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Vilnius: The Perfect Set for HBO’s Catherine the Great

Even though Lithuania isn’t a monarchy, you could have seen an Empress walking the streets of Vilnius just recently. Travelling back in time to the 18th century, the Catherine the Great HBO miniseries transported Vilnius to Imperial Russia to recreate St. Petersburg, model Russian palaces, and tell an intense story on screen.

The miniseries focuses on Catherine the Great, played by Oscar winning actor Helen Mirren, in her later years, and her relationship with Russian statesman Grigory Potemkin. “I am very excited by the possibility of embodying a woman from history who grabbed and then wielded great power. She rewrote the rules of governance by a woman, and succeeded to the extent of having the word ‘Great’ attached to her name,” said Helen Mirren to The Mirror.

So if you’re a fan of costume dramas and historic miniseries, it’s about time to visit Vilnius and see the locations depicted on screen in person. Feel like you’re a part of Catherine the Great’s court, minus the plotting schemes. By the way, don’t worry, there are no spoilers here, so go on and discover Vilnius differently.

Start Your Journey

1. Town Hall Square

Not to spoil you anything, but the execution scene in the Catherine the Great is happening here. Actually, this is very fitting as the Town Hall Square dating back to the 15th century used to be a place for public punishment as well as a place for entertainment: markets, bear performances, and festivals. Today the Town Hall Square is home to various concerts and special markets.

2. Vilnius University Library

One of the main photos presenting Catherine the Great to the public is created in Vilnius University library which dates back to the 16th century and is home to 5.4 million documents. The Council Chamber of the Russian Empire was filmed here.

3. Courtyard of the Basilian Monastery

Even though the burning city was filmed here, the Basilian monastery is still standing in perfect condition for you to see. The crew of the miniseries used flame torches in the courtyard to recreate the burning city. After making a prop of wooden gates, the art department burned it and placed it in the gateway of the Basilian Monastery. The decoration representing devastated gates was so real that both residents of Vilnius and journalists posted news about historic heritage ruined during the shooting of the TV series. But all is well, come see for yourself.

4. Writers’ Union

This is truly one of the most impressive staircases you’ll see. No wonder it was used as the Empress’s private staircase in the miniseries. Even though the building itself was built in the 19th century, it has kept the glory of the past.

5. Ethnographic Lithuanian Village of Rumšiškės

80 kilometers from Vilnius lies one of the largest ethnographic open-air museums in Europe. If you’re watching the miniseries, that’s where the Russian village was filmed. The museum has kept the household appliances, crafting, trading, and agricultural machinery, so if you visit it, you can feel yourself transported back in time. It’s all there every day to see and you can also participate in special educational workshops, like baking bread, making pottery, or playing games.

 6. The Trakų Vokė Manor

Where did Catherine the Great live? The luxurious quarters of Catherine the Great were filmed right here. The Trakų Vokė Manor homestead was owned by the Lithuanian noble family of Tiškevičiai. The luxurious palace containing the features of Neo-Renaissance and Neo-Classicism was built according to the design of Polish architect Józef Huss.

 Interesting fact:

  1. Helen Mirren got a chance to visit and meet the former President of Lithuania Dalia Grybauskaitė, who gave her a present – honey made by the bees she keeps.
  2. There used to be a monument to Catherine the Great in Vilnius Cathedral Square, from 1903 to 1915.
  3. What to do when you need a real-size authentic ship from the 18th century? Build it. That’s what they did for the Catherine The Great in Vilnius. A huge three-floor ship was built recreating it to the tiniest details – even the ship ropes similar to those of the appropriate period had to be sent from UK.

What to read?

If you’re a true film buff, take a look at Vilnius On Screen, our newest publication of films shot in Vilnius. You’ll find some wonderful trivia facts and great insider information on some world-renowned films and television productions. Watching them on the screen will be a different experience once you know exactly where they were filmed – the city of Pripyat recreated in Vilnius Fabijoniskes district for the Chernobyl series or Vilnius Cathedral turned into St. Peter’s Basilica with Swiss guards protecting the building from the Nazis.

Read up here