BALTICS OR BUST! After 5 days of travel through Helsinki (see Finland blog here), Tallinn (see Estonia blog here), and Riga (see Latvia blog here), my friend Ashlyn and I were finally on our way south towards Vilnius, Lithuania. There are many places we wish we could’ve visited in this beautiful country but we had a long way to drive and only two days, so we needed to be selective! We decided to stop at the Hill of Crosses and also in Kaunas at the 9th Fort memorial before making our way into the city of Vilnius. It is impossible to capture the energy of these somber places, especially knowing the history, but it was an even more powerful experience as we were the only people there. Before I dive into the historic spots we stopped on the road trip, I’d like to chronicle a bit of Lithuanian history. It is so important to learn about the places we go – so we appreciate the land we walk on, the buildings we pass, and the people we meet. I love writing about our experiences and giving travel tips, but I think including history snippets is equally as valuable. Thanks for joining me on this journey!
Lithuania has a northeastern location in Europe. It is bordered by Latvia, Belarus, Poland, and the small Russian province in the Baltics, and therefore doesn’t have much coastal territory (only about 165 mi). With 2.8 million people, it has the highest population of the three Baltic states, but its capital Vilnius is second to Riga, Latvia in population. Lithuania may be small today, but it used to be comprised of a large swath of Europe including parts of Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Poland. For 500 years it held various identities including Kingdom of Lithuania and Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which was, at the time, one of the greatest military powers in Europe. In the early 1700’s, Lithuania was ravaged by famine, plague and war – and by the late 1700’s, this commonwealth was dismantled and parts of the territories were given to Russia, Prussia (Germany) and the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg empire.
For the next 200 years, Lithuania was part of Russia and the Soviet Union. During WWII, Nazi Germany occupied Lithuania and by 1941, nearly 95% of Lithuanian Jews had been murdered. Conditions didn’t improve much for Lithuanians after the war when the country was once again under Soviet occupation. Instead, several mass deportations took place, where Soviets deported over 130,000 people to forced labor camps in Russia and another 150,000 to prison camps. Only a fraction – about 60,000 – of those people were allowed to return after Stalin’s death, but many died or were not permitted to return. Lithuanians celebrate an annual day of mourning on June 14th in memory of those deported. Finally, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Lithuania regained its independence in 1990.
Lithuania is a vibrant, safe, and progressive place to live. We felt welcome there, although I will say the people were a little more hearty and tough than in Latvia and Estonia. This was the first place we encountered unfriendly dog owners in the Baltics…haha! In Vilnius, we observed a city dedicated to honoring the people who struggled through war and occupation, especially the Jews. In what used to be the ghetto district in Vilnius, you can find many plaques, statues, paintings and memorabilia memorializing Jewish people lost during the Holocaust here. The Jewish population used to be vibrant and lively, but was all but wiped out during the war. When you walk through the old town, be sure to keep your eyes peeled for signs, plaques and statues – that graffiti might not be what you think! Below you can see six examples from the “Walls that Remember” graffiti collection in Vilnius. When you find one, you can scan the QR code on the wall to learn more about each painting.
But I’m getting ahead of myself! Before we arrived in Vilnius, we stopped at two historic sites along the way. The Hill of Crosses in Jurgaičiai and the 9th Fort in Kaunas.
Hill of Crosses
About three miles outside of Šiauliai, the Hill of Crosses sits in the middle of a great expanse of fields. This hill is covered in over 100,000 crosses of all sizes, including photographs, rosaries, coins, and other memorabilia left by pilgrims to this site. It is widely recognized as a Catholic site, but people of all walks of life venture here to see the vast mountain of crosses. Even the Pope visited in 1993! Today this hill is recognized as a symbol of “peace and endurance of the Lithuanian people,” but in its inception in the mid 1800’s, locals put crosses on this hill when they could not locate the bodies of their fallen brothers during the Lithuanian uprising against the Russian empire. Over the years it has been bulldozed three times by the Soviets who occupied Lithuania at the time, but the locals continued to rebuild, and the crosses we see today are all from the 1970’s and later. It is difficult to prepare yourself for this place; the crosses stretch as far as the eye can see, with paths winding up and around the hill in all directions. It is free to visit the site, and leave a cross if you like. There is a visitor center and (paid) restroom if you need to buy a cross, Baltic amber or souvenir. It is a moving tribute to the strength, peaceful endurance and faith of the Lithuanian people!
9th Fort of the Kaunas Fortress
In and around the city of Kaunas, Lithuania there are a number of forts and historical landmarks made significant during WWII and Soviet occupation of Lithuania. The Kaunas Fortress was a huge complex of forts built by the Russian Empire around the turn of the 20th century. Today those forts are mostly rubble, but one – the 9th fort – has been restored and turned into a museum and memorial. This place was always a place of pain and death. Before WWII, Soviets used this as a prison camp to house political prisoners before shipping them off to Gulags (Soviet forced labor camps). Then, during WWII, Nazis used this fort as a site of mass murder. The Kaunas massacre took place here as well during this time; here, nearly 50,000 Jews were killed. When you visit today you will see the memorial erected by the Soviets to memorialize the Jews murdered and buried here. The memorial is massive and looming – very powerful imagery. There are several plaques outside along the pathways that depict the timeline of events of this place. We weren’t able to visit the museum, but inside there is information and lots of artifacts related to the Soviet atrocities and the Nazi genocide that took place here.
After being fully immersed in the trauma and resilience of the Lithuanian people, we continued on to Vilnius for the last two nights of our trip. We returned the rental car at the airport (easy peasy!) and hopped an Uber to our hotel. We were greeted with a warm welcome at Grotthuss Boutique Hotel. It is a very cute and comfortable hotel with a lovely breakfast and a great location in the Old Town. I recommend it! After checking in and getting settled, we took a walk through the town looking for food and spotting more memorials.
After a delicious meal of Georgian dumplings, we made our way through the streets of the old town, noticing the colorful buildings that reminded us of Riga and Tallinn. As the sun went down, we found the lovely glow of the presidential palace fountain, the Vilnius University Library, and the grand bell tower at St. John’s church. We also passed a few restaurants we wanted to be sure to eat at if possible, including the Holy Donut and RoseHip Vegan Bistro (both we recommend)! The St. John bell tower was calling my name and Ashlyn doesn’t like heights, so I decided to venture up the tower solo.
It cost about €5 to enter and climb the tower either via the elevator or stairs. I chose the elevator – it looked sturdy and new! The tower also houses a Foucault Pendulum. This is a remarkable scientific device that was designed to demonstrate the movement of the earth. When we observe the huge orb at the bottom of the long string, we can see it move – but what we are actually seeing is the earth move, not the pendulum! I geeked out over this for a bit and then made my way up the tower. Thank goodness the elevator was nice because the stairs up to the top were not! Watch your head – this place was not made for tall people! Once at the top, the view over Vilnius is lovely. I was able to scan the skyline at blue hour, just as the lights of the city were popping on…a breath of fresh air indeed!
Below you can see the lovely courtyard of Vilnius University along with St. John’s bell tower and the Presidential Palace fountain. I recommend viewing the palace during daylight, as it is not well lit at night. You will have to pass through security to enter the courtyard where the fountain is, so keep that in mind. Finally, to finish off the evening we walked through Cathedral Square to view the famous Vilnius Cathedral and bell tower. It was glowing and beautiful at night! I was so surprised to see small children riding bikes on the square and out with their parents late on a week night with school the next day. As a parent it made me wonder about family norms of the Lithuanian people!
We entered Vilnius Cathedral during a prayer service but were still able to appreciate the brilliant architecture, some of which that dates back to the 1400s. The most recent renovations took place 15-20 years ago. Perhaps if I hadn’t just climbed the St. John Bell Tower I might have also climbed the Vilnius Cathedral Bell Tower, but I was spent! Also it cost around €17 to enter and climb the twoer, see the underground tunnels, dungeons and treasure. Perhaps for another day!
We had heard Vilnius is the home of one of the tiniest independent republics in the world (unrecognized), Užupis! So we ventured “across the river” (which is what Užupis means) to find out for ourselves. This unique neighborhood in Vilnius boasts its own constitution proudly displayed on a wall in over 20 languages. Užupis was always a welcoming place for artists and free spirits, but in 1997 the people of the neighborhood declared themselves a republic and it has become a source of pride for locals. Užupis is colorful, relaxed, and a must-see in Vilnius, and also happens to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We wandered the streets and enjoyed a lovely bakery meal at Užupio Kepyklėlė (Cyrano).
Here is the Užupis constitution in full:
- Everyone has the right to live by the River Vilnelė, and the River Vilnelė has the right to flow by everyone.
- Everyone has the right to hot water, heating in winter and a tiled roof.
- Everyone has the right to die, but this is not an obligation.
- Everyone has the right to make mistakes.
- Everyone has the right to be unique.
- Everyone has the right to love.
- Everyone has the right not to be loved, but not necessarily.
- Everyone has the right to be undistinguished and unknown.
- Everyone has the right to idle.
- Everyone has the right to love and take care of the cat.
- Everyone has the right to look after the dog until one of them dies.
- A dog has the right to be a dog.
- A cat is not obliged to love its owner, but must help in time of nee[d].
- Sometimes everyone has the right to be unaware of their duties.
- Everyone has the right to be in doubt, but this is not an obligation.
- Everyone has the right to be happy.
- Everyone has the right to be unhappy.
- Everyone has the right to be silent.
- Everyone has the right to have faith.
- No one has the right to violence.
- Everyone has the right to appreciate their unimportance. [In Lithuanian this reads Everyone has the right to realize his negligibility and magnificence.]
- No one has the right to have a design on eternity.
- Everyone has the right to understand.
- Everyone has the right to understand nothing.
- Everyone has the right to be of any nationality.
- Everyone has the right to celebrate or not celebrate their birthday.
- Everyone shall remember their name.
- Everyone may share what they possess.
- No one can share what they do not possess.
- Everyone has the right to have brothers, sisters and parents.
- Everyone may be independent.
- Everyone is responsible for their freedom.
- Everyone has the right to cry.
- Everyone has the right to be misunderstood.
- No one has the right to make another person guilty.
- Everyone has the right to be individual.
- Everyone has the right to have no rights.
- Everyone has the right to not to be afraid.
- Do not defeat.
- Do not fight back.
- Do not surrender.
That beautiful morning we walked through the Gates of Dawn, past Town Hall Square towards the Bastion of of the Vilnius Defense Wall, and onward past the Orthodox Cathedral of the Theotokos and the beautiful St. Anne’s Church. We also passed the Orthodox Church of the Holy Spirit – a beautiful pink church that stands out on the Old Town streets.
Definitely take a moment to peek inside St. Anne’s Church. It dates back over 500 years and is striking just as you leave Užupis! The stained glass windows are lovely, but so is the bright white interior. I loved the whimsical paper mobile hanging from the ceiling!
We enjoyed several delicious meals in Vilnius, all of which are labeled below. The hand pies are my absolute favorite! They seem to be plentiful in the Baltics.
After a lovely walk through the city on a bluebird day, we crossed the King Mindaugas Bridge on the hunt for another Jewish historic site.
The Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery at Piramónt is a heartbreaking sight. Although the Lithuanian government has made efforts to honor this site for its history, unfortunately damage has already been done by the Soviets. In 1971, the Soviets occupying Lithuania built this massive sports complex and concert hall directly over a Jewish Cemetery. Of course this is horribly disgraceful – and many of the grave stones that were uprooted lay in piles outside the complex ruins. This is a place for reverence and mourning, but surprisingly there were plans to reconstruct the complex several years ago. Luckily the plans were cancelled with massive protests and outrage of many. Today it stands as a model of the oppression and disrespect shown to Jews during Soviet occupation.
Heading back over the river we peeked up at Gediminas Tower on the hill and decided against climbing it – although I put it in the back of my mind as a “maybe” for later. We made our way back into the Old Town not looking for anything in particular but finding ourselves on the most beautiful streets in every direction!
I walked past the cutest little store and couldn’t resist perusing. It turned into an hours long shopping extravaganza! Terra Recognita is the work of eclectic artist Saulius Vaitiekūnas – a creative genius who works with metals and stone. He makes pieces of jewelry and art, and is known for his massive art instillations. I was so impressed! We didn’t get to meet Saulius but we loved the two helpful women who told us stories about the pieces and helped us make selections. I picked up several gifts for people and myself – my favorite souvenirs of our trip!
We enjoyed afternoon treats and drinks at Love Story Cafe, then headed to RoseHip Vegan Bistro after a little more shopping. We enjoyed our last evening together with yummy drinks and a funky, delicious, plant-based meal! It was wonderful to recap our time together in the Baltics. Ashlyn said she thought Riga was her favorite, and I was leaning towards Tallinn, although truly all three Baltic capital cities were uniquely charming and memorable!
The Final Morning
Ashlyn left for the airport super early, so I spent the morning wandering the city one more time solo. I walked up the Gediminas Castle Tower as the sun was rising and it was spectacular (albeit chilly)! I was there before the funicular was open, but it was not a difficult climb. Still, for a small fee you can avoid the hike up the hill! The original tower was built in 1409 but was restored in 1933. This is probably the best view over the city of Vilnius and the beautiful Neris River.
On my way back to the boutique hotel to grab my stuff, I made sure to wander past Literatų gatvė, a beautiful street with walls made into an art gallery right in the city. I absolutely loved this! It is a small thing, but speaks volumes that Vilnius prioritizes art in this way. Each of these pieces are made by people with ties to Vilnius.
I passed St. Anne’s Church as the sun passed through the windows, then headed through Town Hall Square before stopping at Holy Donuts to grab a half dozen beautiful donuts to bring home to the fam. The streets were very quiet as I prepared to head back to Belgium. The Vilnus Airport is tiny, and surprisingly chaotic; there I encountered the least friendly people of my trip. It didn’t phase me, as I left feeling so grateful to have made this journey without a hitch (plus my standards were not very high considering my flight was €20!). Waiting for my flight, I pondered the last week. We were so lucky to see these beautiful countries and travel during the pandemic. One week after returning we saw in the news that Lithuania closed its borders again as Covid cases were on the rise. What luck! Reflecting back, I realize each country has a timeless identity that has endured throughout history. I loved seeing a glimpse of what makes each country special, and feel we really only scratched the surface. I look forward to visiting again and definitely recommend all three countries and capitals to anyone looking to be immersed in beautiful Baltic history and culture!