Vilnius and Trakai Castle

August 2nd - 6th, 2020

After two great days in Riga, I flew to Lithuania, which became my 95th country. Lithuania is the most southern and the largest of the three Baltic states. It is bordered by Estonia to the north, and Belarus, Poland and Kalinigrad to the east and south. I actually think the best way to get from Riga to Vilnius is via the sightseeing bus. (It can be booked at this link, or on Viator.) The whole trip takes about 12 hours, but it includes several sightseeing stops along the way. However, during the corona pandemic, there just weren't enough tourists in Riga for the bus to run. So I had no other choice but to fly from Riga to Vilnius. It was a very short (45 min) and cheap flight on Baltic Air, but unfortunately I missed out on the sightseeing stops along the way. 

Lithuania is a country with a long and rich history. Starting in the 10th century, several Baltic tribes banded together and formed an organized military force, in order to defend themselves against frequent Viking raids. By the 13th century, this collection of tribes had been transformed into the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. During the following two centuries, Lithuania expanded its territory all the way south to the Black Sea, including what is today Poland, the Ukraine and parts of Russia. At its peak the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was the largest state in Europe. In 1569 Poland and Lithuania formed a new state known as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which lasted until 1795, when the entire region fell under the control of the Russian Empire. Lithuania only briefly regained its status as a sovereign nation between the two world wars. The country was occupied by Nazi Germany from 1941 to 1944, and then became part of the Soviet Union until 1990. Today, Lithuania is an advanced, prosperous and liberal country. It became part of NATO and the EU in 2004 and adopted the Euro as its official currency in 2015 (so far the last country to do so).

I stayed in the very nice Novotel Vilnius Centre Hotel, which is located only a few steps from the cathedral square. The gleaming white building of the Cathedral Basilica of St Stanislaus and St Ladislaus is the main Catholic cathedral in Vilnius. The first church was founded here in the 13th century, but it was rebuilt many times over the centuries as subsequent buildings were destroyed either by fires or war. The neo-classical version we see today was built in the late 18th century.

Right behind the cathedral is the Gediminas Castle Hill, which used to be the site of a formidable castle, that was originally built in wood as early as the 9th century, but fortified in stone and brick in the 15th century. Today not much remains, except for some walls and one tower, but it is worth walking up the the hill for the great views over the whole of the city.

The historic center of Vilnius was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 1994, which Unesco explained like this: "As the political center of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania from the 13th to the end of the 18th century, Vilnius has had a profound influence on the cultural and architectural development of much of eastern Europe. Despite invasions and partial destruction, it has preserved an impressive complex of Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and classical buildings as well as its medieval layout and natural setting.

Lithuania was one of the last regions in Europe to convert to Christianity. The population was majority Pagan well into the 14th century. The official Christianization of Lithuania occurred in 1387, and today about 75% of the population are Roman Catholic. The Lutheran reformation never took much hold in Lithuania, in fact in the 16th century it was met by a strong counter-reformation movement. Despite the late Christianization, the city's old town is full of churches of various styles and sizes. One of the most beautiful is St Anne's church, rebuilt after a fire in the late 15th century, an extraordinary example of Brick Gothic architecture.

Even though only about 4% of the population are Eastern Orthodox Christians, some of the largest and most opulent churches in the city are orthodox churches, such as the Church of St Constantine and Michael on the left here, and the one I would particularly recommend visiting - the Orthodox Church of the Holy Spirit and Monastery with its incredibly rich interior decoration.

On my second day in Lithuania I had a day trip booked to see Trakai Castle, which is one of the main tourist attractions in the country. I had booked a private day trip on Viator, and was picked up by my guide Andrus at 10:00 am at my hotel. We first stopped at the old Jewish quarter, which in 1941 became the Jewish Ghetto, where the then 300,000 Lithuanian Jews were forced to live by the Nazis. You can still see old writings in Hebrew on some of the shops: 

Afterwards we drove to the Paneriai Memorial Park, located about 10 kilometers outside of the city. The memorial park is located in a wooded area that was the site of mass killings by the German Nazis starting in 1941. Between July 1941 and August 1944 approximately 70,000 Jews, 20,000 Poles and 8,000 Russian prisoners of war were murdered here. There is a small museum and memorials for the victims of each of the different groups and nationalities.

It was another 30 minutes drive from Paneriai to the famous Trakai Island castle. Trakai Castle is located on an small island on lake Galvé, about 30 kilometers to the west of Vilnius.

The first castle on the island was constructed in the 14th century, but it was largely destroyed in an attack by Teutonic Knights in 1377. The re-construction and major expansion of the castle took place in several phases throughout the 15th century. However soon thereafter it lost its military importance and started to fall into dis-repair. By the 19th century the castle was nothing but a ruin. A major reconstruction to restore it to its full 15th century glory took place in the 1950s. The island is connected to the mainland by a bridge, and there is a very interesting museum exhibition inside the reconstructed main castle. We spend over an hour exploring the castle and the various exhibitions, and I learned a lot about Lithuanian history from my guide.

Afterwards I had some time by myself. Andrus recommended that I should try the local food stands here and have some Kibinai, which are pastries stuffed with various meats, cheese and onion. They were very good. I also walked along the lake shore to see the castle from a different angle. It was just a really stunning setting, the bright red brick of the castle towers set against the deep blue color of the lake and the sky.

On my final day in Vilnius I had time to see some of the numerous museums the city has to offer. I can highly recommend the three I visited. The money museum by the Lithuanian central bank is a small museum over two floors that has a very interesting exhibition about the history of money and central banking. Entry is free, and you probably won't need more than half and hour to see all of it.

Next I went to nearby Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights, which is the official name, but everyone refers to it as the KGB museum. It is fascinating but quite depressing place. Located in the former KGB building, the museum details many of the sufferings, Lithuanians had to endure under Soviet occupation. In the basement you can even see the KGB prison and the execution chamber.

If you only have time to visit one museum in Vilnius, and you want to learn about Lithuanian history, then you must see the 'Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania National Museum', which, as its name suggests, is located inside the former palace of the Grand Dukes. The Palace building is a reconstruction built on top of the old ruined brick foundations. All of the explanations are written in Lithuanian and English, and I thought the exhibit was really well done and fascinating to follow Lithuanian history from its beginnings to today.

I left Lithuania on Friday afternoon on an Air Baltic flight back to Munich via Riga. I really enjoyed Vilnius a lot. It's a beautiful city with a very relaxed and friendly atmosphere, lots outdoor dining (at least in summer), great history, interesting museums, beautiful old buildings, yet that city has a very vibrant and modern feel to it.

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