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St. Anne's Church is perhaps the finest example of Gothic Lithuanian architecture. Thirty-three types of bricks were used in its construction and, according to legend, Napoleon Bonaparte was so enraptured by the building that he vowed to take it back to France on the palm of my hand. Lithuania enjoyed freedom when Napoleon liberated the country — briefly — from Russia.
There is a synagogue on Pylimo Street, an Evangelical Lutheran Church in Old Town and quite a few Russian Orthodox churches, including one jewel of a church that combines the Baroque, Gothic and Russian Byzantine: the Russian Orthodox Church of St. Michael.
In Vilnius, there’s no could have danced all night. The Lithuanians do just that. All of Lithuania seems to be a haven for dance and song. What else could you expect in a country famous for its folk songs and singing festivals? It was the Singing Revolution that became a major force in the Baltic nations’ move toward independence from the Soviet Union. On Aug. 23, 1989, 200,000 people joined hands to form a human chain from Tallinn, Estonia, to Vilnius, and they were singing.
So it’s little wonder that this nation of music and rhythm should continue to savor its deep tradition. Somehow the polyphonic background of the folk music has spread into the field of jazz and classical music. Even the incredible theater scene pushes the edge between ritualistic performance, music and tragic and comic cabaret.
For travelers who are ready for some of the most exotic and tasty cuisine in Europe, a trip to Lithuania is a must. Visitors who spend some time have been known to wager that Lithuania has more recipes for forest mushrooms than it has inhabitants.
Imagine a cuisine in which the ways of preparing potatoes have come down to a fine art, such as the national dish of cepelinai, potato pancakes smothered in thick cream. Lithuanian dark bread is delicious with the incredible borscht, smoked meats and cheeses. Most of the soups are homemade, and the pastry shops are a marvel with berries, cakes and delicious tarts.
As for alcohol, every town has its brewery, and the beers are exquisite and diverse. What better way to start or end your day than with a glass of brew in a pub that resembles a cavern for trolls or high up in a restaurant overlooking the city?
Vilnius has been referred to as a jewel of a city, but it is soft, like amber, misty and mysterious, and it is hilly, nestled along a river in an emerald forest of pine.
After exploring Vilnius for a few days, rent a car or take a bus to the countryside and visit the lakes and forests so close at hand.
A first destination might be Trakai, the country’s capital in the 15th century. It’s a beautiful village with the spectacular Trakai Castle on an island in Lake Galve. The stone castle was completed in the early 15th century.
The castle, built in the Gothic style, houses an interesting Historical and Applied Art Museum and makes a dramatic backdrop for a number of annual events, such as the Medieval Festival in May and the Festival of Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet in July.
The lakes and forests surrounding Trakai enhance the setting; this is an ideal destination for a lazy day of swimming, boating or strolling along the shore.
In summer, a lake steamer runs from the castle to the northern end of the lake, where the Tyszkiewicz family built the summer residence of Uztrakis Palace and brought in the famous French landscape gardener Edouard Andre to lay out a beautiful wooded park. The rest of eastern Lithuania is characterized by deep forest, scrub-pine woods and lakes.
The Open Air Museum at Rumsiskes is by a lake created in 1958 and is well worth a visit. The main exhibits of the ethnographic museum are actual dwellings, farm buildings and objects of folk technology transferred from different regions of Lithuania. Guides in colorful dress explain how life was lived in the past.
The farmsteads and small villages are grouped into a complex of 140 buildings. Tourists are invited to join in games typical of Lithuania in the 19th century, such as racing on a long board with cutouts for the feet. Each team must move the long board with four or five people trying to coordinate the pace. It is a hilarious game to watch as long as you’re not the victim on the board.
By Tammy Bruce
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