About Vilnius

Some historians identify the city with Voruta, a legendary capital of Mindaugas crowned in 1253 as King of Lithuania. Initially a Baltic settlement, later Vilnius was also inhabitated by Slavs and, from at least the 11th century, by Jews. The city was first mentioned in written sources in 1323, after a wooden hillfort had been built by Gediminas, Grand Duke of Lithuania. In 1387, it was granted municipal rights by Jogaila, one of Gediminas' successors.

Aušros Vartai, the only remaining gate in the city wall
Aušros Vartai, the only remaining gate in the city wall

Between 1503 and 1522 the city was surrounded with walls that had nine city gates and three towers. Vilnius reached the peak of its development under the reign of Sigismund August, who moved his court there in 1544. In the following centuries, Vilnius became a constantly growing and developing city. This growth was due in part to the establishment of Vilnius University by Stephen Bathory in 1579. The university soon developed into one of the most important scientific and cultural centres of the region and the most notable scientific centre of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Political, economic and social life was in full swing in the town. In 1769, the Rasos Cemetery, one of the oldest surviving cemeteries in the city, was founded. Rapidly developing, the city was open to migrants from both East and West. Communities of Poles, Belarusians, Jews, Russians, Germans, Karaims, Ruthenians and others established themselves in the city. Each group made its contribution to the life of the city and crafts, trade and science prospered. In 1655 Vilnius was captured by Russian forces, pillaged and burned, and the population was massacred. The city's growth lost its momentum for many years, yet the number of inhabitants recovered and by the beginning of the 19th century the city was the third largest city in the Russian Empire.

Alumni yard
Alumni yard

After the Third Partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1795, Vilnius was annexed by Russia and became the capital of a guberniya. During the Russian occupation the city walls were destroyed and by 1805, only the Dawn Gate remained. In 1812, the city was seized by Napoleon on his push towards Moscow. Following the November Uprising in 1831 the Vilnius University was closed and Russian repressions halted the further development of the city. During the January Uprising in 1863 heavy fighting occurred within the city, but was brutally pacified by Mikhail Muravyov, nick-named The Hanger by the population because of the number of executions he organized. After the uprising all liberties were halted and the Lithuanian, Polish, and Belarusian languages were banned.

St. Ann's Church and the church of the Bernardine Monastery in Vilnius.
St. Ann's Church and the church of the Bernardine Monastery in Vilnius.

During World War I Vilnius was occupied by Germany from 1915 until 1918. The Act of the Restoration of Independence of Lithuania was proclaimed in the city on February 16, 1918. After withdrawal of German forces, Vilnius changed hands many times. It was controlled by Polish self-defence units, Bolshevik forces, the Polish Army, and Soviet forces again. Shortly after its defeat in the Battle of Warsaw (1920), the withdrawing Red Army ceded the city to the newly reborn Lithuania by signing a peace treaty on July 12, 1920. Poland also recognized Vilnius and the Vilnius region as a part of Lithuania with the Treaty of Suvalkai signed on October 7, 1920 ([1]). However, already on October 9 of the same year, the Polish Army under General Lucjan Żeligowski broke the treaty and seized Vilnius after a staged coup. The city and its surroundings were proclaimed a separate state of Central Lithuania (Litwa Środkowa). On February 20, 1922, the whole area was made a part of Poland, with Vilnius as the capital of the Wilno Voivodship. The Lithuanian government in Kaunas claimed that Poland had illegally annexed and occupied Vilnius and diplomatic relations between Lithuania and Poland were severed until 1938.

Orthodox Church of the Holy Mother of God, with Gediminas' tower in background.
Orthodox Church of the Holy Mother of God, with Gediminas' tower in background.

In the meantime, for yet another time in its history, the city enjoyed 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. Some Lithuanians, however, dispute this picture of economic growth and point out that the standard of living in Vilnius at this time was considerably lower compared to other parts of contemporary Lithuania. Poles and Jews made up a majority in city of Vilnius itself, and Lithuanians there formed a small minority (1%-2%).

Gediminas` tower
Gediminas` tower

Following the secret protocol of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, on September 19, 1939, Vilnius was seized and annexed by Soviet Union. On October 10, 1939, under a Soviet ultimatum, the Lithuanian government accepted the presence of Soviet military bases in various parts of the country in exchange for restoring the city to Lithuania. Though the process of transferring the capital from Kaunas to Vilnius started soon after, the whole of Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union in June of 1940, before the transfer was completed. A new Communist government was installed, with Vilnius as the capital of the newly created Lithuanian SSR. Up to 40,000 of the city's inhabitants were arrested by the NKVD and sent to gulags in the Soviet far East.

In June 1941, the city was seized by Germany. Two ghettos were set up in the old town center for the large Jewish population - the smaller one of which was "liquidated" by October. The larger ghetto lasted until 1943, though its population was regularly decimated in so called Aktionen. A failed ghetto uprising on September 1, 1943 organized by the Fareinigte Partizaner Organizacje (United Partisan Organization, the first Jewish partisan unit in Nazi-occupied Europe), was followed by the final ghetto destruction. About 95% of the Jewish population of 265,000 of Lithuania was murdered by the German units and their local collaborators, many of them in Paneriai, about 10 km west of the old town centre.

Vilnius skyline at night
Vilnius skyline at night

In July 1944 Vilnius was retaken by the Soviet Army. Vilnius was incorporated into the Soviet Union as the capital of Lithuanian SSR shortly thereafter. Immediately after World War II, large numbers of Poles fled or were expelled from Soviet-occupied Lithuania to Poland. Coupled with the migration of the Lithuanians into Vilnius, this development resulted in a change of the city's demographic fabric.

On March 11, 1990, the "Supreme Council of the Lithuanian SSR" announced its independence from the Soviet Union and restored the independent Republic of Lithuania. The Soviets responded on January 9, 1991, by sending in troops. On January 13 during the Soviet Army attack on the State Radio and Television Building and the Vilnius TV Tower, fourteen civilians were killed and more than 700 were seriously injured. The Soviet Union finally recognized Lithuanian independence in August 1991.

The Presidential Palace
The Presidential Palace

Since then, Vilnius has been rapidly transforming itself in an attempt to erase its Soviet past and emerge as a modern Western European style city. Many of its older buildings have been renovated, and on the north side of the Neris river a business and commercial area is being developed into the New City Center, projected to become the city's main business district. This area will include modern residential and retail space, with the 129-metre (423') Europa Tower as its most prominent building. While a number of modern business and retail centers have been built during recent years, many other projects are awaiting to be implemented.

Coat of arms of Vilnius city

Large version of coat-of-arms of city of Vilnius.
Large version of coat-of-arms of city of Vilnius.
Main article: Vilnius Coat of Arms

The Vilnius coat of arms depicts St. Christopher (Kristupas) wading through water with the Infant Jesus on his shoulders. It was granted to the city in the seventh year of its existence (1330).

In pagan times (until the end of the 14th century), the Vilnius coat of arms featured Titan Alkis, hero of ancient Lithuanian tales, carrying his wife Janterytė across the river on his shoulders.

Geographics and population

Vilnius is situated in southeastern Lithuania (54°41′N 25°17′E) at the confluence of the Vilnia (also known as Vilnelė) and Neris Rivers. It is believed that Vilnius, like many other cities, was named after the Vilnia. Its name derives from Lithuanian word "vilnis" ("surge") or "vilnyti" ("to surge").

This non-central location can be attributed to the changing shape of the nation's borders through the centuries; Vilnius was once not only culturally but also geographically at the center of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Initially it also formed the geographic center of Lithuanian settled areas, while the city's population was multi-ethnic through most of its history.

Vilnius lies 312 km from the Baltic Sea and Klaipėda, the chief Lithuanian seaport. Vilnius is connected by highways to other major Lithuanian cities, such as Kaunas (102 km away), Šiauliai (214 km away) and Panevėžys (135 km away).

The current area of Vilnius is 402 km². Buildings cover 20.2% of the city and in the remaining areas, greenery (43.9%) and waters (2.1%) prevail.

According to the 2001 census by the Vilnius Regional Statistical Office, there were 542,287 inhabitants in Vilnius city municipality, 57.8% of which were Lithuanians, 18.7% Poles, 13.9% Russians, 4.0% Belarusians; the remaining have indicated other nationalities or refused to answer.

Tourism

View over the Cathedral roof
View over the Cathedral roof

Vilnius is a cosmopolitan city with diverse architecture. There are more than 40 churches in Vilnius to see. Restaurants, hotels and museums have sprouted since Lithuania declared independence, and young Vilnius residents are providing the city a reputation for being the most hospitable in the world as evidenced by the large membership of the Hospitality Club.

Aušros Vartai Street.
Aušros Vartai Street.

Like most medieval towns, Vilnius has developed around its Town Hall. The main artery, Pilies Street, links the governor's palace and the Town Hall. Other streets meander through the palaces of feudal lords and landlords, churches, shops and craftsmen's workrooms. Narrow, curved streets and small cosy courtyards developed in the radial layout of the medieval Vilnius.

The Old Town, historical centre of Vilnius, is one of the largest in Europe (3.6 km²). The most valuable historic and cultural sites are concentrated here. The buildings in the old town — there are nearly 1,500 — were built over several centuries, creating a splendid blend of many different architectural styles. Although Vilnius is often called a baroque city, here you will find some buildings of Gothic, Renaissance and other styles. The main sights of the city are the Gediminas Castle and the Cathedral Square, symbols of the capital. Their combination is also a gateway to the historic centre of the capital. Owing to its uniqueness, the Old Town of Vilnius was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1994. In 1995, the only known cast of Frank Zappa was installed in the center of Vilnius with the permission of the government.

Economy

New City center dominated by Europa Tower
New City center dominated by Europa Tower

Vilnius is the major economic centre of Lithuania and one of the largest financial centres of the Baltic states. Even though it is a home to only 15% of Lithuania's population, it generates approximately 35% of GDP [2]. Based on these indicators, its estimated GDP per capita, based on purchasing power parity, in 2005 is approximately $33,100, above the European Union average.

Vilnius contributed over 4.6 billion litas to the national budget in 2004. That makes about 37% of the budget. Kaunas, the second largest city, contributed only 1.5 billion. Vilnius received a return of 360 million in the budget, which is only 7.7% of its contribution. This disparity caused some conflicts with the central government because of Vilnius' demand for a greater share of the funds it generated.

Religion

Known as Yerushalayim De Lita, Vilnius (Vilna) once was comparable only to Jerusalem, Israel as a world Torah center. That's why one part of Vilnius was named Jeruzalė. Major proponent of Judaism and Kabbalah was famous rabbi genius Vilna Gaon. His line of students has top influence among Orthodox Jews in Israel and around a globe.

Climate

Central Vilnius in winter
Central Vilnius in winter

The climate of Vilnius is transitional between continental and maritime. The average annual temperature is +6.1°C, in January being −4.9°C and +17.0°C in July. The average precipitation is about 661 mm per year.

Summers can be hot, with temperatures above thirty degrees Celsius throughout the day. Nightlife in Vilnius is in full swing at this time of year, and outdoor bars and cafés become very popular during the daytime.

Winters can be very cold, with temperatures rarely reaching above freezing - temperatures below minus 25 degrees Celsius are not unheard of in January and February. Vilnius's rivers freeze over on particularly cold winters, and the lakes surrounding the city are almost always permanently frozen at this time of year. A popular pastime is ice-fishing, whereby fishermen drill holes in the ice and fish with baited hooks, usually drinking quantities of alcohol to keep themselves warm.

Transport

Vilnius is the starting point of the Vilnius-Kaunas-Klaipėda highway that runs across Lithuania and connects the three major cities. Vilnius-Panevėžys highway is a branch of Via-Baltica. Though the river Neris may be navigable, no regular water routes exist. Vilnius International Airport serves most Lithuanian international flights to many major European destinations. Vilnius railway station is an important hub as well.

Vilnius has a well-developed public transportation system. There are over 60 bus and 19 trolleybus routes. Over 230 buses and 250 trolleybuses transport about 500,000 passengers every workday. Students, elderly, and disabled receive large discounts (up to 80%) on the tickets. A single ride ticket (called talonas or diminutive talonėlis) costs up to 1.40 litas while monthly tickets (called nuolatinis) cost up to 60 litas (about 20 USD). The first regular bus routes were established in 1926, the first trolleybus was launched in 1956.

A sample Vilnius Transport nominal monthly ticket
A sample Vilnius Transport nominal monthly ticket

Today the system faces some major challenges. One of them is passengers who travel without tickets; this kind of cheating is quite popular among low income passengers. This is a significant reason for why the bus company has experienced losses every year since 1995. Another challenge is ancient buses and trolleybuses. A majority of them were produced under the Soviet Union rule by Karosa and Ikarus Bus and served Vilnians for several decades. Since 1991 the bus company has bought or received as gifts several dozens of used buses. However, major improvements started in 2003 when 14 brand-new Mercedes-Benz buses were bought. In 2004, a contract was signed with Volvo Buses to buy 90 brand-new 7700 buses over the next 3 years. In September 2005, it was announced that old Ikarus buses will not be used anymore. They will be replaced by 60 8- to 10-year-old buses bought on lease. Since 1995 the number of buses has decreased from 478 to 275 in 2002. Most of them ended up as scrap metal. The trolleybus company is similarly struggling to renew their Škoda vehicles.

Along the official public transportation, there is also a number of private bus companies. They charge about the same as the municipal buses and sometimes follow the same routes. There is also a number of different routes, for example from various neighborhoods to Gariūnai market. In addition there are about 400 share taxis that are usually faster than regular buses.

Artūras Zuokas, Mayor of Vilnius city municipality, has proposed that a tramway be built. However the plans to install a tram network remain unclear. A number of studies and projects have been prepared but construction dates have not been set yet.

References

O. Niglio, Restauri in Lituania. Vilnius Capitale della Cultura Europea 2009, in "Web Journal on Cultural Patrimony", 1, 2006 [3]

Sister cities

Vilnius has 14 sister cities. In addition, agreements on cooperation are signed with 16 other cities.

Trivia

Vilnius is one of the locations featured in the video game Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon (photographs comparing the game's locations with their real-life counterparts can be found here). However, although some of the architecture is relatively well-represented, it has to be said that most of the map is fictional and it does not feel like a particularly accurate representation of the city of Vilnius.

Lying very close to Vilnius is a site some claim to be the Geographical Centre of Europe.

The rural town of Wilno, Ontario, Canada was named after the Polish name for Vilnius in the 1860s. The village of Vilna, Alberta was also named for Vilnius.

Birthplace of the fictional character Marko Ramius from Tom Clancy's novel The Hunt For Red October. At one point in the film Sean Connery as Ramius mispronounces the name of his birthplace by calling it "Vil-nee-us," whereas Lithuanians pronounce it "Vil-news."