When you are in Vilnius, why not visit an independent republic within the city limits itself. It is, surely, one of the only few republics with a sense of quirky humour.
As one of the smallest republics in the world – Užupis measure less than 1 sq km, it has its own constitution, currency, a government and a president. It even has its own navy. Beat that.
Literally translated as ‘beyond the river’ or the other side of the river’, its name is in reference to the Vilnia river. It’s been a popular district with those looking with an artistic bent of mind, and draws comparison with Freetown Christiania in Copenhagen, thanks to its bohemian atmosphere.
Following the collapse of communism and the winds of change that swept through the entire former East Bloc nations, there were many pedestals that stood empty. In their quest to promote democracy and freedom, a bunch of local artists decided to erect a statue of Frank Zappa. Two years later, on the 1st of April 1997 to be precise, they went a step further and declared Užupis as an independent nation. While they are still governed by the rules and laws of Lithuania and Vilnius, it is today, a tourist destination that holds its own.
There is no indication that you are entering a new country. No barricades, or even guards. Just a sign against the bridge that reads ‘Užupio Res Publika’. There is a smiley face and Mona Lisa, looking at you. As you walk over the bridge, make sure to say ‘hello’ to the bronze mermaid. It is said that whoever surrenders to her charm will forever remain in Užupis forever. I am (not so) glad to say that while I am back where I belong, I would love to go see her again, and perhaps fall under her charm.
As you walk further in, there is an emblem of the Republic that has been mounted on one of the walls. It is a blue hand with a hole in the middle, symbolising that it is unable to accept bribes. There is also the constitution next to the emblem. And because it is for all of humankind, it has been generously translated into as many languages as possible. Reading through the constitution, you aren’t sure whether they are being serious, or it is all in jet. While some seem universal and full of optimism, like ‘Everyone has a right to be happy’, there are others that, if not anything else, elicit a chuckle. Of course, the longer you think about some of the 38 points, chances are it might begin to make sense. But who would want to risk that, right!
Walk further towards the main square and you will see a statue of a trumpeting angel, standing high as if proclaiming that you are now in a ‘free’ society.
While it is today known as a quirky tourist attraction, Užupis has its roots in the creativity that flowed from here. Thankfully that is evident even today. So, don’t be surprised if you spot a sofa perched from the bridge.