Well, Lithuania. Possibly one of my favourite countries I’ve visited so far. From the welcoming people to the rebellious history, this country is one incredible experience after another.
Lithuania contains the official geographical centre of Europe – although Belarus disputes this, because apparently Belarusian scientists have established it is in (you’ve guessed it) Belarus. But the rest of the world says it’s in Lithuania. So now we have travelled to the north of Europe and the centre. Sadly on this trip I don’t think we will make it to the southern tip!
The geographical centre of Europe is near to a village called Purnuškės. It is not in the village of Purnuškės. There are in fact no proper roads in Purnuškės, only mud tracks. Which we got quite stuck on. At one point, the mud was so soft that we sank down to the front axel. Of course, the tourist centre is slightly better built and we could drive there with ease when we eventually dug our selves out.
(Don’t them roads look fun?)
Lithuania has some of the most hauntingly beautiful sites located within its countryside – one, the Hill of Crosses, seems like the most innocent of places. It is religious in its inception, but during the Russian occupation, it because one of the most beautiful reminders that people will always find a way to beat oppression. There are several stories as to the origin of this site – some people say it is where Jesus is buried, others that it it is the site of a miracle – and no one knows when the first cross was planted. But whatever its origin, the local people began planting crosses on the hill as a sign of worship and in remembrance. Then, when Lithuania was taken over by Russia, the site was bulldozed (after all it was a site dedicated to a Catholic worship, and the country was now supposed to be Russian Orthodox) the crosses were removed. But each night people would come back and plant new crosses. So each day, the site would be cleared, and again, each night more crosses would appear. The local population replaced the crosses as a sign of their devotion, and to remember friends and family that had been killed or exiled to Siberia, and they did it knowing that if they were caught they too would likely be tortured or worse. This silent rebellion lasted throughout the Soviet era, and since then, more and more crosses have been added to the hill – now stand over 100,000, with more being added daily. From the tiny to the huge, wooden and metal, inscribed, intricately decorated or plain, as a sign of devotion or to remember, this hill is not simply a mound, it is a monument to the Lithuanian people. To their spirit.
Vilnius is charming, relatively inexpensive, and has a surprising amount of graffiti art. We spent an entire day in the ‘Meat Lovers Pub’ because the food was utterly delicious, and the atmosphere warm and inviting.
We also travelled to Trakai, which has possibly the cutest castle island – and on the day we visited, one of the bluest skies I’ve ever seen.
The most memorable stop in Lithuania was to Paneriai, and the Paneriu Memorials. This forest was the resting place of over 100,000 men during WW2. The people (approximately 70,000 Jews, 20,000 Poles and 8,000 Russian POWs) were transported to the station at Ponary and then executed in the forest, their bodies were burnt and buried in mass graves. Later, the bodies were exhumed in an effort to hide the massacre. Today, the pits are grassed over, but still left open. There are memorials at every pit site, and a small museum housing photos and belongings of some of those who lost their lives here.
Overall, Lithuania has made me cry for two different reasons – once for its rebellious spirit, and once for its violent past. It has made me smile – because of its friendly people, and beautiful scenery. And it is a place I know that I want to visit again.
What do you think of Lithuania? Where is your favourite place? Let me know in the comments below.