THE VOICE OF INTERNATIONAL LITHUANIA
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The Hill of Crosses (Lithuanian: Kryžių kalnas) is a site of pilgrimage about 12 km north of the city of Šiauliai, in northern Lithuania. The precise origin of the practice of leaving crosses on the hill is uncertain, but it is believed that the first crosses were placed on the former Jurgaičiai or Domantai hill fort after the 1831 Uprising. Over the centuries, not only crosses, but giant crucifixes, carvings of Lithuanian patriots, statues of the Virgin Mary and thousands of tiny effigies and rosaries have been brought here by Catholic pilgrims. The exact number of crosses is unknown, but estimates put it at about 100,000 in 2006.
Number of crosses
Over the centuries, the place has come to signify the peaceful endurance of Lithuanian Catholicism despite the threats it faced throughout history. After the 3rd partition of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1795, Lithuania became part of the Russian Empire. Poles and Lithuanians unsuccessfully rebelled against Russian authorities in 1831 and 1863. These two uprisings are connected with the beginnings of the hill: as families could not locate bodies of perished rebels, they started putting up symbolic crosses in place of a former hill fort.
When the old political structure of Eastern Europe fell apart in 1918, Lithuania once again declared its independence. Throughout this time, the Hill of Crosses was used as a place for Lithuanians to pray for peace, for their country, and for the loved ones they had lost during the Wars of Independence.
Most recently, the site took on a special significance during the years 1944–1990, when Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union. Continuing to travel to the Hill and leave their tributes, Lithuanians used it to demonstrate their allegiance to their original identity, religion and heritage. It was a venue of peaceful resistance, although the Soviets worked hard to remove new crosses, and bulldozed the site at least three times (including attempts in 1963 and 1973). There were even rumors that the authorities planned to build a dam on the nearby Kulvė River, a tributary to Mūša, so that the hill would end up under water.
On September 7, 1993, Pope John Paul II visited the Hill of Crosses, declaring it a place for hope, peace, love and sacrifice. In 2000 a Franciscan hermitage was opened nearby. The interior decoration draws links with La Verna, the mountain where St. Francis received his stigmata. The hill remains under nobody's jurisdiction; therefore people are free to build crosses as they see fit.
Kaunas, Lithuania's second largest city and former capital, is receiving much attention in VilNews this winter. We focus on history, business, culture, innovation, tourism and more. We would also like to hear from you who have your personal Kaunas story to tell...
Send us your Kaunas story!
Visit Kaunas this winter!
Why not visit Kaunas this advent? Let’s give you some good reasons. See below.
Kaunas – the taste of real Lithuania!
By Arnas Menciūnas,
Welcome to Kaunas, the city which has mostly preserved the national character of the country, offering plenty of activities to everyone. Visit the heart of Lithuania and experience it‘s unique atmosphere:
Feast here! Kaunas is home to a variety of festivals and events, including the famous Kaunas Jazz festival, Hanza days, Operetta, Pažaislis Classical Music festival, Bike show, Kaunas city days, Songs festival (listed by UNESCO), International Modern Dance Festival and much more.
Visit! The remarkable Old Town which is a collection of ancient architectural monuments: the remnants of the 14th century with remains of Kaunas castle, the buildings of the Middle Ages in the Gothic and the Art Déco styles. The Kaunas Fortress is a valuable military heritage composed of a number of constructions that used to be a military complex. There are nine Forts around the city and the IXth Fort serves a museum. The macabre collection of nearly 3,000 devils at the Devils' Museum and the exhibitions showing the unique artistic styles of composer and painter M. K. Ciurlionis, as well as J. Maciunas initiator of the avant-garde Fluxus art movement.
Taste it! The centre-piece of Lithuanian cuisine is dark rye bread. It is shown a great respect and even called "holy" and Lithuanians link many beliefs and magic with it. The great opportunity to taste it is to have soup in a bread bowl. Lithuanian drinks have very old traditions, to get to know them the "Stumbras" museum offers a guided tour of the history and tasting of strong drinks. Among the multitude of things that make any Lithuanian swell with pride (rich history, amber, beautiful nature, basketball, etc.), there is one that has a special place in his heart. This source of pride is the Lithuanian Beer.
Make a wish! The beautiful confluence of two biggest Lithuanian rivers is well known for a magical saying - the Nemunas river is a male and the Neris is a female . The meeting of two rivers is considered as a marriage of a couple. Two rivers meet in Kaunas, they join and never split up! For those who want their dreams to come true it‘s a right place to go on rendezvous.
See it! The whole Lithuania in one place is in the open air museum in Rumšiškės, which is the biggest open air museum in Eastern Europe. The museum with its collection of authentic wooden villages represents different regions of Lithuania: Zemaitija, Aukstaitija, Dzukija, Suvalkija and Lithuania Minor.
Ride on it! The Funicular - a unique mean of transportation, is still in use today, including the genuine pre-war wagon, wooden seats, and stop platforms. Even today the funicular takes people up to the hill, from which the panorama of the Kaunas city centre and Old town is wide open. Kaunas is the only city among Baltic States, where such means of transportation is available.
Sail! The biggest man-made water basin in Lithuania, which is surrounded by a wonderful landscape. Kaunas Sea is a perfect place for water activities. So see you on the deck!
If you want to feel the real Lithuanian spirit, visit Kaunas and discover it.
The heart of Lithuanian culture, tradition and history is just waiting to be discovered.
Hotel news in 2012
IBIS KAUNAS CENTRE (opened in April, 2012)
The Ibis Kaunas Centre hotel is located in the centre of Kaunas, within walking distance to the historic Old Town, close to railway and bus station and easy access to the highway to International Kaunas Airport. Ideal for business and leisure stays where guests can explore the city of Kaunas. It has 125 air-conditioned rooms with free Internet access, conference facilities, a bar serving snacks 24/7 and onsite parking. Our restaurant, The Oopen will delight you with pasta & grill dishes.
Accor is the world’s number-one and Europe’s leading hotel operator. It has 440,000 rooms in nearly 3,500 hotels in 92 countries. Its extensive brand portfolio – encompassing Sofitel, Pullman, MGallery, Grand Mercure, Novotel, Suite Novotel, Mercur, Adagio, ibis, ibis Styles, Adagio Access, ibis budget and hotelF1 – provides a comprehensive range of options across the luxury to economy spectrum.
Hotel and Eco center BABILONAS
2012 years 22 th. of June renovated hotel "Babilonas" was opened and now it's not only hotel, but and eco-tourism center. The rooms radiate a feeling of coziness created by modern wooden windows, curtains made from Lithuanian linen and the breathtaking panoramas of the city and the surrounding landscape. We can offer 50 high-quality German and American bikes, which can travel in urban areas and long distances. In formed package are included active entertainment, meals, transportation.
Kaunas tourism information center and conference bureau offers original ways to get to know Kaunas. Unique guided tours allow you to glimpse the real charm of the city and see things that you never expected! Every visitor can choose These excurions: „Kaunas Compliments Women“, „The Old Town secrets in Kaunas”, „Strong alcohol degustation in Factory “Stumbras”, „Beer Route in Kaunas (excursion and degustation)”, „Basketball history in Kaunas“, „Sweet Kaunas",, „Spirit of Kaunas Catacombs”, „Kaunas – Provisional Capital“.
PLACES TO SEE IN KAUNAS
Historical Presidential Palace
St. Michael the Archangel Church (Sobor)
Kaunas Monumental Christ’s Resurrection Church
House of Perkūnas
The ruined house was rebuilt in the 19th century and served as a school and theatre, which was attended by Polish-Lithuanian poet Adam Mickiewicz. At the end of the 19th Century it was renamed "House of Perkūnas", when a figure, interpreted by the romantic historians of that time as an idol of the Baltic pagan god of thunder and the sky Perkūnas was found in one of its walls. Today, the house of Perkūnas once again belongs to the Jesuits and houses a museum of Adam Mickiewicz.
|Pól Ó Conghaile, Irish Examiner
"Art may be a particularly good medium for distilling and reflecting the characteristics of a nation, but contemplation of it does not give us the vivid and visceral experience of them that we may crave," as Alain de Botton wrote recently in BA’s Highlife magazine.
"We’re learning that what we might really want to do is to talk to people," the philosopher continued, with his usual — and irresistible — knack for nailing ideas so simple you wonder why nobody had nailed them before. "This is remarkably hard."
Our increasing desire for stories, for the sweet sensation of living and breathing a city rather than digesting its historical data, hit me afresh in Vilnius.
Lithuania’s capital is a gem. Its Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was a European Capital of Culture in 2009. It’s a small place by any measure, but one spilling over with Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance churches, town halls and other buildings.
Yet none of these things puts the hook in me. What puts the hook in me is the moment I wander into a small chapel above the Gate of Dawn to find a wedding underway. An older couple exchanges vows — she in a cream bonnet, he with a bouquet of blooms under his arm and trousers bunching around his ankles. A Handycam is propped atop of the organ.
Beneath vaulted ceilings, a priest in a golden robe takes a step backwards. The couple leans in together and delivers a quick, bird-like kiss. The small crowd around them claps.
And there it is. Interesting and all as the 16th century Gate of Dawn is, or the fact that its famous icon of the Virgin Mary is said to have healing powers, or that Pope John Paul II took time to say the rosary here in 1993, the strongest memory I’m taking away is of that little kiss.
That moment in time. That stolen insight into two Lithuanian lives…
An old house on the Nemunas river bank near Birštonas
Text and photos: Aage Myhre
Lithuania’s largest river, the Nemunas, is a slow and peaceful river; with an average speed of only 1 to 2 m/s. Its total length of 937 km makes it the 14th largest river in Europe. 459 km flow in Belarus, 359 km in Lithuania. Well, we called it peaceful, but if you agree to join us for a trip to the small resort town of Birštonas, one hour’s drive from Vilnius, you will soon realise that it’s right here that Nemunas gets a bit crazy, making four large loops without any other reason than this that Birštonas needed some special attention and minerals that over the centuries has made it such an attractive spa resort. Birštonas is suitable for therapy and recreation all year round with its curative peat and mineral water used in treating chronic diseases of peripheral nervous system, gastrointestinal, respiratory and blood circulation systems. The first patients were treated in Birštonas as early as 1840. Enjoy!
Rūta Kapočinskaitė is my Birštonas heroine. She has understood what it takes to represent a tourist destination with energy and genuine attention to the visitor - much more so than representatives of the majority of destinations in this country. So, if you are a Lithuanian working in the tourist trade, don’t miss the chance to learn from Rūta. It takes enthusiasm to promote a destination, and Rūta has got plenty of exactly that. She is simply good!
Why should people come to Birštonas? This is my first question to Rūta, and her reply is quick and without hesitation; “Because of everything we have to offer. There is simply no better place than Birštonas!”
But let me tell you a bit more about the history of this remarkable place before Ruta start her sightseeing show with us.
As I said above, it is the loops of Nemunas River that has created the very special landscape here. In earlier times, the loops represented great difficulty for ship navigators. Even the rather precise maps of the Grand Duchy (Magni Ducatus Lithuaniae) had not registered the loops correctly, and it was only in 1777 that such registration works were started. In 1852, the Vilnius University professor Abicht finally succeeded in outlining the loops in a proper and correct manner.
The river loops have made the Birštonas landscapes more rolling than the rest of Lithuania. Here you can find rather deep valleys and steep riverside banks of more than 40 metres height. The river itself is on its widest four kilometres.
The other landscape feature I am sure you will recognise as soon as you show up in Birštonas is the fantastic forests which occupy more than half of the municipal area. Beautiful, tall pine trees are the dominant, but also birch-trees and other broad-leaved trees will certainly make your forest walk more than unusual.
It goes without saying that there is an extensive wild life along the Nemunas shores. Birds, animals and fish in different variants and sizes – they’re all here. The biggest fish caught here is said to have been a catfish of close to 60 kgs!
The biggest fish caught here in Nemunas next to Birštonas is said to have been a catfish of close to 60 kgs!
People have been living peacefully in the Birštonas area since ancient times, with its first recordings back to the 4th millennium BC. In the 13th century, however, the crusaders changed this peaceful life, and the people of the present Birštonas lands had to start defending themselves from conquer campaigns. This lead to the construction of mounds, wooden fortresses and defensive castles. The most famous wooden fortress was erected on a mound called Vytautas Hill, and it was next to this fortress that the town of Birstonas started growing up in the 14th century. The name Birštonas was first mentioned in the 1382 chronicles of the Crusaders, as “a homestead next to salty water” (Birstain, Birstan).
After the 1410 Grunwald Battle, the fortresses lost their significance, and the victorious Grand Duke himself (Vytautas the Great) took over the Birstonas Castle as his private hunting mansion. Since that moment, Birštonas became a very much beloved area for hunting, visited by many European Kings and Dukes on the invitation from Grand Duke Vytautas. The forest keeps the name Žvėrinčius (full of wild animals) after these glorious times for both Birštonas and Lithuania.
In 1519 Birštonas was already referenced as a town. It had about 600 inhabitants, and there were four beer-houses and two whisky taverns. A town of hospitality already back then!
I have not been able to find out if the whisky was brought to Birštonas by Scotsmen, but what I have found is that the Hungarians started showing interest for the area already in the 16th century, even being rendered the rights of the city for 40 years. In these times royal stud of horses thrived in Birštonas.
Modern Birštonas, however, has first of all gained its fame after the 19th century detection of healing mineral water from several springs in the area. 1846 is the great year for Birštonas as a spa resort, from then of visitors from many countries have come here for their healing.
“So you see, Birštonas is really the place to visit if you want to heal your body or soothe your soul.” Rūta is back, waking me up from my travel back in time. And from now on, I am again under her attentive control, going for a sightseeing walk around Birštonas – because here the distances are short and no car or bus is needed.
Go for a sanatorium week-end in the “Royal Spa Resort” of Birštonas
“A week-end in Birštonas helps for almost everything”, explains our enthusiastic guide Rūta Kapočinskaitė when she leads us to the place where the town’s first sanatorium was built in 1846, where today’s modern sanatorium “Tulpe” now is located, at the very bank of the Nemunas River. And it’s here you should come to spend a week-end to heal your body and soul.
Birštonas is recently accepted as a member of the very fashionable club “The Royal Spas of Europe” which all have as its common intention to meet the highest quality described in a catalogue of criteria which includes what has to be complied with by the Royal Spas of Europe with respect to their offers for health, wellness and fitness, thermal facilities, medical care, infrastructure, standards of hotels and cultural events.
But we are in Birštonas now, and if you agree to come here for a weekend, the treatments will start already upon your arrival on Friday afternoon, and continue throughout the weekend with all kinds of baths and treatments – in mineral or herbal water, or in healing mud. Massage procedures of all kinds are also important ingredients in the programme.
I have, myself, no clue what they mean, all these terms the experts in the Tulpe Sanatorium use when they try to explain me about their methods and the results thereof, so I have no other choice than to “cheat” a little bit by simply referring to what is written in their brochure:
“A few days in Birštonas are sufficient to regain spiritual equilibrium, serenity, good mood, to get rid of nervousness, general body weariness, and tiredness. The microclimate of Birstonas resort and mineral waters are most suitable for treating illnesses of digestive system, joints, spines, and gynaecological and oenological diseases. The place has a positive effect on the central nervous system, suits the purpose of the genera rehabilitation and, of course, is ideal for having a rest, The personified health programme that is prepared by qualified specialists according to the client’s needs with a menu prepared by dietologists (whatever that is) will ensure you recuperate quickly and regain energy with the best of spirits”.
The Tulpe Sanatorium can also offer a place for you to stay during your visit, in their own little hotel close to the river and with the town and its surrounding forests within a few minutes walk away.
And in addition to this, the Sanatorium offers you to talk with your colleagues in one of their conference rooms, where up to 100 persons can be seated.
“You see,” says Rūta now, “Birštonas has it all.”
Experience a healthy outdoor life in Birštonas
I knew in advance that Birštonas had very much to offer in the summertime, when people here are becoming very active with river-sports in their boats, canoes and kayaks, or on bikes, horseback or foot in the forests and the sport arenas. But I did not know that Birštonas now also has quite a bit to offer during the winter time, especially after the two new ski slopes opened, almost in the very centre of the city.
Rūta grabbed the director of the ski-centre, ……., out of his office asking him to come up and show us the two tracks – the 160 m long blue track and the 300 m long red track – so here we are, seeing that Birstonas has developed their own Alp mood with modern ski lifts, snow canons and other equipment that makes this place a real paradise for skiing enthusiasts.
And, as if that should not be enough, next to the ski tracks a skating ring for kids has been developed.
But, of course, the summer time is soon here, and that’s when Birštonas really shows you what a healthy outdoor life means.
Birštono Seklytėlė - a genuine country tavern on top of a steep river bank
We are in Birštonas and lunchtime is approaching. So, like so many others have been doing before us both during and after the Soviet times, we drive up the hill to the famous tavern (seklytėlė) on top of the Nemunas River bank two kilometres from the town centre.
This is the place where you certainly will get a feeling of being close to the nature either you sit inside or on the view-terrace outside. The restaurant windows and the terrace both overlook the spectacular landscape and the river itself. This is the place for a rich lunch or a nice dinner, relaxed and in the middle of the nature. Overlooking the Nemunas River this genuine tavern is a favourite of locals and foreign visitors alike. It offers a vast array of tasty food and beverages in a cosy setting with original Lithuanian interiors and a fire place that is lit on cold evenings. On most evenings make live music makses this a highly desirable place to while away the hours with friends.
We had a good lunch consisting of local fish from the river and beef from the fields nearby, and our waiter really did his utmost to make us feel at home.
So our conclusion is simple but tasteful; - that the Birštono Seklytėlė is a must to visit for everyone coming to this region.
A wonderful May visit to:
Text and photos: Aage Myhre
The long pier that stretches out into the Baltic Sea is the hallmark of Palanga. It is still relatively spacey now in May, but it will soon become the crowded promenade path for intense summer evenings when the sun sets over the Baltic Sea. It is a real breakwater, struggling against the never-ending waves rolling in towards the sandy coast of Lithuania where the more than fresh breeze often does it very best to blow the sand further inland, but with the high dunes behind the beaches effectively stopping it. It is early summer in Palanga, and I simply love the freshness of the sea water, the breeze and the air that now feels healthier than ever.
In Lithuanian language the pier is called a bridge, and I am thinking that for the long years of Soviet oppression, the Palanga pier may have been like a real bridge for the people of this country, a bridge of imagination on how it would be to walk over to the Swedish shore on the other side - to the freedom and prosperity that for so many years had to be no more than a dream for the Lithuanian people.
Palanga town itself is calm and relatively quiet, perfectly well protected from the wind by the tall bowed pine trees that grow along the coast line. The leaves on the deciduous trees behind are still keeping their fantastic glowing red and yellow colours, even if many of them already have fallen to the ground, preparing to fertilise the soil for a new spring next year.
Spring in Palanga is for me even more attractive than the very summer when the huge crowds of tourists arrive here. Now I can see the beauty of the nature in a far more undisturbed way, and each breath of the wind seems now more soothing and healing.
As so many times earlier, I am thinking that Lithuania is the country than cannot be understood until one knows at least something about the enormous changes and upheavals that took place on the soil and shores here over century after century throughout the entire history of the country, or at least until the Soviet lid was closing, hiding the truth about Lithuania to the rest world.
Looking out to the Baltic waves I remember the legendary story about how the fleet of the Danish king Valdemar came to Palanga in 1161, becoming the first known conqueror of these shores. Later more Vikings coveted these lands, followed by 13th and 14th century crusaders, who to a high degree devastated the area and the settlements here. Only after the Grunwald battle in 1410, a peace contract was concluded, stopping the invasion of the Order to Lithuania. In accordance with the peace contract of Brest in 1435 Palanga became Lithuanian.
The following centuries saw a relatively flourishing Palanga where the inhabitants earned for their living by fishing and gathering of amber which was cast ashore from the sea, trading it with other towns of Baltic coast. Baltic Sea traders visiting Palanga exchanged their goods to amber, honey and furs, all going well until neighbouring port towns got jealous and convinced the Swedish fleet to destroy the Palanga and Sventoji ports.
In 1795, the Russian Empire annexed Lithuania, including Palanga, and then, in 1824, a strange business deal took place when a colonel in the Tsar's army, earl Mykolas Tiskevicius, simply bought the complete Palanga. The earl’s later contribution, however, to the development of the town is very apparent. He established the now famous Palanga Park, including an amazing palace; a new port was made, a brick factory was established, a church was built, and the resort with sanatoriums as we know it today was established.
After the First World War, when Lithuania became an independent state again, there was a disagreement with Latvia regarding the territory of Palanga and Sventoji, but the towns eventually became Lithuanian again.
Walking here, down the lively Basanavicius Street, I am also thinking of Jonas Sliupas, father of my friend Vytautas Sliupas. From 1933 to 1940, Jonas Sliupas served as mayor of Palanga. He returned to this office briefly during the Nazi occupation of 1941, until ousted because of his protest against the destruction of Lithuanian and Jewish lives. How different must not the emotions of those days have been compared to today’s relaxed atmosphere in freedom.
After the storms of two wars, and a 20-year period of freedom in between, in 1944-45, Soviet army occupied Lithuania and Soviet authority was set in also in Palanga. The result was that private villas were nationalized, and instead of them state sanatoriums and relaxation houses were established. In 1952, when Palanga was qualified in Republic subordination, a new project layout of the resort was composed. The relaxation and treatment base of resort was adapted for working all year round, and Palanga became one of the most popular resorts and health centres on the Baltic coast.
In 1991 the Palanga resort opened a new page of history. Nationalized buildings and land were returned to their just owners, the relaxation houses and hotels became private, and people started building modern private villas, detached houses, hotels and restaurants. Every year since, Palanga has gained great popularity as a summer hot-spot.
I am here when the summer season has not yet started, but I am happy to see that there is an increasing popularity for Palanga also at this time of the year. In the hotel lobby I read that a well-known company with headquarter in Vilnius is having a seminar in the hotel’s conference room, on the pedestrian paths through the forests I see many on foot and bicycles, many are still enjoying the sunrays on the park benches after having fed the swans, and there is still teeming life and laughter in Basaniviaus Street every evening.
To visit Palanga, any time of the year, is a healthy and fun experience, truly worth a try!
The fantastic Palanga beach
Fishing at the Palanga pier
The Palanga Park
This landscaped garden is one of the prettiest, best-preserved, and best-kept parks in Lithuania's coastal region. In 1987 Count Felix Tiskevicius founded this park around the palace built the same year. The park was designed by the famous French landscape architect and botanist Eduard Fransua Andr‚ (1840-1911), who spent three summers in Palanga with his son Ren Eduard Andr (1867-1942) supervising the park's construction. They were assisted by the Belgian gardener Buyssen de Coulon.
Andr's talent and the natural and historical uniqueness of the park's setting successfully blended to create a piece of art.
The scenic park offers a variety of views and moods. The palace is set between a pond and the legendary hill of Birute - an ancient Lithuanian sacred place - that offers a glorious view of the sea. The natural foundation of the park, both in earlier times and now, are relicts of ancient pine forests. Little paths and squares with beautiful flower arrangements are laid out skillfully among the trees.
The contrast of scenery is emphasized by the palace's regular shape: the north side opens onto a magnificent terrace and steps leading into the park. Flowers and a fountain complete the effect. The south side of the palace is surrounded by an oval rose garden that is connected to the palace's terraces by stairs.
Experts guess that the park's founders planted about 500 different kinds of trees and bushes. Trees were brought to Palanga from Berlin, Karaliaucius and other European botanical gardens. Today - as before - pine trees dominate the park. Firs and dark alders grow in the more humid areas. About 250 imported and 370 native plant species are represented. 24 of these are included in Lithuania's list of endangered species (1992 data).
The park has survived two world wars and a number of natural disasters. It has also been extended and restored. However, with the exception of a few details, the park has kept the atmosphere created by Andr, as Florence Andr Kappelin, the head of the E. Andr association, confirmed during her visit to Palanga in 1996.
VilNews e-magazine is published in Vilnius, Lithuania. Editor-in-Chief: Mr. Aage Myhre. Inquires to the editors: editor@VilNews.com.
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