Bush famously declared that "anyone who choose Lithuania as an enemy has also made an enemy of the United States of America". Sheesh. We sat at the steps and absorbed this grand spectacle of old buildings right before us.
|Museum of Genocide Victims,|
formerly the KGB Headquarters
We wanted to walk to our next destination but the Museum of Genocide Victims was way out of Old Town and rather than be cooked by the simmering sun, we took our first taxi ride on this trip. The Museum was where I wanted to spend a longer time, to get to know what this building meant as the horror house of the Gestapo (during WWII) and KGB (during Soviet times).
|A tiny cell for the church clergy|
In Cambodia, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum was a disturbing reminder of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge to their own people so I braced myself to what I was about to see in Vilnius. Entrance fee is 6 lita. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed. My camera merely hanged on my neck but it did not stop me from discreetly breaking the rule (at least twice).
There are three floors devoted to exhibits but the most depressing was the basement where the KGB prisons and the execution chamber were located. The cold, lonely cells are now of course empty but going through them felt like ghosts were following as with our every move. I was speechless looking at the execution chamber, wondering how meaningless human life was for the KGB. More than a thousand prisoners met an ugly death as bullets pierced through their skulls. The 'luckier' ones were deported to hard labor camps in Siberia.
|The Three Muses|
As if to reflect the varying moods I felt in one day, we got amused as we passed by the National Drama Theatre after that depressing but enlightening visit to the genocide museum. Protruding above the theater's entrance are the Three Muses done by Lithuanian sculptor Stanislovas Kuzma. It definitely added drama to the facade.
|Cathedral of Vilnius and its freestanding Bell Tower|
Further on, we walked until we reached the end of the street and faced the impossibly white Cathedral of Vilnius, a hulking masterpiece in neoclassical architecture. This is Lithuania's most important and historic Roman Catholic church. What used to be a site of pagan worship arose a building in 1251 after the Catholic conversion of Mindaugas, the country's first Grand Duke. Inside its crypts lie the remains of Lithuania's medieval rulers. The remains of St. Casimir, the country's patron saint, lie on its own chapel inside the church.
|Inside the Vilnius Cathedral|
|Candles as offering in one of the cathedral's chapels|
In the middle of the Cathedral Square, just next to the cathedral itself, is this monument dedicated to Gediminas, the Grand Duke of Lithuania who founded Vilnius in 1323.
Another monument, this time in honor of Mindaugas, Lithuania's first Grand Duke, sits in front of the Lithuanian National Museum. Behind the building is Gediminas Hill with the Gediminas Castle Tower barely visible behind the canopies.
|A funicular takes visitors up the hill.|
Or alternatively walk through winding steps.
If there's a spot which locals claim the most important, this hilltop fortification has to be it. This is where, as legend has it, the Grand Duke Gediminas dreamt of an iron wolf which inspired him to establish the city. Called the Gediminas Castle Tower, this is what remains of what used to be a more extensive brick fortress. Now a museum, the tower dates back to the 13th century when it was built by the Grand Duke Vytautas.
From the top, there's an expansive view of Vilnius but we actually skipped it, not wanting to pay anymore entrance fees. The view from the base of the tower is still good nonetheless - even our hotel is visible in the distance. Which means we have some walking again to do to get back to it.