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Monday, June 6, 2016

You know you're in Europe when...

There are on average only around seventy sunny days a year in Vilnius, and we seemed to have gone through a number of them in the short time that we've been here. Which makes it all the more regrettable that I packed all of my shorts and sandals into boxes that are currently sitting in a storage depot somewhere, waiting for the day sometime in the next couple of weeks when we'll finally move off the compound and into our semi-permanent apartment. Saturday, for example, would've been the perfect day for casual summer attire, with sunny skies and temperatures in the mid-twenties Celsius. And then there was the fact that yesterday (meaning Saturday) we made a day trip to Trakai, 28 kilometers (17 miles) from Vilnius, a town with a population of 5400 that's surrounded on three sides by lakes and is a popular summertime destination.

Most of Trakai is situated on a two-kilometer (1.2 miles) stretch of land between Lake Luka to the east and Lake Totoriškių on the west. Leaving Trakai railway station, we started walking along Lake Luka toward the town's premier attraction, Trakai Castle (Trakų Pilis):

We eventually reached the castle, located on an island in Lake Galvė. The Galvė Cup sailing tournament was in full swing as we walked along the lakefront, and it was remarkable that we weren't witness to any collisions, considering the number of boats moving in all directions:

Feeling hungry, we decided to press on and find a place to sit down and have lunch. That establishment turned out to be Senoji Kibininė. It's a local institution located in a traditional Karaite house (more on the Karaites later):

The food there is also traditionally Karaite, with their specialty being kibinai, pasties stuffed with meat or vegetables; mine was filled with venison. I supplemented my meal with a bowl of chicken broth and an order of potato pancakes, adorned with sour cream, salmon and caviar:

For liquid refreshments, there was some locally-brewed beer and a glass of gira, a nonalcoholic drink made from bread. My daughter found it horrible beyond description, but I thought it wasn't bad, reminiscent of kvass, to which I'd first been exposed back in my Russian classes: 

Suitably fortified, the three of us returned in the direction of the castle, where by this point the sailing competition appeared to be over:

A local festival was getting underway, with singers performing on a stage by the lake. The event combined with the good weather meant Trakai was a busy place this weekend, though it was never crowded in the Chinese sense of the term:

Some historical background: The Gothic red-brick Trakai Castle was established by Grand Duke Vytautas sometime around 1400, who needed a stronger fortification than the one to the south he'd been using (Peninsula Castle; see below). It was completed just before the Grand Duchy of Lithuania crushed the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Grunwald in 1410. However, Trakai began losing its importance as Vilnius grew in significance, and the castle was destroyed by Cossacks during a Russian invasion in 1615. Starting in the late 19th century, the ruins served as an inspiration for Lithuanian painters and poets, though it was the Soviets who approved the reconstruction of the castle. Work started in the 1950's and was finished in 1987. The castle is reached via a wooden footbridge linking it to the shore:

Yachts from a local yacht club are available for hire during the summer seeason. The price of €30 per person per hour seemed a little excessive, so we passed on the opportunity:

We first took a walk along the shore of the island, admiring the castle's construction (the circular defense towers has bases 4 meters/13 feet thick), as well as the scenery of the lake (populated with 21 islands):

We next entered the triangular outer courtyard:

The castle grounds contain a number of galleries, halls and rooms. The displays range from exhibits on local history to collections of porcelain and glassware:

One room featured ancient depictions of Saint George slaying the dragon, though there were at least a couple of interpretations of more recent origin:

Amber on one of the outer walkways: 

In the olden days, men were able to keep their womenfolk in line:

We then entered the main tower, separated from the outer courtyard by a now-dry moat:

My daughter tries her hand at archery:

The main tower is characterized by a huge central court: 

The Trakai History Museum showcases an extensive array of items such as coins and weaponry. Amber had previously visited the castle on a school field trip and so served as a very informative tour guide for Shu-E and me:

Vytautas, one of the greatest figures in Lithuanian history:

A copy of the Battle of Grunwald, by Jan Matejko. The 1878 original hangs in the National Museum in Warsaw:

A display of the Karaim.The Karaim is a Turkic community originating in Baghdad, which practices a particular kind of Judaism adhering to the Law of Moses. Their ancestors (380 families) were taken as prisoners of war by Vytautus during his invasion of Crimea in 1397, and subsequently servied as royal guards. Today there are only 60 individuals in 12 families still living in Trakai (and only 280 in all of Lithuania):

After exiting Trakai Castle, we walked slowly along Karaimų gatvė, heading back in the direction of the train station. Along the way we passed the Kenessa wooden prayer house, one of the rare surviving examples of Karaite architecture in Trakai. Unfortunately it wasn't open:

Another disappointment was the nearby Karaite Ethnographic Museum, which doesn't do a particularly good job of explaining the culture, history and traditions of the Karaite people. We were left instead with the touristy cutout stereotypes at Kybynlar, another place in Trakai to enjoy kibinai. It was a good spot, however, for a beer-and-snack break: 

The ruins of Peninsula Castle, completed in 1382 and abandoned by Vytautus after Trakai Castle was built (see above). Peninsula Castle was destroyed in the 17th century. The inner grounds were closed by the time we got there, but Amber and I took a walk around the exterior:

The aforementioned local festival was in full swing along Karaimų gatvė. Stalls lined one side of the street, selling food and drinks, as well as clothing and handicrafts. My wife picked up some sausages at one stand:

And naturally there were performances of traditional dance and music:

The gentleman pictured below used a sledgehammer to strike a design (in this case of a sheep) onto a coin for Amber. Later, my daughter explored how high she could soar on a bungee trampoline:

The 7:37 pm train which took us back to Vilnius:

Today (Sunday) was a lot more relaxed than the previous day's outing to Trakai. We went for lunch at Grill London, where I continued to pursue my studies in Lithuanian-brewed beer:

After lunch, we took a stroll through Old Town, admiring the architecture...

...before popping inside the Amber Museum on Aušros Vartų gatvė, where, to Shu-E's dismay, I bought a clock/thermometer, while my daughter purchased a pendant. My wife preferred that we wait until we travel to the coast, where supposedly the supply of Baltic Amber souvenirs is much better (and allegedly more reasonably-priced), but considering her own past history of compulsive purchases...:

In addition to the Frank Zappa statue, Vilnius is home to this establishment:

A colorfully-painted building across the street from one of the local farmer's markets:

There's far too much graffiti in Vilnius for my liking, but some of it is worthy of a second (albeit brief) look:

"Thank you"











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