A palace reborn: Vilnius’ Grand Ducal Palace

By Julie Skurdenis
This item appears on page 59 of the June 2010 issue.
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The main entrance of the reconstructed Grand Ducal Palace — Vilnius. Photos: Skurdenis

by Julie Skurdenis

July 6, 2009, marked the apogee of a yearlong celebration of Lithuania’s 1,000th anniversary. It was in 1009 that Lithuania was first mentioned in a written source, a German manuscript called the Quedlinburg Chronicle. In honor of the occasion, Vilnius had been selected as a Cultural Capital of Europe for the year.

To cap it all off, the reconstruction of the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania had just been completed. July 6th, a national holiday in Lithuania marking the coronation in 1253 of Mindaugas, the country’s first and only king, was the day on which the palace opened officially.

My husband, Paul, and I have witnessed much of the palace’s rebirth over the past 16 years, from empty space to archaeological excavation site to outer shell to the newly completed building that proudly stands beside Vilnius Cathedral at the base of Gediminas Hill in the middle of Vilnius. We’ve seen the emergence of a phoenix from the ashes (and I’ve written about it in ITN over the years).

First castle in Vilnius

It is atop small, steep Gediminas Hill that Vilnius’ history began in the 14th century with the construction of a wooden fortress by Grand Duke Gediminas. Brick and stone soon replaced wood, and the Upper Castle, as it is called, grew to include towers, a palace and a chapel. The ruins of these can still be seen today, with one tower reconstructed to house a small museum.

At the base of this hill, another palace complex grew soon after, although it was only at the beginning of the 16th century that the Lower Castle replaced the Upper Castle as the primary residence of the Grand Dukes.

Under two Lithuanian Grand Dukes — Sigismund the Old (ruled 1506-1548) and his son, Sigismund Augustus (ruled 1548-1572) — the Gothic Lower Castle complex was transformed into a Renaissance palace. Like the Upper Castle, the Lower Palace complex included a church, arsenals and towers. There were also smaller palaces for nobility, including one belonging to the Radvila (Radzivil) family.

In 1610, fire ravaged much of Vilnius, including the Lower Palace. Worse was to come in 1655 when Russians destroyed what had been rebuilt after this fire. The palace stood neglected for 150 years until razed to the ground by the occupying Russians in 1801.

Archaeological investigation of the palace ruins began in the late 1990s, just before Lithuania regained its independence in 1991. Reconstruction started in 2002, with completion scheduled to coincide with the millennium celebrations of 2009.

Palace reopens

Old-fashioned heating stove in the Grand Ducal Palace.

We visited the Grand Ducal Palace the day after its official opening. The palace stands in one of the most prominent positions in Vilnius, between Gediminas Hill and the 18th-century neoclassical Cathedral. It’s where the Old Town with its narrow winding streets and the New Town with wide boulevards, parks and many government buildings meet.

The exterior of the palace is imposing: a four-story white edifice with its main entrance facing a modern statue of Gediminas, Vilnius’ founder. There’s an irregularly shaped, four-sided interior courtyard reconstructed according to 18th- and 19th-century drawings and illustrations that have served as architectural “blueprints.” This courtyard had not been completed at the time of our visit.

When we asked if tours in English were available, a young archaeologist who said he’s been working on the project since its inception offered to guide us.

In place are imposing coffered ceilings, enormous chandeliers and huge stoves covered with both replica and authentic tiles of the 16th and 17th centuries. There are wonderful “snapshot” views from all the many large windows — a corner of a Cathedral chapel, an angle of the Upper Castle tower, glimpses of the Old Town. . . . What remains to be done are the furnishings: furniture, tapestries, carpets, etc.

“When will this part of the project be completed?” we asked.

“Maybe in a generation. Maybe two,” responded our archaeologist.

In memory of our parents, both of whom were of Lithuanian descent, my sisters Diana and Birute and I had donated toward the palace’s reconstruction. Our family name, Skurdenis, is inscribed (along with those of other donors) near the palace’s entrance. Hearing the archaeologist’s response, it looks as if the three of us Skurdenis girls will be contributing for a long time to come.

Archaeologists are still at work within the palace, where portions of its foundations lie exposed for visitors to see. As our archaeologist guide told us, “I think I’ll be working here for a long time.”

Other places to visit

Visitors to Vilnius should not miss visiting the Upper Castle site on Gediminas Hill right next to the palace. On the other side of the palace is the Cathedral, another do-not-miss sight.

On the side facing the Neris River are the former arsenal buildings spanning the 16th to 18th centuries. They now house three of Vilnius’ foremost museums: the Museum of Applied Art, the new Archaeology Museum and the National Museum.

The National Museum is where artifacts from Napoleon’s march across Lithuania are housed. They were found when the mass graves of thousands of soldiers who died in Napoleon’s 1812 campaign were discovered and excavated in 2001.

Vilnius has one of the most extensive Old Towns in Europe. It’s right across the street from the Grand Ducal Palace.

If you go. . .

There are no direct nonstop flights from the US to Vilnius. We purchased our tickets from SAS (800/221-2350, www.flysas.com) as we always do on our frequent trips to Lithuania. From Newark, we flew to Copenhagen, then on to Vilnius.

We stayed in Vilnius at the superlative Stikliai (phone 37 05 211 1550, www.stikliaiapartments.lt and www.stikliaihotel.lt), considered among the finest hotels — if not the finest hotel — in Lithuania and in the Baltic States. The Stikliai is a member of the prestigious Relais et Châteaux group of hotels.

We rented one of the 10 apartments that are part of the Stikliai. The Stikliai Palace Residence apartments are beautiful, each one unique in configuration and decor. They’re classy in a low-key way, with amenities like washer/dryer, dishwasher and microwave — especially important if you’re staying for a week or more as we do.

The location in the middle of the Old Town — a seven-minute walk from the Grand Ducal Palace — is unbeatable. The apartments are located next door to the Stikliai Hotel and share a lushly planted courtyard with it.

Prices for the apartments range from €1,500 to €4,000 (near $1,990-$5,305) per month. It is worth asking about rates for shorter rental periods and also about discounts. The Stikliai is the most beautiful purpose-built apartment complex we have ever stayed in (and we’ve stayed in many).

Prices for rooms in the Stikliai Hotel range from €148 to €440 ($196-$584) per night and include breakfast and all taxes. Again, ask about discounts.

By the way, the Lithuanian word stikliai means “glassblower” — a reminder that this part of the Old Town dates back to medieval times.

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.
The main entrance of the reconstructed Grand Ducal Palace — Vilnius. Photos: Skurdenis

by Julie Skurdenis

July 6, 2009, marked the apogee of a yearlong celebration of Lithuania’s 1,000th anniversary. It was in 1009 that Lithuania was first mentioned in a written source, a German manuscript called the Quedlinburg Chronicle. In honor of the occasion, Vilnius had been selected as a Cultural Capital of Europe for the year.

To cap it all off, the reconstruction of the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania had just been completed. July 6th, a national holiday in Lithuania marking the coronation in 1253 of Mindaugas, the country’s first and only king, was the day on which the palace opened officially.

My husband, Paul, and I have witnessed much of the palace’s rebirth over the past 16 years, from empty space to archaeological excavation site to outer shell to the newly completed building that proudly stands beside Vilnius Cathedral at the base of Gediminas Hill in the middle of Vilnius. We’ve seen the emergence of a phoenix from the ashes (and I’ve written about it in ITN over the years).

First castle in Vilnius

It is atop small, steep Gediminas Hill that Vilnius’ history began in the 14th century with the construction of a wooden fortress by Grand Duke Gediminas. Brick and stone soon replaced wood, and the Upper Castle, as it is called, grew to include towers, a palace and a chapel. The ruins of these can still be seen today, with one tower reconstructed to house a small museum.

At the base of this hill, another palace complex grew soon after, although it was only at the beginning of the 16th century that the Lower Castle replaced the Upper Castle as the primary residence of the Grand Dukes.

Under two Lithuanian Grand Dukes — Sigismund the Old (ruled 1506-1548) and his son, Sigismund Augustus (ruled 1548-1572) — the Gothic Lower Castle complex was transformed into a Renaissance palace. Like the Upper Castle, the Lower Palace complex included a church, arsenals and towers. There were also smaller palaces for nobility, including one belonging to the Radvila (Radzivil) family.

In 1610, fire ravaged much of Vilnius, including the Lower Palace. Worse was to come in 1655 when Russians destroyed what had been rebuilt after this fire. The palace stood neglected for 150 years until razed to the ground by the occupying Russians in 1801.

Archaeological investigation of the palace ruins began in the late 1990s, just before Lithuania regained its independence in 1991. Reconstruction started in 2002, with completion scheduled to coincide with the millennium celebrations of 2009.

Palace reopens

Old-fashioned heating stove in the Grand Ducal Palace.

We visited the Grand Ducal Palace the day after its official opening. The palace stands in one of the most prominent positions in Vilnius, between Gediminas Hill and the 18th-century neoclassical Cathedral. It’s where the Old Town with its narrow winding streets and the New Town with wide boulevards, parks and many government buildings meet.

The exterior of the palace is imposing: a four-story white edifice with its main entrance facing a modern statue of Gediminas, Vilnius’ founder. There’s an irregularly shaped, four-sided interior courtyard reconstructed according to 18th- and 19th-century drawings and illustrations that have served as architectural “blueprints.” This courtyard had not been completed at the time of our visit.

When we asked if tours in English were available, a young archaeologist who said he’s been working on the project since its inception offered to guide us.

In place are imposing coffered ceilings, enormous chandeliers and huge stoves covered with both replica and authentic tiles of the 16th and 17th centuries. There are wonderful “snapshot” views from all the many large windows — a corner of a Cathedral chapel, an angle of the Upper Castle tower, glimpses of the Old Town. . . . What remains to be done are the furnishings: furniture, tapestries, carpets, etc.

“When will this part of the project be completed?” we asked.

“Maybe in a generation. Maybe two,” responded our archaeologist.

In memory of our parents, both of whom were of Lithuanian descent, my sisters Diana and Birute and I had donated toward the palace’s reconstruction. Our family name, Skurdenis, is inscribed (along with those of other donors) near the palace’s entrance. Hearing the archaeologist’s response, it looks as if the three of us Skurdenis girls will be contributing for a long time to come.

Archaeologists are still at work within the palace, where portions of its foundations lie exposed for visitors to see. As our archaeologist guide told us, “I think I’ll be working here for a long time.”

Other places to visit

Visitors to Vilnius should not miss visiting the Upper Castle site on Gediminas Hill right next to the palace. On the other side of the palace is the Cathedral, another do-not-miss sight.

On the side facing the Neris River are the former arsenal buildings spanning the 16th to 18th centuries. They now house three of Vilnius’ foremost museums: the Museum of Applied Art, the new Archaeology Museum and the National Museum.

The National Museum is where artifacts from Napoleon’s march across Lithuania are housed. They were found when the mass graves of thousands of soldiers who died in Napoleon’s 1812 campaign were discovered and excavated in 2001.

Vilnius has one of the most extensive Old Towns in Europe. It’s right across the street from the Grand Ducal Palace.

If you go. . .

There are no direct nonstop flights from the US to Vilnius. We purchased our tickets from SAS (800/221-2350, www.flysas.com) as we always do on our frequent trips to Lithuania. From Newark, we flew to Copenhagen, then on to Vilnius.

We stayed in Vilnius at the superlative Stikliai (phone 37 05 211 1550, www.stikliaiapartments.lt and www.stikliaihotel.lt), considered among the finest hotels — if not the finest hotel — in Lithuania and in the Baltic States. The Stikliai is a member of the prestigious Relais et Châteaux group of hotels.

We rented one of the 10 apartments that are part of the Stikliai. The Stikliai Palace Residence apartments are beautiful, each one unique in configuration and decor. They’re classy in a low-key way, with amenities like washer/dryer, dishwasher and microwave — especially important if you’re staying for a week or more as we do.

The location in the middle of the Old Town — a seven-minute walk from the Grand Ducal Palace — is unbeatable. The apartments are located next door to the Stikliai Hotel and share a lushly planted courtyard with it.

Prices for the apartments range from €1,500 to €4,000 (near $1,990-$5,305) per month. It is worth asking about rates for shorter rental periods and also about discounts. The Stikliai is the most beautiful purpose-built apartment complex we have ever stayed in (and we’ve stayed in many).

Prices for rooms in the Stikliai Hotel range from €148 to €440 ($196-$584) per night and include breakfast and all taxes. Again, ask about discounts.

By the way, the Lithuanian word stikliai means “glassblower” — a reminder that this part of the Old Town dates back to medieval times.