Looking for a safe place to explore with friendly and beautiful people, ancient castles, magnificent churches, cobblestone streets, quiet forests, thousands of lakes, huge sand dunes, and sparkling beaches lining the sea?
When I tell most people in the US that I’m going to Lithuania their eyes glaze over with uncertainty and if they don’t ask, ‘Where’s that?’, I can tell that they want to. With this audience of travelers I’m sure I’ll have more luck, but just in case: Lithuania is the southernmost of the three Baltic countries. It sits between the Baltic sea on the west and Belarus on the east. Latvia is to the north, Kaliningrad is southwest, and Poland is just beyond. Part of the recognition problem may be due to the fact that was occupied by the Soviet Union for so long and part of that huge land mass on old maps labeled USSR. However, after a long struggle to regain its independence, Lithuania has been free for the last 16 years and has pulled itself out from under the pall of occupation and been re-building.
I visited Lithuania in May for the second time and am happy to report that its unfortunate past is but a shadow now, contained largely in the KGB museum in Vilnius. Almost all of the incredible churches have been restored (many were offices, warehouses, or ‘museums of atheism’ in Soviet times). The Baltic Sea is gorgeous, and at Nida, a superb little fishing village turned beach town, the beach gets the blue flag – a sign of one of the cleanest beaches in Europe. The cities have well restored old towns and thriving businesses in the new towns, due to much recent investment here by other European countries as well as the US. Lithuania is now part of the EU and NATO and has one of the fastest growing economies in Europe.
Aside from all this, it is a fabulous place to travel through. There are relatively few tourists here, even after Vilnius was termed ‘the new Prague,’ and what tourism there is still largely remains in Vilnius. This leaves the rest of the country to be explored. Some beautiful countryside can be found around its national parks: Aukstaitija with its thousands of lakes, rolling farmland at Zemaitija, and Dzukija in the south with its huge forests and mushrooming. The Hill of Crosses near Siauliai must be seen as well as the Curonian Spit (Kursiu Nerija National Park) with its sand dunes and beaches.
Let’s start with my trip in May. I flew into Kaunas, Lithuania’s second biggest city, just in time for ‘Kaunas City Days’ – a festival celebrating the city which consisted of live bands playing in many city squares, an artisan fair lining the main streets of both the old and new towns, and a small amusement park set up near Kaunas castle. It seemed the whole city was in the streets and it was a lot of fun. I was surprised at how few tourists there were in Kaunas. Most everyone at the festival was speaking Lithuanian, and I really got a feel for the city. The artisans were so talented and the prices so inexpensive that I couldn’t help but buy many special things: hand carved wooden crosses, linen shirts, crocheted linen hats, amber jewelry, and delicious honey from one of many beekeepers.