True Lithuania

Lakes of Aukštaitija (National Park)

Known as the land of a thousand lakes eastern Aukštaitija is famous for its pristine nature. 1300 sq. km of it has been set aside in 1970s-1990s for protected areas, including the nation's first National Park.

Aukštaitija National Park is especially packed with lakes. They may be better if experienced rather than watched (which you could do by swimming, renting a boat, angling). That said, the prettiness of irregular forested shorelines are best grasped from above and there are free lookout towers for this. You may ascend a 30,5 m observation platform south of Šiliniškės, or enjoy an easier access to Ladakalnis hill near Ginučiai.

Farmstead at lake shore as visible from the Šiliniškės lookout tower. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

For the area's (and indeed Lithuania's) best natural panoramas you would need to leave National Park however and opt for the trembling-in-the-wind guyed observation mast at Lake Sartai. That long islanded lake is also famous for the annual winter sled carriage race on its ice. The tradition started in the 19th century, though the early February race has been moved to Dusetos hippodrome.

Limits on construction left the Aukštaitija National Park's villages quite authentic. Some hamlets (e.g. Salos II) reachable only by dirt roads have been designated as "ethnographic" as their wooden homes and barns are little changed since before World War 2.

Much of what happens takes place in the larger villages however where most tourist facilities are also located. Pretty buildings there include Palūšė wooden church (1757) and several water mills converted into hotels/museums. That said, Aukštaitija National Park lacks world-class wonders so if you want to be awestruck you may want to choose Neringa NP, Samogitian NP or Trakai NP instead.

Wooden church at Palūšė village. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

With its easy access from Vilnius (110 km) Aukštaitija National Park turned into a gentrified Lithuanian countryside, with all its original joys and none of the troubles. Lake swimming, boat rides, and saunas fully displaced hard farm labor as the farmsteads had been largely bought up (and neatly repaired) by urban dwellers for summer weekends.

Outside the National/Regional Park borders the towns are far more prosaic (but offer more shopping/eating opportunities that are extremely limited in protected areas). Molėtai (pop. 7000) area, merely 50 km from Vilnius, became a favored place for a second home and weekend tourism. Ignalina (pop. 6000) posits itself as a minor resort, also having a skiing hill winter attraction. Squeezed by lakes so much that its original 19th-century "fan layout" had to be altered Zarasai (pop. 7000) has a nice lakewatching platform and an island favored by Lithuanian summertime musical festivals. Utena (pop. 28 000) is the area's largest town completely detached from the lake resort atmosphere, while Visaginas (pop. 20 000) is a unique Russian-speaking Soviet-commissioned town.

Lakes are not the only natural experiences in Aukštaitija. Museum of ethnocosmology (Kulionys village near Molėtai) introduces the millennia of shifting relationships between the Man and Space. This unique-in-the-world topic is however not covered broadly enough and the museum is quite hard to visit with its limited opening times and required advance registrations. Nevertheless, its post-modern buildings that look as a UFO armada descended on the Aukštaitijan landscape are an attraction on themselves. The top "flying saucer" serves for observation (daytime) and stargazing (through an 80 cm telescope). An improvised prehistoric Baltic observatory has been laid out in the surrounding fields while the Lithuania's prime modern observatory with the Northern Europe's largest 165 cm telescope is merely 2 km north (open only on pre-arranged visits).

Lookout/telescope tower in the Museum of Ethnocosmology. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Article written by Augustinas Žemaitis

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