Busy Cathedral Square lies at the heart of the UNESCO-inscribed Old Town in Vilnius, Lithuania.
From the belfry, walk south to explore cobblestone streets full of shops, museums and cafes; south-east to reach the crumbling grand facades of the bohemian district of Užupis; and west to find the former headquarters of the Gestapo for a grim reminder of Lithuania’s recent past.
Yet to fully understand Vilnius, you need to descend many metres underground, to layers of the city which remain concealed, well below street level and the thousands of feet which criss-cross its surface every day.
Dating back to medieval times, Vilnius was buried and built over due to wars, fires, and the passage of time. The “Underground Vilnius” tour offers unparalleled access to this hidden world.
“This is a side of Vilnius which most tourists never see,” says my guide Emilija.
We first descend via stairs leading several metres underneath the grand floor of Vilnius Cathedral. The temperature drops; the smell of damp earth, and stale air, grows stronger.
This is a restricted area, accessible only in the company of a local guide. A couple of stray tourists try to follow us, rattling the locked gate as they go, but Emilija pays them no heed.
She is absorbed in telling me how the cathedral has been destroyed and rebuilt several times over the preceding 700 or so years.
During one of its restorations, the altars of a pagan temple dedicated to Perkūnas, the Baltic god of thunder, rain, mountains, oak trees and the sky, were discovered on the site.
I shiver when I learn that sacrificial animals, including snakes, goats and roosters, were kept there, along with an eternal fire maintained by virgins who would be put to death should the flames go out.
Indeed, the city is full of reminders that Lithuania was Europe’s last pagan state.
For example, directly outside the Cathedral is a monument to the founder of the city, the Grand Duke of Lithuania, Gediminas. Legend has it that Gediminas consulted a pagan priest about an unusual dream he’d had, about an iron wolf at the top of a mountain, howling loudly at the moon.
This, the priest explained, represented the fame of the future city that Gediminas was to establish, with a reputation that would spread far and wide, “as far as the howling of the mysterious wolf”.
We step carefully through low slung gothic arches to a display of relics and other items uncovered during archaeological digs. Shards of hand-made pottery. Arrowheads made from bone and iron. Gold rings. Gilded pins. Fractured tombstones. Clay tiles. Candlesticks. Coffin holders.
At least 27 known crypts lie here, the final resting places of ancient nobles and clerics. The oldest burials, dating from the 13th and 14th Centuries, were discovered at the level of the earliest floor, more than three metres below ground. Some of these coffins may still be viewed in the echoing halls.
One of the more haunting is the mausoleum of Barbora Radvilaite (1520-1551). This alleged witch pursued her ill-fated affair with the ruler Sigismund II Augustus while his ailing first wife was still alive. The pair, it’s believed, would rendezvous using a network of secret tunnels which still twist beneath the city’s contemporary streets.
Ample other curiosities lie in the dim corridors of the crypt, including a fresco, discovered in 1985, from the first half of the 15th century. The need to preserve Crucifixion with the Virgin Mary and St John the Evangelist means that the artwork may only be viewed in a mirror’s reflection, though there is a more accessible replica available for viewing.
Archaeologists continue to unearth fresh discoveries. For example, last year, the ruins of ritual baths, used by congregants of Vilnius’ large Jewish community, were found. Nazi soldiers had razed these and other buildings, including twelve synagogues, schools and a library, when they occupied the city in June 1941.
It’s clear that this nation of three million people is still recovering after nearly 50 subsequent years of Soviet occupation. It declared its independence as recently as 1990. As such, the scars remain fresh; the wounds still raw.
While exploring the Jewish Ghetto as part of the Vilnius Tourist Information Centre’s shorter two-hour walking tour, our guide was moved to tears as she described mass shootings, imprisonment, slave labour, starvation and exile.
Descending the steep concrete steps to the basement underneath the Jewish Center of Culture and Information provides a small but eerie glimpse of what life was like for those forced into hiding.
I’m taken briefly into a tiny airless room, pitch black, sparsely furnished. Deep within the damp earth, it’s easy to see how some suffocated to deaths, while others were driven mad by the darkness.
We visit many other buildings in the centre of Vilnius Old Town which contain hidden basements which once functioned as living spaces, workshops, storage areas or hiding holes.
The Amber Museum-Gallery, one of many places where Baltic amber may be purchased, houses a 15th Century kiln and earthenware on its lower ground floor.
Here Perkūnas rears his head again, for he is intimately connected with the story of local amber. According to legend, enraged by his daughter’s love for a fisherman, Perkūnas sent a bolt of lightning to kill him, and to destroy his daughter’s amber palace.
When fragments of amber are washed ashore following Baltic Sea storms, it’s said that these are the tears of the still-grieving goddess.
Other stops on the tour include the Marija & Jurgis Šlapelis Museum, which showcases artworks underground. Nearby, exhibitions, seminars and classes are hosted in the basement of the Stained Glass Manufactory.
So ubiquitous are these spaces that it’s even possible to stumble upon them unwittingly.
Saula Food Cellar is located in in the midst of Vilnius’ tourist district, for instance, but its unassuming facade does little to invite exploration. There’s no menu out front, the word “restoranas” is barely visible on the front glass door, and there’s no telling what’s at the bottom of the flight of stairs.
What I found, though, was a stylish basement restaurant with whitewashed brick walls and blonde wood tables carved from Lithuanian oak, in a space once occupied by a 16th and 17th bazaar.
Saula’s menu celebrates contemporary Lithuanian cuisine, and features a joyful shout-out to individually-named local farmers.
Menu items include beef tongue served with rye bread cream, goat’s cheese salad, or fried catfish with potatoes and cauliflower puree, followed by sea buckthorn panna cotta or lazy chocolate cake made with porcini mushrooms.
I also happen upon another basement when I circle back to where my day started, Cathedral Square, to treat myself at Kempinski The Spa, located underneath the Kempinski Hotel.
I slip into a robe and explore the subterranean pool, spa, and lounge area. There is something womb-like about this steamy, warm, windowless space, and it’s tempting to linger, but I’m soon ushered into a treatment room for the spa’s signature “Amber Experience”.
Many believe that Baltic amber – the fossilised resin of ancient pine trees – possesses therapeutic properties. (Just look at the popularity of amber necklaces among parents seeking to end their babies’ teething woes.)
The presence of body heat supposedly causes amber to release oils high in succinic acid, which stimulates skin cell renewal, calms the nervous system and regulates metabolic processes.
I have no idea if that’s true. Yet lying in this softly-lit room, being scrubbed into somnolence with amber powder, and knowing that a massage and facial is to follow, it’s hard to argue otherwise.
GETTING THERE (from Australia) Fly Qantas to Singapore or Hong Kong, before taking a codeshare flight via Finnair to Helsinki, and then onto Vilnius.
STAY The newly-opened 104-room Pacai Hotel is reconstructed from the ruins of a 17th century Baroque palace. Address: Didžioji 7, Vilnius LT-01128, Lithuania. Web: hotelpacai.com/en
A version of this story appeared in The Weekend Australian on 03.11.18. You can read it there (published as Downtime in Vilnius) at The Australian’s Travel and Indulgence page but you will need a subscription.