As with many old cities, Vilnius’ great attraction is its Old Town, which is one
of the most extensive in eastern and middle Europe. The well-preserved network
of mediaeval streets and the numerous buildings retaining a mediaeval character
bear witness to the city’s rich history.
The Old Town of Vilnius began to form at the junction of the
Vilnia and Neris rivers, a spot that had already been inhabited by Balts since
the 5th–6th centuries. By the 13th century there was a fortress on Gediminas’
Hill, surrounded by the makings of a city, including some stone/brick buildings.
What remains of the castle on Gediminas’ Hill today is the tower of the western
section, the foundations of a tower in the southern section and part of the
palace that stood adjacent to the fortress. At the beginning of the 14th
century, Šv. Mikalojaus (Saint Michael’s) church was constructed, the oldest
remaining church in Vilnius and all of Lithuania. As the town developed, in the
14th century the Town Hall Square appeared (it was formerly a marketplace). This
was the central square of the city and it clarified the radial structure of the
city (streets radiating out in various directions from a central point).
In the 15th and 16th centuries some Gothic buildings were
erected in Vilnius. These included the Franciscan, Dominican and Bernardine
monasteries, the new Merchants’ Guild buildings, and Gothic style Russian
churches. However, in 1471 fire destroyed much of the budding Gothic city and
many sacred buildings were lost. From 1503 to 1522 construction took place of a
defensive wall around the most densely inhabited part of the city (about 90 ha).
The construction was started on the orders of Grand Duke Aleksandras, in order
to protect the city from the attacks of Tartars and other enemies of Lithuania
at that time. The walls had nine gates, the only one of which remains to this
day is Aušros Vartai (the Dawn or Eastern Gate). Some sections of the wall are
still standing. In Šv. Dvasios (Holy Spirit) Street there is still a section of
the wall with narrow archers’ windows, and at the end of that street stands a
defensive fortification known as Bastėja (‘the Bastille’). At Pylimo Street, No.
30 there is a small section of wall with narrow archers’ windows, and at
Rūdininkų Street, No. 13 there is a restored section of the wall.
Not only in these places do you feel a mediaeval spirit. The
observant open-minded traveller will feel the spirit around in the curves of
every Old Town street, in its courtyards and in its unexpected little side
Like no other Eastern European city, Vilnius has earned the title of Baroque
Capital. This title is strengthened by the fact that Vilnius represents the
northernmost limit of the Baroque style, which is considered to be a ‘southern’
style. The Baroque fashion (the name comes from the Italian word barocco,
meaning ‘unusual’ or ‘ornate’) began in Italy at the end of the 16th century and
dominated new construction in Europe from the beginning of the 17th century to
the end of the 18th century. Some characteristic of this architectural style are
grandiosity, luxury, dynamism, balancing of the refined and the coarse, of
abstract symbolism and naturalistic elements. The Baroque period coincided with
the main era of construction of Vilnius’ sacred buildings (churches, Russian
churches, convents, monasteries). Distinct local nuances of the Baroque style
developed the “Vilnius school”, which is considered to be the last flash of late
Baroque in Europe.
The city skyline was enriched by the graceful, dynamic
silhouettes of many churches and bell towers, adorned with metalwork details. A
special feature of Vilnius Baroque is the style of church façades with graceful
twin spires (Šv. Kotrynos (St Catherine’s), Misionierių (Missionaries’), Šv.
Rapolo (St Raphael’s). Two outstanding examples of Vilnius Baroque are Saint
Casimir’s church (construction commenced 1604), which stands out from others for
its rather ungainly lower part and its cupola with a crown (it is believed that
this church is the earliest example of the twin-spire Vilnius Baroque style),
and the Church of the Saints John (Šv. Jonų bažnyčia), built in the second
quarter of the 18th century. The architecture of this church and its bell tower
blend harmoniously with the other buildings of Vilnius University, of which the
church building forms a part.
The story of Vilnius Baroque is intertwined with historical
reality: the city’s geopolitical situation, the fires and wars that assailed it.
At the beginning of the 18th century, Vilnius was still often afflicted by
fires, not a wealthy city, unable to afford to indulge in the very latest
European fashions, forced to rely on its own resources. This is what stimulated
the development of a distinct local style and its authenticity.
Vilnius’ reputation as a Baroque city is reinforced by the
attention Vilnius pays to Baroque music. There are several chamber music
ensembles in Vilnius that play Baroque music. In the spring, there is the old
music festival “Sugrįžimai” (“Returns”), and in the autumn, there is “Banchetto
musicale”. Baroque music regularly features in the programmes of larger