VILNIUS - The Lithuanian Royal Palace is now open for visitors. Soon the palace is to be closed again to the public, as it is still under construction though only some interior work remains to be done.
On July 6, the symbolic opening of this palace took place. The Swedish royal couple, Queen of Denmark, King of Norway, presidents of Lithuania, Latvia, Iceland, Finland, Poland, Ukraine, Georgia, and prime minister of Estonia all took part in the ceremony in Vilnius. In the 14-17th centuries, this palace was the residence of Lithuanian rulers. It was destroyed by the Russians after Russia occupied Lithuania in 1795.
In 2000, a group of Lithuanian intellectuals established the Royal Palace Restoration Foundation for the rebuilding of the palace, which is behind the Vilnius cathedral. The ICOMOS, advisory organization of UNESCO on monument protection, expressed support for the rebuilding of the palace.
The palace, which used to be a symbol of Lithuanian statehood, was neglected and destroyed completely some six years after the Russian Empire occupied the Lithuanian Grand Duchy at the end of the 18th century.
The Russian Empire had no interest in preserving such a symbolic building in the very center of the capital city of an occupied and annexed state, which once was a former regional superpower stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea and having constant wars against the Russians. After 1795, even mentioning of the name of Lithuania was forbidden by the Russian officials who preferred to call the conquered country as Northwestern Country in their documents.
In the 14th 's 17th centuries, this palace was the residence of Lithuanian grand dukes. From the second half of the 16th century, Lithuanian grand dukes, who at that time also became kings of Poland, resided in Poland and made only occasional visits to Vilnius. In 1655, the Russian army occupied Vilnius and plundered the castle. In 1661, the joint army of Lithuania and Poland liberated Vilnius and the castle, but the partially destroyed palace was no longer suitable as the state rulers' residence.
Members of the foundation promoting the reconstruction say that there are paintings from the 16th and 18th centuries that provide enough information about the palace to rebuild it according to its former grandeur.
The foundation collected money for the rebuilding, but regardless, the reconstruction relies heavily on state financing, which is a problem in these times of financial crisis and is a reason for some skepticism. The total cost of the rebuilding is about 200 million litas (58 million euros).
"The Royal Palace is not the most necessary pearl in the crown of Lithuania. However, the construction is already going on. It is impossible to be semi-pregnant. So, the Royal Palace should be built," Lithuanian Parliament Chairman Arunas Valinskas told The Baltic Times.
However, the palace is already a source of pride. "You can pride yourself on your history. It was a palace of the Lithuanian dynasty of the Jagiellons, which later ruled Polish, Czech and Hungarian kingdoms," Polish President Lech Kaczynski said to the crowd of Vilnius dwellers in the Cathedral Square during the official opening ceremony on July 6.
The palace is open for visitors now. The last day for visits is Sunday, July 26. The daily excursions in English, German and other languages are held free of charge. There is also an exhibition that includes many items which will decorate the palace's interior. It is opened in the nearby Arsenal building where arms of the Lithuanian Grand Duchy's army were kept in the late Middle Ages (now a museum).