On the chimes of midnight on New Year's Eve, culture migrated from Liverpool to Vilnius. In the UK, the title of European Capital of Culture undoubtedly sprinkled fairy dust on Liverpool last year, but in the territories of new Europe such recognition is loaded with bigger significance. Even 18 years after independence, here is a chance to take another leap out of the grim shadow of its Soviet past. Capital of Culture is a talisman of independence; as Baltic symbols of statehood go, it is almost up there with winning Eurovision.
Culture of international heft in Lithuania seems a tall order. For a start, how many Lithuanian cultural heroes can you name? Off the top of my head, I can't think of one. A little research reveals that classical violinist Jascha Heifetz was born in Vilnius. After that we're into tangentially connected names such as Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Philip Glass, Sean Penn and even Sir John Gielgud – whose families all originate from Lithuania. Almost all of them Jewish, and Jews have had good reason not to feel very Lithuanian since the Second World War.
Maybe it's the lack of internationally recognised names, but on arrival my first impression is that Vilnius tends to prefer the cultural currency of other countries. My hotel is called the Shakespeare, where rooms are named after Dickens, Joyce and Wilde among others; the French are here (Rousseau), the Russians (Tolstoy) and the Americans (Hemingway). If there is a Lithuanian literary genius in here, his or her named room has been hidden away in the attic.
Later, I am directed by a friend to one of the most popular clubs in town – it's called Pabo Latino; the name is a conflation of English pub (Pabo) and Latin flavour. Conceptually, we are in Havana-on-Thames. It is -4C outside and stepping in from the icy streets you can empathise with the yearning for something – anything – that suggests warmth and colour. But it's all a bit desperate.
The DJ's Latin repertoire stretches from the cheesy to the banal, from Enrique Iglesias to the Gipsy Kings. The dancers are quite frantic, but seem more driven to keep warm than cut a dash. No one appears to have bothered to learn any salsa steps, but lack of any clue does not deter some couples from attempting the most ambitious moves. I witness more than one enthusiastic male hurl his dancing partner into the furniture. It is the village disco.
Vilnius has the largest old town in eastern Europe but, compared with the other Baltic capitals, Tallinn and Riga, it feels sleepy. And despite its complex mix of Lithuanian, Polish, Russian and Jewish cultures, the town feels provincial. European Capital of Culture has a job to do. In the coming year, 900 special events have been promised and the branding (a four-pronged amoeba-like blob) is everywhere. The organisers are hoping to attract three million visitors.
But, as I visit, there is talk of a swingeing cut to the organising budget, from 40 to 29 million litas (£10.8m to £7.8m), and there is uncertainty about how this will affect the whole programme. The most tangible project so far is an exhibition by an artist from Georgia, Niko Pirosmani, at the Lithuanian Art Museum.
Billed as "well known" and "unbelievably unique" in the official catalogue, Pirosmani is a new discovery for me. He was a painter in the naive style and reminds me, in part due to the subject matter, of Chagall. The four-room exhibition is no blockbuster on the Klimt scale that Liverpool was able to offer last year, but it is nevertheless a lovely way to pass an hour. Pirosmani painted simple scenes of village life, lots of animals and lots of men who bear a striking resemblance to Stalin. In one painting, rather alarmingly, there appear to be four Stalins with luxurious moustaches carousing at a table.
Carousing seems to be the principal constitutional duty of all citizens in the bohemian quarter across the smaller of the city's two rivers. The signpost on the bridge declares the area, known as Uzupis, to be an independent republic. This seems to refer to a huddle of slightly less kempt buildings on the far bank, which include some homes, an arts centre and, perhaps most importantly, a pub. The "republic" has a 41-point constitution which reads like a checklist of stoned bollocks. Item 24 is typical: "Everyone has the right to understand nothing."
In the pub, with Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love" on the jukebox, I meet Tomas Cepaitis, the self-styled Foreign Minister of Uzupis and ask what they mean by republic. "I consider any group of people sitting together are a republic. The people on the No 73 bus in London are a republic," says Tomas, by way of explanation. Somehow, the conversation drifts around to the Capital of Culture initiatives. "They only care about money. It's too official and bureaucratic," says the "minister". "I'll never go to them. I really don't understand them."
In their own arts centre I get a glimpse of the republic's refusenik art. It includes a portrait of a Rastafarian with a spliff, and a sculpture with a group of Father Christmases made of Plasticine going round and round on a turntable. In the spirit of their constitution, I invoke my right to understand nothing.
I tramp through the snow along the winding cobbled streets, against a palette of grey and black light, wondering if culture can bring people together. At the Contemporary Arts Centre, a wonderful vast exhibition space in a former Soviet building, they are getting another Capital of Culture event together. Billed as "5 continents, 10 biennales, 20 artists", the exhibition is called Code Share. It brings artists together from across the world.
With a week to go there is little to see except the pristine white void of the huge gallery spaces. But there is a real sense of excitement and anticipation in the air. In one room technicians are erecting an indoor house; on another wall local art students are creating a mural inspired by Soviet-era propaganda murals; and in the basement gallery I find Kate Rohde, an artist from Melbourne in Australia, surrounded by a jumble of felt, expanded polystyrene foam, tubes of glue and tinsel. She's busy stitching and gluing fabulous little forest animals together for an installation she describes as a "psychedelic natural history museum".
Though she is from Melbourne, 9,400 miles away, Kate explains that her inspiration comes from the city she is in. "I have an interest in the baroque architecture of the city and am also interested in Lithuania's pagan history and traditions of reverence for nature."
The exhibition won't open for another week and I won't be here to see it but in a sense it can't fail. As the curator states in the exhibition blurb, through the alchemy of becoming Capital of Culture, the city has been able to invite 20 artists to create huge works for the exhibition, and "Vilnius has become the global terminal for the creation and distribution of art".
And that's quite a result for a sleepy Baltic backwater.
How to get there
Return flights to Vilnius with Air Baltic (0871 288 766; www.airbaltic.com) cost from about £250. Return flights with Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) cost from about £100. The Shakespeare Boutique Hotel (00 370 5266 5885; www.shakespeare.lt) offers double rooms from about £170 per night.
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