Monthly Archives: March 2015

Trakai Island Castle

Not sure what to do with myself, I asked the hostel staff for suggestions and they recommended a visit to the nearby Trakai Island Castle. This required a bus ride to Trakai, and despite not having any maps or fully knowing where I was going, I was up for the adventure.

When I arrived at Vilnius bus station, it was easy to find the correct bus because of the huge signs as well as the other tourist-like people waiting around. The bus arrived and we paid the driver as we boarded. It was a nice drive through town and out into the beginnings of the countryside.

When the bus pulled into a station in the middle of nowhere, the driver said something in what I thought was Lithuania. Everyone on the bus looked at one another like, “Is this the place?” The driver indicated we should get off, so most of the passengers disembarked. I found a map nearby and Trakai Island Castle was a fair walk into town. Even if I didn’t find it, the town seemed like a good place to explore.

I passed many churches, a few restaurants and a couple of schools along the way. It didn’t seem like there were a lot of people here, even though Trakai is a big tourist resort town these days. I continued along and finally spotted a pathway down toward the lake that revealed Trakai Island Castle in all its glory.

From across the lake, the castle looked very impressive with its red-brick construction. The dark clouds created an ominous feeling around the place as I crossed the wooden bridge from the mainland. The closer I got to the structure, the more I entered the Medieval period.

The castle functions as a museum in which visitors can learn about Trakai and Lithuanian history. Many of the rooms contain chain mail, swords, helmets, tapestry, gold and other remnants of a time long past. With admission, you’re allowed inside the castle and climb century-old steps (although I’m sure the castle has been refurbished throughout the years) and walk through age-old doorways.

As I wandered from room to room, I avoided the rowdy groups of children on school trips with their tour guides and tried to find pockets of solitude. It felt like the castle could talk to you if it was given the chance. Maybe it’s the ghosts from battles fought in the surrounding regions?

I spent a lot of time looking at the exhibits and trying to picture what it would be like to live in a place like this. Of course, only Lithuanian leaders called this home. Normal people lived in normal houses as they do all around the world. But still, it’s a wonder that these cold, brick walls housed real families and servants, soldiers and cooks, stablehands and ironworkers. It boggles the mind.

As the day went on, the weather didn’t let up. The wind was cold as it blew across the water. It was definitely time to go. I headed back to the bus station and made my way back to my temporary home in Vilnius.


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Filed under Attraction, Lithuania, Transportation

Vilnius Walking Tour: Jewish Ghetto and Užupis

Sorry for the long delay . . . life got in the way, and I just haven’t had the time to blog for a while. But, I’m back again and talking about my second day in Vilnius, Lithuania.

Today I decided to take the city’s free walking tour, which took us around the main areas of Old Town. The guide recounted the city’s history, including the horrific events that happened during World War II.

When Nazi troops entered the city, they rounded up all the Jewish people in the area and conducted a mass execution. More than 21,000 Jews died during this raid.

Following Nazi Germany’s occupation, they decided to clear out poor, uneducated Jews and herd the more affluent Jews into a ghetto. However, they needed to clear an area out for the new ghetto, so they staged an attack on German troops then pinned it on unsuspecting Jews. This event gave the Nazis a reason to evict Jewish residents from their homes with only the clothes on their backs. In the process, the Nazis managed to kill between 5,000 and 10,000 people.

The remaining 20,000 Jews were put into what became known as the Vilnius Ghetto and separated into Large and Small Ghettos. After two years, less than a 1,000 Jews survived. Many died from starvation and disease; others shipped to concentration or extermination camps in Poland; even more were simply taken to the forest and shot.

The more we learned about Vilnius and Lithuania’s history, the more amazed we were to see how the city thrives today. Not only have they survived the Holocaust, but they have also endured multiple sieges and occupations throughout the years by the Soviet Union, Poland and other neighboring entities. 

It’s no wonder that Užupis, a neighborhood that celebrates art and creativity, formed and officially declared itself an independent republic in 1997. The Republic of Užupis began its life as a dilapidated area abandoned by the Jewish who were forced into the Ghetto and overlooked by the Soviets. Squatters and the dregs of society took up residence in the buildings. But, the area also called out to artists and bohemian looking for freedom.

Now they have their own flag, declaration of independence, currency, anthem and president. It’s not quite certain whether all of this is serious or a social commentary, especially when Užupis Day falls on April first. But, the ideals they uphold are really inspirational given the dark history that surrounds the city.

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Filed under Attraction, Culture, Lithuania

Lost in the Streets of Vilnius

Thus far, I’d been extremely successful in not getting lost. But, somehow, it took me a while to get my bearings once I arrived at the Vilnius bus station. Even after asking random people and consulting a map, I ended up taking the long route to get to the Old Town.

When I finally arrived, I couldn’t find my hostel. I knew I was on the right street but couldn’t find the door! Like a typical lost tourist, I lugged my backpack up and down the street trying to find the correct street number.

At last I located the door that led to the hostel above and was able to check in. After a no-nonsense check in, I settled into at 12-bed dorm, which I was dreading. However, it turned out the room was enormous and everyone would definitely fit in it.

My first foray into Vilnius was to walk around the Old Town and take it in. Like most European old towns, Vilnius is completely walkable and is probably one of the best ways to see things. As I walked along, I noticed many shops selling amber jewelry and articles made from wool.

When I got to Gediminas Castle Hill, I buckled down and decided to hike to the top. I pushed on despite the bitingly cold wind. It may not look like it from the pictures, but the air had a definite chill to it. Only later did I realize that there was a funicular on the other side of the hill in which I could have easily ridden to the top for a small fee. Ah, such is life sometimes.

I must admit that the walk was not overly difficult, especially if you’re relatively in shape. That being said though, I am not in shape and wore the wrong footwear to boot ( boots would’ve been a better choice) as the ground was old, disintegrating cobblestones and dirt. Still, I pushed on against the elements and a stunning view rewarded me at the top.

Across the way stood three crosses on a hill, which is called Crooked Castle, and is part of perimeter defenses of the past. Today they stand like sentinels surrounded by lush forest. I enjoyed the fact that so much green space was preserved here in the middle of a bustling Old Town.

After taking a look inside a cathedral and walking through many streets filled with other religious houses, I decided I needed to warm up and stopped at a bookstore with an adjoining cafe. In a blink, a large, steaming cup of hot chocolate warmed me from the inside out. What a great way to wind down the day!

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Filed under Accommodation, Attraction, Lithuania