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Longer Latitude Journey behind the Ironic Curtain

Vilnius: Senamiestis Vs Užupis, Orthodox Old Town to Home of the 'Artistocracy'

LITHUANIA | Thursday, 5 November 2015 | Views [562]

Border bridge to the

Border bridge to the "Republic of Art"

At the Town Hall in Vilnius we met up with Martina, a local student who was our guide for the walking tour. Martina's tour took us down back alleys and lanes to lots of little out-of-the-way places, cafés and dilapidated churches with tiny niches of green space around them. Apart from guiding us to see some of the best features of this small, attractively green city, the tour provided through Martina's commentary an introduction into the way Vilnoise (and Lithuanians) think. We heard some little anecdotes that gave us a good insight. One of these involved George W Bush's 2002 visit when he gave a speech strongly supporting the tiny country's sovereignty. Lithuanians were so impressed with Bush's words that they etched them on to a commemorative plaque at the Town Hall (Miestas). The Lietuvis government's pride at being singled out for special notice by the US President turned to dismay however several months later when they discovered that Bush had recycled the self same speech, word-for-word, to all the other European countries he visited on that European tour. A bitter disappointment for the government in Vilnius, but despite this deflating backhander I noticed that they still kept the plaque up!

Later in the walk we passed a long external wall decorated with paintings, pieces of ceramics with writing on them and other adornments. Martina explained that this practice was common to the city and told us about the visit to Vilnius by Thomas Harris, American author of Silence of the Lambs. Harris was apparently unimpressed and less than complimentary in print about Lithuania. Despite the adverse assessment the locals still posted Harris' article up on the wall! Puzzled, I asked Martina why they would do that. The rationalisation she gave us was that because Lithuania is a small country, every mention it gets from the outside world, even if negative, it is still recognition and therefore important for them to record it on the wall! This very quirky, acute awareness of their own smallness suggests to me that some kind of collective complex prevails .

We explored the southern part of Pilies Gatve where Martina gave us some tips on which shops in the street have the best deals on amber (a Lietuvis speciality).  Leaving the district of Senamiestis we crossed over a little bridge on the Vilnele River into a whole new world - or so it would seem! The east side of the river is called Užupis (literally, "other side of the river"). As you walk over the bridge (keeping an eye out for the mermaid sculpture on your left below the bank), you will see a sign proclaiming "UŽUPIS RES PUBLIKA". Outsiders might call the enclave of Užupis an artists' 'colony', except that the locals call it the artists' 'republic'! It originated in 1997 (pointedly on 1st of April!) when Užupis' bohemian residents unilaterally declared 'independence' and formulated their its own (jocular) 'constitution', flag (the palm of a white hand), president and government, 11-man army, passport stamp issue, etc - democrazy(sic) gone mad some might say!

The origins of the Republic idea stem from 1995 when Užupis artists randomly adopted Frank Zappa as a sort of weird, hip "patron saint", erecting a statue of him in the neighbourhood. Not that the experimental American rock musician had absolutely any connection whatsoever with Vilnius or Lithuania, but the local arty types just apparently took to him and decided to honour his memory.

The "Free Republic of Užupis" is not officially recognised by anyone (outside of the avant-garde neighbourhood itself). I suspect that the city authorities (back across the river in Vilnius) accept it and humour Užupis' 'separatism' because of the obvious financial payback for Vilnius tourism! Užupis is a sort of more grass-roots, wackier version of Paris' Montmartre! Art works of various shapes and sizes, some of them, like the numerous manifestations of graffiti popping up everywhere almost organically. Užupis is flush with quirky, modernist sculpture parks & quaint little bookshops. Overall I got the impression that Užupis' artists and residents don't take either their art or the 'Republic' too seriously. And of course Užupis, as befits a community that endorses democratic modes of expression has its own DIY decoration wall for budding artists.  


Tags: old town & artists enclave

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