Vilnius and Trakai, Lithuania

     First conquered by the Teutonic Knights in the 14th century as part of a crusade to Christianise the country, by the 15th century Lithuania was a semi-autonomous grand Duchy within the Kingdom of Poland. After the partitions of Poland in 1795, the area was annexed by Russia. After World War I, the area became part of the restored Republic of Poland. The area was soon annexed by the Soviet Union, then by Nazi Germany during Operation Barbarossa, and did not finally regain its independence until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990.

Lithuania is a parliamentary republic with a head of government - the prime minister - and a head of state - the president. The Parliament is a single-chamber legislative body. The country is divided into 60 municipalities, with directly-elected mayors. Lithuania is a member of the EU and of NATO. The most important sectors of Lithuania’s economy in 2020 were wholesale and retail trade, transport, accommodation and food services (29.9%), industry (20.5%) and public administration, defence, education, human health and social work activities (16.1%). Intra-EU trade accounts for 56% of Lithuania’s exports, while 71% of its imports come from EU Member States.


Trakai was first recorded in a chronicle of the Teutonic Knights in 1337. When Grand Duke Gediminas finally settled his capital in Vilnius, Trakai was inherited by his son Kęstutis. However, the town became a centre of conflict in 1382 for ten years between Grand Duke Jogaila (later to become King of Poland) and his uncle Kęstutis. It was finally resolved when Vytautas (son of Kęstutis) and Jogaila signed the Astrava Agreement. Vytautas became the Grand Duke of Lithuania but subordinate to Jogaila.


Trakai National Park was founded in1991 to protect the Lakeland area around Trakai and to protect the castle’s national heritage (see below). The park covers 82 km2, 34 km2 of which are covered by forests, and 13.0 km2 are covered by lakes many of which have islands in them. 

Trakai Lake


Trakai Island Castle is a 14th-century fortress in the middle of Lake Galvė. The white mansion, visible on the lake shore was the Gestapo HQ during World War II. Lithuania was liberated from Nazi Germany in 1944 by joint forces of the underground Polish Home Army and Soviet partisans. However, after World War II Lithuania was again annexed by the Soviet Union and made the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic until 1990 when, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Lithuania regained its independence. 




Today, Trakai is a small city and lake resort of about 5,357 people, with a beautiful castle, albeit much restored, that is some 7 km West of Vilnius, the capital of Lithuanian. The brick castles and a Catholic church were built in the 14th century. In 1409, Trakai was granted the Magdeburg Rights. It was one of the first towns in Lithuania to get city rights and became a notable centre of administration and commerce.



The castle, once a home to Lithuania’s grand dukes, now houses the Trakai History Museum, with archaeological objects, coins and crafts.  In 1929, the Polish authorities ordered the restoration of the Trakai Island Castle. The works in the Upper castle were almost complete in 1939 but war stopped progress. In 1961, the reconstruction of the upper castle and a high tower were completed, but then halted by the Soviet Union. Work on the lower castle was resumed in the 1980s and completed in the early 1990s after Lithuanian independence - see photographs below.


 Vilnius - A beautiful city


Vilnius is the capital and largest city (with a population of 591,632) in Lithuania. It is known for, among other things, the architecture of its Old Town, one of the largest and best preserved old towns in northern and eastern Europe. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994. The architectural style, Vilnian Baroque, is named after the city, the largest Baroque city north of the Alps.


Before 1939, Vilnius was one of the most important Jewish centres in Europe. The model shows the extent of the old royal palace city beyond what is still visible today.


Below and from top left: Royal palace in the park; Baroque mansion – one of many; modern fountain near older building.



A Mediaeval gateway into Vilnius.


The city used to be completely walled but now only gateway remains. The photographs here show the gateway from both sides  It has a chapel built into it which gives an idea of the cultural influences on Vilnius, as does a Russian monastery (bottom right) built beside the main road from the gateway. 




Vilnius University


In 1570 by Bishop Protasewicz established the Vilnius Jesuit College and what became the university library. In 1579 the King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania recognised the Jesuit College as a university. In 1773 the Jesuit order was abolished and replaced with an Educational Commission, becoming the Imperial University of Vilnius in 1803. It was closed by the Russians in 1832, then reopened in 1919 under Polish authority. In 1943 the university was again closed, this time by the Nazis, only to be re-opened under the Soviets from 1944- 1990 as a school of Higher Education, within the Soviet system. On regaining independence in 1990 The University was once again recognised as a university.


Photos below show at far right how the university links to the President palace via a beautiful formal garden

Entering the University


Today, one way for tourists to enter the university is down a passage past the bookshop, leading to a small courtyard (left) and then to some sumptuous gardens at the back of the President’s palace (see above, right) 







Another way in from the city streets (see pictures below) is via a passage way under the Bell Tower of the Church of Saints Johns (John the Baptist & John the Apostle) marked by a statue holding a lantern.  The gateway leads you into the Grand Courtyard of the university.

The Saint Johns Church



Originally built in a Gothic style, this church was founded in 1386 for the people of Vilnius, the university grew up around it. After the great fires of 1737 and ’49 the upper parts of the building were rebuilt in a Baroque style. 



Pictured below: the organ, the nave and some old pews





The Philological Centre 


To one side of the Grand Courtyard lies the university’s Philological Centre (study of culture and meaning) with its magnificent frescoes (left and below) representing the seasons using subjects and symbols from Baltic mythology. Painted between 1976 and 1985 by Petras Repsys, the Philological Centre was at the centre of an important resurgence of interest in Lithuanian identity, helping it eventually to become independent.






City  Centre  1


In the old town - the middle of the city, where some of the narrowest streets are to be found the Nazis set up a ghetto for Jews - see picture left and immediately below. 






City Centre 2 - below the next picture of the ghetto -


This area now looks very different being full of small shops and restaurants.









City Centre 3 - fun


Designs on walls (left and below); an egg around which musicians gathered to play. Not far from this was the site of the old butchers’ market; a city centre concert being set up

City Centre  4 - Elegance through the Baroque. Here and below



The Market - here and below



‘To market, to market to buy a fat hen’, or anything else you wanted in the Central Market of Vilnius

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