When Life Gives You Ruins, (Re)Build A Palace — The Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania

because i’m here in Vilnius for a week, i’ve been taking it pretty easy in terms of what i want to accomplish each day. i was on the way back from The Museum of Genocide Victims (all the more sobering given recent events in Crimea) and decided to stop in the Palace of the Grand Dukes, located next to Vilnius Cathedral. i didn’t go earlier in the week because it wasn’t open yet (from 11 AM, closed Mondays), but figured now was as good a time as any.


Panorama of Cathedral Square: the cathedral bell tower, Vilnius Cathedral, the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania, and Monument to the Grand Duke Gediminas

i had remembered reading that the palace was not open to visitors for quite some time (even during the publication of my guidebook, the latest Lonely Planet) but i found myself dumbstruck once i was inside the palace museum.

at first i thought it was closed for years for a renovation, but looking around at the start of the visit (downstairs), it seemed pretty amazing that during the renovation work they would have encountered so many archaeological finds — finds from digs which in the descriptive panels’ pictures, were outdoors! how did they manage that?! or interiors that looked like this? that’s some feat of engineering for renovation work! (this is what you get for skimming, folks.)

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i finally sat down a couple minutes in to reread the little blurb in the LP. it wasn’t closed for renovations, it was closed for constructionof a whole new palacewhile something has been on the site of the palace for the last 800 or so years, for the past couple centuries it was pretty much in ruins, and was just about completely destroyed in the early 19th century so there was nothing left but a grown-over hillock.

archaeological studies of the area have been going on at least since the 1970s and in 2002, a little over a decade after Lithuania declared independence from the Soviet Union (the first republic to do so), they began rebuilding the palace amongst some heated debate.

it fully opened to the public in July of last year (2013), although the interior is still not completely finished and there is still some ongoing exterior work. so yes, this explains why the archaeological digs were exposed — there was nothing on top until recently! in fact, the building still smells new: in some parts like varnish, in others (especially in some of the state rooms with woodwork ceilings), like fresh timber.

Panorama of the courtyard of the Palace of the Grand Dukes

Courtyard panorama. The escalators lead downstairs to the museum entrance.

Lithuania is planning to join the eurozone in 2015. the litas is pegged to the euro (€1 = 3.45280Lt) but i would expect prices to jump once the change happens.

the museum (well worth it at 10Lt, or less than $4) begins with an archaeological tour of the underground ruins along with lots of history of the country and the castle(s) that stood on the site. as you make your way upstairs, the exhibits get more and more contemporary. seriously, lots of history in bilingual signs and display cases full of artifacts for those who are interested.

what would a palace be without state rooms, though? well, there were no architectural plans for them to simply build off of, so they (the architects/historians/archaeologists) had to make educated decisions about where to place what room and how each should look. on the one hand, it’s cool, but on the other, it’s odd to see old motifs in a new building. what you get isn’t exactly stately, but throw in some imagination you get the idea.

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by their own admission they are not complete with the interiors just yet — i’m assuming they are waiting on funding and/or just wanted to get the place open, but they do claim that the designs of the ceilings, floors, and furniture are historically accurate (when, in the case of the furnishings, they are not original period pieces) — even down to the sourcing of materials, like Swedish sandstone for the rooms done in Vasa-period stylings. notably, they plan to polychrome the ceilings and possibly get more authentic materials in for the floor tiling.

this sign indicates the typical thought processes the designers went through in determining what was what and how to decorate, since they only had rubble and non-architectural documentation to work off of. it’s a testament to their dedication to historical accuracy, at least in terms of design. (click to enlarge)


The grey areas are “not yet open to the public” — so perhaps one day we’ll get to see the entire palace?

while it probably is too soon to judge whether or not rebuilding the palace was a sound thing to do city planning-, tourism-, and taxpayer-money-wise, as a visitor i’m glad to have the best of two worlds: the original castle ruins sheltered and left on display, and a new old-style palace that showcases the country’s history and modern-day artisans.


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