Lithuania

Lithuania view by CC user brostad on Flickr

Introduction

Despite its diminutive size in the present day, and its recent past of being coerced into being a satellite state for the former Soviet Union, Lithuania was a sizable and influential nation for many centuries. With 800 years of history as an official state (which was the largest in Europe in the 15th century), and over 1,000 years of being referred to as a distinct region within Eastern Europe, Lithuania punches above its weight in the culture column, which will delight those who appreciate the details of a people’s origins.

Standing at a figurative dividing line between the influence of Western Europe, and that of the East (namely, Russia), one can expect to see signs of transition from one way of life to another, all within a country that is rapidly transforming as it opens itself to the European Union, as it joined not long after the last Spetnaz troops goose-stepped their way out of Vilnius in 1993.

Being occupied by the Russian empire for over 200 years from the 18th century to 1918, and then absorbed by the Soviet Union in 1940 as World War II raged, there are nonetheless unmistakable traces of Russian influence here, which will make one’s journey here an intriguing one indeed!

Currency: Lithuanian Litas

Languages: Lithuanian, English, Polish, Russian

Trakai, Island Castle by CC user azwegers on Flickr

What To Do

After enjoying the various sights and attractions of the capital Vilnius, make your way out into the countryside, making your first stop in Kernavė. This former medieval era capital is filled with structures called hill forts, a unique defensive system that has granted it UNESCO World Heritage recognition.

Those seeking more background information should check out an accompanying archeological museum, which is dedicated to showing off uncovered artifacts that have been found over the years in the adjacent area.  By seeing these implements, we gain a better understanding of how our distant ancestors lived, both in the captivating and mundane aspects of their daily lives.

Castle fans should make a beeline for the Trakai Island Castle, which was once the centre of the Grand Lithuanian Duchy in the 14th century upon its completion. Stunning in both its physical construction and its natural surroundings, this island citadel will inspire as you stroll its inner courtyard and along the shores of the peaceful lake in which it sits.

Considered to be one of the most religious sites in all of Lithuania, the Hill of Crosses has become an enduring symbol of Lithuanian’s devotion to Catholicism over the years in the face of unreal adversity. During revolts against their Russian overlords in the 19th century regarding their desired use of a hill fort as a religious site, many loved ones involved in the fighting could simply not be located after being presumably killed.

In the stead of bodies, locals started to erect crosses, a practice which accelerated for obvious reasons after World Wars 1 and 2. In the sixties and seventies, Soviet authorities tried to stamp out the memorial by burning them, which only emboldened Lithuanians to replace them, with some coming from far corners of the country to defy their oppressors. Today, the number of crucifixes exceeds 100,000, and remains a popular place for Christian pilgrims to gather.

Curonian Spit by CC user kyletaylor on Flickr

Being situated on the Baltic Sea, there are many places to get out into a marine environment, but the best place to visit as a traveler with time constraints is to go to the Curonian Spit, which is a barrier island comprised of sand split between Lithuania and Russia. To get there, take a ferry from the Lithuanian city of Klaipeda, which will take you ten short minutes to get to the spit.

Here, lounge on or explore the many deserted beaches and dunes, visit a museum dedicated to telling the story of the fishers that have plied their trade on this isle over the years, or cycle along the lonely roads and connect with nature on your terms.

Finally, Aukštaitija National Park offers visitors a blend between nature and history. Studded with well over 100 lakes, there are abundant opportunities here for kayaking and canoeing, and many of the stands of pine trees are well over 200 years old.

On the cultural side of things, ancient villages also exist within park boundaries, including a wooden church featured on the back of the 1 Litas note, and archeological sites that used to be graves for people buried as far back as 8,000 years ago.  Many of these folks were put in the ground with material goods that they might find useful in the afterlife, making them a treasure trove for archeologists and anthropologists.

Cepelinai by CC user brostad on Flickr

What To Eat

If you are a meat and potatoes fan, Lithuania will feel like a homecoming to you. Case in point is one of its best known dishes, Cepelinai, which are potato starch shells that are stuffed with cottage cheese, minced meat, and/or mushrooms.  These drool-worthy creations are then slathered in an artery hardening sauce that consists of sour cream infused with bacon/pork rinds … I can hear your stomach rumbling now!

Not enough meat for you in the last dish?  Just hold on there pal, because the next offering from Lithuania, Zrazy, is a carnivores’ dream come true. To create it, you take thin slices of beef and season it with salt and pepper, and then place vegetables, mushrooms, eggs, potato, bacon, pickles, etc in the centre.  You then roll it up, and then place it in a casserole dish, where it is often baked with celery and onions … imagine the smell that must give off!

Finally, be sure to wrap your lips around some Kibinai before leaving Lithuania. Being a specialty created by the Karaim people, an ethnic minority within the country. Kibinai is essentially a turnover that is stuffed with spiced lamb and onions, and it is typically eaten as a quick snack by many people in the Trakai castle, where it is typically found the most.

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