Behind a car park on Kalinausko Street in Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, there’s a small bronze statue. It’s been there since 1995, sitting atop a plinth that had been left empty since a statue of Lenin was torn down when Lithuania broke free from Soviet rule in 1991.
According to Sualius Paukstys, a civil servant, photographer, and the man who lobbied for and commissioned the statue, the point of erecting a new statue was to mark the end of the communist regime. It was to be a symbol of the city’s artistic and personal freedom. A monument to Lithuania’s long awaited democracy. A test of its new found freedom... a sign that things really had changed. Are you wondering what it is, the symbol of freedom that took Lenin’s old spot up on that plinth? Glad you asked. It’s a bust of none other than the late, great American musician, Mr. Frank Zappa.
Sure what else would it be?
It might seem like an odd choice, considering Zappa never went to Vilnius and has no ties whatsoever to Lithuania.
But if you think about it, it actually couldn’t be more apt – considering that even listening to his music was banned under Soviet rule, actually being able to create a monument to him really does speak of this new freedom. Besides which, Frank Zappa is awesome and deserves many statues in his honour, wherever they are.
But I think the Zappa statue symbolises something else really important about Vilnius and its inhabitants too – a great sense of humour and an appreciation for a healthy dose of the absurd, two things that I really noticed and really loved during my visit.
And as it happens, Frank Zappa wasn’t to be the last example of humour and weirdness changing things in Vilnius…
Two years after the statue was erected, the group behind Zappa’s monument channeled that same spirit into a whole new test of the city’s freedom. Many of them artists and musicians, they lived in a place called Uzupis, a small neighbourhood of around 148 hectares situated just over the river Vilnel. It was quite a poor part of Vilnius that had become particularly rundown after years of being neglected during the communist period. Frustrated with the lack of time and resources going into improving the area, they took matters into their own hands and declared Uzupis an Independent Republic on April 1st 1997, (yep, on April Fool’s Day).
The Republic of Uzupis would have its own president and cabinet, four different flags (one for each season), its own anthem, currency and passports, and the best constitution that has ever been written (article 12 states that ‘A dog has the right to be a dog'). It even had an army. Of eleven.
If lobbying for Zappa statues and fighting for the rights of dogs to just be themselves isn’t enough to make you want to go and visit Uzupis for yourself, I’m not sure I can help you. I’m not sure anything can help you. All I know is that, as a fan of people that don’t take themselves too seriously and an embracer of the bizarre, the Republic of Uzupis was my first port of call when I got to Vilnius.
It’s not a place with reams of ‘must-see’ attractions. Uzupis is a place for wandering around, stopping to eat cake in cafés and drink beer in bars, talking to people, and spotting all the little absurdities that make it what it is.
There are a few iconic Uzupis sights that you might want to see though, including the Angel of Uzupis. The Angel is to Uzupis what the Statue of Liberty is to Manhattan. It’s a big bronze sculpture created by local artist Romas Vilčiauskas, and it was erected in 2002 as a(nother) symbol of freedom of expression and art. The same artist also created the Uzupis mermaid, which you’ll find in the walls of the river, right under Uzupis bridge.
She doesn’t have the same tourist pulling credentials as Copenhagen’s finned female, but she does look just as melancholic… And just above her on the bridge itself, Uzupis has its very own collection of lover’s locks, which couples have engraved their names on and attached to the bridge before throwing the keys into the Vilnele, to bring them luck in love.
If you feel like taking a load off and having a cup of coffee or a skinful of Lithuanian beer after you’ve seen the sights, head to Uzupio Kavine right by the bridge. This is where the government sits when decisions have to be made (they take the big table close to the bar), so you can technically say you went to the Uzupis house of parliament. If the weather’s nice, take your drink out to the terrace by the river. From here, make your way to the Art Incubator, just a two minute walk upriver – it’s easy enough to find; just look out for the life-sized unicorn-zebra rocking horse outside.
I was shown around by Ieva Matulionyte, a lovely local woman whose family has lived in Uzupis for three generations.The Incubator is a lively place where both resident and visiting artists can work and exhibit their work, and where events and workshops are held. It feels quite like the soul of the Republic in a way, a concentration of the kind of creative and daft and happy people who make Uzupis such a pleasant place.
The Constitution of the Republic of Uzupis has to be my favourite thing about the place, though. It says so much about the people who live there. There’s no messing around with ‘bearing arms’ or any such seriousness – this constitution asserts far lovelier rights for its citizens. You can read the whole thing (translated into English) here, but below are some of my favourite clauses:
1 – ‘Everyone has the right to live by the River Vilnelė, while the River Vilnelė has the right to flow by everyone’. In Uzupis, even the rivers have rights.
12 – ‘A dog has the right to be a dog’. Can’t argue with that.
13 – ‘A cat is not obliged to love its owner, but must help in time of need’. Probably still expecting a little too much of cats, but I appreciate the sentiment.
21 – ‘Everyone has the right to appreciate their unimportance’. Sage advice. Besides, a touch of existential angst never hurt anyone.
Uzupis has been compared to Christiania in Copenhagan and Montmartre in Paris. I don’t know how fair a comparison that is – it’s far younger and a little more tongue-in-cheek than both of those places. It doesn’t need to be compared to anywhere else, really. It’s its own place.
It is becoming increasingly gentrified, and I could see it become Vilnius’ trendiest place in the future, like Shoreditch but with fewer Mexican skull tattoos and less almond milk. For now though, it really is testament to how cool Vilnius is, and how pleasant and good-humoured its inhabitants are.
More than that; it’s a friendly, colourful, lovely reminder of what you can do with a bit of determination, some creativity, and a sense of humour.
Oh, and Frank Zappa as your spirit guide.
- Dee Murray