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Baltic beauties Add to ...

Take the St. Casimir's Church. Dedicated to Lithuania's patron saint, it was a place for Catholic worship when it opened in the 17th century. Later, under Czarist domination, it sprouted onion domes and became Russian Orthodox. When the Germans invaded in this century, the church went Lutheran. During Lithurania's first period of independence, the domes were replaced with St. Casimir's gold crown, now an Old Town landmark. After the Second World War, the Soviets converted St. Casimir's into a museum of atheism. Relenting in the Gorbachev era, they returned it to the Catholics.

Even St. Casimir himself wasn't immune from conquering powers. His remains were relocated when the Soviets closed Vilnius Cathedral, turning it first into a truck-repair factory and later an art gallery. Now his tomb, located in a showy baroque chapel, is again the central focus of a functioning cathedral. Votive offerings, shaped like miniature hearts and legs, attest to believers who have petitioned the saint for restored health.

Elsewhere in the Old Town, elderly women creep up a flight of steps on their knees to pray before Our Lady of Vilnius, a Renaissance painting of a dark-skinned Madonna, said to have miraculous powers. The chapel that houses it sits inside the Gates of Dawn, the last remnant of the city's 16th-century walls.

The list of must-see churches also includes St. Anne's, built in high gothic style using 33 different types of brick. Guidebooks say it so impressed Napoleon that he wanted to bring it home in his palm. But Albana told us the rest of the story. What he actually did was make it a horse stable.

More than churches have been spiffed up, of course. Many of the city's restaurants and shops are in restored cellars with arched brick ceilings. Lokys, which specializes in game, comes highly recommended. And while amber jewellery can be purchased in all the Baltic capitals, Vilnius offers the widest selection. A Vilnius primer: Lithuania's population is 3.7 million with 580,000 in the capital. About 80 per cent are Lithuanian, the rest mainly Russian or Polish. The Lithuanian language has the same roots as Latvian and is distantly related to Sanskrit. The Radisson SAS Astorija Hotel, phone (370) 222-0110, is an international-class hotel in a restored turn-of-the-century building in the heart of the Old Town. The Centrum, phone (370) 223-2770, a 15-minute walk west of the historic area, caters mainly to business travellers. The Lokys restaurant, offering game dishes in a cellar setting, is in the Old Town at 8 Stikliu. Canadians do not require a visa for Lithuania. Lithuania's embassy is at 130 Albert Street, Suite 204, Ottawa, K1P 5G4, phone (613) 567-5458. Riga Like much of Riga's Old Town, the Hotel Konventa Seta is a historic monument restored and rebuilt for a new life in a rejuvenated city.

The complex of nine medieval buildings -- originally a religious community -- sits in the heart of Riga's historic core. By staying there as a guest, I felt like a city resident. To reach my room, I walked along the cobbled walkways of this city-within-a-city and unlocked the street-level door to my own building. My room had modern plumbing, phone and amenities, but from the outside, the hotel was a study in 13th-century architecture.

Riga is the largest of the Baltic capitals, but its historic centre seems the most compact. The steeples of three churches dominate the skyscape: St. Peter's (take the elevator up its spire for a panoramic view), St. Jacob's and the Dome. Founded by German crusaders in 1201, the city plans celebrations for its 800th anniversary next year. That deadline has hastened the pace of restoration.

One building reconstructed from scratch is the 14th-century Blackheads House, a gothic and Dutch Renaissance guild hall with a fantastical façade. Damaged by German bombers, it was later demolished by the Soviets. Now tourists can't walk by without taking its picture. At the opera house, originally built in 1863, renovators have turned the horseshoe-shaped interior into a sparkling jewel. Performances by the Latvian National Opera are a fitting match for the spectacle.

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