TRAVEL / A tale of three cities: Now that Eastern Europe is open to all travellers, Neal Ascherson celebrates the complex cultural legacy of Vilnius; overleaf, a guide to literary Moscow; a chance to buy two air tickets for the price of one

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The Independent Culture
VILNIUS is one of several cities which fancy themselves as 'the Athens of the North'. Edinburgh's claim is better known - it rests on the Scottish Enlightenment, on the notion that here, as once in Greece in the 5th century BC, philosophers sauntered about the streets and taught their disciples. But the case for Vilnius-as-Athens is different. It is not merely the genius but the architecture, too.

For the fact is that Vilnius does faintly resemble ancient Athens. This is because at the end of the baroque period the city fathers, the grand aristocrats and even the Catholic Church went for a pure classical style of building - not just Palladian villas with cupolas, but huge Greek temples done in the correct Doric, Ionian or Corinthian orders. These buildings all serve some august purpose. But you can head for some gigantic Temple of Jupiter or Parthenon in the Old Town of Vilnius, and not find out until you are quite close whether it is a post office, a university Department of Geodesy, an art gallery or a Church of Bernardine Nuns.

Even more than an Athens, though, Vilnius is a Jerusalem. This is a city whose privilege and tragedy is to have been loved to distraction by at least three different peoples who do not much like one another. Jerusalem and Vilnius and Transylvania are all loved for their unearthly beauty. But all three are sacred places for competing cultures, which claim exclusive ownership and which write the place's history in ways which are mutually irreconcilable.

Vilnius is a Lithuanian and a Polish and a Jewish metropolis. More accurately, it was. Vilnius in the 17th and 18th centuries was the intellectual and religious hub of the biggest single Jewish population in the world: the Jews of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The city gathered the most famous constellation of rabbinical, philosophical and necromantic genius in Judaic history. But Tsarist persecution later drove many Vilnius Jews to emigrate to North America or western Europe, while those who still remained in Vilnius at the time of the Second World War were murdered by the Nazis, assisted - a painful scar in local memory - by gangs of Lithuanian Fascists.

The Polish-Lithuanian competition for Vilnius is tortuous. But any visitor has to grasp its outlines, or fail to understand what he or she is looking at. The city was founded in the 14th century by Gediminas, a Lithuanian pagan prince who built a castle at the confluence of the Neris and the Vilnia. But conversion to Catholic Christianity and union with Poland through dynastic marriage soon led to a steady increase of Polish influence and settlement.

By 1795, when the old Polish-Lithuanian state was overthrown and partitioned (Lithuania was in the slice which went to Russia), the capital had almost ceased to be a Lithuanian settlement. The majority of its inhabitants were Jews, and most of the rest were Poles. Over a century later, on the eve of the Russian Revolution, 54 per cent were Poles, 41 per cent Jews and only 1.6 per cent of the population were registered as ethnic Lithuanians.

Most of the Old City was built during the Polish period. Vilnius is the extreme north-eastern corner of European baroque; further north, Latvia and Estonia took their style mostly from Hanseatic German tradition, while further east lie the lands of Russian Orthodoxy. But Vilnius baroque is special, done by Italian architects in a late, imaginative manner with magnificent pinnacles and free-standing belfries. This was also the uttermost limit of western Gothic, and St Anne's Church, built in 1502, is encrusted with stone loops and whorls applied like cream to a cake. Gaudi of Barcelona would have liked it, and Napoleon - who passed through Vilnius on his way to Moscow - was so taken by St Anne's that he said he wished he could pick it up in his palm and carry it back to Paris.

By the time of the Partitions (when Poland was wiped off the map and divided among her imperial neighbours) the Lithuanian landowning class was Polish-speaking and culturally 'polonised'. During the 19th-century resistance to Russian rule, Vilnius produced a continuous firework display of Polish cultural genius and patriotic conspiracy. Poland's best-known poets, Adam Mickiewicz and Juliusz Slowacki, were both students at the 16th-century university (as was Czeslaw Milosz, another 'Lithuanian of Polish culture', who holds a Nobel prize for literature). Vilnius and Warsaw were the two centres of 19th-century insurrections against the Partitions, and there were times when 'Wilno', rather than Warsaw, seemed the spiritual capital of the country.

Then came the Lithuanian 'reconquest' of the city that had once been theirs. A Lithuanian national movement slowly formed in the 19th century, and the collapse of the Russian Empire after 1917 allowed the birth of an independent Lithuanian Republic with its capital at Vilnius. The Poles hit back, seizing and annexing the city in 1920. The Lithuanians got it back in 1939, but were themselves annexed by the Soviet Union the following year.

There followed a dreadful half-century of repression. Lithuania's intelligentsia was murdered or sent to Siberia. Russian settlers were moved in, and the city's churches decayed or were turned into museums of atheism. But it was in those years, after the Poles had fled or been deported, that Vilnius became again - permanently - a city inhabited mainly by ethnic Lithuanians speaking their own language.

Today Lithuania is a free country. Mickiewicz Street, which became Lenin Street, is now Gediminas Street, and the poet himself is uneasily presented in tourist leaflets as 'the great Lithuanian dramatist Adomas Mickevicius'. A small Polish minority remains, with its own newspaper and radio station, but relations between the two countries are now happy; the hatchet has been buried.

This is a city for walking, and for talking. Narrow lanes wind between gigantic baroque churches and palaces. Cafes serve powerful black coffee and cream cakes, while good restaurants are slowly appearing, offering not only the schnitzels, dumplings and rich soups of eastern Europe but all the wild mushrooms and game of the Lithuanian forests. The citizens appear solemn at first, but they are eager to talk to foreign visitors, and hours passed over coffee and vodka listening to their memories bring a deep respect for the stubbornness and courage of this small, martyred people.

There are ghosts in much of the city's beauty. The shrine of the Madonna of Ostra Brama, perched in a bridge-chapel across a narrow street, is above all sacred to Poles. The ancient lanes of the city centre, with their galleried houses and dark back-yards, recall by their silence the lost world of Lithuanian Jewry. But there are more modern shrines. The big modern parliament building on Gediminas was barricaded and guarded by boys and girls all through those terrible weeks in early 1991 when Soviet troops and armour poured into Vilnius, and seemed about to extinguish Lithuania's new-found independence. Up on the hills stands the television tower, where on 13 January 1991 a crowd of young Lithuanians stood holding hands and singing the ancient songs of their land. Soviet tanks drove into them and over them, and opened fire. Thirteen people died.

Many have shed their blood for Vilnius. Many who loved and lost this northern Jerusalem dreamed of its streets, loud with bells or quiet with snow, until their deaths in exile.

My own favourite souvenir is not embroidery or amber and silver jewellery but bread - the big black loaves which you can buy hot in the early morning from the bakery on Basanaviciaus Street. The bread keeps you warm as you carry it away, and as it cools, its scent of yeast and caraway and fermentation and rye fills a room. A week later, it is still good to eat: a treasure as steady, simple and strong as Lithuania itself.-

(Photograph omitted)