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Jewellery by Artists: From Picasso to Koons, an exhibition organised by the culture and art portal

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Things To Do

Author: Anothertravelguide.com0 COMMENTS

Things To Do

A Stroll through Užupis, the most unusual neighbourhood in Vilnius

There’s a neighbourhood in Vilnius that’s unlike any other in Europe. It’s called Užupis (Across the River), and it’s located right next to the Old City, separated from it only by the small Vilnia River. Enter Užupis by crossing one of the romantic 16th-century or Tsarist-era bridges. The neighbourhood is bordered on the other side by the hills, which contain several cemeteries, including the Jewish Cemetery. In the 16th century, Užupis was a working-class neighbourhood. There were 14 mills along the Vilnia River, and leather-working was also a common industry here. Seeing as prostitution was legal during the Russian Empire era, this was also where the majority of the city’s “working girls” lived. Up until the 20th century, the low wooden and brick houses of Užupis were mostly inhabited by those down on their luck and brothel workers. During the Soviet era, the neighbourhood was known for its high crime rates, vagrants, prostitutes and shabby, neglected buildings. It even had a street named Death Street. Fortunately, thanks to the neighbourhood’s bad reputation, very few Soviet-style apartment buildings were built here in the 1970s, thereby preserving the historical aura of the place.

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But the art academy changed everything. Many students, and even some of the faculty, chose to live near Užupis, partially due to the low rents. Gradually, the area attracted more and more artists. But the story of today’s Užupis began only 18 years ago, when neighbourhood activists decided to rename it the Republic of Užupis (Užupio Res Publika). The official date of the republic’s founding – its Independence Day – is April 1st. But, although Užupis is often compared to Paris’ Montmartre or Copenhagen’s Christiania, once you arrive here, you’ll understand that the comparisons are actually quite weak.

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Užupis is a republic all its own in the most literal sense of this word. It even has its own calendar and constitution, which had been translated into 24 languages. You can see all of the versions side by side on separate plaques on Paupio Street. The unveiling of each new translation is a big event, and sometimes even an ambassador from that nation attends the ceremony. The constitution has 41 articles, including “A dog has the right to be a dog”, “Everyone has the right to be happy” and “Everyone has the right to be individual”. The newest language added to the bunch is Latvian. The Užupis symbol, or logo, is the palm of a hand with a hole in the middle, symbolising that the republic is open to all cultures and religions. Of course, it also has its own flag, in four colour variations representing the four seasons. But, as is typical of an anarchistic society, people often forget to change them as the months progress.

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The Republic of Užupis celebrates the New Year on March 21st, and, while elsewhere in the world this day is called the spring equinox, in Užupis it’s known as the Day of Traps. Similarly to the New Year’s resolutions made in other countries, on this day Užupians invite everyone to get rid of their own “traps”. Because you cannot grow as a person if you’re hauling around baggage from your past. Therefore, on March 21st everyone is invited to gather in the square across from the Užupis Parliament and burn their old “anchors” – in other words, furniture, diaries and anything else that acts as a cumbersome emotional trap holding the person back.

The day after Easter is celebrated as White Tablecloth Day, because this day is considered the only day of the year when nothing needs to be done or prepared. All you need to do is pack up some leftovers from the previous day’s Easter feast and bring it to Užupis. Seeing as Easter feasts in this part of the world are usually quite lavish, people are more than happy to share.

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Užupis also has international cooperation partners. For example, Užupians feel a close connection with Ireland, so they celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, complete with pouring bright green dye into the Vilnia River. But the effect only lasts about half and hour...and, of course, the dye is ecologically friendly. That is to say, if a white dog takes a swim in the green river, his coat will remain white. The Republic of Užupis also has a Tibet Square, and – being a hotbed of activism – Užupians naturally support Tibetan independence. The Dalai Lama himself is said to have visited Tibet Square when he was in Lithuania.

Nearby, on the banks of the river and surrounded by sculptures, is the Baltic States’ first incubator for artists. 17 years ago, the abandoned building was inhabited by squatters. Today, rents in the building are still low enough for young artists to afford, and long-term rental contracts can be signed for only five euros per square metre.

The Republic of Užupis is quite small – it has a total area of only 0.7 square kilometres and a population of approximately 5000. About 100 of those citizens form the core of the activist group, and most of them live in the lower part of Užupis, closer to the old centre of Vilnius.

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There is no lack of colourful characters in Užupis, including small shops, art galleries and cafés. Right across from the multilingual constitution wall is the small bookstore Kleistoteka Knygynas, which also serves as a book exchange and book rental site. It is the only bookstore in the neighbourhood, and it was opened just a year ago. We met and spoke with the owner, Gintarė Liočienė, who was one of the first true Užupians. Every now and then she wonders whether to press on or just give up, “Because the book business is not easy nowadays.” This past winter was very difficult, but now in the summer business has picked up again. “When I moved here 20 years ago,” says Liočienė, “the Užupis area was pretty ghastly. But then something like a wave began – due to the fact that so many people associated with art were living all in one place, the aura of the whole neighbourhood changed. Užupis became a kind of epicentre for creative energy. Today, a new generation has taken their place. For a moment there, it seemed like everything might be lost, but now I feel that a new wave has begun in Užupis, a wave that is being powered by very creative, young people. Most of our clients now are young people, too. It turns out that they still read books. And very good books at that.”

But, because new books tend to be expensive and one cannot always be sure one will like a book or not, the store has begun a system of book rentals. By paying one euro, clients can take a book home for ten days to “try it out”.

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Nearby is another small shop with an interesting name: VDK (Visokių Daiktų Krautuvėlė, or, Shop of Many Different Things). The very charismatic owner collects all sorts of things linked with the history of Vilnius, from art books and photographs to home interior pieces. He also collects antique music boxes. We see one in very good condition, turn the small key, and the shop fills with a sentimental melody from an era long ago.... The store also sells niche perfumes, which happen to be its main product and best seller.

We find a bakery located in a 19th-century building that was once an apothecary. The shelves along the walls are original and still give off a vague aroma of medicines and herbs. Visitors can read an account of the apothecary’s history, hand-written during the Soviet era by a pharmacist who worked there for 58 years. In a hand that is already a bit shaky, the last page of the history tells that 17 of the employees are Communists, 10 are war veterans and four are graduates of the University of Marxism-Leninism....

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Almost every building and courtyard in Užupis has a story to tell. One of the courtyards resembles Old Tbilisi, with its old wooden buildings and crooked balconies – all that’s missing are the lace-like details. In the late 19th century, all of the buildings facing the courtyard belonged to a wealthy Polish landowner, who leased them out to various small businesses. Up until the mid-20th century, the courtyard was still full of small benches, hitching rails to tie up horses and so on, as well as a large pear tree. Locals who are now well over the age of 70 tell that the landowner’s own window was right by the pear tree. She was a vengeful woman and, in order to prevent the neighbourhood children from stealing pears, she poured manure on the tree from her window. Before the war, quite a few Jews lived in Užupis as well; in fact, several families lived in the houses facing this courtyard. Three of the families managed to hide out for the entire war in a secret attic room between two chimneys. As fate would have it, the 14-year-old son of one of the families later emigrated to Israel and was killed in the war with the Arabs.

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Hidden in another Užupis courtyard between two modern buildings is Vilnius’ smallest church, Bartholomew’s Church. The current church was built in the late 18th century, but it replaced an earlier church on the same site that was destroyed by fire in 1655 during the war with Moscow. The church belongs to the Vilnius Belarusian Catholic Community and is the only church in Vilnius where services take place in the Belarusian language. The church was closed in 1949, and the building was used as a sculpture workshop during the Soviet era. It reopened as a church only in 1997.

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A little further up the hill is Vilnius’ oldest cemetery, the Bernardine Cemetery, established in 1810 by Bernardine monks. It also happens to be one of the city’s most romantic cemeteries and – as long as you have no problem with strolling around cemeteries – is definitely worth a visit. Except for burials in established family gravesites, no new burials have been allowed in the cemetery since the 1970s. Here and there you’ll find a grave that’s been recently tended to, but mostly the cemetery has been left to its own devices. The gravesites were often vandalised during the Soviet era, and some of the inscriptions on headstones are no longer legible. However, one headstone tells of a veteran from the 1863 Polish and Lithuanian revolt against the Russian Empire. According to legend, weapons were hidden in the cemetery at that time. After the uprising, Lithuanian orthography was banned, and a law permitting only the use of Cyrillic was adopted. The Catholic faith was likewise banned, with churches and monasteries converted into Orthodox institutions. Along one edge of the Bernardine Cemetery stands a slightly spooky wooden house in which only an old woman and her dog are said to live. She’s never worked in the cemetery; it’s just her home.

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In the 19th century, there was a brewery on the other side of the gully. Later, it became a fur-coat workshop and, later yet, a manufacturing centre for calculators. Today, the site is being cleaned up and will be turned into a new residential quarter in the near future. In 1990 Lithuanian film director Arūnas Matelis made a film about Užupis called Ten Minutes Before the Flight of Icarus –  a slightly ironic portrait of this truly one-of-a-kind neighbourhood in Vilnius.

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