Do buildings sunbathe? Do they stretch towards the light, writes Scott Armstrong, smiling as the rays warm their old bricks?
Sitting in Cathedral Square in Vilnius, I stare at the whitewashed Bell Tower. Basking in the sunshine of a glorious day in Lithuania’s capital, this medieval structure seems to cheerfully reach up to the heavens.
Perhaps its clean surface is a simply a mirror reflecting my own easy, relaxed state of being, for when the sun shines on the Old Town of Vilnius, particularly the open expanse of Cathedral Square, there are few places better to be.
Behind the Bell Tower, the equally impossibly white Cathedral sits, waiting for worshippers and visitors alike to plunge into its much darker, intimate confines.
Out in the square, the bronzed statue of Gediminas, the Grand Duke of Lithuania who built this city, proudly watches over the mix of citizens and tourists. He too looks content with his afterlife in this beautiful spot, happy to pose for selfies, his legacy living on in social media.
Above and beyond him you watch tourists climb the hill to the Gediminas Tower (he was a big deal in the 1300s so understandably stamped his mark on the city). From there visitors are rewarded with sweeping views of the Old Town below, a happy mix of white buildings capped with terracotta roofs, punctuated here and there by green parks and two rivers, the smaller Vilnia and the larger Neris, which eventually converge.
It’s no surprise that Unesco has named this spot as an official heritage site, it is a treasure to be prized.
Part of its proud history, woven into the architecture of the Cathedral Square is the five-star Kempinski hotel.
Built in the 1900s, the property is rich with history. The neoclassical building was carefully renovated with special efforts to reflect and preserve the building’s historical roots, abundantly decorated facade, the neo-Baroque cupolas on the roof and the balconies.
Its interior is a luxuriously light, with grand white columns, sparkling marble floors, crystal chandeliers. Its bright lobby looks simultaneously minimalist and modern and yet historic, a grand ballroom sympathetically brought bang up to date.
This blend of past and present cleverly continues into its fine dining Telegrafas restaurant, which serves up a slice of cosmopolitan culture, managing to be upmarket and relaxed at the same time.
That simple sense of clean luxury is also reflected in the rooms, which for a hotel in a city so old remain light and spacious, balconies lead directly out to views of the stunning Cathedral Square.
It is also the perfect location from which to explore this surprising, and somewhat schizophrenic, city.
Setting off from the Kempinski, turning right and skirting the square, the picturesque Pilies Gatve (street) waits to entice visitors into medieval Old Town, with cafes, shops and galleries secreted in the tumbled mass of history.
This is one of those perfect old cities where you can plunge into narrow streets and find hidden treasures, with arts and crafts sellers, or jewelry boutiques featuring amber (the national gem of Lithuania). Explore, get lost, and find yourself again, emerging into the light of another main square lined with cosmopolitan retailers selling high fashion.
It here on Pilies Gatve you’ll find some traditional Lithuanian fare on offer. Forto Dvaras is a well-known chain serving some of the nation’s favourites such as Cepelinai, a potato dumpling stuffed with meat, cheese or mushrooms. While Forto might not be fine dining, it’s a pleasant introduction to the local cuisine while one sits at its pavement tables watching life go by.
Exiting the Kempinski and turning left you head towards Gedimino Prospektas, which reflects the other side of Vilnius’ character. This is the modern face of the city, an urban high street home to many of the top name brands, a seemingly endless promenade in which sophisticated bars and restaurants wait to refresh the shoppers. As day turns to night it offers a lively quarter for those in search of revelry.
Kempinski’s relaxed refinement is a reflection of the easy-going Vilnius vibe. This is a capital city that one can explore without worrying about getting too lost, and where it inhabitants are imbued with a chilled-out chic.
For indeed, if even the buildings seem to smile when it’s sunny what is there to worry about in this fine, fine city.
Where to stay:
For information of the Kempinski Cathedral Square visit www.kempinski.com/en/vilnius/hotel-cathedral-square.
How to get there:
Scott flew Turkish Airlines, flying from Oman or UAE to changing at Istanbul to Vilnius. For more details visit www.turkishairlines.com.