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Thursday, August 25, 2016

8/19: Island Castle of Trakai, Hill of 3 Crosses & Hot Air Balloons

After such a tiring day yesterday seeing so many of Vilnius’ sights, a day trip to see Trakai, the former capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, located just 18 miles away was a welcome one indeed. 

We walked what seemed like a long way from the hostel to the Vilnius bus station to catch a local bus for Trakai. 

Scenes en route to the station:

The City Market:

Couldn't resist taking this photo of the Hempburger Bus; think it must have made a detour from Denver!
Once we arrived in Trakai a short while later, we had another 25 minute walk through the small town toward the castle before all the huge tour buses descended on it. It was interesting traipsing through the then quiet streets and seeing the quaint wooden homes that were so different from those in Vilnius. Rather than stopping at any of the tiny museums or churches, we headed straight for the castle, the town’s main draw and trophy piece for day trippers like ourselves.

The red-brick Gothic castle, painstakingly restored from original blueprints, dates from the late fourteenth century and occupies a small island in Lake Galve. A footbridge (you'll see the photos further down in the post as I only took them on the way back for some reason.) links the castle to the shore. The island castle was built as a seat of power during the reign of Vytautas the Great. As Vilnius grew in importance, Trakai lost its significance and was destroyed by Cossacks during the 1659 Russian invasion. In the late nineteenth century, the beautiful castle ruins captured the imagination of poets and painters during the national revival. Oddly, it was the Soviet authorities who, in the 1950s, sanctioned the reconstruction of this monument to Lithuania’s golden past.
I had fun with Steven in the castle courtyard!

The Castle's displays, which were in the rooms visible in the photo above, all belong to the Trakai History Museum which was founded in 1948. It currently has about 300,000 artifacts about hunting memorabilia, beading, enamel, pipes, stamps, glassware - you name it! 

One I particularly enjoyed was the wide variety of beaded objects in the collection. In the first half of the nineteenth century, interiors of homes were beginnng to be decorated with bed-embroidered furniture, panels, pictures, tablecoths, etc. Bead-embroidered purses, wallets, umbrellas and fans were used as women's accessories.

Other displays, more notable for us for their surroundings than the items themselves:
During the Middle Ages, the hunting economy was managed by the Grand Duke's vice-regents who had officers including game followers, hunters and foresters. Meat of the killed wild animals was given to the Duke's manors and to feed the armies. It was not just the meat that was used; the fur was a valuable commodity in Western Europe and a source of important income for the State Treasury. Hunting was one of the favorite sport for noblemen.
Viewing one entire room anywhere devoted just to pipes was new to both Steven and me! it brought back so many fond memories of my father lighting up his pipe before he quit using tobacco altogether. 

 The first wooden pipes appeared at the end of the seventeenth century in France. Pipes' mouthpieces were made primarily of cherrywood. Construction of turned and carved pipes didn't differ. Alongside the professionally carved pipes, there was quite a range made by amateur artists. Realistic depictions of hunting scenes and animals on the pipes suggest they were made by hunters and foresters.

The next room we entered had an interesting display of stamps. As you may already know, a seal authenticates a document and the instrument used for sealing is a stamp. The stamps of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania evolved at the same time as the State. Stamps were used by the Lithuanian nobility during the fifteenth century while cities and guilds started using them in the sixteenth century.

Stamps are classified into several groups depending on what was depicted on them - those with inscriptions, images, portraits and coats of arms. Stamps were made from different materials - bronze,, steel, precious metals and precious stones. I learned that the handles of most stamps have great artistic value. Once again, that was a brand new one for me!

 We then crossed another footbridge over the dry moat that separated the main castle from the outer courtyard and a tower. How beautiful to look out and see sailboats close by.

The Castle Chapel:
Grand Duke Vytautus himself!

The small resort town is surrounded by five lakes. In summertime,
people swim and sail in Lake Galve which acts as a kind of moat around Trakai Castle’s peninsula.

After spending a couple of hours at the castle, we walked back to town to stop in at the Karaite Ethnographic Museum that we had passed earlier. In the fourteenth century Grand Duke Vytautas “invited” his bodyguard of Crimean Karaite to come to Trakai where they settled around the castle. The Karaite are ethnically Turkish and practice a particular form of Judaism which gives the town a distinctive touch and exotic flavor. Numbering in the region of 250, the Karaite are the smallest historically ethnic minority in Lithuania.

The museum had traditional costumes and photographs of the Karaite people alongside weaponry and cooking utensils. 

Embroidered cuffs worn by the Karaite:
A Karaite religious text which very closely resembles a Jewish Torah:
The last supreme priest of the Lithuanian and Polish Karaims:
National costume of Karaim woman in Crimea in the late nineteenth century:
Unfortunately the nearby Karait Kenesa or prayer house was being remodeled so we couldn't enter it.

We then retraced our steps to the lake and followed a trail to the other side for a while.

Then, back via yet another footbridge, we followed the lakeside trail back to town. We saw a few brave souls swimming very briefly in the lake while others simply enjoyed their time paddleboarding on it. 

Looked like this lakeside homeowner had gotten his supply of wood in for wintertime!
We sat on the riverbank munching raisins and rolls we had bought that morning while relaxing and reading our kindles for a good hour or so before heading back to the Trakai bus stop. We were fortunate we only had to wait a few minutes before catching a bus back to Vilnius about 3:30.
On the walk back to our hostel past the Cathedral, we caught sight of our first wedding party this trip. Do you notice the bride is eating a chocolate covered ice cream cone? Sure hope she didn't spill it on her gorgeous dress!
After catching our breath back at the hostel and getting a much needed cup of tea, we headed out again as this would be our last chance seeing anything more of Vilnius.

One church, a decent walk outside the Old Town that we were told was worth the effort to visit, was the Church of Sts Peter and Paul. Commissioned in 1668 by a local military commander, it is the best example of Baroque architecture in the city. 

Despite its plain façade, the Baroque interior was indeed breathtaking with more than 2,000 undecorated, stuccoed figures crowding the vaults, representing mythological, biblical and battle scenes. The boat shaped chandelier was also spectacular.

Thank goodness the church lived up to its billing as we still had a long walk ahead of us that evening! We hiked to the Hill of Crosses next which was up a long very steep road. The first crosses were erected on the hill in the seventeenth century in memory of murdered Franciscan monks. During Stalin’s time they were removed and buried. The crosses are the symbols of Lithuania’s mourning and hope, which were rebuilt and unveiled in June of 1989. 
There were some great views of the city and its surroundings from such a high vantage point. What a perfect spot in the early evening to overlook the red-tiled roofs and the church towers of the Old Town, the Cathedral, the modern business and shopping centers across the river to the Television Tower in the background. 

Rather than hiking down the hill via the road again, we decided to be more adventurous than that and take the trail instead. Not sure if you can tell from the photo how very steep the trail is?
Halfway down, Steven pointed out a clearing to our right which held a collection of stones like a fire pit. In the middle were lit candles but I have no idea of their significance in that spot. What made it even more unusual was the fact that the dirt surrounding the pit had all been recently raked.
We had intended to return to the hostel which was just a few minutes’ walk away but we detoured instead to walk up to the top of Gediminas Tower on Castle Hill. The castle on Castle Hill is the oldest settlement of Vilnius and was built by Grand Duke Gediminas in the early years of the fourteenth century. All that remains are the ruins of the southern part and the western defense tower, Gediminas Tower

Lithuania's fledgling independence movement scored its first victory when the old Lithuanian yellow, green and red tricolor flag was raised on its observation platform in October of 1988.

Just to give you a sense of how far we had to climb to reach the top. What were we thinking after just walking all the way to the beautiful church and then to the Hill of Crosses?!
On the way up to the Tower, we passed the Bastion which looked so pretty in the early evening.

Reaching the top of Castle Hill was no easy fear because the hike up was all on cobblestones which made each step we took that much slower and trickier. I am NOT a fan of cobblestones, let me tell you!
I will be the first to admit that the path up was well worth every wobbly step once we saw the stupendous vista that awaited us at the top!
It was such a picturesque sight to view the many hot air balloons as they rose in the evening sky just as they had the previous night. Seeing Denver’s own ReMax balloon brought back memories of so many family and friends back home. Kathy: Make sure you tell Alan I thought of both of you there.

Oh yes, below is a photo of the Gediminas Tower atop Castle Hill, but from the bottom, mind you. I was so entranced with the view of the balloons, I forgot to take more than the one picture above at the top!
Another full day, wouldn't you agree? We had read so much hype about Trakai that we felt the buildup wasn't really worth it for us. I really enjoyed several of the displays at the Castle in particular and that part of the day was very relaxing and a pleasant change from seeing 'sights' all the time. Perhaps we're becoming jaded travelers or we just need to rely on our own instincts as to what we prefer rather than giving so much weight and credence to the travel forums. Something to ponder!


  1. The beaded items were really lovely, I agree. It's always nice to see a lovely bride. Lil Red

  2. This castle reminds me of Vajdahunyad Castle in Budapest and Wawel Royal Castle in Krakow (which I really wish I had time to go inside)

  3. Those hot air balloons look so pretty!


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