Lithuanian history stretches right back to 13th century, with the first mention of Vilnius appearing alongside that of the legendary Grand Duke Gediminas, who is credited with founding the fledgling country of Lithuania. Historically, things have not gone smoothly for this little country, beleaguered over the centuries by Russia, Poland, France and Germany, but in the early days under the leadership of Grand Duke Vytautas, Vilnius became the capital city and most important trading post of the largest country in Europe, with territory from the Black Sea to the Baltic.
Jews, Germans, Russians, Poles, Muslims and Orthodox Christians all poured in to tolerant, open-minded and prosperous Vilnius in the 14th century, and the foundations of Old Town were laid behind fortified walls. Vast churches and public buildings were constructed over the course of this peaceful period, but in the middle of the 17th century Lithuania found itself in a long struggle against an ever-more-powerful Russia. By 1795, the Russians controlled Lithuania and remained in power for 120 years. Vilnius all but vanished off the map.
The Industrial Revolution reached Vilnius in 1860, and another great period of expansion was soon in full swing; the city spread rapidly outwards and both business and population boomed. During the political uncertainty after World War I, however, the city changed hands 10 times in six years before falling under Polish rule until World War II and once more becoming a political and commercial backwater. What happened next is well documented; the Gestapo annihilated 95 percent of Lithuanian Jews, and subsequent occupation by the Soviet Union saw thousands of Lithuanian nationals murdered or deported.
However, Lithuania did gain its independence from Russia in 1990 and has thrived since; as a member of the European Economic Community, a slew of new money came pouring into the country, bringing with it investment in building and trade. Tourism is now one of its biggest industries, and Vilnius’ legacy of constant change can be seen today in its multicultural streets. It’s here, in the Orthodox and Christian churches, the synagogues, the purpose-built suburbs and in the city’s hundreds of multi-ethnic restaurants and bars, that visitors are just as likely to hear Russian, Polish or English as Lithuanian.