Streets, Squares, Hills, and Courtyards
Almost until the middle of the 16th century, houses in Vilnius were built without any layout and order. Only in 1536, the duke ordered the houses to be built in rows and in compliance with the map prepared in advance by the magistrate. This is how the streets emerged. Unfortunately, due to frequent fires they used to change their direction very often or disappeared at all. Many streets had arches and gates at the beginning and end, even in the middle.
Now the main tourism routes start at the Cathedral Square and go to the Dawn Gate through Pilies Street.
Streets in Lithuanian language are called ‘gatvė’ or ‘g.’, and squares are called ‘aikštė’ or ‘a.’.
Aušros Vartų gatvė
Previously an important route was leading through this street from the capital to the famous castles of Lithuania such as Medininkai, Krėva, Lyda, etc. Therefore, Dawn Gate Street was also called Medininkų Street and the Dawn Gate – the Medininkų Gate. No houses were built on the other side of these gates but the cemetery was maintained there until the 18th century. In 1503, the magistrate of the city ordered to build a guest house in Dawn Gate Street for foreign merchants wishing to stay for a night. Unfortunately, this building did not survive.
Among the remaining significant buildings in this street the following are worth to be mentioned: National Philharmonic, Sts Joseph and Nicodemus Church, Orthodox Church of the Holy Spirit, Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity.
Bekešas and Panonietis Hill
The hill on the other side of the Three Crosses is called Bekešas Mount. Kasparas Bekešas, born in Hungary, was the competitor and enemy of Batoras at the beginning, but later became his friend and fellow. He fought long wars with Steponas Batoras for the Duchy of Transylvania, but after defeat at Saint Pole reconciled with him. When Batoras was elected to the throne of Poland, Bekešas came to Lithuania and was a friend of the king and his faithful servant till he died. In Lithuania Bekešas commanded the Hungarian infantry. He died in 1580 in Grodno. His remains were brought to Vilnius but the Roman Catholic clergy refused to bury him in the Christian cemetery because he was a member of the anti-trinity movement. Then Batoras selected the hill for the place of eternal rest for his friend where Vadušas Panonietis, who ied at Polock in 1579, another military man of him was buried a year ago. On the grave of Bekešas, Batoras erected a tight masonry tombstone in the shape of octagonal tower, which was six and a half cubits wide and 31 cubits high. During the Swedish war of the 18th century, a hole was made in the tombstone and those unaware of it thought it was an entrance. The River Vilnelė flowing at the foot of the mount would wash it away every year until five walls of the tower cracked in 1838 and the other three collapsed after a couple of years. After the first falling, a cap and a skull were found in the ruins of bricks and stones. Now they are displayed in one of the museums in Vilnius.
Bokšto Street stretches from Didžioji Street to Subačiaus Street. Long two-storied houses are standing at the corner of Bokšto Street and Savičiaus Street. It is the former Augustinian Monastery built in the middle of the 18th century. In the 16th century an orthodox church was standing there which burned down in 1655. Later it was reconstructed by the Catholics, burned down again, was reconstructed again and handed over to the Orthodox. Now the church belongs to the Unitarians. In 1807, the palace of the Augustinian Monastery was bought by the University and the Supreme Seminary was placed there. After the university was closed the palace sheltered Ecclesiastic Seminary. When the seminary was moved to St. Petersburg, the palace was taken over by the government and an orthodox ecclesiastic school was established there. In 1919, the University established by Steponas Batoras received the palace.
This street is one of the oldest in Vilnius. It starts at Subačiaus Street and continues to St John’s Street. It merges with Pilies Street, which, sometime in the past, together with Didžioji Street were a single street called Didžioji Pilies Street. Interesting: the square at the Piatnickaya Orthodox Church used to be the fish marketplace.
Didžioji Street can recall both glorious times and hard times: the honourable Lithuanian troops used to march this street; it also saw the crusaders, Swedes, Russians and French to march here, grand dukes of Lithuania and rulers of foreign countries to ride here, ceremonial processions were held here.
Nowadays Didžioji Street together with Pilies Street is one of the most frequently visited places both by the citizens and the guests of Vilnius. Here you will find everything you can expect: luxury shops, cafés, cultural centres, embassies, night clubs, souvenir stands and the best city clamour.
It is a part of the old highway of Trakai, one of the oldest and one of the most magnificent streets in Vilnius. No doubt, Dominikonų Street existed in the 14th century, but we come across its name only in the document dated at the end of the 16th century, i.e. 26 April 1592, saying that some nobleman Jurgis Kamajevskis complains to have been cheated and incurred significant losses here.
For many centuries Dominikonų Street had two churches: Church of Holy Trinity – one of the oldest hospitals for the poor in Vilnius – and the majestic Dominican Church of Holy Spirit with its mysterious and legendary vaults. There the Dominican Monastery was established for a couple of centuries.
It used to be called Senators Street because a number of representatives from the Seimas and state officials – senators resided at Dominikonų Street.
Among the most famous residents of this street were, of course, the Sapiegos. They had two palaces at the western wing of Dominikonų Street.
In the 16th century, Dominikonų Street was almost completely built with masonry buildings and some of them already had drinking water supplied from Vingriai springs through a wooden water supply system. Although the majority of buildings in Dominikonų Street were made from brickwork, they were severely devastated by all fires of the city, especially in the northern side of the street. At the end of World War II, the magistrate building standing at the crossing of Vilnius Street and Dominikonų Street suffered from the Soviet bombings. The building was not repaired and was pulled down. The 20th century was not favourable for the buildings on the southern side of the street. Hotel Europe burnt down. In 1960, it was pulled down together with the neighbouring building, former Pijor college, which suffered only minor damage during the war.
The Cathedral Square is one of the first places in Vilnius to be mentioned in written sources. In old chronicles and legends it was called the Valley of Šventaragis. In the 13th century there stood the Lower Castle consisting of the administrative and defence centre, arsenal and religious institutions of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. By the way, the lower part of the tower standing now in Cathedral Square is the former gothic defence tower and the River Vilnelė used to flow behind it as the boundary of the castle’s fortification. When you cross the Cathedral Square, take a look at the brown line – it is the boundary of the former defence wall.
From the end of the 14th century, after Lithuania was finally reverted to Christianity, this western part of the foot of the hill belonged to the bishop of Vilnius. It is here where the Cathedral, Palace of Bishops, Episcopal House were located and some distance off stood the Palace of the Supreme Tribunal. The Lower Castle slowly evolved into the fortified management centre, the headquarters of the grand dukes.
During the war with Russia, the palace was partially destroyed and began to ruin and soon ceased to be the residence of the rulers. After the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was annexed to the tsarist Russia, this historical relic was standing until 1795 as the ruins of the national dignity and former majesty. But the tsarist officials did their best to pull down them as soon as possible.
During the universal uprising of 1831, the fortress of the second category was equipped on the territory of the castles. It covered the whole horizon, some part of the nearby Botanical Garden, now Sereikiškių Park, extended over the River Neris and some fortifications were made on the other bank of the Neris in front of the Vilnelė mouth. The demolished buildings allow us to see what parts of the Lower Castle remained until that time. Since an open firing field had to be placed beyond the military fortifications, all nearby buildings were pulled down. Among them were some masonry residential houses and small shops as well as the old Palace of Bishops donated under the privilege of Jogaila in 1387, three-story brickwork Pilies Gate that was a depository of the archive of the Supreme Tribunal of Lithuania and the office of the castle’s court, some time later the Royal Mill at the bend of the River Vilnelė, etc. The square that was formed south to the Cathedral was paved with stones, widened to the area close to its current territory. Various markets and the famous St Casimir fairs were held here. And up to the present the Cathedral Square is the axis of the public and spiritual life of the city.
Pilies Street is the continuation of Didžioji Street. It starts at St John’s Street and ends at the Cathedral Square. In the 16th–17th centuries it was called Kanauninkų Street because there were many Episcopal houses here settled with the prelates and canons. Although Vilnius suffered many fires, this street preserved its authentic appearance and specimen of the old architecture: small yards, arcades, vaults, original stairways and basements.
Trade was the primary and principal function of the street. The street connected the castle with the main marketplace, which happen to be the Town Hall Square after Vilnius was granted the rights of self-government. Therefore, many paths and roads were leading to this street, streaming like rivulets from all sides and slowly developing into seventeen streets and alleys. Two points framing the street survived: the Cathedral and the gates of the old defence wall of the city, also known as the Dawn Gate. And everything eternal and temporary fitted in between them: sanctity and barbarism, policy and art, noblemen and plebeians… The fragments of the mosaic of life left by them, the reflections of science, religion, development of thought and political and state revolutions, remind us about the personalities that rooted deep into the memory of Lithuania and of traces left in the building of this street.
The City Hall Square is in-between the Dawn Gate, Didžioji Street and Vokiečių Street. Noblemen and merchants used to build their palaces around this square. In the past the Town Hall was the central point in the life of the whole city and the nearby square was the place of executions, marketplaces and public life.
According to the legend, in times of Algirdas seven Franciscan monks were executed in the City Hall Square. Other seven monks were crucified on Bare Mount, now known as the Three Crosses Hill. In this square Steponas Batoras ordered to kill the traitor Grigalius Astikas in 1580. The square witnesses a number of clashes between the citizens and aggressor troops.
In front of the City Hall stood a pillory where the criminals were flogged by the executioner. Here also stood a tower with the clock and bells. In 1781, the tower collapsed but the smart citizens moved the clock and bells to the Casimir Churches well before that.
Earlier, brickwork shops and small stores were aligned in two rows from the City Hall to Didžioji Street in the middle of the marketplace. They did not survive, but annual fairs held at this place somehow restore the spirit of these times.
Rūdininkų Street starts at the City Hall and continues to Pylimo Street. Now it is no longer an important street, but in the 16th–17th centuries it was a major road to Rūdininkai and Poland. Grand Dukes of Lithuania would return from Poland on this road. Splendid Rūdininkų Gates were built at the end of the street and the magistrate of the city would hand over the symbolic keys to the arriving ruler. The whole street was filled with houses. Even now there are some interesting buildings from the 17th century. One of them is the early baroque Church of All Saints with a magnificent bell tower.
In 1638, Steponas Pacas, treasurer of the State of Lithuania, built baroque St Joseph Betrothed Church and monastery for Discalced Carmelite nuns close to the Church of All Saints. In 1876, Russians destroyed the monastery and built a square there. This square is mostly surrounded by baroque and rococo buildings.
It starts there where Didžioji Street and Dawn Gate Street meet and continues to Paplavos suburb. The street is old because it was named in the acts of the 15th century as Subozc Street. It seems that the name of the street originates from the name of one citizen of Vilnius, Subačius, who lived here in the 15th century and was a major landowner. At the end of this street, the Gates of Subačius stood at the location of current Infant Jesus refuge. It is thought that this place and its environs are the oldest parts of the city. Lithuanians had their farmsteads even in prehistoric times here and later, in the 14th century, the ‘Curved’ castle was built and then burnt down by the crusaders in 1390. The tower of the city wall built from stone and brick and belonging to the castle remained until the beginning of the 19th century. City brickwork originating from the 16th century stretched from the tower to the slope and some traces of it are visible even now. Besides, the yard of the Infant Jesus refuge has an entrance to the underground cavern or corridor which is still unexplored by now and hides many historical secrets. This wide and lofty corridor has rounded vaults and thick walls made from stones and large bricks. The walls have bays, a stove and well. The corridor is partially blocked up by brickbats and brickwork pieces, therefore, it is difficult to tell where he leads to.
There are plenty of legends surrounding the Tower Hill and the underground cavern. One of them says that once upon a time a scary monster lived in the tavern and it would kill everybody with his glare daring to approach the cavern and then devoured its victim. But there was one brave and smart Lithuanian who took a mirror and entered the cavern. As soon as the monster saw itself in the mirror, he scared itself to death. The other legend says that the Tower Hill was the place of annual gathering of witches who would give parties and dances in the underground caverns with devils. The third legend says that enormous riches are hidden in the cavern of the hill and they are guarded by a beautiful girl, dog and cock. They say that at midnight one can sometimes hear them crying, barking and crowing. By the way, the underground corridor can be visited, of course, with prior permission of the owners of Infant Jesus refuge.
Almost until the end of the 18th century, hospitals took care of foundlings in Vilnius. Only in 1786 Duchess Jadvyga Oginskienė bought a plot of land with houses at Subačiaus Street and established a refuge for foundlings. In 1791, a two-story house able to accommodate over 100 of orphans was built from the donations of generous people. Nuns took care over the refuge. In 1801, a special levy was introduced on public attractions for the support of the shelter. But in 1864 Muravjov took the refuge and gave it to the Orthodox officials, who baptised the children according to their faith and were raising them in the Russian spirit.
In 1915, the Russians returned the palace of this refuge to the Society of Lithuanians and it founded an orphanage here. During the German occupation and later, about 200 children were living and being raised in this orphanage. Some of them attended Lithuanian schools, others were mastering different crafts. After the change in political life, local administrative government removed children from the orphanage and gave the house to the nuns.
Šv. Jono gatvė
This short, only about 200 meters or 220 yards long, street recalls a number of historic events. It was the location of the oldest marketplace in the city. Here the noisy Shrovetide carnivals were organised. Well-dressed members of craftsmen guilds and colourful theatricals Corpus Christy Day processions would march along St John’s Street decorated with carpets, paintings and fresh flowers. Pompous noblemen would march here with dignity. Craftsmen, merchants and innkeepers would invite people to visit their stores, workrooms and inns.
The most honourable and powerful dignitaries used to live here, among them the Radvilos, Pacai, and Sapiegos, rectors of the Academy and University, soldiers, clergymen, and craftsmen. Barbora Radvilaitė, wife of King Žygimantas Augustas and the most beautiful woman in Europe of the time, used to visit the Radvilos Palace.
Students and professors used to greet the rulers arriving to Vilnius with music and songs at the gates of triumph in the street.
Youth from Vilnius and the most remote corners of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania studied at the Academy established by the Jesuits.
Here the students would celebrate the festival of St Kotryna, their guardian. Their processions walked St John’s Street the houses of which were decorated with the coats of arms, symbols and inscriptions from top to bottom. After dark, the fires of fireworks would cut through the sky from the bell tower of St John’s Church and the whole college would flash with multicolour lights. Music and songs echoed late into the night.
Wedding corteges and funeral processions attending the deceased to the Calvinist cemetery used to pass St John’s Street.
St John’s Street is also a witness of numerous quarrels between the Calvinists and Jesuits. During the fights of Reformation, Calvinists encouraged by Mikalojus Radvila the Black used to pile manure at the wall of the St John’s Church seeking to disgrace it. Later, under the direction of his son Jurgis Radvila, who later reverted to the Catholicism and even became a cardinal, Calvinist books were burnt down here in fires, among them the famous Ford Bible published by his father.
The pavement of this street was trampled by Kings Žygimantas Augustas, Steponas Batoras, Zigmantas and Vladislovas Vasas, Jonas Sobieskis, Tsars Alexander I and II.
The street is the witness of the fires and epidemics devastating the city and atrocities of the enemy. Its pavement was trampled by the feet of the Russian, German and Swedish soldiers. The invasion of Moscow in 1655 was extremely painful. Defenceless Vilnius abandoned by the Lithuanian army was captured by the Russian troops without a battle. The city was robbed, burnt down and almost one third of the citizens massacred. Remains of noble citizens were thrown out of their coffins and were scattered on the streets and the Cossacks of I. Zolotorenka were slipping in pools of blood of barbarically massacred citizens. Devastated St John’s Church served as the stable for the enemy.
After all wars, fires and epidemics, diligent citizens would quickly heal their wounds and the life would settle back and would take its normal course. Just like in our days, people in Vilnius were working, creating, enjoyed themselves, made friends, quarrelled, loved and hated.
Gifted and prominent masters decorated and enriched St John’s Street. This is evidenced by the remaining architectural monuments of that time. Even now we admire the mastership and perfect taste of their authors. Not without reason the Old Town of Vilnius was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
During the long post-war period, the citizens and guests of Vilnius memorised Trakų Street as the grey and dirty one, full of various offices, workshops and storages looking at passers-by through their windows with ever-closed metal shutters for days, barely illuminated at night. People used to rush along the street as in rainy days the raindrops would fall from the roofs behind their collars and the cars threatened to splatter with dirt from head to toes.
Recently, the street has been rapidly changing. New shops are being opened, the façades of buildings change together with the taste of their owners, doors and huge windows are cut in the main walls. The street is decorated with the ads and signs unusual for the Old Town of Vilnius. And this is not only one of the oldest streets in Vilnius, formed as far back as the 14th century, but also one of the few streets in the capital that preserved its old name and was never renamed. Foreigners would always name Trakų Street in Vilnius as one of the most beautiful and prosperous in the city. And nobody can deny it is not truth now.
Trijų kryžių kalnas
Three Crosses Hill is a memorable place because seven Franciscan monks were tortured here by the pagans. When the Grand Duke Algirdas was absent, pagans tied them to the crosses and threw them down the hill to the river with the words: ‘Swim with the idol you order us to worship’. Since then the mount was given the name of the Three Crosses as three crosses were erected there to commemorate that event and they still are some kind of a symbol of Vilnius. However, scientist Ignas Danilavičius thinks that these crosses were erected there when the city was granted the Magdeburg Rights, as it was done in a number of cities. Some time ago the mount was called Bare Mount and Curved Mount, earlier. Some think that Gediminas killed the aurochs here and this is why the hill is called Aurochs Mount. But the famous Narbutas thinks that it is impossible because the aurochs could not appear on a bare mount and it is also hardly possible for it to be killed on Pilies Mount next to the Valley of Šventaragis and the prophet’s house where people used to gather for prayer. Moreover, it is quite far from other mountains and is steep so the aurochs could not be hiding here.
Courtyards of Vilnius University
Courtyard Adomo Mickevičiaus kiemas
Adomas Mickevičius’ Courtyard is named after the prominent poet because he found his shelter as a freshman student at his uncle’s place here. His uncle, a professor of physics Jonas Mickevičius, was the dean of the Faculty of Physics and Mathematic who lived in the northern part of the palace surrounding this yard. A great deal has been written about this world – famous writer, a descendant of an ancient noble Lithuanian family of Rimvydai–Mickevičiai. His fellow – student Simonas Daukantas was the first to start translating his poetry into Lithuanian. It is worth remembering the first lines from Pan Tadeush written in exile: ‘My Homeland Lithuania, you are dearer than health. And only he who lost you understands how much you should be valued.’
Courtyard Bibliotekos kiemas
The buildings of the old library, administration and the Faculty of History surround the Bibliotekos or Library Courtyard, formerly used for utility purposes. To the west, the renewed Presidential, the former Bishops’ Palace, is situated. Until the early 19th century this courtyard was enclosed, separated from University Street by the university utility buildings, which were demolished when the street was widened. Here is the main entrance to the Library founded in 1570. Next to it the entrance to the Central Building of Vilnius University. At the top of the administration building on the pediment of the Astronomical Observatory shines our principal star – the Sun – with the retinue of planets.
Courtyard Didysis kiemas
The Didysis or Grand Courtyard, the main and the largest, is as if the pantheon of the university, the galleries of which commemorate the founders of the University, its patrons, and distinguished scientists. The northern wing of the palace preserved the 16th century name of University ‘Academia et Universitas Societatis Jesu’. The coloured frescos display the coat of arms of the University, the portraits of Bishop Waleryan Protaszewicz, vicechancellor of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania Kazimieras Leonas Sapiega, and other patrons. The magnificent baroque portal of the 16th century St John’s parish church dominates the courtyard. In the parish church in 1513 a primary school was functioning which in 1566 was promoted to a law school by the priest of this church Doctor of Law Petras Roizijus (doctor iuris utriusque Pedro Ruis de Moros) who, apart from Latin, Greek and German, taught Roman law, Magdeburg Law and the Lithuanian Statute. The VU school theatre had been performing in this yard from 1570, other public performances used to take place.
Courtyard Konstantino Sirvydo kiemas
Konstantinas Sirvydas’ Courtyard – previously part of St John’s churchyard – is framed by the church in the south and by the sacristy in the east. It is named after a Vilnius University graduate, one of the initiators of literature in Lithuanian, Konstantinas Sirvydas. He wrote a Polish–Latin–Lithuanian dictionary Dictionarium trium linguarum (1620) for students, a grammar of the Lithuanian language, a selection of sermons, and used to preach in St John’s church himself.
Courtyard Lauryno Stuokos-Gucevičiaus kiemas
Laurynas Stuoka-Gucevičius Courtyard is named after a graduate and professor of Vilnius University, Head of the Department of Civil and Military Architecture, Head of the Vilnius University division of Engineer Corps (military school). L. Stuoka-Gucevičius was the architect, project designer and contractor of Vilnius Cathedral, Verkiai Palace Complex and many other palaces. During T. Kosciuszko uprising he was a member of the Lithuanian National High Council, the organizer and the leader of the Vilnius civil guard. The VU division of Engineer Corps was situated in the eastern building along Pilies Street.
Courtyard Mikalojaus Daukšos kiemas
Mikalojus Daukša’s Courtyard got its name from the author of the first two Lithuanian books published in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. These were also the first two Lithuanian books for students. In Postilla or Retelling the Gospel (1599) the foreword prepared by M. Daukša is a kind of patriotic manifesto: ‘Is there anywhere in the world such a paltry and worthless nation which would not have three inherent things: its land, its customs and its language? At all times people used their native language, cared about its preservation, enrichment and dissemination. There is no such worthless nation or such a small plot of land where the native language would not be used.’
Courtyard Motiejaus Kazimiero Sarbievijaus kiemas
The courtyard is named after Maciej Kazimierz Sarbievius (Sarbiewski), a poet widely known in Europe in early 17th century, a graduate and professor of Vilnius University. The famous Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens illustrated two editions of his selected poems in Latin. Buildings with buttresses and arcades of different styles and periods surround the enclosed courtyard. The bookshop Littera is situated in a vaulted chamber with frescos by A. Kmieliauskas. Next to it is the Centre of Lithuanian Studies decorated with frescos by P. Repšys.
Courtyard Observatorijos kiemas
A small cosy courtyard of the Astronomical Observatory is adorned by the 18th century Observatory building decorated with the signs of Zodiac and lines of Latin inscriptions. Hinc itur ad astra (From here the way leads to the stars) is one of them. On the left side of the western building, which used to house the VU pharmacy and training hall for pharmacists, a memorial plaque is fixed to commemorate the VU Rector and Head of the Observatory, a corresponding member of the Academy of Sciences in Paris and a member of the Royal Society in London, Marcin Poczobutt. The Observatory Courtyard emerged in the place of a former garden with a surviving early 16th century gothic Mikalojus Jasinskis’ house.
Courtyard Simono Daukanto kiemas
Simonas Daukantas’ Courtyard is named after the first historian writing the history of Lithuania in Lithuanian (1816–1822), also a graduate of this University. An initiator of national revival, an educator is commemorated in the frescos by the artist R. Gibavičius on the first floor of the Faculty of Philology. The courtyard is surrounded by buildings belonging to the Faculty of Philology built in different centuries. In the South-West corner there is a highly valuable fragment of the Renaissance attic. In the middle of the yard grows a luxuriant oak brought from the birthplace of S. Daukantas and planted there a high relief of S. Daukantas made by the sculptor R. Kazlauskas is fixed to the northern wing.
Courtyard Spaustuvės kiemas
The Spaustuvės or Printing House Courtyard is named after the first university printing house, which was donated to the university in 1575 by the Duke Mikalojus Kristupas Radvila-Našlaitėlis. It printed the first books by M. Daukša, K. Sirvydas and other authors in Latin, Greek, Polish and other languages M.K. Radvila’s book A Journey to Jerusalem, which saw many translations and editions, was also printed there in 1601. M.K. Radvila organised the cartographing of Lithuania and in 1613 in Amsterdam he published a rather precise and beautifully illustrated map of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The book depositories and administrative buildings of Vilnius University Library surround the courtyard.
Courtyard Simono Stanevičiaus kiemas
This courtyard is named after Simonas Stanevičius, one from the group of Samogitian students, a poet and a specialist in folklore, who became one of the initiators of the Lithuanian national identity movement. Several-storeyed buildings accommodating the classrooms and offices of the Faculty...