The Church of St John is in the heart of the Old Town. ilnius has attracted increasing numbers of visitors ever since Lithuania dramatically broke free from the collapsing Soviet Union in 1990. The capital's amazing architectural heritage includes its cherished Old Town, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Photogenic gems can be found on almost every corner, including splendid baroque churches that are more reminiscent of those found in Mediterranean settings than in Vilnius's northerly location. On the eastern edge of the Old Town, the 16th-century Gates of Dawn used to form part of a defensive city wall. Devout Catholics still visit a small chapel over the gateway to pray to a renaissance painting of the Madonna for blessings or miracles. The Gediminas Tower stands sentinel over a picturesque panorama encompassing the city centre and a bend in the wide River Neris. This flag-topped national symbol is named after a grand duke who ruled in Lithuania's 15th-century golden age, when this now small country used to stretch all the way to the Black Sea. The bell-tower in the nearby Cathedral Square is another striking landmark. A commemorative tile on the square in the shadow of the tower marks the spot from where a mas54 BLUE WINGS NOVEMBER 2008 V sive human chain stretched northwards through the three Baltic States in 1989, with some two million people linking their hands in solidarity, campaigning for independence. BALTIC GOLD West of the square lies Vilnius's main street, Gedemino Prospect, which is lined with boutiques and stores selling familiar international brand names as well as high-quality Lithuanian design at surprisingly reasonable prices. For even better bargains, browse for clothes and gifts at the stalls and stores along the main thoroughfares of the Old Town. Favourites include trinkets made of so-called Baltic gold, as amber is described here. The Museum of Amber is itself worth a visit, as it graphically illustrates how these semi-precious gems are formed from ancient fossilized tree resin. Also on display are amber stones containing tiny insects that flew millions of years ago. CULINARY SURPRISES The Old Town is also a happy hunting ground for anyone searching for traditional Lithuanian food, which is hearty and wholesome, and somehow proto-European in the same way as the ancient Lithuanian language. Specialities on offer for adventurous eaters with a healthy appetite include huge meat-filled Zeppelin dumpling, or dishes containing almost any conceivable part of a pig, including potato pudding topped with a lightly poached pig's ear smothered in sour cream. Photogenic gems can be found on almost every corner.
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