Landmarks of a Rich Town

  • 2008-09-18
  • By Grachel Kubaitis

PLEASANTVILLE: This idyllic neighborhood is a popular place for ambassadors and rich locals to make their homes.

VILNIUS - Just across the Neris river from the Vilnius Old Town is a quiet, tree-lined neighborhood called Zverynas. It is an interesting microcosm of Vilnius, with its mix of traditional wooden houses, Stalin-era buildings and contemporary architecture. It is currently one of the most prestigious neighborhoods in Vilnius, and property prices are among the highest, at about 3,000 euros per square meter. Zverynas is also home to several embassies and ambassadors' residences. Despite its location in the center of metropolitan Vilnius, Zverynas remains a lush and green community.

The Neris river snakes around Zverynas, creating a peninsula. It is not hilly like other parts of Vilnius, and the bucolic streets make it ideal for a leisurely bike ride or stroll. The area took its name, which means "menagerie," from its 16th century purpose as a fenced-in hunting ground of the Radvilas family estate. In 1892 a wooden bridge was built to connect Zverynas with Vilnius. In 1900, Zverynas joined the municipality of Vilnius and the following year the area was laid out in orderly, straight streets and rectangular blocks. No other neighborhood in Vilnius has a grid plan.

Three main streets define the area. Vytauto Street is the eastern border and the first street you reach after crossing the bridge from Gedimino Prospektas. Kestucio Street is the main street and runs the length of the peninsula toward the river, splitting Zverynas in half. Most of the restaurants and shops are found along Kestucio, as well as several commercial buildings that date from the last two decades. There are also some apartment buildings that date from the Stalin period, the 1940s and '50s, characterized by stucco-covered brick buildings with very thick walls. The western border of Zverynas is Birutes Street, which partially runs along a park that has a couple of playgrounds. North of the park is a small Russian Orthodox church and a pedestrian bridge that crosses the Neris River into Vingis Park.

 It is worth considering the image that a country projects through its buildings, whether stately or understated, classical or modern, and Zverynas hosts an array of embassies and ambassadors' residences in close proximity. The Estonian Embassy is a new building with a very simple and geometric facade, decorated only by the flags and the reflection of the street and sky in the windows. The Georgian Embassy is a modern building with odd proportions and a very heavy attic story. Fortunately, the building is set back from the street and surrounded by a few trees, so it does not significantly disrupt the harmony of the neighboring traditional wooden houses.

The Czech Republic's Embassy is more modest in size than the other embassies in the area. In contrast, next door, the massive purpose built Kazakhstan Embassy sprawls on the bank of the Neris, next to the park. On the opposite side of the peninsula, the Italian Embassy and ambassador's residence are on a prime piece of real estate, also along the bank of the river. The buildings are undeniably Classical in style 's appropriate for the residents. They were built in 1912 and designed by a famous Lithuanian architect, V. Dubeneckis.

Located on a street where the majority of the houses were probably built in the last 10-15 years is the Irish ambassador's residence. This is an impressive new building with large windows and a very stately presence. A few blocks away, the U.S. ambassador's residence makes a similar statement with a neo-Classical building.
Scattered among the embassies and new houses is an assortment of traditional wooden houses. Some have been restored beautifully and others are begging for love and attention. Restored or not, you will see variations of beautiful wood-cut trim running along the roof lines. The houses that have not been abandoned are surrounded by lovely flower gardens.