Archive for the ‘Lithuania’ Category

Revisiting “Lithuania’ Royal Triangle”

Monday, September 14th, 2009

By Val Ramonis of
A few years ago, Julie Skurdenis, a world-wide traveler and professional travel writer, wrote an article about “Lithuania’s Royal Triangle” for this magazine. In this “Triangle” she included Kernave, Trakai, and Vilnius, regarded as the three most important cultural and historic places in Lithuania. At one time in history, each one has been the country’s capital, and the site of significant events.

I visited Lithuania again this spring, as I have been doing for the past twelve years. And every time I am there, I make a point of exploring a different region of the country, one I had not seen before. I can honestly say that there aren’t too many places I have not been to. There are some, but not many.

When I returned to Lithuania for the first time in 1993, after being away from it for almost fifty years, I visited most of the larger cities and towns, as well as important cultural, religious, and historic sites like the Hill of Crosses, Trakai, and Kernave. And while I return to Vilnius year after year, I have not been back to the latter two since then. So I thought it was about time.

One cool spring morning, accompanied by some relatives, including one who offered to be our driver, I embarked on the journey of revisiting “Lithuania’s Royal Triangle.” Our first destination would be the Kernave Historical and Archaeological Museum-Reserve.


Kernave is located some 35 kilometers northwest of Vilnius. While on our way there, we passed a most interesting place, the Dukstai Oak Grove Nature Preserve and Sculpture Park. The entrance to the park can be seen from the road. There is a large sign next to the entrance with a description and map of the park. I read that this park is the largest concentration of oak trees in all of Lithuania, some of them hundreds of years old. It is also a nature preserve where rare and endangered plant species grow and are protected. It has winding trails along which dozens of large carved wooden sculptures depicting all types of figures from Lithuanian mythology, legends, and history stand. There are children’s swings carved into folktale figures, resting places with rustic tables and benches of many shapes, and other curiosities. It is certainly a place worth visiting.

The drive to Kernave didn’t take long; we arrived there about 10 o’clock in the morning. Since we hadn’t had any breakfast in Vilnius, we first decided to find a place where we could get a cup of coffee and perhaps a snack. The only restaurant we saw was still closed, and it wouldn’t open until 11. Let me mention here that we had similar experiences in Vilnius. If you wanted breakfast or just a cup of coffee before 11 o’clock in the morning, you were out of luck, unless you were staying in a hotel or with relatives. Most restaurants and coffee shops don’t open until about lunch time. So we decided to take a look around Kernave, and perhaps grab a bite later while on our way to Trakai.

Kernave was the site of the first capital of Lithuania many centuries ago, and today it is an archaeological and historic treasure. The place distinguishes from other sites in Lithuania by the five large piliakalniai (mounds or hillforts) clustered together, on top of which fortresses and places of worship stood in early times. During the Middle Ages, a city of considerable size sprawled out across the Pajauta valley between the mounds and the Neris river.

In the 14th century Kernave was destroyed by the Teutonic Knights, and most of its residents abandoned the city. Lithuania’s capital was moved to Trakai, and later to Vilnius. Because – unlike Vilnius, Kaunas, and other larger cities – urban development never encroached on Kernave, archaeologists are uncovering layers of habitation going back thousands of years. The cultural area is so extensive that only about 5% of it has been examined and researched so far. Some of the finds have been spectacular: foundations of houses and shops, early tools, weapons, bits of apparel, coins, pottery, and of course burial sites.
The entire region of Kernave was designated a protected historical national reserve, and recently has been inducted into the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list.

When I visited Kernave for the first time some twelve years ago, the place looked pretty shabby. The red-brick church was there, the pastor’s fancy new house with a large fish pond in the shape of a map of Lithuania was also there, and of course, the five hillforts. But an old pyramid-shaped monument to King Vytautas the Great was covered with grime and leaning to one side. There were also piles of rocks in an area where Kernave’s first church built by Vytautas was believed to have once stood. Also a very old and dark wooden structure resembling a small chapel, and a newer one not far from it. I later found out that the wooden structure was hundreds of years old, and was brought to Kernave in the 19th century from somewhere else. It had no practical use, other than at times it was used to store the church’s objects of wooden folk art. The newer chapel was built in the 19th century and is the mausoleum of the Roemeris family of nobles and artists who owned much of Kernave in the past. Some of its members are buried in the crypt under the chapel.

At that time I also met the pastor, who invited us inside his house and showed us the private museum he had set up on the upper floor. I also climbed the narrow wooden stairs to the top of one of the hillforts, from which I admired the beautiful Pajauta valley and the winding Neris river in the distance.

Today, the place looks much better. A newly-paved wide boulevard, lined with trees and fancy lampposts, leads you to the front of the church. The church itself is surrounded by a red brick fence along which Stations of the Cross created with small pieces of mosaics have been installed. Vytautas’ monument has been cleaned and straightened out. The foundations of Kernave’s very first church have been neatly outlined on the ground. New statues of Vytautas, the Iron Wolf, and even Moses holding the Ten Commandments have been erected near the church and at various other locations. From the observation point you can gaze at the hillforts and the valley below. A new restaurant is there, and a new larger museum, which will display the thousands of artifacts unearthed during archaeological excavations, is nearing completion.
I would like to mention here that Kernave’s hillforts have been used as a backdrop for several movies, including the fairly recent “Attila.”
From Kernave we headed in a southerly direction towards Trakai, the second destination of my revisit of the “Royal Triangle.”


Trakai has always fascinated me. At one time it also was the capital of Lithuania and had three castles. The first castle was built at the end of the 13th century or the beginning of the 14th in what is known as Old Trakai, a short distance from present-day Trakai. Of this first castle, only the foundations remain today.

During the 14th-15th centuries two other castles were built, one on an island in Lake Galve, and the other on a peninsula across the lake from it. Historians believe that the two castles were connected by a long wooden bridge.

Around 1323, King Gediminas transferred his capital from Trakai to Vilnius, but Trakai continued to be the residence of subsequent rulers. Gediminas’ son Kestutis resided there, and Kestutis’ son Vytautas the Great was born there. Both of these castles deteriorated over the centuries and were eventually abandoned. But some of their structures survived into the 20th century.

The reconstruction of the island castle began during Soviet times (in spite of great opposition from the Soviet authorities), and was finished shortly before independence. It is the best preserved and most scenic castle in Lithuania, and the only one of its type in Eastern Europe. The peninsular castle, which in its heyday was even larger than the insular one, has not yet been restored. Restoration of some of its defensive walls and towers began this year. Every summer, both castles become locations for Medieval fairs, jousts, tournaments, concerts, and even operas. Lately they have also become favorite locations for the filming of historical documentaries and TV miniseries.

Galve is just one of the dozens of beautiful lakes in the area. The entire Trakai district has been designat- ed a historical national park.
I was thrilled to see the castle again, with the wooden bridge across the lake, the drawbridge over the moat (dry now), the turrets, the large courtyard, the museum, and the donjon (the ruler’s residence). You can climb wooden stairs to the upper floors, and go through many rooms and halls, including the throne room. But neither on my first visit twelve years ago, nor this time, were visitors allowed to climb to the donjon’s tower. I don’t know the reason, but I suppose it could have something to do with safety. This is unfortunate because from the top of the tower you would get the most breathtaking view of the entire area.

I once flew from Warsaw to Vilnius over Trakai in a turboprop airplane. We flew fairly low, and the view below was out of this world.
The castle’s museum has many exhibit rooms displaying artifacts and objects from various periods of Li-thuania’s history. The castle also has an inhouse post office where you can buy a postcard of Trakai and have it stamped with the official Trakai Castle postmark. Unfortunately the day we were there, the post office was sold out of Trakai postage stamps, so I had to settle for one with mushrooms.

Trakai hasn’t changed much since my first visit. One difference I noticed this time is the increased num- ber of souvenir vendors, coffee shops, and restaurants along the lake’s shore across front of the castle. Also quite a few pleasure craft moored by the shore and next to the castle island. Even though the weather was quite cool that day, there was an abundance of visitors, many more than I had seen before.

Another thing that also fascinates me about Trakai are the brightly painted wooden houses lining both sides of Karaimu gatve (Karaite street). This is one of the main streets in Trakai, running from the castle to the center of town. It is named after the people who have lived on that street for the past 600 years – the Karaites (or Karaimai in Lithuanian.)
The Karaites are a distinct ethnic and religious group and the smallest minority in Lithuania. Vytautas the Great brought some 400 Karaite families from the Crimea on the Black Sea in the 14th century, and settled them in Trakai. They served as the ruler’s personal guard and defenders of his castle. At the present time there are some 70 Karaites living in Trakai. Their language belongs to the Turkic group, and their religion – Karaism – is basically a pure tradition of the Old Testament with a strong Islamic influence.

A most peculiar characteristic of the Karaite houses is that they all stand endwise to the street. The end facades of all the houses have three windows facing the street. There are several theories as to why this is. One theory has it that it has something to do with their religion. Another says that one of the windows is for God, the second for the members of the household, and the third for Vytautas the Great, who the Karaites very much admire. But an old Karaite man I met inside the Kenessa, told me it had nothing to do with any of the above. He said the position of the houses had something to do with the collection of taxes during the Czarist occupation in the 19th century. I know that in some Western European cities, Amsterdam for example, people built tall, long, but very narrow houses, with the narrow part of the house facing the street. Taxes were collected depending of the house’s frontage. But that still doesn’t explain the three windows of the Karaite houses facing the street.
The Kenessa, situated on the same street about a block or so from the castle, is the Karaite house of worship. It is a small cream-colored square building with a tin roof and a little tower on its top. Its three small windows also face the street. It sits in the center of a yard surrounded by a fence with a handsome brick gate. Inside there is an ornate tall but very narrow altar with the Tablets of the Ten Commandments above it. A few steps from the Kenessa, we saw a young Karaite couple dressed in their colorful traditional costumes selling some souvenirs and trinkets.
At a caf‚ on the lake shore across from the castle we sampled kibinai, the traditional Karaite dish. It is a pastry similar to a large Polish pierogi or a South American empanada filled with spiced meat and onions.
From Trakai we headed back to Vilnius, the third and final stop in my journey of revisiting “Lithuania’s Royal Triangle.”


Vilnius is changing constantly and rapidly, getting more beautiful every year. New construction can be seen everywhere, even in places where it legally shouldn’t be, such as in the middle of the Old Town. This is something that worries historic preservationists and others, who say that the city’s unique classic skyline, which hadn’t changed for centuries, is being changed overnight. Developers, builders, and real estate speculators are putting up apartment building anywhere they can find an empty lot, even in the middle of a children’s playground. They keep saying there is a shortage of living space in Vilnius, and raising real estate prices.

There is a joke going around among locals about the shortage of living space in Lithuania:
“Hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians were exiled to Siberia during and after World War II, and tens of thousands emigrated to the West, but we were told there was a shortage of flats.
The majority of Lithuanian Jews were killed by the Nazis during the war, and many others emigrated to Israel afterwards, but we kept hearing there was a shortage of flats.
It is believed that over 300,000 emigrated from Lithuania after independence, and we are still being told there is a shortage of flats. What happened to all the flats? Did all those people take their flats with them?”

One good thing is that the city government is putting up new apartment buildings to house the tremtiniai, those who were exiled to Siberia by Stalin and are now returning to Lithuania. But the five-story buildings have no elevators and no showers, only bathtubs. Vilnius’ Mayor Arturas Zuokas had suggested erecting taller buildings, but the city council voted against it. They argued it would be too expensive to build them taller since they would require elevators. Can you imagine that? Five-story apartment buildings without elevators, especially when many of the returnees are seniors and some are probably handicapped or disabled? How do you get a wheelchair to the fifth floor? During Soviet times no one gave a hoot about the comfort or well-being of individuals, but come on people, this is supposed to be a modern, progressive, independent Lithuania.

Museums in Lithuania, even the larger ones in major cities, don’t seem to have much regard for tourists and visitors. At least not when it comes to the days and hours of operation. Each museum sets its own working days and hours for the convenience of its employees rather than the visitors. In Vilnius, Kaunas, Klaipeda, and other cities, some museums are closed on Saturdays and Sundays, some on Sundays and Mondays, some on Mondays and Tuesdays, and still others only on Mondays. Who can keep track of it all? Often you will see a busload of foreign tourists arriving at a museum, and finding that the museum’s doors are locked. They just happened to arrive there on a Tuesday, the day when this particular museum decided to be closed.

And speaking of museums and their regard (or disregard) for the public, the famous Amber Museum in Palanga was closed to visitors one Saturday (a normal working day) because a politician decided to celebrate his 50th birthday inside the museum. Hired private security guards with black suits not only prevented tourists from entering the museum, they also kept them away from the museum’s grounds, which is a public park.

Work on the restoration of the Royal Palace in Vilnius seems to be going on schedule. The palace should be completed in time for the anniversary of Lithuania’s millennium in 2009. One wing and half of another are already up. Of course, it will take some time before the palace’s interiors are finished. Each floor of the three-story structure will be installed in a different architectural style that was prevalent in Lithuania since the original palace was built over 700 years ago. The first floor will have a Gothic look, the second – Renaissance, and the third – Baroque.

Romualdas Budrys, the director of the Lithuanian Art Museum and the person in charge of the installation of the palace’s interiors, gave me a private tour of the already reconstructed sections. We put on our hard hats and walked through the large halls, stairways, nooks and crannies. The place was buzzing with workers. One of the things Budrys pointed out to me is that many pieces of the original palace’s windows, cornices, and other architectural details and ornamentation that have been unearthed during excavation of the foundations, are being incorporated into the building being reconstructed.

In order to attract the public’s attention to the restoration of the palace and its importance to Lithuania, the Royal Palace Support Fund (Valdovu Rumu Paramos Fondas) has initiated a series of programs in Vilnius’ Cathedral Square in front of the palace. The first of such programs, a medieval pageant, premiered on a Sunday afternoon while I was there.

When the Cathedral bells tolled at 2 p.m., a herald of Grand Duke Aleksandras made his grand entrance into the square followed by courtiers and musicians, all dressed in period costumes. Then the herald climbed onto a platform set up in front of the palace and read a proclamation about how everyone should get ready to repel the armies of Russian Czar Ivan the Terrible. The flags of Aleksandras and of the Grand Duchy were raised from the palace’s windows and a bugle was sounded calling all citizens of Vilnius to battle. The entire ceremony lasted about 15 minutes after which the herald departed the square followed by his retinue. The ceremony would be repeated every Sunday during summer at the same time and place, but the historical characters and proclamations would change. The originator of these pageants, and author of the proclamations, is former Chicagoan Kazys Almenas, who now resides in Vilnius.

Another gimmick to attract tourists to the city and to entertain them has been started by the Vilnius Tourism Center. It is called “Vilnius’ Legends – A Ghostly Trip.” The first such excursion was held on the night of June 11, between 10 p.m. and midnight. Visitors were led by ghosts and goblins to various places in the city’s Old Town section, where, according to legend, ghosts have appeared or are still appearing. These places included Vilnius University, St. Casimir and St. John churches, the Basilean monastery, and the Gates of Dawn. At each place a spectacle was held involving performers dressed as ghosts, goblins, mad monks, devils, bats, and other creatures from the underworld. Bonfires were lighted and various ghostly dances performed. Since this was the first time such a program was performed, the police, who hadn’t been informed about it in advance, were very intrigued. Especially when some performers, and a few guests, wore hoods resembling those worn by the KKK. The Tourism Center planned to repeat these excursions on a regular basis.

Lithuanians are suckers for horoscopes, talismans, fortune telling, and other forms of predicting the future and one’s good fortune. While in Vilnius, I read that Vaiva Budraityte, a woman who calls herself a “professional astrologer and predictor of the future,” has found her own niche. She opened her classy new “salon” in Vilnius’ largest and most prestigious shopping center, the “Acropolis.” For a mere 49 litas (about $15), she will photograph your “aura.” Then the photograph will be scanned into a computer and you will receive a printout of your “bioenergetic field,” which, according to her, can tell you much about yourself, your character, and your health. For 100 litas (about $35) she can create your accurate personal horoscope, but for that she would need the exact date, hour, and minute of your birth. Budraityte’s “salon” also carries a variety of talismans for both men and women. She said that the most popular talisman for men is three-legged toad, which is supposed to bring wealth. Single women prefer a pair of ducks. They say it helps them find the perfect mate. And business people prefer dragons.

I also read about an American who for the last three months had been cleaning one of Lithuania’s largest national parks. David Lee Mattson from Philadelphia was camped out in the Zemaitija National Park, in western Lithuania, and every day he would walk around the park picking up trash left behind by visitors. During the night Mattson would sleep in his tent next to the Plateliai lake. Several times a week he would drive to Plunge or Klaipeda to buy food and supplies. But he moved to a local farmhouse after his jacket, shoes, and some toiletries were taken from his tent.

According to the 46-year-old American, Lithuanians leave a lot of trash behind when they visit the park. He had cleaned parks in several other countries, and in his opinion, the Swiss are the cleanliest. Mattson is an architect by profession, and kept in touch with his family by e-mail. In conversations with local people, he told them that instead of teaching their kids to pick up trash, they should teach them not drop it everywhere. Next Mattson planned to go to Estonia and do some park cleaning there.

Finally, I would like to mention a few other things I experienced or noticed during this trip:

For the first time in my life, I was served saltibarsciai (cold beet soup) accompanied by french fries. Progress?

When saying good-bye, more and more Lithuanians are again using the traditional sudiev (“go with God”), instead of viso gero (“all good”), so prevalent in Soviet times. But you still hear viso gero in most places.

Stores never seem to have enough change to give back. If, for example, your purchase is 9.55 litas and you give the clerk a 10 litas bill, you can bet your bottom litas that the clerk will ask you if you have the 55 cents. But by some miracle, I always end up with two pounds of change in my pocket. It’s no wonder, considering that the 1, 2, and 5 litas are heavy metal coins.

The easiest, and perhaps the safest way to have spending money in Lithuania is to withdraw it from an ATM machine. Just remember that every time you take money, your bank is going to apply an extra charge. So it is better to withdraw more money fewer times. The drawback to this is that if you withdraw more money at one time, you will get very large bills, and small merchants, particularly souvenir vendors, might not have the change.

Credit cards have become quite very popular among locals, and they are accepted almost everywhere. When you ask for your check at a restaurant, the waiter or waitress will most likely ask you, kortele ar grynais? (“card or cash?”)

Souvenirs and gift items with scenes or logos of Lithuania and Lithuanian cities are more plentiful now. Until fairly recently, you could not find any, although there were plenty of clay bells and clay figurines of cows, goats, cats, dogs and other assorted creatures. T-shirts are also appearing, but they are still quite expensive by our standards.

Locals are slowly getting used to the capitalistic practice of tipping in restaurants and coffee shops, something that was unheard of during Soviet times. But their idea of tipping is rounding up to the highest figure rather than leaving a percentage of the tab. For example, if a glass of beer is 3.50 litas, a local might leave 4 litas to the waiter. On the other hand, if a dinner costs 19 litas, he might leave 20 litas. Tipping taxi drivers is not a common practice, same as in many other parts of Eastern Europe. But it doesn’t hurt.

And speaking of taxi drivers, they are no more honest or dishonest than those in any other country. If a driver thinks you know where you are going, he will get you there in the quickest and cheapest way. But if not, you may get a extended tour of Vilnius whether you wanted one or not. The best way to get a ride is to call a cab company and have one of its drivers meet you at the door. This will insure that you get an honest driver and a more reasonable fare.

And here is a sign I saw inside a minibus: “In case of an emergency, brake window with a hammer.” Yes, I always carry one in my pocket. No wonder my pockets always feel so heavy. It’s not just the coins.
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