For our first full weekend in Lithuania, J.T., Domenico, and I (aka the new American interns) went to Trakai with some of the diplomats from the Embassy. Trakai is a city steeped in medieval history and dotted with lakes—and since it’s only about a half-hour car ride from Vilnius, it’s a popular lake resort too. There’s evidence to suggest that Trakai has been settled since the first millennium AD, and during the reign of Vytautas the Great Trakai was the center of activity in the Lithuanian empire. Once Vilnius began to grow, Trakai slowly lost its significance and was destroyed by the Cossacks during the 1655 invasion. Still, even the ruins of Trakai served as a symbol of the national revival of the nineteenth century, and the city was never forgotten. Ironically enough, it was under Soviet rule in the 1950’s when it was announced that the city would be rebuilt and restored—and it is because of these improvements that Trakai is the cultural attraction we see today.
Our first stop in Trakai was the Trakai Island Castle, built during the rule of Vytautas the Great (known as a national hero) and restored in 1987. A long wooden footbridge connects the island on which the castle rests to the shore, and boats of all kinds are available to rent for use on Lake Galvė in between. There’s a path that covers the circumference of the island, and a path to take into the castle—complete with a moat and bridge. The castle is huge and houses a history museum that displays everything from clothes to medieval armor, most of which is older than America! (No big deal, right?) You can climb all the way up to the Ducal Palace’s keep, which is 100 feet high and gives a great view of the rest of the castle as well as the lake surrounding it. In one section of the castle there was even a contemporary art exhibit, an example that I think symbolizes Lithuania perfectly: the place boasts modern ingenuity even within its famed rustic historical exterior.
Next, we returned to the shore and walked along the main streets of the city. Here, the multicultural nature of the town is seen in the types of restaurants we saw—with foods inspired by communities of Lithuanians, Polish, Russians, Tartars, and Karaims. All of it looked good, and we were all hungry! Cultural influences can be seen by looking at the construction of things as well; for example, in many areas that were settled by Karaim, the buildings have three windows that face the street, a popular tradition for the community.
Our last stop was the Medieval Festival held at the old Trakai Peninsula Castle right nearby. We had to rush to the fair after eating because the guys wanted to catch the last of the battle reenactments. It’s funny to think about though, because here these duels are like our Civil War reenactments at home—they’re not scripted to look like something out of a movie, but instead are actually a part of the history and culture of the country. At this fair, the “soldiers” were actually beating each other with axes and shields (something JT and Domenico found really amusing) which made it more like a history lesson and less like Disneyland. In the meantime, we also got to look at all of the traditional handcrafted goods for sale and more, you guessed it, food. In the center of the fair we found a couple guys pushing an archaic-looking wooden horse in a circle for kids to ride—but Domenico and JT wanted to ride too. The guys working the ride laughed when JT and Domenico paid, and I can’t say what was more amusing: watching them ride a horse made for kids under the age of ten or watching everyone else at the fair’s reaction.
All in all, it was a really nice visit, and I think that the pictures alone would make the trip worthwhile!