There are crosses nailed to larger crosses, a grab-bag of plastic crosses and rosaries hanging from the arm of a dangerous-looking six-foot-tall metal cross, crosses piled up along the path at the base of other crosses, and as one turns, a sea of wood, metal, and plastic crosses rising up and down this little hill in the middle of nowhere, Lithuania.
In a world being ripped apart by religion perverted by fanatics, it’s sometimes hard to take a beat and appreciate its uplifting powers.
While the Catholic Church today, despite Pope Francis’s efforts, is most associated with sexual abuse, corruption, and cultural conservatism, in other places and other times it has played a more positive role.
This little hill in the Lithuanian countryside called the Hill of Crosses is a reminder of that history.
“What you must understand, is that opposition against the Soviets was mainly by Catholic priests … in the 70s and 80s there were a number of protests and uprisings, auto-da-fés, Catholic priests burning themselves,” explains Michael North, a historian of European history who just published the book The Baltic: A History from Harvard University Press.
The hill, which is situated outside the town of Šiauliai near the border with Latvia, came to symbolize that resistance. While it isn’t known exactly when it started—it’s believed to have its origins in an 1831 rebellion against Russia—it grew in importance under the Soviet occupation, when the expression of the Lithuanian Catholic identity came under oppression and the site was even destroyed multiple times.
Today, this little mound has more than 200,000 crosses and counting. It is now a pilgrimage site that was visited by Pope John Paul II.
While it is certainly original and a fascinating cultural site, the Hill of Crosses was just one of a number of memorable experiences that made Lithuania the highlight of my trip to the Baltics.
Yes, Riga is a Jugenstil dreamscape and Tallinn’s old town is like a miniature Prague, but Lithuania and its capital of Vilnius should be added quickly to any traveler’s list.
“It was the most important power in late medieval central Europe,” explains North. “When it and Poland merged, it stretched into what is now Belarus, Ukraine, and even Crimea.”
This period of influence and power stretched from the 15th through the 17th century, until the rise of the Russian Empire meant the demise of Polish-Lithuanian power.
That rich history is readily available, from the island castle of Trakai (which looks exactly how a child imagines a medieval castle should) to the street after street of endearing Vilnius. The capital city, while less grand than Riga and way less touristy than Tallinn, is one of those cities made for wandering.
There is the Republic of Užupis (the artist’s section of the city with its own bizarre constitution), and a whole host of cute restaurants and bars ringing one of the main river’s tributaries. Climbing the Gediminas Tower (named for the ruler of Lithuania when it reached from the Baltic Sea all the way to the Black Sea) and looking out at sunset over the city is something Walt Disney might have conjured.
“Vilnius was a multiethnic city—Lithuanians, Polish, and of course, a big community of Jews,” North tells me. Vilnius had such a large thriving population of Jews, it was dubbed the Jerusalem of the North by Napoleon. Like all too many cities across Europe however, its Jewish population was largely wiped out under Nazi occupation. In fact one of the neighborhoods where locals and tourists now flock in the evenings for restaurants and galleries is where the Vilna Ghetto was—where the Nazis moved all of the Jewish citizens.
Given that Lithuania is one of the most devout countries I have ever traveled to, there is little surprise that the real gems of Vilnius come in the form of churches. Two in particular cannot be missed: St. Anne’s—which sits near my favorite place for grabbing a beer by the tributary, Uzupio Kavine—was and is still considered one of the best examples of Flamboyant Gothic in the east.
The other is St. Peter & Paul, which features a largely unremarkable Baroque facade as its exterior, but the interior is like walking into a white wonderland. Blindingly white, featuring thousands of stucco figures and embellishments, the interior is truly a vision. When I visited, a number of elderly women walked in, clutched their chests, and then immediately gushed to their friends, who were undergoing a similar experience.
Oh, and there’s a giant chandelier in the shape of a ship.
There were two other surprising parts to my trip, which sold me on this little but storied country. The first was the food: Kibanai, essentially a Lithuanian version of the empanada, are not to be missed. Pinavija in Vilnius is a good place to start, with a variety of both savory and sweet options to gorge upon until you need to be rolled to the Gate of Dawn.
The second is the landscape. The country is dotted with countless lakes and ponds perfect for an idle afternoon excursion. But the real gem is the Curonian Spit, a UNESCO-protected sliver of land off the coast, half of which belongs to Russia.
Imagine this—driving through wonderfully scented pine forests, the warming sun shooting through the gaps in the trees, before pulling up to the Parnidas Dune, which towers more than 200 feet above the sea.
And before I forget, there were almost no Americans to be seen. So with history, architecture, food, nature, and wonderful people un-jaded by prior visits by your countrymen—what are you waiting for?