Cathedral Square — the cultural epicentre of the city — is a place transformed, with pendent autumn leaves radiant against the cloudless blue sky. My guide, Kristupas, seems happy at the sudden change in weather. Or, to put it another way, as outwardly happy as a Lithuanian can appear to be.
“Yes, we Lithuanians are inclined to melancholy and seriousness,” explains Kristupas earnestly, the twitching corners of his mouth almost giving the impression of a smile. “Often we socialise in silence, which is nothing bad unless it leads to withdrawal and depression.”
While I’m wondering whether it’s actually possible to socialise in silence, we wander past the square’s impressive, free-standing belltower, which looks as though it might just have been plucked from a Venetian piazza. The crowds milling around us are smiling and laughing as they take in the autumnal sunshine and uplifting scenery. Thankfully, not everyone is immune to the charms of Vilnius this morning.
It’s perhaps easier to understand the Lithuanian penchant for lugubriousness when you consider the country’s tumultuous history.
Afer being attacked by the Crusaders several times in the 14th century, Lithuania was then invaded by the Russians and Swedes. Napoleon dropped by in 1812, before the Russians took over again. Then came the Germans, before Russia beat them off and Lithuania was incorporated into the Sovet Union. The country finally achieved independence in August 1991. As a result, the main street of Vilnius, Gediminas Avenue, has changed its name seven times over the past two centuries.
“Yes, the periods of war and subjugation may have taken their toll, but we still have a lot to be thankful for,” says Kristupas. “The city’s colourful past has endowed Vilnius with a rich architectural, cultural and ethnic legacy. I like to think we’ve taken the best bits from each of our invaders.” Deadpan humour in Lithuania is clearly alive and well.
Moving on the from the square, Kristupas and I dive into Vilnius’ Old Town proper. Imagine taking the best baroque, gothic and renaissance architecture from around Europe and plonking it side by side along a compact grid of cobblestoned streets — this gives you some idea of how enticing and photogenic a quarter this is.
After walking past a succession of cafes, each emitting an ever more delightful aroma, I decide to call a premature halt to our excursion and tell Kristupas I need to eat. I assure him I’ll view the Polish church just around the corner later.
We order a couple of wheat beers and a dish of delightfully named cepelinai (‘zeppelins’), which turn out to be (delicious) large, boiled potato dumplings filled with minced pork. It seems somehow fitting that the potato should figure heavily in the cuisine of a melancholic nation, which it appears to do, judging by the potato-rich menu.
As I order another excellent beer, Kristupas takes a break from silent socialising and returns to his discourse on the Lithuanian national character. “In England, when you take photos, I think you ask everyone to smile, no?” he says, without a smile. “Here, we deliberately ask everyone to stop smiling. In Lithuania, the highest praise you can give someone is that he or she is a serious person.”
For the rest of the afternoon, which is packed with more beautiful buildings and stories of invading kings and princes, I see a lot more smiling Lithuanians. The excellent Kristupas, meanwhile, maintains his stony mask to the end. By tea time, I reckon I might have picked Lithuania’s only melancholic guide. Still, it’s surely nothing that a few complimentary wheat beers won’t remedy.