“Where is Lithuania? And what exactly is there to see?” would be a fairly normal response to my enthusiasm for a 3 day trip to the Baltic state. Dividing my time between the baroque capital Vilnius, the nation’s quieter second city Kaunas and the enchanting pine forests of Aukstaitija National Park, here are the 10 things I learnt.
1. Churches, churches and more churches
Lithuania was the last country in Europe to convert to Christianity. You can’t tell now though – Orthodox/Catholic churches punctuate almost every other street in Vilnius. Together with the olden courtyards, cobblestone backstreets, and artists’ workshops, it all forms Europe’s largest Baroque Old Town (Vilnius). Not to be left out, Kaunas (the Lithuanian capital between WWI and WWII when Vilnius was in Polish hands) is home to the St Peter & St Paul Cathedral which has one of the most intricate interiors I have come across. The second religion in Lithuania however lies outside the church: basketball. Lithuanians have been a global basketball powerhouse since the 1930s 🙂
St Anne’s Church, Vilnius – this 15th century gothic church has over 30 different types of brick. It’s said that Napoleon was so taken up by the church that he wanted to relocate it to Paris (he apparently wrote a letter back to his wife expressing his admiration as he passed through).
St Michael the Archangel’s Church, Kaunas
2. The Polish-Lithuanian Union
Starting with the alliance between the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland (a royal marriage), it eventually led to a pact (in 1569) that paved the way for the two countries to become a single federated state (primarily due to security threats in the region). Officially, Lithuania and Poland were to be two equal partners in the federation, with each having its own laws, army, treasury and civil administration, and cooperating on foreign policy. In total, the alliance lasted about 400 years. Today with the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, the two countries are getting closer once again.
On a slightly separate note, I was surprised to learn that at one point in the 14th century, Lithuania’s borders extended all the way into Belarus and Ukraine and even included Kyiv for some time! It was one of Europe’s largest empires, and the grandeur of it all radiated from Vilnius.
3. Jerusalem of the North
Vilnius was a key Jewish city pre-WWII (at one point it had 100+ synagogues and 6 daily Jewish newspapers). Its Jewish roots go back many centuries when the Grand Duke invited 3000 Jews to settle in Vilnius. Devastatingly, about 90% of the community were killed by the Nazis. After German occupation, it fell into the Soviet orbit being part of the USSR until it gained independence in 1991 (many of the older generation still speak fluent Russian). The Choral Synagogue (built in 1903) is the only Jewish place of worship to survive WWII intact (was used as a medical store by the Nazis).
4. Flowers for you, me, he, she.
In one day, I counted at least 30 different people carrying bouquets of some kind! If you’re ever in Lithuania, make sure to give only odd numbers of flowers when visiting people (even numbers are for the dead).
5. The Miracle Tile
There is a single tile in Cathedral Square, Vilnius, with the word Miracle (Stebuklas) printed on it. Stand on the tile, make a wish and spin around clockwise in a circle. This tile marks the spot where a 2 million long chain of people from Tallinn to Vilnius ended (protesting against Soviet occupation in 1989).
Cathedral Square – in the 19th century, markets existed here and there was a moat around the perimeter so that ships could reach the cathedral door.
6. Uzupis – a self-declared unofficial breakaway state within Vilnius
Quirky, bohemian, and where all the artists and dreamers gathered. They wanted to create a place where people could disconnect from the distractions of modern life and reconnect with what’s important. It even has its own 41 point constitution (which includes elements such as do not defeat, do not fight back, do not surrender), anthem, flag and president! The republic was also based on Aristotle’s philosophy that a great town should have no more than 5000 inhabitants since the human mind can’t remember more faces than that. The logic is that if everyone knows everyone, it’s hard to cheat and trick one another.
“If you cross the bridge, you can become yourself. You don’t play any social role, you don’t belong to anyone, you belong to yourself. You can think about who you are and you can live without being part of that mad race that all of humanity is involved in.”Tomas Čepaitis, one of the micro-nation’s founding fathers
It was one of the most run down areas of the city, and the main thoroughfare was nicknamed ‘the Street of Death,’ until Lithuania’s independence (1991). Fast forward 30 years though, it has a completely different sense of life. There are even border guards that can stamp passports at the main bridge!
7. Give me mead!
Honey boiled with water and fermented with hops, is Lithuania’s oldest and most noble drink. It made a comeback in the 20th century with the rise of nationalism, and is quite popular today.
8. Magical forests, mystical lakes
Lithuanians love nature and regularly visit the scenic lakes, luscious forests and the sandy coast during their free time. People were still worshipping ancient oak trees a mere 6 centuries ago. So I thought, what better way to experience this than to jump into the middle of its oldest National Park – Aukstaitija? After an overenthusiastic 20km hike, my legs were in agony the next day, but the blue lakes, little villages and pine forests are a natural paradise (that adopts a different vibe I’m told when mushroom and berry season hits).
Interestingly, I was probably the only international visitor over there. Maybe other international travellers are deterred due to the lack of public transportation infrastructure? I wanted to hike past the vantage point on Ladakalnis Hill so had to wait for 20 minutes in the small town of Ignalina for a taxi to take me part of the way to the Ginučiai water mill (if not the hike would have been over 35km!). “Are you sure you want to get off here? There’s nobody there!” the taxi driver tried explaining in his broken English. I’ll always remember his perplexed expression as he dropped me off, looking slightly concerned as he drove away, despite my insistence.
Atop Ladakalnis Hill. A vantage point from which you can see lakes in all directions. It’s believed that pagan sacrifices were made here to the ancient goddess Lada (who gave birth to the world). Bring a small stone to the top of the hill and join plenty of others in leaving a symbolic gift near the oak for the goddess (and secretly expecting favours in return, I hear).
9. Trump kissing Putin you say?
Co-existing alongside the baroque and gothic architecture in both Vilnius and Kaunas was a surprising range of street art. While the famous one of Trump kissing Putin is now gone, many others dot the two towns. Most intriguing was the Yard Gallery in Kaunas. Over there many years ago, the people living around the yard knew each other well – they celebrated and commiserated with each other. In the centre was a large table, fountain and lots of flowers. However, after a while, the residents became alienated, the numbers of cars grew, and space reduced. So the artist Vytenis Jakas created the ‘Yard Gallery’ to transform the derelict courtyard into an open air gallery welcome to everyone. Various art projects can be found – mosaics, portraits of residents before the Holocaust, stained glass, with new artists constantly adding to it 🙂
10. Cabbage or potato juice, anyone?
I thought I had seen a fair range of juices in my life. Carrot juice? Yes. Beetroot juice? Sure. But cabbage juice and potato juice? Definitely a first for me 😉
Left: Forest mushroom dumplings at Žemaičių ąsotis were a treat |Right: The intriguing juice menu in Vilnius’ Hales market.