Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Who Knew - Lithuania is a Gem

If you, like me, grew up during the Cold War, your childhood education likely included black and white grainy images of the old Soviet Union. Perhaps the photos were of mole-ladened, ladies wearing wool scarfs as they stood in a long bread line on a cold winters day. Or of obedient peasants gathering wheat with hand-held sickles. Whatever those images were meant to convey, they painted a picture of a stone cold, lifeless humanity - a huge Soviet monoculture devoid of anything unique. The name 'Lithuania' created visions for me of a grey, lifeless existence. However, between what what my government wanted me to think and what it actually was (and is) is something quite different. The Lithuanians never were Soviets or even Russian. They had too long a history of their own that pre-dated the Czars and even Russia as a political and cultural entity. My first visit here revealed something dynamic and alive in a country and culture with a long, interesting history. I loved this first stop on our trip and would go back in a heartbeat.

The word 'Lithuania' first appears in written records in the year 1003 AD, but the Romans spoke of a people living here as early as 7 AD, whom they called the Balts. A succession of nobles, knights and kings is recorded, people who spoke a language that even today preserves elements of a pre-Medieval tongue that was spoken across the northern plains of Europe. The country once stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea whose people successively resisted the Golden Horde, Teutonic Knights, Russian Czars, and (eventually and successfully) the Nazi's and the Soviets. Cultural success was rooted, perhaps surprisingly, in an overt tolerance for others - a tolerance not often heard of in the development of many Western societies. Lithuanians retained a pagan way of life through the 14th century, comfortable in their ancient, polytheistic worldview. Eventually Catholicism reached Lithuania and the Protestant Reformation was much less successful here (and likely resulted from suspicions of the successors to those Teutonic Knights). The country remains dominantly Catholic today.

Vilnius is the capital and is located at the junction of two rivers with a hill conveniently located at the rivers' confluence. The setting was an ideal location for a castle, a city, and a nation.

We visited the Museum of the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania, where paintings of old Vilnius were seen. Note the small river wrapping around the semi-circular wooden stockade on the left. A perfect place to built a city! Note the hill (called a mountain in Lithuania) in the background with another fortification on top. This image is from the 12th century, before the use of locally made red bricks began in the 13th century.

The bell tower and the National Cathedral at night. These modern structures sit just inside of where the semi-circular stockade wall was seen in the previous image. Our hotel was located just across the street from these two structures. The semi-circular river is now drained and a semi-circular street is on top of it.

The foundations of the first brick castle were laid in the 13th century and were recently excavated with a modern museum constructed on top of them. What an incredible exhibit within, charting the development of and Vilnius and Lithuania from the retreat of the Scandinavian Ice Sheet some 10,000 years ago to the present. The displays are phenomenal! Artifacts from the Stone Age were uncovered in the excavations but revealed that construction in Medieval times disrupted much of this early prehistory.

A model in the museum showing the layout of the earliest castle and the landscape elements that determined its location. The location, within the bend of the little river, separated the dukes and other nobles from the commoners and their homes outside this natural boundary.

By the 17th century the complex had grown more intricate. In this model, existing buildings have color and those no longer in existence are made of white foam. Note the clock tower on the far left and the Cathedral just to the right of it (brown color). Only one tower remains of the hilltop fortification (seen in the following photo).

This is about all that is left of the hilltop fortress. Note the grey scars on the slopes - these are where recent slips or landslides have been reinforced.

As the castle nearby grew in importance, so did Old Town Vilnius.

Old Town has many narrow, winding streets that are a holdover from Medieval times.

We had a great walk trough the Old Town and I took many pictures.

Vilnius is called "The Greenest Capital in Europe," at least in Lithuania. I have not been to all the capitals to know if this is true or not but it certainly is green.

It is a lively place with many post-recession sidewalk cafes.

Colorful bicycles for rent to get around Old Town.

From the University Library (founded in 1579) I leaned out a window to capture a view of the old and the new. Since 2004, the skyscrapers across the Neris River have grown.

From the top of the Palace of the Grand Dukes, I captured this view back toward the University. Note the old Lithuanian flag with the proverbial knight on a white horse. This flag was only replaced in 2004 as the official flag of the country. Lithuania was the first Soviet Republic to say "No thanks" to continued inclusion in the USSR after Mikhail Gorbachov let countries decide whether to stay or not (glasnost). The year was 1988 and it set in motion world changing events. We learned that Lithuania was always a reluctant member of the USSR.

Inside the hallways of the Palace of the Grand Dukes.

We also visited the Amber Museum. The Baltic is the richest region on earth for amber, which formed between about 50 and 44 million years ago from the resin of pine trees. It washes up on the shores of the Baltic after storms.

In the evening we drove about 45 minutes outside the city to visit the Dukes summer retreat on the shores of a lake.

Trakai is a National Historic Park and is quite beautiful in late afternoon light. The forecast was for rain but it never materialized.

Close-up of the castle with the old flag.

 View of Trakai Castle from the bridge connecting it to the mainland.

Corner tower and tree.

Here is a view of the area depicting the early 17th century area near Trakai. The castle in the foreground was destroyed by the Russians later in the 17th century and was never rebuilt. The Trakai castle is seen in the background.

TCS always arranges for special welcomes at our evening dinners.

And incentives to not misbehave!

The court jester greeted everyone and was the master of ceremonies for the evening.

Which included Medieval music and dancing.

In Lithuania  hundreds of Medieval "hoards" have been found by farmers plowing their fields. The hoards typically are found in clay pots and were buried to protect from thievery. Silver and copper coins are often found. This one was on display in the castle.

Sunset on April 30, 2018 from the Trakai bridge. I hope you have enjoyed learning a bit about Lithuania. Who knew it had anything to offer the world except the occasional 7-foot tall NBA basketball player!


  1. Thanks for educating me today. Before, the only thing I knew about Lithuania was that it was a Baltic country south of Latvia and its capital is Vilnius. I really enjoyed your photos and look forward to seeing more of this trip. Judy Alston

  2. Vilnius is lovely. The bit of history that most impressed me was seeing the photos and learning about the 2 million people who formed the Human Chain from Tallinn through Riga to Vilnius in 1989 for their independance!! Impressive. What a difference people can make when they work together - gail m


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