Romantic redbrick turrets and towers rise from a small island on Lithuania‘s Lake Galvé, home to the 14th-15th century Trakai Island Castle. Today accessible by a small wooden bridge, Trakai Island Castle actually claims to be Eastern Europe‘s only island castle still standing. While still in its infancy, the castle was attacked and severely damaged by the Teutonic Knights in 1377, and further damaged during a power struggle for title of Grand Duke of Lithuania. Once peace again reigned, it was the very same Teutonic Order that organised the rebuilding of the castle. Over time, other ameliorations were added – a massive donjon, wooden galleries along the inner courtyard, new palatial wings containing the impressive Ducal Hall, thicker defensive walls, three new towers and 16th century galleries complete with canons, designed to defend against new advances in technology (notably, gunpowder). Despite this, since the Battle of Grunwald, Trakai left its military importance behind and was used predominantly as a residence and a way to impress visitors, but by the 1700s and 1800s, it was in ruins, serving as little more than a romantic ruin for artistic and poetic inspiration. Reconstruction started in the late 1800s and continued through the first half of the 20th century. Today, Trakai Island Castle is a quiet monument to Lithuanian history and cultural strength, and part of the Trakai Historical National Park. Visit the castle by crossing the new bridge from the town of Trakai, only about 30 minutes from the capital city, Vilnius.
Pro tip: As the Baltic states open up to increasing tourism, places like Trakai Island Castle will get busier. It’s best to visit Trakai in the off-season or earlier in the morning in order to get the castle and island largely to yourself. Better yet, stay over in Trakai town and use as a jumping-off point to explore the region. Home to proud Karaim community, Turkish-speaking ethnic group descended from Crimean immigrants, try the delicious local dish, kybyn, a sort of dumpling or pasty stuffed with meat and vegetables while in Trakai.
Dusty, quiet, out of the way, the tiny Trakai village would be completely overlooked if not for its spectacular local monument – Trakai Island Castle, a splendid brick teutonic castle constructed on a island in the medieval era. Made up of colourful wooden clapboard houses, quiet tree-lined streets and embraced in a welcomingly fresh air, walking through Trakai village feels like you are exploring the Baltics of Europe behind the scenes, getting a glimpse of where the real people live. But in many ways, Trakai is not a normal place as it is a village that has been constructed and even preserved by an array of different nationality, ethnic groups and cultures. Tatars, Russians, Jews, Karaims (from Turkey), Lithuanians and Jews have – and do – all live here peacefully, rubbing shoulders as their lives quietly overlap. Trakai was once a booming town under Polish then later Lithuanian rule but saw significant decline as Vilnius and Krakow rose in importance. Though a small place today, Trakai has managed to stay significant due to King Gedimas’ lovely castle on the beautiful lake.
Pro tip: While in Trakai, be sure to try kibinai, a savoury pastry brought to the region by the Karaims community. Delicious and filing! Also, Trakai – and the Baltics in general – are a great place to purchase amber jewelry.
The year 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of independence from Russia for the Baltic States (think Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) – even if in the middle of that century of independence they lost it and were forced to regain it again, thanks to WWII. And yet, the Old Town of Vilnius is one of the largest medieval towns still in existence today (and therefore is protected by UNESCO). By day, it is a popular place with locals and tourists alike, relaxing in the cafes, strolling the narrow alleys and broad avenues, chilling in the parks and squares, mingling with the locals in restaurants and hole-in-the-wall bars. For great views, you might climb the ancient Gediminas Hill to the remains of the crumbled castle – or to the top of the opposite Hill of the Three Crosses, a more modern viewpoint. It is a place full of great (and budget-friendly) restaurants and bars frequented by lively locals and tourists alike, making it an ideal place for a friends weekend, a fun solo getaway, or a hen/stag party!
The crisp, cool air flows through the ancient alleyways of Vilnius on this winter’s day in this little Baltic nation. Little streets criss-cross Lithuania’s capital city, creating a maze of quiet streets largely ignored by the jet-setting tourists partying in the centre. This elderly gentleman walks his dog along the outside of the ancient stone wall that once surrounded and protected Vilnius from the outside world, the narrow track between the wall and the row of houses serving as a quiet pedestrian route. Despite being Lithuania’s largest city – and the Baltic State’s second-largest city – once you leave the bustling centre to weave the winding network of streets, alleys, and rivers (the broad Neris and the easy-going Vilnia both flow through the capital), Vilnius adopts a surprisingly small-town feel. Charming facades, orthodox churches painted in pastels, quiet riverside promenades and echoing cobblestone alleys are frequented largely by locals, creating a calm but cheerful atmosphere that mixes small-town ease with the vivacity of a European capital – a mix that is hard to find in most of Europe’s capitals and major cities.
This pink church is the first and oldest Baroque church in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. Built 1604 to 1635, it was dedicated to the patron saint of Vilnius, Prince Casimir Jagiellon from the lat 15th century. For its relatively small size, Vilnius seems to have an awful lot of churches. Baroque towers with intricate facades and gilded tips, orthodox churches with fancy Cyrillic writing, Gothic churches covered in spires. Red brick facades or painted in pastel colors, Vilnius’s churches are beautiful, tranquil, non-imposing. They seem nature, as if they are exactly where they are supposed to be. For an often-overlooked city, Vilnius has plenty of charms up its sleeves. It will never beat Tallinn (one of Europe’s most beautiful cities), or Riga, an Art Nouveau masterpiece. Yet, there is still something very special about this beautiful Baltic gem!
Once part of Vilnius’ defensive system, this green lump rising from the centre of the Lithuanian capital is Gediminas Hill, one of Vilnius’ major landmarks. A short walk up the winding path takes you to what is left of the tower, which in part dates back to the 10th century. From there, one can see the Hill of Three Crosses–meaning that if you descend Gediminas Hill, meander through the Old Town to the base of the second one and climb the wooded path up that hill, you are rewarded with a panoramic view of the Gediminas Hill. Surrounding this ancient hill is the Old Town, a mix of styles and colours. You are currently in the heart of Lithuania. But just beyond that, you see the rest of Vilnius, the impacted of the Soviet-esque sky-rises and concrete towers. It is an interesting contrast of old and new, of Lithuanian independence and Soviet influence, and it’s a beautiful spot for quiet reflection. After enjoying the sunset over the hills, descend into town to enjoy another important aspect of Lithuanian culture…a beer in a local pub!
Riga, along with the rest of the Baltics, are surely one of the most beautiful and interesting places you’ll visit. The people in the Baltics are not only friendly, fun and adventurous, but they are strong, brave, resilient, and when they put their minds together, there is no stopping them. On August 23, 1989, they proved exactly that. Roughly 2 million people took to the streets, grasped each others’ hands, and formed a human chain that linked the three Baltic capitals: Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn. For over 675.5 km (419.7 miles), the Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians stood hand in hand, briefly becoming one identity to show the intense solidarity that existed–and still exists!–between the three states. It was designed to show the world their united desire for independence as well as the illegal occupation of the USSR, and even though Moscow tried to retaliate, only a few months later, Lithuania was a free state. Latvia and Estonia followed not long after. Can you imagine a chain of human beings that stretched across three countries, for almost 700 km? Can you imagine the effort, the initiative, the planning, the teamwork that the Baltic Way took? How about the feel of another person’s hand in yours, grasping it as if your life depended on it? Can you feel the shivers go up and down your spine? The Baltic solidarity and determination is an amazing feat. It is a beautiful thing. It is what happens when three nations work together in a peaceful protest to accomplish a common goal. If that isn’t a reason to visit, I don’t know what is.
Neoclassicism. What an invention. Back in the mid-18th century, a resurgence of Greek and Roman architecture became a la mode. The opposite of the naturalistic Rococo style, Neoclassicism strove to return to the “purity” of Greek and Roman styles, mirroring their symmetry, geometric design and perspective. The famous Italian architect Andrea Palladio played an instrumental role with the construction of his famous albeit peculiar Villa Capra “La Rotonda,” which he based on Roman temples and other similar designs. One of the most striking creations to come out of this architectural period is the Vilnius Cathedral, circa 1783, located in central Vilnius. One doesn’t normally imagine a Catholic cathedral in the capital city of an Eastern European country to resemble an ancient Roman temple—but there you have it, and there it is – see for yourself. Lithuania is full of surprises!
“Trys kryžiai” or, The Hill of Three Crosses, Vilnius, Lithuania
Designed by Polish-Lithuanian artist, Antoni Wiwulski (the borders changed so frequently that a mixed nationality is common) in 1916, these concrete crosses in Kalnai Park overlook the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. They were torn down in 1950 by the Soviets (who else…), and only reinstated in that monumental year of 1989 by Henrikas Silgalis. The site has a history of crosses dating back to 1636, and legend has it that they were erected in memory of 7 Franciscan monks were tortured to death in 1333 by local pagans. Another version stars two murdered friars, killed in 1340 by the charming Duke of Lithuania Gediminias (who gave name to the tower which the Three Crosses overlook). No one really knows why the Three Crosses were built—but two things are certain: one, the Crosses are a monument that stirs memories of a nation’s resilience, and two, the view from the hill is unbeatable!
Resting on the shores of Lake Galvė, a mere 300 km from the Baltic Sea, is Trakai Island Castle. Dating back to the 14th century, it was built to withstand attacks from the Teutonic Knights, who played a large role in the region. At the time, Trakai was one of the main centres of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania before it fell into obscurity after merging with the Kingdom of Poland. Today, the town of Trakai is a collection of colourful, wooden houses with a population of only 5,000. Until recently, the castle had been little more than ruins on an island, inspiration for writers and artists. Finally rebuilt in all its glory, Trakai Castle is an impressive monument standing in the middle of a careworn village, reminding us of bygone times when castles and knights and kings still ruled the lands.
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