City # 13, June ’14. Vilnius is slow food, an acquired taste. And I had trouble acquiring it. The fact that I was only there for five days, and not feeling well for most of my stay did not help. Yes, the walled, historical city centre, protected by UNESCO, is beautiful. And yes, it was here that I saw the Dutch football team defeat Spain: the first half in the crowded Dutch embassy, the second half in the hushed atmosphere of the lobby of the local Kempinski. But did I get to know the city? No. Vilnius is located at the geographical centre of Europe; an official plaque marks the exact spot. I’ve heard that one before. Cape Good Hope was long regarded as the most southern point in Africa. Slovakia thinks that it is the middle point of Europe, and I heard similar comments in Vienna. It all depends on how you define Europe: if all of Russia is included, then perhaps Moscow is the geographical centre.

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City Column



According to the church, the time is 54 hours; my alarm clock says it is 8 o’clock. The church bells are tolling so wildly on this Saturday morning, it’s hard to imagine what they’ll do to top this tomorrow. This is Vilnius: there are more churches in the old walled city than red lights in Amsterdam. A few of them are Russian Orthodox churches, but most are Catholic. Lithuania’s Catholic heritage is what distinguishes it most from its protestant neighbor Latvia. At one time it also had 105 synagogues, but only one remains. A glass holocaust memorial plaque in Vilnius’s ghetto is smashed to bits on an almost monthly basis.

The churches attract a distinctive type of visitor: the religious tourist, similar to those you find in Lourdes, Jerusalem or Rome. In sharp to its neighbouring city Riga, where every weekend budget airlines deposit plane-loads full of British tourists celebrating stag parties. I visited a few of the churches; I’m a lapsed Christian, but every now and then it’s nice to pay a visit to God’s house.

The Cathedral of St. Stanislaus and St. Ladislaus, built in the first part of 15th century, is the city’s most famous church. A beautiful white cathedral with a free standing bell tower that is leaning at an even more precarious angle than that of Pisa. Its sober interior has a calming effect. But my favourite was the city’s only uniate church. Uniate, or Eastern Catholic, churches are in full communion with the pope, but their rituals are orthodox. Slightly off the beaten path, slightly run-down, the church was celebrating its five hundredth birthday according to the plastic banner above the door.

I spent five days in Vilnius, and popped into the church every day. I usually saw the same priest, a little man who must have been at least five hundred years old, which is not unusual in religious circles. Abraham was 175, and Methuselah lived to be almost 1,000 years old. He busied himself with sweeping and straightening candles. And I don’t know whether it’s typically Eastern Catholic – the extent of my knowledge of ecclesiastical matters is limited – but instead of hard wooden pews, the benches were low and soft, more suited to lounging than praying. A pleasant church, but apparently not good enough for the tourists, who filed passed it in the wake of a guide with a little flag, on their way to one of Vilnius’s 631 other churches.

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