According to local legend, the Miracle Tile of Vilnius, Lithuania has the power to make wishes come true. Some say you have to stand on it, twirl around three times, jump in the air, and clap your hands to get your wish. Others suggest this tradition was started mainly to provide the locals with a little innocent amusement and has nothing to do with getting what you ask for. I’m not going into all the details of my experience but suffice to say that if you’ve been fretting about the long-term viability of the planet's ecosystem, you can relax; it’s sorted. You’re welcome.
The Miracle Tile also marks one end of the longest human chain ever assembled. On August 23, 1989, two million people in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania — one quarter of the population of those three countries — joined hands in a 420-mile line running from Tallinn, Estonia through Riga, Latvia and ending (or starting, depending on your perspective) right on the Miracle Tile of Vilnius. The men, women, and children in that long line were protesting Soviet occupation, which had recently been revealed as the illegal result of secret protocols in the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact between the Nazis and Stalin, who reached a clandestine agreement allowing Russia to occupy the three Baltic countries. This revelation provided legal justification for dismantling Soviet authority in the region, and on that day in 1989, two million people braved the wrath of a superpower to stand up for their freedom. By 1991 they had it. Was this the Miracle Tile at work? I’ll leave that for you to decide.
For some in the Lithuanian capital, freedom from the Soviets was only the beginning. On April 1, 1997, the residents of Užupis, a small, bohemian district tucked inside a loop of the Vilnia River, declared themselves the independent Republic of Užupis. They have their own flag, currency, constitution, president, anthem, and an army of 11 men; if you go there, you can have your passport stamped. The Republic of Užupis isn’t recognized by any official government, and no one (including, I suspect, the ringleaders) is quite sure where on the serious to tongue-in-cheek spectrum the whole enterprise falls.
One of the projects that brought the group together was convincing the city to enliven the landscape with a statue of the outrageous musician Frank Zappa. Saulius Paukstys, who spearheaded the movement, faced considerable resistance from authorities. "They said: 'What has he got to do with Lithuania anyway?' We said: 'Nothing really.' Then someone convinced them that Zappa had Jewish features and seeing as Jewish history is very important to Lithuania, they plumped for that."
The residents of the Republic of Užupis are mostly artists, and playfulness and creativity are some of the tiny republic’s most cherished ideals. The constitution, drafted in a local bar, is a treat to read. Here are some of my favorite provisions:
Everyone has the right to make mistakes.
A dog has the right to be a dog.
A cat is not obliged to love its owner, but must help in times of need.
Everyone has the right to die, but this is not an obligation.
Everyone is responsible for their freedom.
As the republic’s first president, Roman Leleikis, explained at the time, “We’re trying to energize a community by asserting our independence. It’s very different from the independence gained in ’91, but we’re trying to foster the same spirit so that people can make things happen for themselves. That’s a trait they lost through 70 years of oppression.”
Today, the people of Vilnius are making things happen for themselves, and one way they’re doing it is through the sharing economy, with peer-to-peer transactions that link neighbors to neighbors, visitors to locals. You can rent lodgings from Airbnb, get around town with Uber or in a City Bee car, and now, thanks to the entrepreneurial spirit of a local chef named Ruta, you can share a meal in a private home via EatWith.
Rich and I signed up to go to Ruta’s home for a dinner made from homegrown vegetables and herbs, berries picked in the forest in the Baltic tradition, and seasonal ingredients from the market. Ruta’s training began in her grandmother’s kitchen. “For me, cooking became a way of making people happy,” she told us. “When I heard about EatWith, I knew I had to convince them that I should be part of that here in Vilnius.” The screening process was rigorous, but Ruta persevered and became the first — and so far, the only — EatWith host in Lithuania.
The dinner was delightful. Rich and I lingered long at the table with Ruta and her husband, Vidmantas, discussing everything from the state of the world to the ingredients in each mouthwatering morsel on our plates. As I dipped my spoon into the homemade coffee mousse, I thought about all the years of my childhood when I had stood in terror of the USSR and wished with all my heart that the Iron Curtain would come down. I don’t know how much of the credit belongs to the Miracle Tile, but however it happened, I am still astonished and deeply grateful that the Baltic States are enjoying their freedom, and I hope they will hold on to it for a very long time to come.
Soon we'll be wrapping up our time in the Baltic States and heading south into Poland to start the second half of our trip. To date we've covered 2976 km / 1849 miles, mostly by train with a few ferries and the odd bus thrown in. Highlights have included zany Amsterdam, the German city of Lübeck on the edge of the Baltic Sea, the Stockholm disaster, the new foodie mecca of Helsinki, Finland, futuristic Estonia, and a surprisingly kookie visit to Riga, the capital of Latvia. We spent a few days in the Latvian countryside, in the small town of Kuldīga, then headed south to Šiauliai, Lithuania, where there appeared to be nothing to do — until there was too much to squeeze in. We're currently in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital. To follow our adventures as they unfold, subscribe to my blog, like my Facebook page, and keep checking the map of our journey.
8/11/2016 06:45:51 pm
Dear Karen and Rich...How is it possible that the more
8/12/2016 06:49:52 am
This is such an amazing part of the world, filled with beauty and terror and hope and zaniness. The deeper I go, the more interesting I find it, and the more fun it is to share. Thanks for your kind words, Vivana! It's great to know that you are with us in spirit.
8/11/2016 07:29:38 pm
8/12/2016 06:50:23 am
Me too, Marilyn!
8/11/2016 07:32:05 pm
It is always a delight to hear about your travels - Vilnius is now definitely on our list!
8/12/2016 06:53:09 am
You should check it out, Sage. Of course, you never know what people like. Some Seville friends came through Vilnius a few weeks a go and told us they found it underwhelming. We think it's delightful on so many levels. You'll just have to go and decide for yourself!
8/11/2016 07:36:25 pm
The people of Uzupis are an inspiration. What a hoot! And the food photos are fab. Thank you for continuing to share.
8/12/2016 06:58:08 am
Glad you're enjoying the posts, Nancy. And yes, Uzupis is terrific fun, and I'm so amazed they have managed to pull it off for so many years. It's a great reminder that there are always marvellous new ways to go about the business of life.
8/11/2016 07:37:41 pm
Now I want to visit the Republic of Užupis and dine with Ruta!
8/12/2016 07:01:10 am
Getting to the swing is pretty easy. You climb down the river bank (I think there are steps) and then just wade out in water about a foot deep. Looks like fun, doesn't it?
8/12/2016 10:02:43 am
8/12/2016 02:57:28 pm
Ruta, it was wonderful meeting you and your family, and sharing such a lovely dinner in your home. Rich and I hope to return to Vilnius, and if we do, you can be sure we will be in touch to arrange another evening together. Mes tikimės, kad jūs netrukus vėl!
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TO I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain.
Wanderlust has taken me to more than 60 countries. Every week I provide travel tips and adventure stories to inspire your journeys and let you have more fun — and better food — on the road
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