The surreal dreamscape of crucifixes was one of LithuaniaaEUR( tm) s astounding sites, in a country rich with history and natural beauty.
There are crossings nailed to larger crossings, a grab-bag of plastic crossings and rosaries hanging from the arm of a dangerous-looking six-foot-tall metal cross, intersects piled up along the track at the base of other crossings, and as one turnings, a ocean of wood, metal, and plastic crossings rising up and down this little mound in the middle of nowhere, Lithuania.
In a world being rent apart by religion debased by fanatics, its sometimes hard to take a beat and appreciate its uplifting powers.
Climbing the Gediminas Tower and looking out at sunset over the cityis something Walt Disney might have conjured .
While the Catholic Church today, despite Pope Franciss efforts, is most associated with sexual abuse, corruption, and cultural conservatism, in other places and other periods it has played a more positive role.
This little mound in the Lithuanian countryside called the Hill of Crosses is a reminder of that history.
What you must understand, is that opponent against the Soviets was chiefly by Catholic priests in the 70 s and 80 s there were a number of protests and insurgencies, auto-da-fs, Catholic priests burning themselves, explains Michael North, a historian of European history who only published the book The Baltic: A History from Harvard University Press.
The hill, which is situated outside the town of iauliai near the border with Latvia, came to typify that resistance. While it isnt known exactly when it startedits believed to have its origins in an 1831 uprising against Russiait grew in importance under the Soviet occupation, when the expres of the Lithuanian Catholic identity came under oppression and the site was even destroyed multiple times.
Today, this little knoll has more than 200,000 crossings and counting. It is now a pilgrimage site that was visited by Pope John Paul II.
While it is certainly original and a fascinating cultural site, the Hill of Crosses was just one of a number of memorable experiences that induced Lithuania the highlight of my journey to the Baltics.
Yes, Riga is a Jugenstil dreamscape and Tallinns old township is like a miniature Prague, but Lithuania and its capital of Vilnius should be added rapidly to any travelers list.
It was the most important power in late medieval central Europe, explains North. When it and Poland merged, it stretched into what is today Belarus, Ukraine, and even Crimea.
This period of influence and power stretched from the 15 th through the 17 th century, until the rise of the Russian Empire entailed the demise of Polish-Lithuanian power.
That rich history is readily available, from the island castle of Trakai( which appears exactly how a child imagines a medieval castle should) to the street after street of endearing Vilnius. The capital city, while less grand than Riga and way less touristy than Tallinn, is one of those cities induced for wandering.
There is the Republic of Uupis( the artists section of the city with its own bizarre constitution ), and a whole host of cute restaurants and bars ringing one of the main rivers tributaries. Climbing the Gediminas Tower( named for the ruler of Lithuania when it reached from the Baltic Sea all the way to the Black Sea) and looking out at sunset over the cityis something Walt Disney might have conjured.
Vilnius was a multiethnic cityLithuanians, Polish, and of course, a big community of Jews, North tells me. Vilnius had such a large flourishing population of Jews, it was dubbed the Jerusalem of the North by Napoleon. Like all too many cities across Europe however, its Jewish population was largely wiped out under Nazi occupation. In fact one of the neighborhoods where locals and tourists now flock in the evenings for restaurants and galleries is where the Vilna Ghetto waswhere the Nazis moved all of the Jewish citizens.
Given that Lithuania is one of the most devout countries I have ever traveled to, there is little amaze that the real gems of Vilnius come in the form of churches. Two in particular cannot be missed: St. Anneswhich sits near my favorite place for grabbing a brew by the tributary, Uzupio Kavinewas and is still considered one of the best examples of Flamboyant Gothic in the east.
The other is St. Peter& Paul, which features a largely unremarkable Baroque facade as its exterior, but the interior is like walking into a white wonderland. Blindingly white, featuring thousands of stucco figures and ornaments, the interior is genuinely a vision. When I visited, a number of elderly women walked in, clutched their chests, and then immediately gushed to their friends, who were undergoing a similar experience.
Oh, and theres a giant chandelier in the form of a ship.
There were two other surprising components to my journey, which sold me on this little but storied country. The first was the food: Kibanai, basically a Lithuanian version of the empanada, are not to be missed. Pinavija in Vilnius is a good place to start, with a variety of both savory and sweet alternatives to gorge upon until you need to be rolled to the Gate of Dawn.
The second is the landscape. The country is dotted with countless lakes and ponds perfect for an idle afternoon outing. But the real gem is the Curonian Spit, a UNESCO-protected sliver of land off the coast, half of who is accountable to Russia.
Imagine thisdriving through wonderfully scented pine forests, the warming sun shooting through the gaps in the trees, before pulling up to the Parnidas Dune, which towers more than 200 feet above the sea.
And before I forget, there were almost no Americans to be seen. So with history, architecture, food, nature, and wonderful people un-jaded by prior his mission to your countrymenwhat are you waiting for?
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