When we flew to Lithuania on a whim in the middle of January 2018, people already though it was a rogue move. While I was excited to explore a new place, especially somewhere so few people have been, people reacted somewhere between “that’s… interesting” and “are you being punished for something?”
Lithuania, in winter no less, is already a confusing destination. So imagine my surprise when we managed to stumble upon an even more unusual, unknown location buried deep within Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital city. Užupis is an independent mini-republic, reminiscent of Paris’ Montmartre or Copenhagen’s Christania, separated from the rest of the city by the river Vilnia. Užupis citizens declared independence on 1st April 1997, because along with being artists and freethinkers, they are also clearly trolls. Being recognised by no government has not been an impediment to their development, and over the last twenty years Užupis has created its own flag, currency, president, cabinet of ministers, anthem, army (numbering an intimidating eleven people) and totally not at all tongue-in-cheek constitution.
The constitution contains thirty-nine articles and ends with Užupis’ three mottos: don’t fight, don’t win, don’t surrender. Particularly entertaining articles include a dog has the right to be a dog and a cat is not obliged to love its owner, but must help in times of need and everyone has the right to die, but this is not an obligation. It also contains the more philosophical everyone has the right to appreciate their unimportance and no one has the right to a design on eternity. It ends with the moving everyone has the right to not be afraid. A chaotic, hilarious, caring set of principles.
As we walked over the bridge into Užupis, the artistic undercurrent was unavoidable. Beautiful graffiti, posters and drawings covered the streets and we spotted seven pianos lining the banks of the river. It being the dead of winter, and a Sunday afternoon, no one was around so we had this unorthodox place all to ourselves. Among the abandoned instruments and children’s toys, we also found a statue that spoke to me on a spiritual level. I obviously had to get in on the action though I’m just lucky my nips survived the chill. Anything for art.
As we walked through the town we saw a path heading off to the left and decided to follow it – true adventurous spirits, here. It lead us to the iciest uphill pathway I’ve ever encountered, which, given that it was freezing and we had no idea where we were and no one had appropriate shoes on, we obviously decided to scale.
It was carnage. We were pulling on roots, using mud to try to provide friction and moving at truly a rate of a few centimetres a minute in order to literally not slide all the way back to the bottom. There are no photos of the advanced stages of this climbing because getting a camera out would have been impossible. You might think all this effort was for something – a view, maybe, or a notable landmark or statue. Nope. There was nothing. We didn’t even reach the top because the thick sheet of ice became impossible to get any traction on. We then spent even longer getting back down, because even more difficult than scaling an ice-covered hill is descending it. Gravity was not our friend. Neither was my lack of gloves. Should I be concerned by how many of my valuable extremities I’d exposed to the cold by this point?
Post-scramble, we headed back to the main street (a staggering few hundred metres away) and ducked into a sweet bakery for sustenance. Anyone who’s read the longer Vilnius post will know about Sophie’s struggles with sugar, spice and anything that has any flavour at all. The offending item was a berry and chocolate mousse cake. She had a tiny taste, looking like we were asking her to rub chilli in her eyes, and then scowled. Truly, feeding your friends delicious baked goods is the ultimate cruelty.
This was our last stop before rushing back to the airport and leaving Lithuania behind. We’ve since found out that if you perform a citizenship ritual, which apparently involves walking up a hill, spinning around and saying a few words, all while naked, you get a passport stamp and are an official citizen of Užupis. I can’t explain how disappointed I am to have missed out on this, especially as I both climbed a hill and exposed myself. Guess we’ll have to go back!