As our sleek Baltic Air jet came in to land inVilnius, Lithuania's capital city, my heartsank. I'd caught sight of a wall of stark,foreboding, concrete high rises—relics oftoo many years of Soviet occupation. "Welcome toLithuania," I thought ruefully.
My family and I had come to Vilnius for a wedding.During the ensuing heart-stopping taxi ride to ourhotel, The Nerutis, my first impressions gave way to ajoyful wonder. We had passed out of the shadow of theextinct Soviet era into the light of a free and proudLithuania. The country is now dubbed "The BalticTiger" because of its forward-looking economic developmentpolicies and its recent membership in theEuropean Union and NATO.
We arrived in the beautiful "Old Town" of Vilnius.Our hotel was built in the mid-1500s, directly oppositethe gothic church of St. Jonas, a site of worshipsince the 1300s. Hilly with two rivers running throughit, the Neris and the Vilnia, Old Town Vilnius issteeped in history and legend. The bijou church of St.Anne so captivated Napoleon as he pushed towardMoscow in 1812 that he declared he could hold it inthe palm of his hand and take it back to Paris. All buttwo of the city's exquisite baroque, gothic, and renaissancechurches were closed during Soviet occupation,but now are being restored by UNESCO.
Vilnius' streets are lined with elegant shops and boutiquesdisplaying stunning Lithuanian linens. Amberjewelry is , a "Baltic Gold," resulting fromeons of resin oozing from the lush forests of Lithuania,deposited into the Baltic Sea, swished around for a fewmillion years, and then washed back on the shores ofthis tiny country, ready for the jeweler's craft.
The family sacrament of matrimony took place inSt. Jonas Church. The bride was given away by hermother, who, 30 years earlier during Soviet occupation,had come to the church in the dead of night tohave her new baby girl secretly baptized. Had motherand baby been caught by the Soviets, they would havebeen deported to Siberia.
Following the sacrament, the bride and groomtook off with the wedding party to carry out the"Ceremony of the Bridges." To prove himself, thegroom has to carry the bride across as many bridges ashe can. He has to "bribe" the guardians of the bridgeswith bags of flour, nuts, candy, and vodka. More traditionalLithuanian nuptial rituals followed. Thegroom split a log, and the bride donned an apron andneckerchief and diapered a baby doll. Before movinginto the reception, the "Cheating, Lying Matchmaker" was hung in effigy while the crowd sang traditionalLithuanian wedding songs.
Overcoming the Past
The city still has grim reminders of Nazi and Sovietoccupations, such as the former KGB building thatstands in stark contrast to the surrounding new buildings.In its cellars the KGB tortured and killed thousandsof Lithuanians. In 1992, when the unarmed citizensof Vilnius protested peacefully at a local TVstation, 13 of them were cut down by Soviet Kalashnikovs.But on that same date, the Soviets left town.
WWII also is remembered in Lithuania for thehorrors of the Nazi occupation when more than200,000 Jews were murdered. A beautiful park hasbeen dedicated to the memory of Chiune Sugihara,a Japanese consul general who managed to save6000 Jews from certain death. Those days are past,and Lithuania now shows its heart to visitors, anda window has opened on a part of Europe that wasonce off-limits to the world.
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