"In Lithuania, basketball is like a second religion," newly minted Toronto Raptor draft pick Jonas Valanciunas says about his homeland. This is a tall order in one of Europe's most devoutly Catholic countries.
Decked out head to toe in bright yellow, green and red – the national colours – Lithuanians have a reputation as rabid basketball fans. They travel around the world in tricoloured blocs of thousands to support their sporting passion. During the Soviet occupation, Lithuania's basketball prowess fostered patriotism even though the country didn't have a national team to cheer – when the Soviet Union took gold over the United States at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, 62 of its 82 points were scored by four Lithuanian players. So one can only imagine how exuberant the locals will be when this small Baltic nation hosts EuroBasket 2011, the largest sporting event the country has ever seen.
Two new arenas are going up and another one has been refurbished in the six Lithuanian cities where the European Basketball Championships will take place from Aug. 31 to Sept. 18. It's a big hosting responsibility for a small country of three million (and falling).
Partly because of its tiny size – as well as its traumatic history of foreign occupation and totalitarian brutality – the country has always nurtured close ties to Lithuanian descendants living abroad. I experienced this first-hand earlier in the year when I took my sons, 17 and 20, on their first visit to the beloved homeland of their maternal grandparents.
Though my sons have yet to graduate college or bring home any Olympic medals, from the moment we arrived in the capital of Vilnius, perfect strangers paid tribute to their voyage. It was evident from our waitress's smile that first night when my sons ordered dinner in their accented but charming Lithuanian. It was like a homecoming to a place they knew but had never been to before.
Over the next two weeks, after some humorous miscommunications, my sons figured out that a lot of their vocabulary – for everyday words such as juice, sandwich and especially toilet – was of their grandparents' vintage. But despite the occasional blank stare from the locals, what they encountered most often was gratitude, for not only learning the archaic language, but actually using it.
Of all the wonderful moments I experienced watching my sons connect to their heritage, perhaps the most memorable came on the day we visited the University of Vilnius, a 432-year-old institution whose resilience, in many ways, mirrors that of Lithuania itself.
Other attractions in the capital's maze-like Old Town might be in clearer view: the red-bricked medieval tower of Gediminas Castle, the dramatic Madonna at the Gate of Dawn Chapel, or the cafés and craft stores along the cobblestone Castle Street (Pilies gatve). But the university – one of the oldest in Northern Europe, founded by Jesuits in 1579 – is the city's hidden gem.
Its main campus is situated in the heart of the Old Town, but an unsuspecting tourist might easily miss it from the street. You have to step inside the arcaded Great Courtyard, which is linked to a dozen other quadrangles that envelop ornate buildings ranging from Gothic and Renaissance to baroque and classical.
The courtyards are accessible to anybody who purchases a four-litas map from the fierce – some might say surly – gatekeeper guarding the main entrance. But to experience some of the university's finest treasures, it is highly recommended to book a guided tour.
Our first stop was the observatory dating from 1753. Its main room, the neoclassical White Hall, has elegantly proportioned columns rising up from a black-and-white marble floor. Our guide jokingly called it Lithuania's own White House. We manoeuvred around medieval globes and telescopes to climb to the top of the observatory's tower for a bird's-eye view of the campus.
Across the courtyard lay the beautifully restored St. John's Church, whose 18th-century façade brings to mind an opulent wedding cake. This baroque exuberance continues inside with chapels and altars designed to remind churchgoers hundreds of years ago about God's higher presence.
Continuing on our tour, we arrived at Smuglevicius Hall, a rare-book room where rotating exhibits of some of the oldest manuscripts in Europe are displayed in gleaming wooden cases. From Socrates to Aristotle, portraits of the Greek greats peer down on a hall which Napoleon visited on one of his stops in Vilnius. But the pièce de résistance is a 17th-century ceiling fresco of the Virgin Mary sheltering Jesuit theologians under her robe. It was unearthed when the hall was restored in 1929, just one example of the kinds of discoveries that are the bread and butter of art restorers in a city with so many layers of history.
It wasn't only during the Middle Ages that breathtaking frescos were created here. For the 400th anniversary of the university in 1979, Petras Repsys, one of Lithuania's most beloved living artists, created a masterpiece worthy of the occasion. The resulting Seasons of the Year, which graces the walls and vaulted ceilings of the Centre of Lithuanian Studies, took Repsys eight years of Michelangelo-like intensity to complete.
It wasn't simply its execution that was painstaking, it was the planning. Through interrelated panels of brick red, dark blue and white, Repsys produced an exhaustive visual encyclopedia of Baltic mythology, with its intriguing blend of Christianity and paganism. Each panel is populated by dozens of unclothed figurines taking part in daily rituals, from birth celebrations to harvest festivals to death vigils. At times, it feels as whimsical as Alice in Wonderland; at others, as eerie as Hieronymus Bosch. The one consistent quality is its unquenchable Lithuanian-ness.
For some, it might seem a bit of a jump from the hushed corridors of the University of Vilnius to the sweat-covered drama of the basketball court, but in Lithuania, it's not. Most of the people you'll run into here, from baristas to gallery docents to pensioners, possess a vivid national pride in their country's achievements in spite of tragedy and hardship. And they are more than happy to share this with visitors.
IF YOU GO
Lithuania is part of the European Union but has not yet converted to the euro. The local currency, the litas, has an exchange rate of about 39 cents to 1 litas, making Lithuania much more affordable than other countries in Northern Europe. Local currency is easily available at ATMs; North American credit and debit cards are readily accepted.
Flying to Lithuania is easy from European hubs. AirBaltic has reasonably priced flights from major European cities, connecting through Riga (airbaltic.com). During EuroBasket 2011, Ryanair has flights from Gatwick to Kaunas, where the finals will be taking place, priced starting at $77 one-way (ryanair.com).
EuroBasket 2011 takes place in six Lithuanian cities: Vilnius; Kaunas; Siauliai; Panevezys; Alytus; Klaipeda. Twenty-four teams are competing and the top two are guaranteed spots in the 2012 Summer Olympics. See eurobasket2011.com/en for schedules, tickets, accommodation and travel within Lithuania.
For unbeatable views of Vilnius, go to the top of the city's tallest bell tower, the 68-metre belfry at St. John's Church on the main campus of the University of Vilnius. 3 universiteto gatve; 370-5-268-7001; book ahead for guided tours (firstname.lastname@example.org).