Friday 9 November 2018

Užupis: The Improbable Republic Within Lithuania

This article from my 2008 visit to Lithuania appeared in Sydney's Sunday Telegraph newspaper, but is no longer online: so here it is, lightly revised for your enjoyment. Užupis forever!

A dog has the right to be a dog.

I’m standing on a quiet side street in Vilnius, Lithuania, looking at this point on a 41-point document displayed on a large mirrored sign. Other unlikely sentences assert that “Everyone has the right to make mistakes”, “Everyone has the right to be idle”, and “Everyone has the right to die, but this is not an obligation.”

It’s an unconventional list; but nothing is conventional in the district of Užupis. The document is the self-proclaimed constitution of this bohemian enclave, whose resident artists declared independence from Lithuania in 1997.

The prequel to this artistic revolt happened in the early 1990s, after Lithuania had achieved independence from the Soviet Union. A group of artists declared that the time for political statues was over - and commissioned a statue of musician Frank Zappa as a quirky symbol of freedom.

The dynamic bust, bearing Zappa’s distinctive features and flowing long hair, still stands atop a pillar on the western side of Vilnius’ historic Old Town.

Fresh from this triumph, it didn’t take the artistic community long to declare Užupis independent. But this isn’t a Russia versus Ukraine situation. The Republic has an honorary president, no standing armed forces, and a commitment only to art.

When you learn that its national day is April 1st, you can see why the Lithuanian government casts an indulgently amused eye over Užupis, seeing its “independence” as a great tourist attraction.

Not far from the constitution wall is the Angel of Užupis, another impressive statue. It’s the most well-known symbol of Užupis, and it’s easy to see why. As I turn the corner and catch my first sight of the angel, I can’t help but smile. He’s perfect.

Not too big, not too small, he stands on a column high above the pedestrians, emphasising his lofty detachment. Facing toward the downhill slope, trumpet raised high, hair swept back as if blown by the wind, the Angel seems to embody the pride of this reborn district, and is frankly inspiring.

Stepping across the street, I enter Prie Angelo, a cafe facing the plaza. Its name and decor seem a tribute to the Angel - or, in fact, all angels. The pale, old-fashioned interior with its bare floorboards and deep-set windows is decorated with a variety of heavenly spirits in the shape of candleholders, vases, and busts poking straight out of the walls.

As angels watch over me and sunlight softly illuminates the space, I struggle to believe Užupis was once a dangerous, dilapidated district of the USSR.

However, proof is at hand. Following small side streets off the plaza, occasionally ducking through arches into residential buildings’ courtyards, It becomes clear that Užupis is still a work in progress. Some of the courtyards are in a terrible state - crumbling stonework, rusted railings, rubbish strewn around. In another, I see an old car up on blocks, missing its tyres.

Then I stick my head into the gallery of the Vilnius Potters’ Guild. I’m not sure it’s somewhere I should be - piles of newspaper-wrapped objects are being packed into boxes, and it looks like I’d be underfoot.

But a woman ushers me in, explaining that they’re preparing for a medieval fair, and encourages me to look at their work. The pieces I can view have a rustic simplicity, a smooth but organic look that’s very appealing.

I head uphill away from the Angel, into the heart of Užupis. It’s only when I reach the restaurant Tores, and step through to its backyard terrace, that I realise how high I’ve risen above the city. Lunch is a pizza and a stein of Švyturys, a pale golden beer which packs a fair punch.

Beneath the terrace, the hill drops away dramatically toward the river, and across the valley is a fine view of Vilnius’ Old Town: a beautiful collection of red-tiled roofs and baroque church spires.

Walking back down to the river, I spot yet another statue down an alley to my right. At least, I think it’s a statue. On closer inspection, it turns out to be a indeterminate shape on a pedestal, wrapped and taped within black plastic. Very arty.

Passing the object, I arrive at a gallery called the Užupis Art Incubator. It’s the essence of a bohemian artists’ community, housed in decaying riverside buildings covered in a jumble of colourful paintings of outlandish figures.

Beyond it is a fantasy land of painted trees and more open-air artwork. Overlooking the water are a young couple, funkily dressed and talking quietly - either discussing postmodern art trends, or slowly shaking off the effects of a late night.

Approaching the attractive small iron bridge that crosses the river, I find myself unable to finish my Užupis adventure just yet; I’ve become attached to its quirky charm.

So I seat myself at an outside bench at Užupio Kavine, a pub overlooking the shallow, swift-flowing water, and nurse another beer.

Within the stone retaining wall which forms the opposite riverbank, there’s a statue of a mermaid seated inside an alcove, gazing longingly across to Užupis. I meet her gaze, then glance up to the busy roadway in the “real world” beyond the artistic republic.

I have to go back there, but... not yet. As the green-and-white Užupis flag flutters gently from the pub’s wall, I sip my beer and smile at the light-hearted absurdity of the place.

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