Today was going to be my third and final full day in Lithuania, and it looked as though the good weather was going to desert me. I had it in mind to go to Trakai, which is without doubt, one of Lithuania’s most popular tourist destinations, but I had my doubts as to how successful the day would be, especially as the holiday season was now in full swing.
I’m not one of those people who avoid such places (after all, they’re popular for a reason), but I’ll always try to time my visit accordingly. Today though, even if I could justify the effort in getting from Kaunas to Trakai, I was only ever going to be able to be there when it suited the public transport system, and not when it suited me.
After giving it some thought, I knew I would never have another chance to see the place that is so revered by the Lithuanian people, and so I decided to bite the bullet and catch the early fast train to Vilnius again – the same one as I took yesterday.
Trakai is a small town of around 5,000 inhabitants about 16 miles west of Vilnius and a 40-minute bus ride from the bus station, which fortunately was just across the road from the train station.
Finding the right bus wasn’t quite so easy as finding the bus station though, as I found it all a bit confusing; but it wasn’t just me that found it like that because I was soon approached by a student from Vienna who asked me for some help. How she knew I was going to Trakai I don’t know. Perhaps she could tell I was a tourist, and not making my way back home to Belarus or somewhere; who knows?
Anyway, we managed to get on the right bus and were driven through the suburbs and out into the countryside before arriving at Trakai’s small bus station, which was a good 20-minute walk away from the Galve Lake.
Trakai sits on a peninsula surrounded by Lakes Galve, Luka, and Totoriskiu Ezeras, just three of the 200 plus lakes that make up the Trakai Historical National Park, an area designated in 1991 for its special landscape and historical importance.
For most visitors to the town, the main focus of interest is the Island Castle, and although I walked down through the village with Andrea, the Viennese student, I let her carry on to the castle while I took a long cold drink outside a nearby café, which also gave me time to read a bit more about the town’s history.
Nobody would thank me for delving too far back into Lithuanian history (even if I knew all about it), but a bit of background information is useful in understanding the importance of Trakai.
For starters, it’s worth knowing that Lithuania was akin to Iron Age Britain well into the Middle Ages.
Mindaugas became the first, and only, Christian King of Lithuania in 1253, but after he was murdered ten years later by those who wanted to remain pagan, the country became a Grand Duchy, and the rulers thereafter were referred to as Grand Dukes.
Lithuania’s status as Europe’s last pagan state attracted raids from the Teutonic Knights, Germany’s equivalent of the Knights Templar, but when Gediminas became Grand Duke in 1316 he not only fought off the knights, he also expanded his territory, which by the time of his death, reached as far as the Black Sea.
His original capital at Kernave (about 25 miles north-west of Vilnius) was transferred to Senieji Trakai, a village 2 miles south-east of Trakai.
The castle at Old Trakai, as Senieji Trakai became known, was abandoned by his son Kestutis, who built another one on the peninsula between Lake Galve and Lake Luka.
The new town that grew up around ‘Peninsula Castle’ became an important political and administrative centre, and although this isn’t the castle people come to see, the remains are still here, and so too of course, is the town.
The third castle, and the most important, is Island Castle, and there are no prizes for guessing how it got its name.
Kestutis was the Grand Duke who began building it, but it fell upon his son, Vytautus the Great, to finish it.
Having got some idea as to why the castle was here, I finished my drink and headed across the lake to the island.
Two bridges connect the town to the castle which was built in three phases from the second half of the fourteenth century through to the early fifteenth.
During this time, it suffered serious damage inflicted by the Teutonic Knights, and also sieges involving a family power struggle between Jagiello and Vytautus the Great after the assassination of Grand Duke Kestutis.
Things quietened down a bit after the Teutonic Order was defeated at the Battle of Grunwald in 1410, and the castle became more of a palace than a fortress. The first beneficiary of this was the victor in the family squabble – Vytautus the Great, who died in the castle on October 27th 1430, but in the 17th century the palace/castle was badly damaged during a war with the Grand Duchy of Moscow and gradually fell into a slumbering decay until the end of the Second World War.
It was then decided to reconstruct it in a way that would show how it looked in the 15th century.
Ironically, it was destroyed by the Russians in the 17th century, and they were in control of Lithuania when the reconstruction was completed in 1962.
The castle’s new lease of life gave Lithuania a sense of pride at a time when any form of national identity was forbidden under the Soviet system, and apparently, Nikita Khrushchev was less than happy about the project being allowed to take place, and I’m not even sure that I am, but for a different reason.
There’s no doubt that it looks impressive – but it looks exactly what it is – a re-creation.
Obviously, some original parts of the castle are still here, but to me it wouldn’t look out of place in Disneyland. I know I’m probably being a bit harsh, but I prefer an atmospheric ruin to a reconstructed version of the original thing – but it’s not what I think, it’s what the people of Lithuania think that counts, and I reckon they love it as it is.
I wandered around the inside of the castle, but in some ways, I preferred the walk around the lake. There were very few people compared to inside the castle and it cost nothing to appreciate the fabulous setting.
It might be relatively peaceful here now, but back in the time of Vytautus the Great it would have been anything but, and on a campaign to the Crimea in 1397 he brought several hundred Karaim families back to Trakai to guard both himself and his castle, and there are still around 250 Karaim living in Trakai today.
The Karaims (or Karaites) are a religious group of people who consider themselves descendants of the Kipchak Turkic tribes that lived between the Caspian Sea and the Dneiper estuary, and I felt it was now time to leave the lakeside and walk up Karaim Street back towards the bus station and find out more about this unique group of people.
Their religion is a form of Judaism (not that the local Karaite like that comparison) and their place of worship is called a Kenesa – and there’s one here in Karaim Street. It wasn’t possible to go inside, but there were several Karaim houses nearby which have three windows – “One for God, one for Duke Vytautus, and one for Guests”.
There’s another thing that they’re well known for – the kybyn, which according to the Kybynlar Restaurant is a “leavened paste cake having the form of half-moon and the lamb or beef filling”.
It’s baked in the oven and looked and sounded very much like a pasty, and so the Kybynlar Restaurant was where I was heading for next.
Most of the day visitors had gone by now, and it was a pleasant stroll back up through the town. It had been a humid day without too much sunshine, and a drink and a kybyn was just what I needed.
As I walked into the garden, I thought I heard someone calling out to me, and sure enough it was Andrea tucking into a couple of kybyns over a glass of beer.
I wandered over, sat down, and ordered a kybyn and a krupnik for myself. (krupnik is a traditional vodka-based drink with a variety of different spices).
Just as it was time to go, the heavens opened up – fortunately we were under a canopy and could afford to wait for the downpour to finish before making our way back up to the bus station.
At the bus station it seemed like somebody else had been on the krupnik all afternoon: There was a bloke staggering all over the place who eventually decided to give up the cause of trying to stand up, and collapsed in a heap just a few yards away from us. He went down like a sack of spuds and I could see that his face was badly cut, but before I had chance to try and help him up two of his mates appeared from nowhere to take over: The problem was they were in the same inebriated state as he was, and it was just like watching one of those YouTube videos: He didn’t want their help thank you very much, and it wasn’t long before all three of them were on the floor – but to give him credit he never let go of his carrier bag full of booze once.
To be honest I found it funny and yet sad at the same time.
All this was still going on when the bus pulled in, but it wasn’t long before we on our way back to Vilnius.
Anybody who’s been to Turkey will know all about those Dolmus buses they have over there, and this experience was very similar; crammed in like sardines, the driver never once took his foot off the accelerator from the floorboard. I don’t know how she did it, but Andrea managed to sleep the whole way back, but I do tend to have that effect on people.
Back in Vilnius, we said our goodbyes, and I managed to get across the road to the railway station just in time before the heavens opened up again.
I didn’t have long to wait for the train and was soon on my way back to Kaunas, and reflecting on my day in Trakai.
I knew beforehand that the weather wasn’t going to be great, and I also knew that there would be plenty of people around, but to be honest, apart from the castle, there weren’t that many. I’ve already made my thoughts known about the castle itself, but the setting, the history and connection with the Karaim more than made up for any negative thoughts I may have had about that, and I’m certainly glad I made the effort to come. As strange as it may sound, if I could have come at a time that would have suited me more than it suited the public transport, I’m not sure that I could have enjoyed it any more anyway.