True Lithuania

Dzūkija National Park

Dzūkija National Park is the largest protected area in Lithuania (697 km2) and the country's most extensive forest (91% of the park area is forested, mainly with pines).

View from the top of Ūla River exposure (between Žiūrai and Zervynos). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

30 rivers and streams flow there, well-enjoyed by kayakers and anglers (who also practice at 48 local lakes). 6 footpaths and 6 bicycle routes are for dry exploration of nature. Key locations may be accessed by car (main roads are paved, side roads unpaved). There are 54 mammal species and 198 bird species.

The forest hosts occasional small villages with a feel of eras gone by. Soviets have not established their collective farms here and new construction has been limited - meaning that wooden (of course!) homes built at ~1900 prevail with large traditional wooden crosses lining the unpaved main streets. Zervynos is a good example of such village. Lynežeris, Dubininkas, and Musteika are three other villages with a landmark status.

Old crosses at Zervynos village. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

People's life in what is now the National Park has been always intertwined with the Forest. Berry and mushroom foraging (legal and free for everybody) is still a source of food and income (though no longer the primary one). Hallowed pines dot the area - they had been used by beekeepers decades or centuries ago. Equally numerous are the remains of Stone Age and Bronze Age settlements from the past millennia.

During the Soviet occupation (1944-1990) the Forest became a "home" to thousands of people forced out of their villages who joined the guerilla campaign for Lithuanian freedom. Massive woods provided shelter for years but sadly the partisans were defeated by late 1950s. Graves and crumbling entrenchments are their sole remains.

Merkinė pyramid (a.k.a. "Shrine of Hearts", "Church of God the Father") is a testament to the New Age contact between man and Forest. The unique triangular structure has been built in 2002 and covered by a glass dome in 2009. The owner claims he was instructed to construct the pyramid by God who also revealed him the design and exact proportions of the alloy, which makes the Pyramid a unique place of natural power where diseases heal. As evidenced by a constant stream of people performing rituals inside this is likely the largest Lithuanian new religious movement (although it does not style itself as such). The visiting instructions are present in English and include contemplation stops and energized water. Non-believers may also enter.

Dome-covered Merkinė pyramid and the house of its builder. At the final stage of their visit believers stand at the center of the dome. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Entry of Dzūkija National Park is free but some activities (e.g. kayaking and angling) need permits. Headquarters of the park is at Marcinkonys (pop. 2000) where the park museum and a nice wooden church (1880) is also located. The double cross that stands in front of Marcinkonys church has been a symbol of Lithuanian-speakers popular in the linguistically heterogeneous Dzūkija.

Merkinė and Liškiava towns on the northern limits of the Forest used to be more important centuries ago than they are now (even the Kings and Grand Dukes used to visit). Their rather dull looks are still rejuvenated by old Baroque churches (17th century in Merkinė, 1720 in Liškiava), hillfort remains (Merkinė), monastery (Liškiava), old town limit marks (Merkinė).

Neatly repaired Liškiava Baroque church and monastery (18th century) are the most impressive historical buildings in the National Park. The terrace here also offers nice views of Nemunas. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

South of the Dzūkija NP there is extensive Čepkeliai swamp (110 km2). It is one of the most safeguarded areas of Lithuania, hence only a single path is publically accessible. In early summer and late spring, even that path could only be visited with restricted groups (call in advance). Before wandering there, a permit must be received at the Čepkeliai swamp information center in Marcinkonys village (the center also hosts a small-but-modern museum about the nature of Dzūkija).

English tourist map of Dzūkija National Park, Lithuania.

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