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Special Vilnius route: Vilnius Castles and Hills

Vilnius Castles and Hills

Between the 14th and 16th centuries the territory of Vilnius castle complex was a political, religious and cultural centre for the Grand Duchy of Lithuania; an autonomous urban formation for both defensive and representative purposes. In the 14th century there were three Vilnius castles: the Upper, the Lower and the Crooked (the latter has not survived). Situated in close vicinity to one another, they formed a single complex of fortification.
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Special Vilnius route: Vilnius Castles and Hills
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1. Monument to Gediminas (Cathedral Square)
Behind the former gates of the Castle, stands a monument to the founder of the city of Vilnius, Duke Gediminas (sculptor V. Kašuba). Legend says that while riding to his castle in Trakai, the duke realised it was too late to make it, so he encamped in the wood and spent the night here. In his dream he heard an iron wolf howling on the hill. Priest Lizdeika explained the curious dream telling him that, in this place, he would found a city which would become world famous.

2. Cathedral Square
The Lower Castle was accessible through guarded gates. One of those—the main and representative one—was a three level masonry Castle Gate with a tiled roof. The gate was pulled down in the first part of the 19th century. Slabs of red granite may be spotted in the Cathedral Square and along its fringe. They marked the defensive wall and two round defensive towers. The red marble track extending from the towers across the Cathedral Square marks the place of the Old Bishop’s Palace. The building was divided into halls and rooms. The palace was used until 1536, later being destroyed by fire and becoming deserted as a result. The Cathedral Square was enlarged in the 17th century after the remains of the palace and other constructions were pulled down. It hosted markets, student marches, public performances, processions and military parades.

3. Bell Tower (Cathedral Square)
A high bell tower stands to the southwest of the Cathedral. It is the oldest remaining defensive construction of the Lower Castle—a tetragonal tower built in the first half of the 14th century and later used as the bell tower for the Cathedral. The walls of the tower are built from field stones with two to three brick layers interspersed in-between. The tower had four levels and a wooden staircase installed inside. At the beginning of the 19th century it was equipped with a clock. The bell tower has ten brass bells moulded by Dutch and German craftsmen between the 16th and 18th centuries. In 2002 the archbishop of Cologne presented Vilnius with another six bells one of which was named after Joachim.

4. Archcathedral Basilica of St. Stanislaus and St. Vladislaus
A majestic monument of Classical architecture, Vilnius Cathedral—reconstructed by Lithuanian architect Laurynas Gucevičius at the end of the 18th century—stands in the vicinity of the bell tower. It was erected on the remains of ruins from the 13th and 14th centuries. The attic of the Cathedral is decorated with three monumental figure sculptures, representing St. Helena with a huge gilded cross in the middle, St. Stanislaus on the left and St. Casimir on the right. The chapel of St. Casimir is one of the most masterful early Baroque monuments in Vilnius. The walls of the chapel are graced with two wall-paintings by Italian artist Michelangelo Palloni. The chapel of St. Casimir is the burial ground for relics of Saint Casimir, who was also a prince. The royal mausoleum is the last resting-place of Grand Duke of Lithuania and King of Poland Alexander Jagiellon, as well as the wives of Grand Duke of Lithuania and King of Poland Sigismund II Augustus—Queens Elisabeth of Habsburg and Barbara Radziwill—and the heart of Grand Duke of Lithuania and King of Poland Wladyslaw IV Vaza.

5. New Arsenal
The New Arsenal was built on the remains of the defensive wall of the Lower Castle in the 14th century. The Northern block of the museum is erected on top of the remains of the ruined tetragonal tower called “the beacon” the purpose of which was to provide light for ships going down the River Neris. In the 18th century, Voivod of Vilnius Michal Kazimierz Oginski reconstructed the building and it started to be referred to as the New Arsenal. At present, an exposition of history and ethnography of the National Museum of Lithuania is housed in the building. On the square in front of the museum building a monument was unveiled for the sole King of Lithuania Mindaugas (1253–1263), (sculptor R. Midvikis), who united Lithuania.

6. Foundation of the Church of St. Ann and St. Barbara
Behind the New Arsenal at the northern foot of the Castle Hill, one can spot the foundation of the Church of St. Ann and St. Barbara. The old Church of St. Ann was destroyed around 1551, when Sigismund II Augustus decided to build a new Church of St. Ann and St. Barbara with a royal family mausoleum inside. After the death of the king construction work came to a halt, and as the church was destroyed during the wars of the 17th century, it was later decided to use the bricks for repairs to the Cathedral.

7. Castellan House
The castellan house (currently the administration building of the National Museum of Lithuania), built in the first half of the 16th century with one of the walls adjusted to support the slope of the hill, stands at the southern foot of the Castle Hill. Ulrich Hosius, who served as a castellan in the 16th century, took care of construction work of the castle.

8. Old Arsenal
The Old Arsenal situated next to the confluence of the Vilnia and Neris is the storage centre for national cannons and ammunition. Historical written sources refer to it from the middle of the 16th century, stating that it was built on the remains of the defensive wall of the Lower Castle. Cannons, mortars, shells, grenades, guns, gunpowder, ammunition, carriages and other artillery were stored here. At present the Museum of Applied Art operates in the renewed eastern block of the Arsenal, where sacral Lithuanian folk art and professional Lithuanian sacral art is exhibited.

9. Upper Castle. Gediminas Tower
The Castle Hill, now 48 metres high, surrounded by rivers, was a convenient place for construction of a fortress. A wooden castle stood here between the 11th and 13th centuries. The Upper Castle was edged with a 320 metre secure defensive wall with high-pitched towers. Ruins of the southern tower remain here as well as the western tower in its entirety now referred to as the Gediminas Tower. In the second half of the 14th century the Upper Castle underwent heavy attacks by the Teutonic Order, however they failed to seize it. After a big fire in the 15th century in Vilnius the damaged castle was rebuilt by Grand Duke of Lithuania Vytautas. In the period at the end of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th century the castle was deserted; it was later transformed into a prison, and, further damaged during the wars with Russia in the 17th century, gradually turning into ruins. The Baltic Way (1989) of the three brotherly nations started at the lower part of the Gediminas Tower and is memorialized by the commemorative symbol of Sąjūdis (sculptor G. Karalius).

10. Royal Palace (Cathedral Square)
The Royal Palace of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania with a closed courtyard formed an irregular quadrangle. This was a complex of four blocks. The Grand Duke of Lithuania, Sigismund I the Old reconstructed this residence in the 16th century. In 1544 his son Sigismund II Augustus with his mother Queen of Poland, the Italian Bona Sforza, settled in the palace. The 16th century was a period of prosperity for the palace—famous artists visited the palace, art treasures were accumulated, and rich collections of armour, guns, clocks and a number of paintings and tapestries were purchased; a library well-known across Europe was also treasured here. Between 1799 and 1801 the Royal Palace was destroyed, and a military fortress was built in the territory of the castle complex. The remains of the palace were found and archaeological research commenced in 1987; the reconstruction was launched in 2002.

11. Kirdiejų Palace and the Botanical Garden
At the southern foot of the Gediminas Castle Hill, a small park extends with the ensemble of the former Kirdiejų Palace. The palace devolved into the Botanical Garden of Vilnius University at the end of the 18th century. The origin of the garden relates back to the naturalist and traveller Johan Georg Adam Forster, who was engaged in James Cook’s voyage around the world and was familiar with Goethe and Herder. On his initiative the plot of the former Kirdiejų Palace was bought together with the neighbouring buildings in 1787. The Botanical Garden was the oldest and richest botanical garden in Eastern Europe. In 1842 the Botanical Garden was closed down.

12. Hill of Three Crosses
The Crooked Castle stood on the top of the Hill of Three Crosses, once called the Bleak Hill (Plikasis kalnas), in the 14th century. In 1390, the Teutonic Order seized and burnt it down. According to the legend, three wooden crosses were built on the hill in commemoration of the killed Franciscans. In 1916, according to architect A. Vivulskis’s design, massive concrete crosses were built but they were exploded by Soviet authorities in 1950. In 1989, Three Crosses (architect H. Šilgalis) were again rebuilt.

13. Bekes Hill
Bekes Hill was named after Hungarian general Kaspar Bekes (1520–1579), who was buried there.

14. Table Hill
Scenic panoramas of Vilnius open up from Table Hill (named because of its form).

15. Altana
This is a concrete building erected in the 20th century. A magnificent panorama of Vilnius opens up from the hill.

16. Gediminas Grave Hill
Grand Duke of Lithuania Gediminas is said to have been buried on the hill.
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