True Lithuania

Druskininkai Resort

Druskininkai (population 20 000) is a resort town built around springs with allegedly healing powers. Essentially located in a forest the resort is full of nature, with many trees, flower gardens, parks, several lakes and two rivers in its limits.

Long-time mayor of Druskininkai Malinauskas develops his town as a year-round resort. New indoor water theme park was established in the city center. An indoor alpine skiing center with an artificial hill (Snow Arena), one of the largest such developments in the world, was built 3 km to the north. So you could swim in the coldest winters and ski in the hottest summers in Druskininkai.

Druskininkai cable car approaching the snow arena, providing great views of Nemunas river and forest canopy. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Many SPAs exist here ranging from inexpensive old Soviet ones to modern ones aimed at the rich. Charter flights from as far as Tel Aviv bring vacationers to Druskininkai. Tourists from Belarus and Poland (both countries are very close) are even more common, leading to multilingualism (Lithuanian-Russian-Polish-English) in some of the outdoor adverts here.

Druskininkai went more and more upmarket in the recent decade. Sculptures now line the pedestrianized boulevards, tourist information may be received from public computer terminals and many restaurants offer linen tablecloths. Still, the prices are low by Western standards.

The old town of Druskininkai, hugged by broad Nemunas river, dates to the 19th century when people believed that many diseases could be cured by mineral springs. Rich people of the Russian Empire constructed wooden villas here. Many of these buildings with elaborate Swiss, Italian and even Moorish architectural details are renovated to full glory in avenues such as Maironio and Kosciuškos, serving as hotels and restaurants.

An Italian style villa in Maironio street 14. Like many of the 19th century villas it is now part of a larger spa complex that is centered in a large building away from the street. This particular villa is part of the Dainava spa. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Four anchor streets converge in a diamond-shaped square where a wooden Russian Orthodox church (1865) stands in the middle. Its small size is more than compensated by its prominent location, well visible at the end of every old town main avenue (just as the Imperial Russian government intended).

East of there is a square with a dancing fountain accompanied by music and light show at least hourly. This is the heart of Druskininkai. In the renovated blue building of the original 19th century Spa (Druskininkų gydykla) you may fill a glass with local mineral water for mere 10 Eurocents. 20 differently themed baths and numerous water attractions in nearby water theme park will cost you more.

Dancing fountain at the Druskininkai main square. One of the old spa buildings is behind it, now the reception of a modern hotel. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The shaded bank of Nemunas provides an area for a calm stroll. If that is not enough you may choose to enter a ship that is moored here or visit the One Adventure Park to the north where one may zipline over the Lithuania's major river right in the center of Druskininkai.

Pedestrianized Vilniaus Avenue connects this area to the coast of Lake Druskonis where the city's Roman Catholic church (1930) and Town museum (inside a pre-war villa) stands. Its exhibits are limited to pre-1940 images and memorabilia.

Druskininkai has more small museums, all of them worth a visit only if you spend much time in the resort: Exile and Resistance museum (images of Soviet Genocide), Girios aidas (an eclectic collection of everything forest-related), M. K. Čiurlionis museum. M. K. Čiurlionis was both the Lithuania's most famous painter and Druskininkai's most famous resident, and much in the town relates to his unique symbolist work (e.g. there are large copies of his paintings in the city center, and a sculpture inspired by his painting).

Lake Druskonis, together with several reservoirs, Nemunas and Ratnyčia rivers, is one of many waters of Druskininkai. A fountain and a selection of white sculptures adorn its water which may be traversed by renting a pedal boat. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

East of Druskonis lake the newly-restored Karolis Dineika healthcare park offers various (mainly free) possibilities to exercise and otherwise healthily spend time. There are places to rest under falling water for example, and free open-air gym. Karolis Dineika was the founder of Lithuanian alternative medicine.

Under the Soviet occupation, Druskininkai was turned into a major health resort and monstrous spa buildings were commissioned. Luckily they were built further from the streets without destroying the historic villas. Today many of these multi-storey buildings are renovated and modernized, some of them are hardly recognizable, others, like Spa Nemunas (in the old town, bordered by Maironio, Žalioji, Liepų and Kosciuškos streets) remain abandoned (now undergoing demolition). Spa Draugystė in V. Krėvės street to the east of the old town is the oldest among Soviet spas (1954) and it is built in the monumental Soviet historicist style instead of the blunt functionalism.

After independence, the Soviet past of whole Lithuania was squeezed in a certain theme park in a village of Grūtas 7 km to the east of Druskininkai. There stands the monumental statues of Lenin, Four Communists and other "heroes" of the Russian communist pantheon with a Lithuanian flavor. These are the same statues that were toppled down all over Lithuania in 1990 and 1991, joined by Soviet-style meals and other attractions. This open-air museum has been controversial from its initiation as some people saw this as a glorification of the Soviet leaders. The owner (also the father of mayor Malinauskas) claimed this merely allows foreigners and younger generations understand totalitarism (he received the humorous Ignobel peace prize for his creation). When experiencing Grūtas park one must understand that what (s)he sees (from art style to funfair rides) was not merely an option for Soviet citizens but rather the only possible way with all the alternatives not available, shunned or banned.

Grūtas Park: demolished symbols of the Soviet system stand behind a barbed wire fence which symbolises the Iron Curtain that once prevented Soviet Union residents from even seeing the different way of life abroad. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The public transport system of Druskininkai is modern, with informational screens available on many stops. Its new flagship is the Lithuania's only cable car which links Druskininkai Old Town to the Snow arena, offering great views of the lush green forests, Nemunas river and an island within.

Buses, on the other hand, are infrequent, coming only several times a day on many routes. Therefore, a car, a bike or a long walk may be better solutions for reaching Grūtas park.

Druskininkai hosts many annual cultural events including a jazz festival, a poetry festival and a theater festival.

Map of Druskininkai. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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