Everyone Has The Right to Love and Take Care of The Cat – Bona of Pisa and Ben Lead me to Užupis

‘Thank you, thank you God of Tour Guides’… Many a time in my career I have uttered that silent prayer when disaster has been avoided by what on each heart-stoping occasion really feels like divine intervention. I should just put ‘disaster’ into perspective; this is travelling we are talking about- not life and death. However, there are times when faced with a double booked restaurant and the manager ‘seeing if he can fit you in’, your private coach totally vanishing with all luggage as well as our picnic onboard by a lonely Baltic beach, suddenly realising you’ve might have got your Avenue and Boulevard Carnot in Paris mixed up and are approaching the address you hope to this hitherto nameless deity really is the site of the museum you need…

Close to The Right Side...

Close to The Right Side…

When that happens, and expectant eyes turn to you, you are all too aware of the buck being about to stop right at yours truly. This morning our Guide Protector came to the rescue, to the extent that it prompted me for the first time in 14 years, to actually check whether there really is such a divine being… Saint Bona of Pisa, this piece is
in your honour. Thank you.

‘Sorry, you can’t come to see our beautiful, famous University – as there is graduation today’… It is 9.10 am in the Baltics. Vilnius, last day of a tour where two of my four guests have – on booking this tour – decided effectively to fly home a day later to see said famous and indeed beautiful University (the chap at the end of the line knows his chickens). We are meeting in the lobby in 5 minutes time where I am faced with telling fifty percent of my group, we can’t have our planned guided tour and will potentially have to sit 3 hours and wait for our airport transfer.

The Promised Land - Vilnius University...

The Promised Land – Vilnius University…

Remember I did add the caveat that this was not life and death stuff, but I can assure you, the ensuing five minutes are not comfortable. So, solution? A more familiar – with Vilnius – guide would have something up his or her sleeve no doubt. Sadly as this is the only part of the trip I am not responsible for, I check them, but they are void of anything.

‘Why don’t you go to a different country’? I fear ‘Ben’ at reception has not fully understood the gravity of the situation I am faced with (either that or he is just that much better at staying Zen under fire) – these are his guests too, doesn’t he realise? Should he not also be concerned about their last day of holiday? Given this, his response when I in desperation – and somewhat ashamedly I might add – turn to him and state; ‘look I have only 2 more hours to fill in your Lithuania, what can I do? there is certainly a lack of us being on the same page. ‘Leave Lithuania and go to The Republic of Užupis’ he says.

Leaving The Country...

Leaving The Country…

Now ‘Ben’ is the same being that not 5 minutes ago has booked a transfer for my group to the airport at 12.00 – less than three hours from now – he should surely be aware this hardly seems the time to head off to some goodness-knows-where-located Eastern European Former Soviet (?) Republic and return in time for our Air Baltic to Gatwick. I mean, to say nothing of Visas…

As my blood pressure mounts – he calmly pulls out a map and using the green complimentary hotel pen draws a circle towards one edge; ‘Užupis, The Republic of Užupis’, he says. Now I am quite good at maps – Geography degree and daily use in my job – and despite my agitated state, I recognise Vilnius, the town I am in and furthermore I can tell the borders of this mythical place of which he speaks, begin not half a mile from our hotel. ‘That’s another country? What, that little peninsular thing in the bend of the river, is another country?’. ‘Google it’ (the now universal response to disbelief)… I need no second invitation to do so and spend the minutes between 9.11 and 9.14 back in my room frantically learning all I can about Užupis. By 9.16 the bad news has been broken to my (thankfully delightful) guests and they are all briefed we are going to take instead a stroll out of Lithuania and visit another country for the next 90 minutes or so. I’ve even had time to google ‘Cafe’s in Užupis’ and found one…

As we cross the bridge over the Vilnia, in Lithuanian „Užupis“ means „on the other side of the river“ we enter this small country- still not officially recognised by any state (though try telling Montmartre, Paris or Christiania, Copenhagen, that). 7000 souls live here, of whom 1000 are said to be artists. Though seemingly a centre of pacifism there is even an 11 (or 12 depending on sources) man army.

Building Utopia?

Building Utopia?

The story of Užupis turns out to be a bizarre, yet strangely encouraging tale of what can happen when a bunch of eccentrics are left to their own devices. It is in fact one of oldest districts of Vilnius, mentioned in historical records dating back to the sixteenth century. Until Lithuania‘s declaration of independence in 1990, it was one of the most abandoned, run-down districts where the majority of houses did not have any electricity and plumbing, were heated only using wood, and without hot running water. The streets at night were dark because of the burn-out or chipped lamps. It therefore developed a reputation as the most dangerous part of the city.

However, the watchful, creative eyes of ‘bohemian artists’ fell on this forgotten and abondoned area with curiosity. Step by step they started gathering together, establishing their workshops, exhibiting their works and slowly spreading the word; ‘Come and have a look, it is not nearly so bad as it seems at first sight’. Their mission was to create something unique. And so on the 1st of April in 1997 ‘Užupis district’ became ‘Užupis Republic’.

Uzupis-ian? Blowing Bubbles... His Right

Uzupis-ian? Blowing Bubbles… His Right

Today it has all compulsory elements of any self-respecting country; constitution, anthem, president, premier, and ambassadors in other countries, an official map, history, traditions, even two churches and bishop. As we stroll down the streets, exploring courtyards in the process of slow, but meticulous renovation, it is fair to say we all become a little enchanted by this teeny-tiny country.

Reaching Paupio Street, our rapidly growing fascination is fuelled by this tiny Republic’s one must see sight – it’s 41 point constitution displayed in 20 or so different languages on a wall, proudly for all to admire, debate and reflect upon; ‘Man has the right to individuality’, ‘People have the right to live by the River Vilnelė, while the River Vilnelė has the right to flow past people’, ‘A dog has the right to be a dog’, ‘People have the right to be happy’, ‘People have the right to be unhappy’ and the obvious ‘Everyone has the right to love and take care of the cat’.

Everyone Has The Right...

Everyone Has The Right…

We duly find our coffee spot, down by the river surrounded by what appears to be the heart of artist-land, sculptures, paintings – a plethora of colours. Apart from good coffee we purchase copies of the 41 point constitution to take away and I think all exercise, as we cross the border back to Lithuania, our right number 16 – that of being happy.

For me, Right 19 – that we each have the right to have faith – is a little closer to the forefront of my mind as I make a mental note to make use of google for the second time that day and check who is this patron saint of Tour Guides, who has so splendidly come to my aid and rescued the day. She, turns out to be from Pisa, alive in the 12th Century and responsible for leading a large number of pilgrims on the long and dangerous thousand-mile journey to Santiago de Compostela.

Thank You...

Thank You…

After this, Bona, such was her name, of Pisa, was made one of the official guides along this pilgrimage route by the Knights of Saint James and successfully completed the trip nine times. Despite being ill at the time, she took and completed a tenth trip, and returned home, dying shortly thereafter in Pisa, where her body has been preserved to the present day.

In the end it all worked out. No one died. Although what can at times feel like the tour guide equivalent – the itinerary not being delivered – once again the joys of travel revealed to us all why they are just that – joys. With everything – real things – happening outside tourism in the world at the moment, there are perhaps worse things one could do than visit and learn the three mottos of this little upstart, idealistic, naive? Republic… Along with a personal thank you to Bona of Pisa and of course Ben too, I leave you with the Republic of Užupis’ three mottos:

“Don’t Fight”

“Don’t Win”

“Don’t Surrender”

Click to Enlarge And See Your Rights...

Click to Enlarge And See Your Rights…

~ by 2ndcupoftea on June 9, 2014.

6 Responses to “Everyone Has The Right to Love and Take Care of The Cat – Bona of Pisa and Ben Lead me to Užupis”

  1. Altid godt med “happy end” :-). Og så kan man jo kun håbe, at deres leveregler og motto, kan smitte af på resten af verden.

    Pas på dig.
    Pernille

    • Tusind tak – ja, netop det taenkte jeg ogsaa. Der er helt sikkert noget at blive sagt til mange er deres leveregler. Haaber alt er godt i Gamle Danmark – Jeg er i gang med at soege bolig i hjemlandet saa vi ses maaske snart. Ciao ciao 😉

  2. A lovely adventure. Thank you for the enlightening us.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting Linda – I feel grateful to Ben, Bona of Pisa and the 7000 good folk of Uzupis for enlightening us all… Hope you are well. Hugs 😉

  3. What a unique and interesting corner of the world! Only you, Thomas, could have found this magical haven and delighted your guests with a brief tour of this special place. I’m sure this is one stop on the tour they will never forget. Thanks for sharing it with the rest of us.

    • Hi Sue – thanks for reading AND for your really kind thoughts. I certainly got lucky on this one. In the end we all loved Uzupis and I’ll be back with my group next year as I am putting this little haven firmly on the itinerary. Many hugs 😉

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