The Southern Baltics: Lithuania

Lithuania was the last of the three Baltic countries on my tour of Europe. Having only a few days a spend there, I spent most of my visit in and around the city of Vilnius, which is the country’s capital and a World Heritage site. Like the other two Baltic capitals Tallinn and Riga, Vilnius’s Old Town has a rich history that dates back to the Medieval Ages and earlier, but to me Vilnius has the most authentic feel.

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Vilnius Cathedral Square

Although the Old Town of Vilnius is not small, you can easily get around on foot. For great views of the city, head up to Gediminas Tower, which is the last remaining remnant of Gediminas Castle, former home to the Grand Dukes of Lithuania. The castle was mostly destroyed during the two World Wars, and was never reconstructed. Gediminas Tower is also one endpoint of huge line of people that stretched more than 400 miles in 1989, from Vilnius to Tallinn in Estonia. The gathering was done in protest of the occupation of the Soviet Union, and was intended to show a united will of the Baltic peoples for their independence. You can see video footage of the protest (along with other interesting artifacts) inside the Gediminas Tower.

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Gediminas Tower

Within Vilnius is a neighborhood called Uzupis, which declared itself to be an independent state in 1997. It actually has its own flag, president, and constitution, which among other things, states that “Everyone has the right to be unique” and “A dog has the right to be a dog”. Its independence day is also celebrated on April 1, which also happens to be April Fool’s Day. Although Uzupis’s independence is not officially recognized, it is still great fun to wander around this artsy neighborhood and check out its unusual monuments such as the Uzupis Mermaid, Uzupis Angel, and of course backpacker Jesus.

On a more harrowing note, Vilnius is home to the former headquarters of the KGB (and the Gestapo prior to that), which now houses the fascinating Museum of Genocide Victims. During the Nazi and Soviet occupations, the building held thousands of prisoners who were interrogated, tortured, and often executed. The museum displays Soviet paraphernalia, such as equipment for spying on people, as well as collections of banned books. In the basement of the building, you can visit the actual prison cells, many of still contain graffiti (names and dates) that prisoners etched into the walls. Some of the cells were padded to mask the screams of torture victims, while others cells had a small raised platform just wide enough to stand on, while the floor of the cell was flooded with freezing water. The prisoner had to choose between standing in place for hours on end, or possibly freezing to death in ice-cold water. The most bone-chilling place on the museum is the execution chamber, where more than 1000 prisoners were shot or stabbed in the head. Visiting the museum was certainly a powerful and difficult experience, but one that is important and shouldn’t be missed.

When Napoleon visited Vilnius in the early 19th century, he gave it the nickname “Jerusalem of the North”, as for hundreds of years it had one of the largest Jewish populations of any city in the world. That all changed during World War II, when more than 200,000 Lithuanian Jews were murdered in the death camps, or about 95% of the country’s Jewish population. Prior to World War II, Vilnius has hundreds of synagogues, but all except for one were destroyed by the Nazis. Today, the Choral Synagogue is the only synagogue remaining in all of Vilnius.

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Choral Synagogue, the only remaining synagogue in Vilnius

By taking a short train ride outside the city you can visit the Paneriai memorial, where nearly 100,000 people, most of them Jews, were shot by the Nazis between 1941 and 1943. Located at an abandoned oil storage facility, Paneriai (also called Ponary) was the first site of mass execution by the Nazis, as the killings began before the gas chambers were used en masse at extermination camps like Auschwitz. On a regular basis, Jews were rounded up from the ghetto in Vilnius and brought to Paneriai, where they were systematically shot and thrown into the pits (which had originally been built for the purpose of storing oil).

When the Russians were on the verge of recapturing Lithuania in 1943, the Nazis tried to destroy the evidence by forcing a crew of Lithuanian Jews to exhume the bodies and burn them. Knowing that they too would be murdered once the job was done, a group of about 80 Jews managed to build a tunnel under the ground in an attempt to escape. Although most of them were caught, about a dozen people actually managed to escape and survive. For many years there was no actual evidence of the tunnel except for the anecdotes from the escapees. However, just a few days before my visit to Paneraia in July 2016, a team of archaeologists (using radar technology) managed to actually locate the tunnel that was dug by the prisoners!

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Pit used to burn corpses at Paneriai

Visiting the Paneriai memorial, you can see the actual pits (now covered up) where the prisoners were shot and buried (and subsequently burned). As with my visits to the concentration camps in Germany and Poland, it was a powerful emotional experience, but it was made even more haunting by the fact that I was one of the only visitors to the site. Being nearly alone in the peaceful forest, there was nothing to distract my thoughts about the horrors that once took place here. There are several memorials scattered throughout the site, including one for Jewish victims and another for Soviet victims. There is a also a small but interesting museum on site, which contains items and written notes from the victims, along with video testimony from actual witnesses.

A lighter half day trip outside of Vilnius is a visit to Trakai and its medieval castle on an island in the lake. Built during the 15th century as a residence for the Grand Dukes of Lithuania before the capital was moved to Vilnius, Trakai Castle is located in a very picturesque setting and looks like it’s straight out of a fairy tale. Inside the castle are various exhibitions of furniture, art, and other historic artifacts from the period when the castle was in use. Although some of the exhibits are more interesting than others, you should probably allow a good couple of hours for your visit. Like Paneriai, Trakai is an easy train ride from Vilnius, and the two sites can probably visited during the same day (as they are both on the same route).

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Trakai Castle

If you have extra time during your visit to Lithuania, another supposedly worthwhile stop is the Curonian Spit, a massive sand dune located right on the Baltic Sea. Unfortunately I did not have enough time to visit it during my trip, and at roughly 4 hours (each way) from Vilnius it is too far for a day trip. Although my departure from Vilnius marked an end to my tour of the Baltic countries, my visit to the Balkan countries of Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece was just about to begin.

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