Monday, March 24, 2014

Warmer Days: Vilnius & Trakai

Winter does not want to loosen its grip. After a rather lovely Saturday when the temperatures eventually climbed up into the low 70s, we were greeted by another chilly unpleasant day on Sunday -- and this morning the mercury was struggling to get into the mid-20s when I left home. The threat of possibly more snow tomorrow means that I have to resort to recalling warmer sunnier times instead of enjoying a typical DC spring. Thanks to perusing Shutterfly the other day in search of something, I remembered a short trip to Lithuania.

In the summer of 2005, younger sister and I were both in Latvia for longer periods of time, and we decided we needed to explore Lithuania a bit more. Previously I had only been to the Hill of Crosses (highly recommended if in the area!) in northern Lithuania on a day trip from Latvia. So, sis and I planned a bus ride down to Vilnius, with a side excursion to Trakai. Vilnius is a lovely old city with more churches dominating its skyline than Riga's. We stayed at a guesthouse that is still in operation nine years later: Domus Maria, a former monastery which is located relatively close to bus station, and just inside the old city's gates, making it a perfect spot to stay when checking out the old town. I also recall the pancake breakfast being absolutely delicious!

Two other differences we noticed between Vilnius and Riga: the beggars in Vilnius were more aggressive, coming up to us as we were sitting in outdoor cafes (whereas in Riga, at least at the time, we had only seen them standing quietly on street corners, hands outstretched), and there were fewer expensive luxury cars in Vilnius than in Riga.
View of Vilnius
Another view of Vilnius
Trakai is a town relatively easily accessible from Vilnius. I say "relatively" because if one had a car, I'm sure getting there would be a breeze. Sis and I were dependent on public transportation, which worked out just fine, but was slightly frustrating due to the excessive summer heat and general lack of clear information. Considering that Trakai Castle if one of Lithuania's most famous tourist sites, I hope that by this point in time, the information about public transit to and from Vilnius has been improved. However, we did enjoy our outing, as the castle has been beautifully restored.
A view you'll see on any Lithuanian travel advertisement: Trakai Island Castle
Construction of the castle was begun in the 14th century by Kestutis, the Grand Duke of Trakai who governed the Grand Duchy of Lithuania at the time. Work on the castle was continued by his son Vytautas. Through the years it passed through many hands, serving at times as a royal summer residence and at another time as a prison. It was damaged during a 17th century war, and eventually fell into disrepair. Interestingly, reconstruction plans and work were made and begun by various authorities throughout the 20th century, although it seems most did not amount to much. Imperial Russian authorities were the first as early as 1905, but Germans got in on the action during World War I, Lithuanians and Poles later. Amazingly, the vast majority of reconstruction happened in the 1950s, during the Soviet Period.

As you may be able to tell from the photographs, the castle is located on a small island. Lake Gatve also has twenty other islands. Additionally, there is an another old castle on a peninsula located between this lake and Lake Luka. In other words, the Trakai area is worthy of a stop if you are in Vilnius - particularly on a sunny summer's day as Sis and I were able to enjoy!
Bridge leading to the castle. (Yes, that's my shadow in the photo!)


  1. Sooo "trakai" doesn't translate to crazy in Lithuanian as it does in Latvian... Better for tourism, but I wonder if there is any linguistic significance?

    1. I couldn't find any mention of what the name means. Trust me, I'm curious, too! Interestingly, the town itself has a sizable Polish population, and they call it Troki.

    2. A little more searching turned up the following info on Wikipedia ("Trakai" entry): "The name of the town was first recorded in 1337 chronicles in German as Tracken (later also used spelling Traken) and is derived from the Lithuanian word trakai (singular: trakas meaning a glade)." So, completely different meaning!

  2. I haven't been to on that part of the world, and I'd love to see it soon.. as I've heard of great things about Lithuania, this post of yours made my willingness to book a flight there and experience what you had.
    PS. I didn't notice the shadow in your photo until you mention it.. um yeah, I looked at the photos first before I read on your post hehe.

    1. Hi Sofia, thanks for reading and for your comment. Yes, I definitely recommend a visit to Lithuania! Vilnius and Trakai are both just lovely. Plus, Lithuania is not on the euro yet, which means it might be slightly less expensive than some of its neighbors to the north. I'm planning a stop in another part of LT later this year, and in doing research am finding lots of nice but inexpensive guesthouses and cool sites to see. :)


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