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Sunday, August 21, 2016

8/17:Siauliai's Hill of Crosses & Vilnius's Cathedral

Mid afternoon on 8/16, we got the bus to Siauliai, Lithuania, located just 3.5 hours from Riga in the north central part of the country. It’s Lithuania’s fourth largest town and is most famous for the Hill of Crosses which is why we came for the night. 

We had made reservations about six months ago through (where about 90% of all our reservations were also made) to stay in an apartment just a few minutes’ walk from the bus station. Even though we had confirmed our arrival at the apartment that morning from Riga as requested, nobody was there to meet us and give us the keys at the appointed time. It was uncomfortable waiting in the drizzle/rain for about 40 minutes for someone to finally show up. Chris: Guess that was when I should have eaten some of your m&m ‘chill pills’ you gave me!

Once inside the large apartment, we initially thought we had struck gold as we had so much space compared to the relatively tiny hostel room we had just left. However, appearances were deceiving as the bed was not made up, there was sparse, and only overhead at that, lighting in the bedroom and living room despite the fact there were a plethora of lighting fixtures; there were no nightstands; the kitchenette had no bread and butter knives, etc! The woman who checked us in said there would no problem with our checking out late at 1:45 the following day so we could leave our bags in the apartment while visiting the Hill of Crosses in the morning. More on that one later….

If you’ve already read Steven’s post titled ‘A View from the Side,’ you’ll remember that we woke up with only a few minutes to spare the next morning, 8/17, to get dressed and hightail it to the bus station to get the local bus to Domantai where we then had a 2km walk along a country road to the Hill of Crosses. Luckily we made it in time and even had a couple of minutes to spare to grab some rolls at the omnipresent Rimi Grocery Store in the station. We had frequented the Rimi stores when we visited Tallinn, Estonia back in 2013 and also several times in Riga. Not sure if they’re only in the Baltic states or not. Will let you know!

Doesn’t Steven look cute in his apple-looking poncho? We have matching ones, although mine is pink, that we bought last year in Hoi An, Vietnam. They’ve already seen a lot of use this trip and Steven has had to duct tape mine in a couple of spots. These plastic ponchos may not last forever but they are so much lighter than the much snazzier raincoats we bought at LL Bean for our first trip. Space and weight are more critical factors for us when choosing what to pack for an extended trip than fashion.

Nobody is sure of origins of the Hill of Crosses, located in the fields about 12kms from Siauliai, but it has been a religious site since at least the end of the 19th century. According to local people, the first crosses were erected in the middle of the 19th century, to pray to God for mercy and health, since people considered that place to be sacred. According to other sources, the first crosses were built in that same period to honor those people who perished in the 1831 and 1863 uprisings against tsarist Russia. 

Some of the crosses are devotional, others are memorials (many for people deported to Siberia) and some are finely carved folk-art masterpieces.
People come from all over the world to add their crosses to the thousands already here. The sight as we approached it was nothing short of awe-inspiring. The hill itself is only a small hump but the sound of the thousand of crosses - which appear to grow on the hillock – tinkling in the breeze is wonderfully eerie.

Today there are thousands of crosses, rosaries, pebbles, branches and other offerings. The Hill of Crosses throughout the period of Lithuania’s occupation survived as a symbol of heroic resistance and of belief in freedom. 

The Hill of Crosses gained worldwide fame when the late Pope John Paul II visited it in September of 1993. The Pope blessed Lithuania and all of Christian Europe in the chapel built in front of the Hill of Crosses.
The Holy Father’s gift of the statue of Jesus at the entrance reached Lithuania a year later. The Pope subsequently encouraged Italian Franciscans to build a monastery for Lithuanian novitiates, and this opened on the north side of the hill. The monastery is also open to pilgrims. The annual pilgrimage to the Hill takes place on the third Sunday in July.

Narrow dirt pathways wended their way through the Hill so that more of the crosses and other offerings could be more easily seen.
Seeing the Stations of the Cross that rimmed the Hill brought back fond memories of our walking the Stations of the Cross in Jerusalem two years ago.

We could easily understand why the legendary Hill of Crosses is considered to be one of Lithuania’s most awe-inspiring sights. Words fail me when trying to give justice to the sight of so many crosees and to fully understand the faith of so many Lithuanians who risked their lives putting up crosses in the era of Soviet domination.

While waiting for the return bus to Siauliai, we chatted with a young Czech tourist who had brought his unicycle on the bus so he wouldn’t have to walk to and from the bus stop. He joked that American retirees visit Prague and Czech retirees also visit Prague!
Rather than returning to the bus station, we got off in the town center so we could view Siauliai’s vast seventeenth century cathedral which was later rebuilt in 1954. Like most buildings in town, it had been flattened in World War II. Its spire is one of the tallest in the country.

We walked around the town a bit more before returning to the apartment. Much to our surprise, the door was ajar and there was a woman cleaning it in preparation for the next guests even though we had arranged a late checkout! After making some grilled cheese sandwiches, our easy go-to staple on these long trips, we packed up and headed back to the bus station for our onward journey to the country’s capital city of Vilnius.

The bus trip was again only 2.5 hours but Steven got a little uneasy as the directions to the hostel in Vilnius we had prepared called for us to have taken the train between the two cities and not the bus. We had our heads about us and managed quite easily how to get from the bus station (which just luckily happened to be directly across from the train station) to the hostel. PHEW – that potential crisis was averted!

Our Pogo Hostel was in the absolute best of locations in downtown Vilnius, immediately across from massive Cathedral Square. There was no staff at the hostel but another guest kindly opened the locked door for us so we dumped our bags making sure to attach them with a long cable lock so they wouldn’t walk off while we left and walked over to the Cathedral.
The adjacent Clock Tower:

After walking around the stunning interior for a bit, we managed to be in the right place at the right time and attend 6pm Mass in the church’s small chapel. Unbeknownst to us then, all the city’s many Catholic churches celebrate Mass nightly at 6. We just happened to be in several of them at that time so I got to more Masses then than I have for a while!

We couldn't have asked for a better end to our first day visiting Lithuania.


  1. Wow, I've never seen the Hill of Crosses before - super interesting. Love you both and appreciate the updates!

  2. I have never even heard of the Hill of Crosses before, but kind of surprised at it. Also, what was the significance of the Concrete huge Gnomes (couldn't think of what else to refer to them as)

  3. Ditto to Alexander and Zachary, never even heard of this before - what a cool site!

  4. As you know, our goal on these trips is to try and get off the beaten or 'tourist track' and explore some of the out of the way places or roads less traveled.


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