Updated: Oct 6
Lithuania doesn't appear on many people's travel lists, but having visited I am grateful it made it onto mine; I can say the same about Trakai Island Castle National Park. Known for its architecture and its picturesque location, it also serves as a reflection of Lithuania's spiritual heritage and history, and is renowned as Lithuania's medieval stronghold.
Situated in eastern Lithuania, the medieval town of Trakai is about 18 miles west of Lithuania's capital Vilnius. This region is known for its many lakes; the castle sits on one of the twenty-one islands in Lake Galvė. l feel certain that each of the 200 lakes are beautiful, but Lake Galvė is considered the prettiest, as well as one of the largest lakes in the region and deepest in the country. It has numerous bays and remains a favorite of both water-loving locals and tourists alike who enjoy swimming, diving, boating, and sailing within its crystal waters. Due to its northern position, in winter it becomes a frozen lake for ice skaters to enjoy. Cyclists can circumnavigate the shores in 12 miles. Definitely a spot for family fun throughout the year.
The natural resources and the variety of landscapes provided favorable living conditions for human settlement which occurred in this area 4000 years before the Birth of Christ. Trakai began to develop significantly in the 1400s, becoming a main center of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, a European state that existed from the 13th to the late 18th century. Born from the union of several Baltic tribes, Lithuanians were a polytheistic nation.
During the 14th century, Grand Duke Kestutis began construction on this third castle, constructed of stone, which is now known as the Island Castle. It was completed by his son Vytautas in 1409.
Trakai gained increased significance in the 13th and 14th centuries. Being the last Pagan state in Europe, it opposed crusade attempts by the Teutonic Knights, which caused its castle to hold great defensive and strategic importance. Two wooden castles were previously built in Trakai; however, both had been successfully raided during these attacks.
We walked across this bridge onto the island. Lithuania's support for Ukraine is exhibited throughout the county, including a Ukrainian flag over the castle's outermost entrance.
Attacked and badly damaged by the Teutonic Knights in 1377, the castle was greatly expanded during repairs made to the structure. Trakai was a favorite grand-ducal residence as well as an acknowledged centre for political theatre with hunting and diplomatic rituals, religious holidays and trade fairs.
Trakai stopped growing during the seventeenth century. The defensive needs that were favored for a medieval town became an obstacle to economic and urban development. Hence, it lost much of its significance; the castle became first a noble residence and subsequently, a prison.
Damaged again by war later in the seventeenth century, the castle was abandoned until the 1950s when it was revived from its ruins. Extensive restorative work reconveyed its majesty of the 15th century. In 1991 the Trakai Historical National Park was created by the Lithuanian Restoration Seimas; it became a UNESCO world heritage site in 2005.
Pictured above are bronzes of some of the early leaders of Lithuania. Left to right above, first among them was Mindaugus, the only King of Lithuania recognized by the Pope. Nonetheless, his attempted conversion of the country to Christianity in 1253 failed; the country reverted to Paganism and lost its status as a kingdom. The Kingdom of Lithuania became the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. A kingdom by requirement must be ruled by a king; however, monarchs could not be crowned kings until they converted to Christianity. Therefore, subsequent Pagan monarchs, considered to be "Kings" are now called "Grand Dukes". Gediminas (1275-1341) is allegedly the founder of Vilnius, Lithuania's current capital. Algirdas (1296-1377) expanded Lithuania, tripling it in size. Kestutis, who started construction of the stone castle, married Birute after the death of his first wife. Allegedly, Birute was a virgin Pagan Priestess, a beautiful and intelligent maiden who had dedicated her life to guarding the eternal flame in a Pagan sanctuary in Palanga. Kestutis was hunting near Palanga on the Baltic Sea, saw the beautiful Birute, fell in love with her, took her to his castle in Trakai, and married her. Who doesn't adore a medieval love story? Birute and Kestutis remained faithful to the ancient Lithuanian religion and both are much loved and respected by the Lithuanian people today. Their son Vytautas (1350-1430), ruled and expanded the Lithuanian Grand Duchy from the Baltic to the Black Sea. The largest country in Europe at this time, historians view his era as the summit of Lithuanian glory, earning him the title Vytautas The Great. Interestingly, he has both a church and a mosque named after him, even though he was a Pagan until he reached the age of 33.
In view of the fact that the castle underwent restorations, it now offers a home to some of Lithuania's fascinating archeological artifacts, coins, religious objects, and discoveries unearthed during the excavation of the castle grounds. The Trakai History Museum transports one to the flavor of past eras with chainmail, medieval weapons, 19th century glassware and embroidery. I found it to be a well-curated and rewarding museum. The castle's importance as a holy site is mirrored in its collection of religious art.
The ethnic group of Karaims, or Karaites as they are known locally, settled here in the 14th century. Originating from Crimea, this community has preserved their ancestral customs which were brought with them when they settled within the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. We enjoyed their kibinai, dumplings filled with meat, cheese or vegetables, for lunch, lakeside in Trakai. They were delicious, and the setting gorgeous. Inside the castle there is a small display on the Karaites which depicts their dress as well as other aspects of their tradition and customs.
The historical and cultural heritage of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, one of the most influential powers in eastern Europe during the 14th to 16th centuries, has been preserved in the town of Trakai. When visiting Lithuania's modern capital of Vilnius, our family greatly enjoyed going a little further afield to visit its medieval capital. It is one of many stunning sites in Lithuania; we came away with not only an unforgettable impression, but also vastly increased knowledge of Lithuania's history.