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True Lithuania

Polish Lithuania: Top 10 Sights

Lithuania and Poland regularly shared a king since 1385 and formed a united Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth between 1538 and 1795. While Vilnius is a historical capital of Lithuania, a 17th-18th-century linguistic shift caused many Vilnius area families to abandon Lithuanian language for a "more prestigious" Polish. Thus Vilnius became dear to Poles and many luminaries of the era were considered to be both Polish and Lithuanian (they are respected in both modern countries). Even today there are Polish-majority villages and towns in the area. Here are top 10 Polish sights (mostly in Vilnius and its surroundings):

1.Take a peaceful walk in hilly Rasos cemetery (Polish: Rossa) and read some Polish inscriptions on its pretty gravestones. Established in 1795 Rasos served at the period when Vilnius had Polish as its lingua franca. The heart of Poland's president Józef Piłsudski is among the famous burials. Another area is reserved for Polish soldiers (Polish-Lithuanian War and World War 2).

2.Descend into the cellars of Vilnius Cathedral, where Alexander (King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania) is interred (Vilnius Old Town). The bodies of Sigismund Augustus, Barbara Radziwiłł and the heart of King/Grand, Duke Wladislaw Vasa are nearby. Pre-registration essential.

3.Kneel at the Aušros vartų street to pray for the famous 1600s Virgin Mary painting hanging on the last remaining Vilnius Old Town gates (known in Polish as Ostra Brama). While the years of Soviet atheism diluted the tradition, pre-WW2 images and videos show masses of people praying there, many of them Poles.

4.Explore Šalčininkai area, the heartland of Vilnius region rural Polish culture, with 72% of its people ethnic Poles. It has an outback feel and there are no museums or plaques, however, numerous buildings date to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth era, such as Norviliškės ex-monastery and the ruins of Merkinė manor. Churches (with most masses in Polish) are the prime cultural centers in what is also the Lithuania's most religious area.

5.See the world-famous Divine Mercy painting now proudly hanging in its own minimalist church with alternating Lithuanian and Polish masses (Vilnius Old Town). This painting was inspired by visions of a Polish nun Faustina Kowalska (now a Saint) and its cult has hundreds of thousand followers, its copies hanging in Christian churches all over the world and it even has a statue dedicated to it in the Philippines. The former wooden nunnery where she lived now serves as a small museum in Anatakalnis borough of Vilnius (saved by local bureaucrats from a Soviet demolition).

6.Explore the recently rebuilt controversial Grand Duke Palace used by Lithuanian Grand Dukes and Polish kings during their stays in Vilnius. While its authenticity is somewhat dubious many plaques help one better understand the history of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Vilnius Old Town.

7.Visit a small Adam Mickiewicz museum near Vilnius University where he studied and created secret societies at. Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855), known in Lithuanian as Adomas Mickevičius, lived in times when a "Polish-speaking Lithuanian" was as understandable a definition as "English-speaking Irish" is today. After the two nations divorced Poles consider him a Pole while Lithuanians see him as a Lithuanian. Mickevičius's statue 100 m from the museum became the location of first major anti-Soviet protest in Lithuania (1988).

8.Visit the birthplace of the Polish president Józef Piłsudski at Zalavas manor (Švenčionys district). He was one of the last famous people to call himself "a Lithuanian" while not believing in independent Lithuania and seeking to re-establish the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth instead (which made him a controversial person in modern-day Lithuania).

9.Take a short drive into Vilnius suburbs to a wooden manor of Władysław Syrokomla (Lithuanian: Vladislovas Sirokomlė, 1823-1862), who, like Mickiewicz, wrote his poetry in Polish. The museum does its best to give info about the poet with what little memorabilia it has; it also houses a tourist information center of the multiethnic Vilnius district, offering tourists routes. The wooden building is somewhere in between of a humble peasant's home and an elaborate palace and such homes were common to the largely Polish-speaking 19th-century petit nobility (szlachta) of Lithuania.

10.See the real Issa valley from Czesław Miłosz (Lithuanian: Česlovas Milošas, 1911-2004) books north of Kėdainiai (near real-life Nevėžis river). Sadly the manor where Miłosz grew up was destroyed by the Soviets but a small museum dedicated to him exists. Nobel prize winner Miłosz may have been among the last famous persons to consider himself both an ethnic Pole and an ethnic Lithuanian.

Map of the top 10 Polish locations in Lithuania. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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