Yes, it’s true! On 25th of January Vilnius is celebrating its’ 696 birthday. In this post we will discuss how we know the exact date and recommend couple of ways to celebrate this important day!
Why 25th of January? Summer would be way better!
You might have heard that Vilnius is a city of dreams? Famous legend tells us, that Grand Duke, Gediminas, was on a hunting trip in the forests of Šventaragis valley, where rivers Vilnia and Neris meets (around present day Cathedral square). When night fell, the party, feeling tired after a long and successful hunt, decided to set up camp and spend the night there. While he was asleep, Gediminas dreamed an iron wolf standing on the top of a hill with its head raised proudly towards the moon, howling as loud as hundred wolves. Awakened by this strange vision, the Duke immediately consulted the pagan priest Lizdeika about it. The latter told the Duke that the dream was a sign from Gods. The iron wolf, explained the priest, was the symbol of a city, a great capital. This future city will be strong as iron and famous across the world as hundred wolves howling! And who was tasked to build this incredible city? Poor Gediminas of course!
Did the Grand Duke actually slept in the woods in the middle of January? Our pagan rulers where not famous for keeping calendars and work schedules … How do we know that it happened precisely on 25th and not 28th ? Well, usually it’s the first known historical mention of city's name that is celebrated as birthday.
So when was Vilnius mentioned for the first time ever? Apparently, after his dream the Grand Duke of Lithuania, obeying the will of gods, started to build the future capital immediately. But not in a way you would expect. Gediminas is actually the most famous for writing letters! There are 6 surviving transcripts of letters of Gediminas written in 1323–1324. In the second letter written on January 25, 1323 to the German cities of Lübeck, Sund, Bremen, Magdeburg, Cologne and other cities in the Holy Roman Empire, Gediminas explained that the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was very tolerant to the Christians. He invited knights, squires, merchants, doctors, smiths, wheelwrights, cobblers, skinners, millers, and others to come to the Grand Duchy and practice their trade and faith without any restrictions. His invitation notably included German Jews as well as Christians, and its issuance is closely linked to the establishment of the Jewish community in Lithuania. The peasants were promised tax exemption for ten years. The merchants were also exempt from any tariffs or taxes. Nice offer, right?
And precisely in this letter Vilnius is mentioned for the first time and already as the capital of Lithuania! Therefore, 1323 is considered to be the official founding year of Vilnius. Gediminas is considered to be the city's founder even though the city existed years before Gediminas' reign.
How to celebrate Vilnius birthday? There are so many things you can do!
PLAN A: you can climb Gediminas Hill and start howling as a wolf!!! Ok we are joking…locals would probably think you are crazy. But writing letters is normal enough. If you have some unsolved matters back at home, writing an email or a hand written note is a great idea. Look how it worked out for Gediminas! Also we have so many beautiful postcards dedicated to Vilnius and it’s people. Here is the list of places to find them:
Mint Vintetu (Šv. Ignoto 16, Vilnius)
The book and souvenir shop at the palace of Grand dukes (Katedros sq. 4, Vilnius)
Republic of Užupis Information Centre Užupio 2a, Vilnius
The main post office in Vilnius is located at Gedimino av. 7, Vilnius. However, this one is quite busy at any time of the day. Better check one at Vokiečių 7-13, Vilnius.
PLAN B: you can talk to the guy who started it all. No, we don’t suggest you should start calling spirits from another world with a spiritual séance. Simple phone call will be enough. Just go to the monument for the Grand Duke Gediminas, located in the Cathedral Square, scan the QR code on the blue plaque and voilà – Gediminas is calling you! Never heard about this magic? Check out Vilnius Talking Sculptures program. And while you are chatting with Grand Duke, make a selfie with him!
PLAN C: if you want to see how Vilnius changed over course of history, you can’t miss the photography exhibition of Józef Czechowicz and His Time in Photography. He is recognized as 19th-century major Vilnius photo chronicler and the leading photography artist of Lithuania of his time. The enlarged details of his pictures reveal the photographer’s contemporaries, witnesses of his times, with whom he walked the same streets and observed life going on in the city. Exhibition is open till 3rd of March at the Vilnius Picture Gallery (Didžioji 4, Vilnius).
PLAN D: the event locals are really excited about is Vilnius Light Festival! 25 light installations created by the artists from 9 countries will inspire the city and its citizens for a new life, warm the cold Middle Ages, paint the city’s architecture, pull the townspeople out of their houses into the streets! The route of the festival will be announced only few days before the event, till then everyone is kept in the dark… When? 25-27th of January from 6PM till 11PM!
PLAN E: join our tours! We can share stories, you will not find in the tourist guide book and show places, you will not spot on the maps! In the Soviet and Jewish tours we will explain to you difficult and colorful history of Vilnius, Wilna and Wilno, in Alternative tour we will show you wonderful street art, in Ghost tour we will reveal gruesome stories locals would like to forget, and in food tour we will give you chance to smell and taste the city itself! Sounds like a great plan, doesn’t it?
But what to do if you can’t come to Vilnius this month? How to celebrate then? Well there are few short movies or documentaries about Vilnius, you can watch at home!
Here is the list:
Time passes through the city The main hero of this film is the city of Vilnius. Vilnius is also a metaphor for the historicity of Lithuania. This film, however, is unique not only for its cinematographic reflections on the history and statehood of Lithuania but also for its treatment of the history of cinema - it encompasses both Russian (Soviet) montage techniques and the first traces of cinéma-vérité in Lithuanian cinema. Don’t worry you will not need subtitles for this one.
Grand Duke Gediminas: the founding of Vilnius A short animated film about the mythology of pagan Lithuania and the founding of Medieval Lithuanian capital Vilnius.
Vilnius, St. Casimir fair 1936 a wonderful short documentary from 1936 made by German movie company. Even if you don’t speak German, this movie will give you interesting insights in everyday life of local people.
Wanderers of white time With this film a cinematographer Rimvydas Leipus made a debut as a documentary film director. By casting its gaze to the periphery of Vilnius, Užupis, the film follows the tradition of the first generation of independent filmmakers. The result is the mute portrayal of a furnace caretaker Jonas Valeiša and a graphic artist Šarūnas Leonavičius.
Or just check out films which are not about Vilnius but was filmed here
So now you know why Vilnius celebrates it’s birthday on 25th of January and how you can celebrate it! We hope you enjoyed it!