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The Amber Jewel of Eastern Europe


© St. Petersburg Times

KERNAVE, Lithuania -- With a few words of English sprinkling her Lithuanian, the elderly woman attempts to direct us. Finally, she resorts to hand gestures culminating with a gentle push in the right direction.

We couldn't really get lost. Kernave is a village 20 miles northwest of Vilnius, Lithuania's capital. Once past the brick church, the village abruptly ends in a series of hills and, beyond them, the Neris River meanders between verdant fields.

It's a bucolic spot, one of many in this small Baltic country rich in pastoral beauty. It also has a sense of history. It was at Kernave in 1253 that Lithuania was first unified by one of its tribal leaders, Mindaugas, who was reputedly crowned king and consolidated the tribes that then constituted Lithuania. Castles and fortresses once crowned these now-empty hills.

Kernave is where Lithuanian history was jump-started, but my own journey across Lithuania began at the Hill of Crosses, in the northern part of the country, six miles north of Siauliai. The Hill of Crosses is actually two hills that may once have been the site of a medieval fortification. During the 19th century -- perhaps much earlier -- crosses were planted on the hills as a symbol of Christianity and -- just as important -- as a symbol of nationalism.

The Soviets tried to eradicate the crosses a number of times. Each time, new crosses were erected, testimony to the fierce desire of the Lithuanians for independence, finally achieved in 1991.

Today, thousands of crosses -- some elaborate works of folk art, others simple pieces of wood -- cover the two hills. Tiny crosses cluster at the base of the larger ones. Many crosses have smaller ones hanging over them. To visit -- especially at dusk when the crosses clatter out a melancholy melody as they sway with the breeze -- is an emotional experience. One does not have to be a Lithuanian-American, as I am, to feel the power of these hills.

A form of much older history is on view just a two-hour ride, over good roads, from Siauliai to Klaipeda, Lithuania's leading Baltic Sea port. Klaipeda, also a port of call for Baltic cruise ships, has an Old Town being restored. There, several shops sell amber jewelry.

Amber is fossilized pine resin dating from 40-million to 55-million years ago. It's often called "Lithuanian gold" or "Baltic gold." The amber often encapsulates pieces of vegetation or insects from an era long, long before man existed. Klaipeda also has an excellent outdoor sculpture park, full of life-size sculptures by contemporary Lithuanian artists, arranged along shady paths.

From Klaipeda it's a short half-hour drive north to the seaside town of Palanga where holiday-makers -- mostly German and Russian -- congregate in noisy restaurants to drink Kalnapilis, sun themselves on the long beach, and bargain for amber at sidewalk stalls. There's also a fine Amber Museum set in a lovely park a short stroll from the center of town.

Even closer to Klaipeda -- 10 minutes by car ferry and less by pedestrian ferry -- is the Neringa Peninsula, a 60-mile-long spit of land separating the Baltic Sea from the Courland Lagoon. The lower 30-mile portion of the peninsula is occupied by Russian Kaliningrad.

Neringa is a world of sand dunes -- some of the tallest in the world -- beaches studded with pastel-colored rocks and pebbles, sweet-scented pine forests, tiny hamlets of old wooden cottages and -- of course -- the sea on one side and the lagoon on the other. It is a place to savor with long strolls through forests or along beaches.

This seacoast is magical -- not only the scenic beauty but also its associations with the past. Lithuania was one of the last European countries to adopt Christianity, and nowhere is this felt more strongly than on Witches' Hill in the community of Juodkrante, midway down the peninsula.

Along the slopes of a heavily wooded hill are scattered dozens of wooden carvings of witches, devils and other figures from Lithuanian folklore and mythology. Many are not only beautiful examples of the art of woodcarving but also clever and amusing: There's the witch whose long tongue serves as a children's slide, and the two dwarfs who carry a wooden bench for weary walkers to rest on.

The drive to Kaunas from the Neringa Peninsula is five hours, half of it along the bucolic Nemunas River dotted with farmstead, tiny villages and the ruins of several castles.

Kaunas, Lithuania's second-largest city (population 430,000) has the remains of a medieval castle and an Old Town centered on the lovely Rotuses (Town Hall) Square, bordered by beautifully restored 16th-century merchants' houses and the white Baroque town hall at its center.

It is lovely strolling through the Old Town in the evening, ending in one of the wine cellars for dinner.

Two places not to be missed in Kaunas are the Ciurlionis Art Museum at 55 Putvinskio and the Devil's Museum across the street at No. 64.

Mikolojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis, who died at the age of 36 (1875-1911), is acknowledged as one of Lithuania's greatest painters and composers. The museum houses hundreds of his mystical paintings. The visitor can also listen to one of Ciurlionis' compositions in the museum's auditorium. The Forest and The Sea are two "symphonic poems" that convey musically the same mysticism Ciurlionis sought to express in his paintings.

What Witches' Hill is to the Neringa Peninsula with its woodcarvings, the Devils' Museum is to Kaunas. During his lifetime, the Lithuanian folk artist Antanas Zmuidzinavicius (1876-1966) accumulated a collection of devils, the bulk of the nearly 2,000 devils now housed there.

Another worthy stop is Rumsiskes Folk Museum, 12 miles east of Kaunas, with its extensive collection of old houses gathered from all over Lithuania.

About 70 miles southeast of Kaunas is Vilnius, Lithuania's capital. Although its population is more than half a million, the city feels intimate, especially the central part, which boasts one of the largest Old Towns in Eastern Europe. Now in the process of being restored, this Old Town is a maze of narrow streets lined with 15th- and 16th-century buildings and an enormous number of churches. The most important of these, at the edge of the Old Town, is the white neoclassical cathedral. Its unusual detached bell tower was part of the defense walls of a castle that stood here in the Middle Ages.

Behind the cathedral rises Castle Hill, site of an upper castle built by Grand Duke Gediminas early in the 14th century. One of its towers has been restored and now houses a small history museum with splendid views over the Old Town.

Vilnius can keep the visitor happily occupied for days with parks, museums, art galleries and shopping (especially street vendors selling embroidered tablecloths, woodcarvings and amber jewelry). My personal list of not-to-be-missed places includes:

-- St. Anne's Gothic brick church, which Napoleon reportedly loved.

-- Sts. Peter and Paul Church, with its white Baroque interior overflowing with stuccoed mythological and biblical figures.

-- Vilnius University, founded in 1579 by Jesuits, with passageways leading to 12 courtyards and a bookstore with a beautifully painted vaulted ceiling.

-- Parliament, with remnants of barricades erected against Soviet tanks in 1991, months after Lithuania had declared its independence.

Finally, it's a 10-minute cab ride -- or a 30-minute walk -- from the Old Town to Antakalnis Cemetery. This is a lovely spot to stroll among the well-tended graves planted with flowers and shrubbery.

There's also a moving grave site with an exquisite black marble Pieta commemorating some of the people who were killed in 1991 in the Soviet Union's final attempt to subjugate the Lithuanians. An appropriate contrast to Kernave, where Lithuanian nationhood can be said to have begun, Antakalnis honors those who sought to restore it. Julie Skurdenis is a New York-based freelance writer who specializes in European historical destinations. If you go

We explored Lithuania on our own by rental car. Roads are quite good, as are road signs.

Accommodations on this trip across the country ranged from simple but comfortable to superlative. The simple included the rustic Rasyte in Nida at the southern end of the Neringa Peninsula, where a mini-suite (bedroom, small sitting room and bathroom) cost $25, and the lakeside Trakai Sports Base Hotel in Trakai, where a similar mini-suite cost $60.

The superlative example was the Hotel Stikliai at No. 7 Gaono in Vilnius' Old Town (in what was once the old Jewish ghetto), within an easy walk of most of Vilnius' attractions. The Stikliai is a boutique hotel of just 20 rooms (nine more are being added). It's easily the best hotel we've stayed at in Eastern Europe. Room rates range from $200 for a double to $300 for a suite and include a bountiful breakfast buffet. Phone number is 011-3702-62-79-71; fax is 011-3702-22-38-70.

We flew Finnair; call (800) 950-5000.

All our trip arrangements were made through Baltic Tours of Newton, Mass. (call (800) 216-5987. Baltic Tours specializes in travel to the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and can arrange city tours and excursions for independent travelers. Baltic Tours also offers escorted tours.

The Hill of Crosses, six miles north of Siauliai, represent Lithuania's desire for independence, which was obtained in 1991. Several times the Soviets tried to destroy the crosses, which were originally planted as a symbol of Christianity, but each time, Lithuanians erected new ones.

Originally published July 6, 1997

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