As I leave the vibrant city of Riga behind and head to Kaunas (Lithuania) I was excited to stop at The Hill Of Crosses. It is somewhere I’ve been wishing to go for many years now as I have read so many travelogues on this place, but didn’t realise I would connect so much with it.
Nowhere else in the world you will find such a place. The Hill of Crosses is a unique sacral place, amazing and the only one of its size and history in the world. The tinkling of the Crosses in the hill is wonderfully eerie. There was an uprising in 1931 against the Russian Tsar and the tradition of leaving crosses began. Installation of crosses was banned by the Tsarist authorities not only by the roadside but also in cemeteries. In Soviet times it was declared illegal to plant crosses but people continued to do so.
On the night of April 5, 1961 all crosses were bulldozed and crushed, and then pushed downhill. Wooden crosses were burned right on the spot, metal ones were taken and melted, and concrete and stone ones were crushed with crushers and used for road construction. After the first devastation, later the Hill of Crosses was periodically devastated four more times. However, the more fervently the hill was being destroyed, the more powerfully it would be rebuilt.
People were stubbornly bringing crosses at night, despite the dangers, prohibitions and persecution by authorities. The Hill of Crosses became a symbol of an unshakable faith in the people, their sufferings and hopes. When crosses continued to appear, the soviet authorities stationed KGB agents around the site to stop people sneaking through the forest to plant crosses.
Now people come and leave crosses in memory of their loved ones. It’s a bodiless grave, one that makes a huge impact on you. Crosses of all shapes, sizes, material and design are planted here. It is estimated that there are more than 2 lakh crosses here. For me, seeing the Hill of Crosses is a powerful testament for religious devotion and love. A very special place in the world, accumulating the suffering and pain and I was teary eyed when I saw so many departed souls being enshrined here in memory.
The drive to Kaunas was very solemn. This is the longest I drove on a single day on this trip, about 315 kms and my car quickly gobbled up the kilometers. These countries are so tiny it’s like driving from one state to another back home in India. Kaunas is the second biggest city of Lithuania. Old town Kaunas is charming and sits by the river. Picturesque with the usual cathedrals, town hall building, castles, squares etc. I walked around for about an hour and I was eager to head out to the Ninth Fort Memorial.
The Ninth Fort Memorial is an extraordinary and gargantuan Soviet-era reinforced concrete memorial to the 50,000 Jews and others from Lithuania and abroad who were brutally murdered here during the Holocaust. It stands 32m high and at least three times as wide. The Ninth Fort massacres of November 1941 were two separate mass shootings of 4,934 German Jews in the Ninth Fort near Kaunas, Lithuania. These were the first systematic mass killings of German Jews during the Holocaust.
There was an eerie silence and hardly any people. This is a mass grave of 50,000 people. World War II stories have always intrigued me. I’ve probably watched all movies related to it, even in other languages. I’ve read the “Mein Kampf” not once but a couple of times, to figure out what induces a human to behave and do the things he did! How can anyone be so demonic?
The drive to Vilnius is caliginous. A friend had recommended I go to Trakai and I decided to stop there before I reach Vilnius for the night. Trakai is a historical town and it has a unique castle which is the only one of its type in the entire Eastern Europe. It is an enchanting castle built on an island. The weather was glorious and I took a boat ride for half an hour. Trakai Castle is one of the most visited sites of Lithuania and I was so glad that I took the detour and it definitely lifted my spirits after the goriness of the Ninth Fort Memorial.
I headed to old town but I didn’t want to do the typical sightseeing. I took a 2-hour walking tour that gives you an insight into the alternative side of Vilnius. It is the best way to get a different perspective of this city. Lithuania has been through turbulent times.
As a small country in Europe it has been periodically invaded and its people have been subjected to hardship and constant change. Strolling along this idyllic city you don’t see that at all. Lithuania was the last of the pagan worshipers. It became a Christian country in 1387. The people of Lithuania were lured by monks to be baptised with a “white woven shirt” Everyone baptised would be given a woven white shirt.
In a small courtyard is a statue of “Medeina” a Lithuanian Pagan Goddess. She rides a bear and Martina my guide told me that some of the pagan traditions are slowly coming back.
Vilnius has a large number of churches, 28 if I’m not mistaken. Under the Soviet rule they were used for different purposes, a brothel, a garage, basketball court, to store watermelons etc, everything other than worship. These days all these churches have been restored and returned to being places of worship.
The Uzupis is a self proclaimed Republic, with its own constitution and “Barliment”, yes “Barliment, no typo here. Until Lithuania's declaration of independence in 1990, it was one of the most neglected areas in the city, containing many run-down houses, many without utilities. The district has been a common haunt of artists and bohemians since Soviet times, and even today many young artists are squatting in abandoned buildings near the Vilnia River.
It has become the bohemian hip area of Vilnius. People did not venture into this area some 25 years back, being the most dangerous and filled with hippies. Now it has become the most expensive part of the city to reside in. Art is everywhere. They even have a statue of Christ with a backpack.
Uzupis is quirky and unconventional. Adhere to these 3 rules; Smile, 20 mph speed limit (or you will end up in the river) and admire the art and I promise you will have a good time. The constitution of Uzupis is displayed in 27 languages, with space for more. I found it in Hindi as well. I particularly liked rule 14 – “Sometimes everyone has the right to be unaware of their duties.” Love it... Maybe I should move to this Republic.
Next up the Angel of Vilnius. Apparently the artist, Romas Vilciauskas failed to complete the statue for the deadline, so creatively, an “egg” was unveiled from which the Angel would be born. The egg is now near the bus station. He was just too drunk to finish the sculpture, I was told.
Walking on we passed this very beautiful Church, St Anne’s. When Napoleon was here he liked it so much that he used it as his stables, and when he left he burned the insides down.
The Literatu Street is also one of the iconic streets of Vilnius. The walls of this street are dedicated to authors who have in some way made a difference to Lithuania. Small plaques are embedded into these walls and thus creating a beautiful mosaic of art. There is a set of false teeth as well and one for Thomas Harris (Silence of the Lambs) apparently Hannibal Lecter had his roots in Lithuania.I was wondering if that is nice thing to boast about!
Another thing worthy of mention is the “The Baltic way “On August 23, 1989, a human chain, starting in Lithuania and passing through Latvia and culminating in Estonia was formed. Known as “The Baltic Way,” 2 million people stood together to create a human chain. Ultimately, this was a powerful statement by the Baltic people to the Soviet Government in their bid for independence. It is said, that your wish will come true if you turn 7 times on the “stebuklas” tile. The belief being, if the wish for independence was granted, anything is possible.
There is another interesting story. The famous “Bagel” has its origin in Vilnius. Visiting the Jewish quarter, Martina explained that before the War, Vilnius had the highest Jewish population in the world. As Lithuania was very poor, they were invited by the then governance to come and live in Vilnius and do trade to better the economy of the city. After the holocaust, only 7,000 of them had survived, of whom most fled back to Israel.
There was a lady who survived and made her way to New York. She started baking Bagels in her home and thus was born the famous Bagels of New York.
Of all the 3 Baltic country capitals, I found Vilnius most captivating. So happy to have walked the streets of this beautiful city. Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius are all different in their vibes but Vilnius is my favourite.
(The writer is a travel and car enthusiast who did a road trip from Coimbatore to London in 2017)...