A day in Vilnius – the river, Art museum and Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania

I started the day with a run. Laziness and trepidation about the temperature kept me inside till after 9, but the forecast made it clear that the temperature was just going to keep falling till midday, so I got out. It was -7, and felt colder, so for one of the first times ever, I ran with a hat on and didn’t regret it. Running by the Neris river was fabulous, though. Flat, an easy path to follow, and possible to go for miles, with occasional crossings where the path paused on one side. I took my phone for directions but luckily didn’t need it, as the cold squashed the battery flat. I knew that could happen, but it was still dramatic in action. My GPS watch could hack it, though, and directed me home.

 

Lithuania is cheap, and I stopped in the local supermarket, spending about £3 on croissants, a banana, apple, muesli and what I thought was milk. Second time I have made the mistake; in the US, it was labelled as buttermilk and I didn’t realise that was different. Here; it looks like milk, doesn’t it?

Looks like milk. Is not.
Looks like ordinary milk. Is not.

Post run, and a warm shower that restored full function to my hands (and I had worn gloves), I had my thermal top on, two pairs of gloves, hat and scarf. And other clothes, so don’t be imagining any gaps there. It was still cold. Last time I mention it, I promise – dropping to a low of -10 in the day, and feeling colder, according to the forecast (and my face). Poland, where I head tomorrow, is meant to be a balmy freezing, with a high of 3 or so. Phew.

I wandered the streets. I’d already run past the upper castle, cathedral, cobbled streets and many pretty balconies, so headed reasonably directly to the Art Museum. It’s just 2 euros for entry, and I was the only customer, with various guards rising from their seats as I entered their galleries, as if I had pushed the button marked “alert, please!”. It’s a lovely building, and a lovely selection of pictures. Heavy on the portraits, but with no sense that this is a small country with limited art. Quite the opposite, in fact.

 

Suitably enervated, if not over-stimulated, I took the ticket collector’s advice that there was another, modern art, museum over the river, and set off with no plan. I ended up ignoring that advice as just down the road is the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania. Oh, on the way I passed the cathedral and many lovely views.

 

The palace was reconstructed this century, having been destroyed by Muscovite invaders in the 17th century. It is built on (and showcasing) the foundations of the ‘lower castle’, encompassing the history of the city and country. It’s fabulous, and 5 euros to go in, if you get the ticket that allows you into all the ‘tours’. The tours are just routes around the museum, not guided, and there are four of them. I ended up being here for over 4 hours. I didn’t do the tours in order – for some reason, the guard at the entry to 1 and 2, after directing me to the cloakroom to remove my coat and bag (I didn’t use the cloakroom, as the lockers came first – 1 euro coin needed, refunded when you return), sent me over the way to 3 and 4. They were probably quicker than 1 and 2, and so a good place to start (particularly on a Thursday, when the place is open till 8, so I had no concern about running out of opening hours). But still, maybe you could go in a different order. If I were to recommend it, I’d say 3, reconstructions of rooms in different styles (from periods of history), is the one to buzz through and soak up. Number 1, historical and architectural development of the palace (and the country), was the highlight for me, though that may mean you should do it second, or third. Cover a couple of others quickly, then give that serious time. It’s great. And my, Lithuania, mostly by marriage, covered/governed/influenced an awful lot of Europe up until the 17th century. I was well aware that Europe’s borders have been shaped, changed and hammered by years of war, but it is still something else to see just how different they used to be. Lithuania, in summary, used to be an awful lot larger, effectively engineered a reverse-takeover of Poland, ended up partly subsumed by the latter, before re-establishing its own, large, identity, before losing that. Twice. It’s a monumental story.

 

The museum/palace is a work in progress, so the tours don’t necessarily flow nicely into one another. Many of the reconstructed rooms in tour 3 are changing; the ceilings, for instance, will have paintings and other decoration added. Sometimes you’ll backtrack, sometimes go from floor to floor when the map looks as if you’ll go from one to the other. The cafe is on the map but appears to be vending machines at the moment. And all of that may be different when you visit. But go with it, the place is fabulous, evocative and rich in mood, exhibits and historical narrative. And I say that as someone who probably only got the gist. It’s word-heavy in places, so be selective with a clear conscience. The selection of exhibits and sights below give you a favour of the variety in the place.

 

Medieval remains, paintings, guns and other weapons, suits of armour. Loads to see. I also liked the dioramas of the castle through the ages.

 

Even better than those is the virtual reality tour. It’s a euro to see, and the instructions suggest you hold the handle in front of you. I highly recommend you pay the money, and that you do as the instructions say. You start by seeing the same scene of small walls as you could see without the glasses. The castle is built on top. And then you are elevated 30 feet in the air, and if you look down, there’s nothing holding you up. It is very trippy. And you go higher, later on. It’s 8 minutes of your time well used, so long as you don’t freak out and take the glasses off.

Some last views from the reconstructed rooms, and observation tower, in tour 3.

 

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