11 facts that will make you want to visit Lithuania
Or maybe, 11 facts that will at least make you want to Google Lithuania and discover where it is ;)
Before moving to Finland, I don't think I had ever heard of Lithuania (we really need to start teaching geography and world history in our school systems. But that's a compliant for another day....) and I had definitely never considered visiting. A state in the Baltics? With tons of Soviet Union relics leftover? Won't it be like...grey and depressing?
Lithuania will surprise you and shatter all preconceived ideas you had about the country. After spending a week road tripping, Lithuania became one of my favorite countries in Europe, for its lush, green fields, its view into pagan folklore, and its quite serenity -- largely due to the tourists that pass over it for Riga or Warsaw. If you've ever dreamed of visiting an underrated country, full of history, then Lithuania should quickly move up your list!
In honor of Lithuania's 100 years since their declaration of independence (well, the first time around...that's kind of a long story) on February 16th, I thought I would create a few blog posts to showcase this beautiful area.
1. Lithuanian is one of the oldest languages in the world
And, on top of that, one of the least changed, giving us insight into what languages were like thousands of years ago. It's an incredibly durable language. While other Indo-European languages changed and morphed, Lithuanian more or less stayed the same as Proto-Indo-European, which was spoken in 3500 BC. Scientists of different nationalities in this field (the field of piecing together what Proto-Indo-European sounded like) actually use Lithuanian as their language of communication! The only surviving language similar to Lithuanian is Latvian (spoken in neighboring Latvia), but the two are mutually unintelligible.
Hey, but don't worry if you're Lithuanian skills aren't up to par! Although road trips by yourself with no English signs can be slightly difficult, as I discovered, Lithuanians are sooo friendly and helpful -- and accustomed to visitors not knowing their language -- that they will help you out as much as possible!
2. You can visit a micro-country, the Republic of Uzupis
In the heart of Vilnius is a self-proclaimed republic, established in 1997. It's nowadays a UNESCO World Heritage Site, compared to Montmarte for it's artistic charm. I had more of a lower Greenwich Village vibe, but hey, you can't deny the bohemian, laissez-faire attitude apparent all-around. While in the Republic, you can see the constitution attached to the wall on Paupio street in 23 languages (and counting!).
And don't forget while you're there to get your passport stamped, or can you even claim to have visited a micro-country founded by 12 artists on the 1st of April?!
3. Lithuania was the last pagan nation in Europe
As you can see, Lithuanians have always been quite true to themselves and set in their ways! The Christianization of Lithuania occurred in the late 14th century, but pagan beliefs held steadfast until around the 17th century. The Christianization of Lithuania has been viewed as the most challenging and lengthiest Christianization process in Europe. Because of this, a lot of pagan superstition, myth, and folklore has held on tight. This comes into play too when talking about Soviet relics, but Lithuanians seem to do a good job at facing their history head on, leaving artifacts and displaying it out in the open, so that everyone can approach it.
You can visit the Hill of Witches to get a full immersion into this pagan history. Since ancient times, the Festival of St. John was celebrated here. In the 70-90's, Lithuanian folk artists worked to construct statues in honor of this history, complete with crow-monsters, devils, and fairy-like creatures.
4. If you're a history buff, head to Lithuania to learn more about the Soviet Union in the Baltic States
Although you can see and learn a lot at museums and monuments in Latvia and Estonia, I felt like Lithuanians were much more open to sharing their history and talking about their history. Many Soviet-era relics have been preserved, such as the ones in Grutas Park (why won't my computer let me make the correct u?! Sorry to my Lithuanian friends!) in the southern part of the country. After Lithuania regained its independence in 1990, a lot of the Soviet statues were taken down and dumped. A local man requested to be given possession of the sculptures, so he could build a museum, and thus the park was born. It's created a lot of criticism for its recreation of Soviet prison camps, so take that in consideration before heading there.
If you want to see something a little less shocking, head to Orvidas Garden (pictures below), which was actually my favorite place I visited in Lithuania. It doesn't make the tourist books, so when I was there, I only saw one other tourist and had the place practically to myself. On the opposite end of the spectrum from Grutas Park, Orvidas Garden is a collection of religious inspired statues that survived the atheist regime. Many Lithuanians view Orvidas as a great rebel against the oppressive regime, speaking out through his art and his collection on his family's land.
5. Lithuanians have also had to face the history of the Holocaust
The Holocaust under Nazi-occupied Lithuanian destroyed nearly all of the Lithuanian Jewish population. The numbers are estimated to be about 95% of the entire population, who was massacred. In the Paneriai forest, just outside of Vilnius, there are memorials to the 35,000 people who were killed in this location, during just the first three months of occupation.
6. You can visit the geographical center of Europe
Okay, well technically you can. But I never found the damn place, so if anyone has clues on how to find it, please send them this way! I just found a lot of cows and terrain too bumpy for my little fiat rental. Here's the Atlas Obscura link if you want to give it a go!
And here is my field, without the very obvious "this is the center of Europe" tower.
7. Lithuania is also the only country in the world with its own scent
I mean, how did a country get to be this cool?! The Lithuanian perfume, which is now also being made into candles, includes wild flowers, ginger, raspberry, sandalwood, and musk. When the scent was first bottled, in 2011, it was sent to Lithuanian soldiers deployed in Afghanistan to remind them of their homeland.
I'm trying to think of what an American perfume scent would smell like. BBQ, football helmet sweat, corn fields, cotton, and maybe a splash of NYC metro. (If you don't know what that smells like, you don't want to know).
8. The Baltic region is home to the largest deposit of amber in the world
According to Lithuanian folklore, Perkunas (the god of thunder) became angry when the sea goddess Jurate hooked up with the smoking hunk Kastytit. Perkunas whipped the sea into every emotion of anger he could give it, chained Jurate to her underwater amber palace, and destroyed it all. So nowadays, when Jurate cries, the sea becomes upset and stormy, washing her amber tears and fragments of her destroyed palace on to the beach. Because of this, Lithuanians say that it is best to go amber hunting right after a storm. Or, you can head into the shop around the corner if you want to save your back.
Amber isn't too expensive and comes in a variety of colors. Black, green, red, blue, milky white. The lighter the amber, the more pure the resin is (although, before you want to return what you bought, be forewarned that amber does darken with age). Most amber that you will see will be a shade of gold.
9. Lithuania led the movement to break the Iron Curtain
And you can see one of the most important spots in Lithuanian history in central Vilnius. Lithuania was the first country to break away from the eastern bloc, in March of 1990. Before that though, during the peaceful revolution (known as the "singing revolution"), Lithuania staged a human chain with Latvia and Estonia, in a form of protest against the Soviet Union. On 23 August 1989, 2 million people stood from Vilnius to Tallinn, spanning over 600 kilometers (370 miles), holding hands in solidarity.
The tile where the first person was standing in Lithuania is located in Vilnius in Cathedral Square, directly outside the entrance to the church. It's considered a miracle tile and if you go there, make sure to partake in the superstitious ritual. Stand on the tile, with your eyes closed, spin around three times clockwise, jump up, clap your hands, then make the biggest, happiest wish you can imagine!
10. And, Lithuania is home to one of the strangest theme parks in the world
Išgyvenimo Drama is a Soviet reenactment museum located in a former Soviet bunker and prison near Vilnius. If you decide to sign up for the experience, there is a several hour "tour" subjecting visiting to life in the Soviet Union. The guards wear Soviet coasts and gas masks, you are put in prison uniforms and have to face interrogations and exams, from former members of the Soviet army.
I wanted to go here, but then chickened out, so if anyone has been, I am interested to hear about your experience.
11. It's also home to the most densely packed crosses
Okay, so I don't know if that fact is real, but it has to be. The Hill of Crosses is either your favorite thing to see or your OCD nightmare. No one knows exactly how or when it started, but the Hill of Crosses is exactly just that: a hill, far out in the Lithuanian countryside, jam-packed with religious sculptures. Although, the main theme is of course crosses. During the Soviet era, Lithuanians continued to bring crosses and sculptures to the hill, even though it was illegal under the regime. The Soviet government destroyed the hill multiple times, but the people continued to build it back up. It's a beautiful site of preservation, determination, and strength.
There is so much more to say about Lithuania, but I think it's easy to say that it's a country very easy to fall in love with!