Pleasant change from identikit tourism

SINCE you last heard from me, I have tested my shoe-leather on the pavements of five European capitals.

Aidan Semmens

SINCE you last heard from me, I have tested my shoe-leather on the pavements of five European capitals.

London, in its size, complexity and history remains one of the most endlessly fascinating places on the planet. But since I - and probably you - know it moderately well and will return to it, I'll leave it for now.

Brussels is not a place I love, and as I did little more than change trains there I'll leave that too.

Berlin was something of a surprise. Knowing quite a bit of its troubled history didn't really prepare me for its bright, pleasant, ultra-modern present.

At least, that's the way it seemed on a sunny summer's late afternoon and evening, with football fans gathering in cheerful, colourful droves to watch Germany's latest venture in Euro 2008 on a couple of giant screens set up either side of the river.

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One of those screens was in the old East Germany, the other in the Western zone, but you'd not notice that now.

Nowhere in London is ever as clean, as spacious or as calm as central Berlin was that evening, despite the happily milling sports partisans.

And then Warsaw - where, again, knowledge of a gruesome past was at odds with the busy present.

There is much to admire in the Polish capital. Pre-eminent is the rambling medieval quarter which was entirely destroyed in the Second World War then rebuilt exactly, stone by stone, in the decade after it.

Today the Old Town streets are brightly painted, vibrant, alive with cafes, bars - and tourists. It doesn't feel fake or manufactured, but it has suffered the common fate of World Heritage Sites.

Between the cameras, the T-shirts, the horse-drawn rides and the ice-creams real history and tradition has been smudged into uniformity.

Downtown Warsaw too could be almost anywhere. The great 1950s bulk of the Palace of Culture and Science, an unwanted “gift” from the Soviets, still wields a great clunking fist over the place.

But today it shares its skyline with Novotel, Marriott and Intercontinental and a host of shimmering illuminated hoardings as gaudy as anything in Times Square, New York.

Existence in Warsaw, a teeming city of 1.7million people, seems as busy and impersonal as in London, and frankly I didn't like it much.

From there, arrival in Vilnius came as a very pleasant relief.

The Lithuanian capital is not one of the famed “rediscovered beauties” of Eastern Europe, like Prague, Budapest or St Petersburg. But it has an unfussy charm and a relaxed air that makes it seem a lot smaller than its actual 550,000 population (about the size of Bristol, or four and a half Ipswiches).

Like every city in central or Eastern Europe, Vilnius endured a pretty grim 20th century. For one thing, before 1940 a majority of its population was Jewish. By 1944 they were all gone - 96 per cent of them murdered.

Then came 46 years of Soviet occupation, for the first ten of which the Lithuanians (some of them anyway) were engaged in active resistance.

Today you can see the cells where resisters were imprisoned, interrogated and - in around 1,000 cases - executed by the KGB. It's a fascinating, if sobering, visit.

It makes me uneasy, though, that this well-funded, popular memorial should be named the Museum of Genocide Victims.

Lithuania undoubtedly experienced fairly brutal repression under the Soviets, as did every part of the USSR until Stalin.

But the true genocide, that of the Jews, had already occurred, and is not the subject of this museum.

There is a museum of the Holocaust - a somewhat harrowing experience, as it should be - but it is not so well visited. In fact, my arrival was greeted as a pleasant surprise and doors had to be unlocked and lights turned on for me.

The Jewish community of Vilnius is now a tiny minority - unlike the Christians, both Catholic and Russian Orthodox, who are both extremely visible.

The churches that became grain stores or were left derelict under Communism have sprung back to ebullient life.

St Casimir's, which became a “museum of atheism” during the Soviet period, has been returned to the Jesuits and is a pink-and-white fantasy, topped with a Habsburg-style crown that positively glows with triumphalism. It made me quite queasy.

Lenin and Stalin have gone, their places taken by an army of nuns and people whose once-repressed religion has broken out again in a frenzy of genuflection and finger-waving. I'm sure there's a lesson in history and politics there somewhere.

Aside from the churches, the broad main shopping avenue and the freshly-painted market square, though, there remains a lot of dereliction in Vilnius.

There's little obvious poverty, but many of the most decrepit, crumbling buildings remain lived in.

And if nothing else, the city has one enormous task on its hands before it takes over from Liverpool next year the title of European Capital of Culture. It must surely do something about those shattered pavements.

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