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Travel: Have you ever been to Lithuania?

Formed by the bohemians of the Lithuanian capital, Uzupis has become the star attraction of Vilnius

brunch Updated: Sep 23, 2018 00:26 IST
Don Sebastian
Don Sebastian
Hindustan Times
Republic of Užupis,Constitution of the Republic of Užupis,41-point charter
Užupis became the address for the nouveau rich after a group of artists formed the republic(Don Sebastian)

Vilnius, Lithuania

“Everyone has the right to live by the River Vilnel and the River Vilnel has the right to flow by everyone.”

Thus starts the Constitution of the Republic of Užupis. The 41-point charter inscribed on metal plaques along a narrow alley in bohemian Vilnius is not the only visible sign that heralds the existence of a state within the Lithuanian capital. Everyone in the neighbourhood flies the flag with a spread out palm. The hand with a hole apparently symbolises the spirit of sharing as enshrined in the Constitution. Local cafés and multinational supermarkets flaunt the sub-identity at full mast.

“It is not a joke,” warned Donald the bartender. “But you should not take it seriously.” The cheeky citizens have definitely earned the state they deserve.

An army of 12

The Užupio Respublika, as the parody state is called in Lithuanian, joins a league of entities recognised by no one and appreciated by everyone. It is no banana republic though. The republic formed in 1997 by a group of artists and musicians to define their favourite neighbourhood has attracted the nouveau rich of Vilnius. The address turned hip from hippy.

Twenty years later, the citizens OF Uzupis remain faithful to the 22nd charter: “No one has the right to have a design on eternity”

A Jewish quarter before the Holocaust, Užupis became a squatter paradise during the Soviet era. After Lithuania became an independent state in 1991, free-spirited artists found a den in this dodgy quarter cocooned within a loop in the river. Riverside cafés and art galleries lent a glamorous ambiance to Užupis. Music concerts brought in the crowds. The natives played along as the artists and musicians proclaimed the creation of a republic.

Most visitors to Užupis’s Paupio Gatve can read the quirky republic’s constitution in their own language. Even in Hindi! ( Don Sebastian )

Užupis has a cabinet of ministers and a formidable army of 12 men at last count. It even has a few bills it claims to be in currency. The Dalai Lama is one of the honorary citizens. (A small park by the river is named Tibet Square.) The republic has a list of ambassadors, including a café owner in the wannabe republic of Antakalnis, an adjoining district known for the cemetery where 12 of the last victims of Soviet repression were buried.

As many as 14 civilians were shot down by Soviet soldiers or crushed under tanks after Lithuanians laid siege to the Vilnius TV tower in January 1991 to liberate their country. Lithuania was the first of the Soviet republics to declare independence. The ensuing era of economic crises and corruption scandals had an unusual byproduct: Užupis rose like a study in black humour.

The missing president

The denizens of Užupis celebrate their national day, rather predictably, on April 1. They take out a carnival in fancy costumes ranging from medieval gentry to Super Bowl cheerleaders to mark the day when the president of the republic addresses the gathering. Who is the president? “He is a musician who arranges various programmes in Užupis,” said Donald. He could not remember the president’s name though. Maria, the bookseller, said the president was a film director. “He has made a film on Užupis.”

Romas Lileikis turned out to be all these and more – a poet and musician. He sat down with artist Tomas epaitis to draft the unusual Constitution one summer evening in 1998. The charter was inscribed on a plaque and mounted on the wall of the red-brick Užupio Kavin bar at the riverside end of the republic’s main street, Užupio Gatv.

A telling relief in front of a watering hole in Užupis ( Don Sebastian )

The constitution was later translated into about 30 languages. The latest plaques on Paupio Gatv include Hindi, Urdu and Sanskrit.

So what are my chances of meeting the president? I felt like taking a selfie with a head of state.

“Very low, unless you know what he looks like. He could be anywhere,” Maria scuttled my shot at reflected glory. “Oh, you might find the minister for foreign affairs (who turned out to be epaitis). I just crossed paths with him on my way to work. He should be around somewhere.”

I said goodbye to Maria and her sleepy cat. “My boss,” she explained.

The cat’s right to be detached is protected by the Constitution: “The cat is not obliged to love its owner but must help in times of need.” If you are a dog person, this might help: “A dog has the right to be a dog.” The president loves dogs and the foreign minister loves cats.

A bend away from Maria’s shop on Paupio Gatv, curious tourists flocked around the 26 plaques that haven’t made history yet. Article 14 justified the evasive president: “Sometimes everyone has the right to be unaware of their duties.”

It is unclear whether the statehood of the republic, recognised by no government, is intended to be serious, tongue-in-cheek, or a combination of both, admitted the founders in a neglected official website.

Zappa the guardian angel

I traced my way back to the icon of the republic: The bronze statue of a trumpeting angel perched atop a tall column on a squeezed-in town square. Romas Viliauskas sculpted Archangel Gabriel as a symbol of the artistic revival of eastern Europe. The republic is not so apolitical after all.

The republic is strewn with strange symbolism, including a marooned mermaid, a backpacker Jesus and an upright penis. Street art is everywhere along the riverside façade of the republic and it is changing always.

Užupis drifts around its guardian angel, the trumpeting Gabriel ( Don Sebastian )

Across the River Vilnel, Vilnius is no less artsy. The unleashed artistic energies have manifested in quirky forms of installations. When the statues of the communist heroes were pulled down, nobody knew what to do with the vacant plinths. One of them became the abode of Frank Zappa, commissioned by a hastily formed fan club of the American pop icon.

Zappa had nothing to do with Lithuania but the fans insisted they were free to do anything. A few years later, they formed the republic and Zappa became one of its leading lights.

The cat is not obliged to love its owner, says the constitution of Užupis ( Don Sebastian )

Užupis is slowly shifting from the bohemian free world it aspired to be. The neighbourhood has risen in real estate charts after the bizarre charter started drawing in more visitors than the Gediminas castle that overlooks it on the other side of the river. The area stills draws in artists, though they have been outnumbered by new entrants who bring with them unwanted items such as gates. The only locks appreciated in this republic are the ones left behind by lovers on the cast-iron railings of the bridge over the Vilnel.

Twenty years after its creation, the republic remains unconquered and its citizens faithful to the 22nd charter: “No one has the right to have a design on eternity.”

From HT Brunch, September 23, 2018

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First Published: Sep 22, 2018 21:27 IST