David shows us around Lithuania's lush capital, checking out the pretty sites and doing a spot of dancing!
Along with its neighbours Latvia and Estonia, Lithuania, the largest of the three Baltic countries, is joyously and passionately celebrating its independence. Vilnius is the greenest and prettiest of the three capitals stretching along the valleys of the Neris and Vilnia Rivers. While the other two countries are mainly Lutheran, Lithuanians are fiery Catholics and a definite Italian influence is everywhere.
Lithuanian, Polish and Russian are spoken among the well over 3.5 million people who populate Lithuania's 10 counties. Their ancestors arrived in the Baltic area around 2500 BC and a rich heritage of folklore is carefully passed from generation to generation.Their songs, fairytales, legends, proverbs and aphorisms have roots deep in one of Europe's oldest cultures and languages. Their folk art is embodied in ceramics, leatherwork, wood-carving and textiles. Geometric and floral patterns are characteristic.
Vilnius is a well-preserved and quite stunning city which has kept its soul through a rather grim history and is now enjoying a rebirth.
It was a trade, industry and culture centre of 16th century Europe and a university was opened there in 1579, making it one of Europe's oldest institutions of higher education.
The old town, Eastern Europe's largest, has an array of central European Catholic architecture. There are reminders of its once-flourishing Jewish community, which was all but eliminated during WWII.
Fourteenth-century Vilnius was built on Gediminas Hill and its houses and castles were protected by a moat, walls and towers against Teutonic knights, who attacked persistently between 1365 and 1402. Their defeat by joint Lithuanian-Polish forces at Grünwald in 1410 meant a period of prosperity and the appearance of many Gothic buildings.
Once there were many monuments here to Soviet rule, but at independence these were blown up, knocked down or defaced. A mushroom millionaire reconstructed them and they are displayed in his park. Lenin said art is for the people and, in Stalin-world, that philosophy lives on.
For more than 700 years, people have been planting crosses on a hillock on the left bank of the Kulpe River in memory of those who have been killed. The Hill of Crosses is made up of thousands and thousands of crosses tiny, large, cheap, elaborate, wooden and metal. Narrow paths cut through the crosses and it is an eerie place, particularly when the wind blows. During the Soviet era, the Red Army continued to bulldoze the crosses, but almost overnight new ones were planted.
Trakai, the old capital, is a simply beautiful medieval town. Its two lakeside Gothic castles were built to fend off German knights. Today it is a gentle place in 8200 hectares of National Park and each year a festival fills it with song, dance and music.
For a taste of folk music and local delicacies, Ritos Smukle (Rita's Tavern) opens from 10am to midnight. The smukle is Lithuanian to the bone; crockery, cruets, food and drinks are local. Products which can't claim to be 100 percent Lithuanian just aren't there, but there is a DJ spinning discs from an MiG cockpit, pole dancers and machine-gun-carrying girls in Red Army uniforms.
Hotel Naujasis Vilnius is 10 minutes from the Old Town and its 97 rooms have recently been refurbished. Classic, the hotel's fine dining room serves an excellent selection of European dishes and the new fitness centre has pool, sauna and gym equipment.