True Lithuania

Aukštaitija (Northeast Lithuania)

Aukštaitija (literally: High Land) is an ethnographic region in the Northeast Lithuania.

Many of the most interesting small towns in Lithuania are in Aukštaitija. This includes Kėdainiai with its brick old town, Biržai with its 17th century castle, Ukmergė with its 19th century downtown, Rokiškis with its beautiful manor and church, Joniškis with its basketball museum, Anykščiai with its many interesting places, and the newest one, the Soviet-built Visaginas where the workers of Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant lived, the essential place for anybody interested in how life was under the Soviet rule.

Kėdainiai boasts a brick old town that is perhaps the prettiest historical district among the smaller towns of Lithuania. It has 5 churches of 4 Christian denominations and 2 synagogues. The tower of the Reformed church is visible in this picture. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Aukštaitija National Park with its 126 lakes provides a nature‘s answer to Aukštaitija‘s towns. In the surrounding areas (such as Molėtai area) many people of Vilnius own summer homes. Eastern Aukštaitija has the largest concentration of lakes in Lithuania and most of them are outside the National Park limits but are not any less beautiful.

Lake Sartai (5th largest in Lithuania) from a 33 m lookout tower in Baršėnai village. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The only main city in the region is Panevėžys (pop. 100 000). Largely damaged in the World Wars the city lacks the appeal of some local towns. In spite of that Panevėžys is still the best place for shopping with its newly-built Babilonas shopping district that includes several shopping malls and many smaller shops.

The southern part of Aukštaitija enjoys the proximity of Vilnius and Kaunas whereas its northeastern reaches are less accessible and therefore suffered depopulation with many towns and areas now having fewer inhabitants than they did 100 years ago.

Town of Žagarė is an extreme case of depopulation, having its number of inhabitants halved since the 19th century (4500 to 2250). Its former importance (and place in the top 20 of Lithuania's largest cities) was signified by 2 Catholic churches, 1 Lutheran church, and 2 synagogues. The stagnation, however, led to a more throughout preservation, with such wooden homes as pictured here still predominating towns-turned-villages of northern Aukštaitija (Žagarė, Rozalimas, Žeimelis among others). Žagarė is still famous for its cherries. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Northwestern part of Aukštaitija is unique architecturally in that lack of wood in the 19th century implicated the use of different materials for construction there. Even pre-1860 churches are built of brick while barns are built of adobe. However, it is the turn-of-the-century (19th-20th) century gothic revival churches that are the most impressive. Anykščiai church is the tallest in Lithuania, Rokiškis one is among the most beautiful, but many others exist.

Northern Aukštaitija is also known for many windmills still standing in various stages of decay (some rebuilt) and for beautifully restored manors, like the ones in Rokiškis and Pakruojis. In Central and Northern Aukštaitija the narrow-gauge railway with its authentic pre-war wooden stations may eventually prove to be a major tourist destination (many local enthusiasts would wish so), but today suffers neglect and limited services.

Some buildings of the partly-restored Pakruojis manor, the largest in Lithuania. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Demographically Aukštaitija is dominated by Catholic Lithuanians. Only in the immediate surroundings of Visaginas the Russians predominate whereas in the Biržai area there is a significant minority (10%) of Reformed Christian Lithuanians. Additionally, over the entire span of Aukštaitija there are a few Old Believer Russian villages in hard-to-reach places. Many of them are depopulated now after the inhabitants moved to local towns and cities, where the Old Believer communities and their small wooden churches also exist.

Map of Aukštaitija. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Article written by Augustinas Žemaitis

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