True Lithuania

Dzūkija (Southeast Lithuania)

Dzūkija is the name for the Southeast Lithuania. Western Dzūkija is largely covered by forests and the popular saying tells "If not for mushrooms and berries the Dzūkian girls would be naked". Perhaps not as important as it once was foraging still adds food and income for Dzūkians. If you drive there in relevant periods you will definitely see many people selling recently gathered berries and mushrooms. You may try foraging yourself (it is completely legal), but be careful of poisonous „gifts of the forest“.

A bend of Nemunas in Druskininkai. Forested banks of rivers are a typical landscape of Central and Southern Dzūkija. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Alytus - Lithuania's sixth largest city - has a nickname "Capital of Dzūkija". It was heavily damaged in wars and therefore is rather boring. Smaller towns, villages and of course, forests and swamps are more interesting.

With its population density 2 persons per sq. km some of the localities Dzūkija National Park has no new buildings at all. Zervynos is extremely authentic with its wooden crosses, turn-of-the-20th-century homes, and unpaved main street.

Well-kept 19th-century town of Druskininkai attempts to be a year-round resort with SPAs, water theme park, indoor alpine skiing track and other facilities. Not far from Druskininkai stands Grūtas park where Soviet sculptures that once stood in main squares of Lithuania‘s towns and cities were moved after independence.

Eastern Dzūkija is an "outback" in ethnic rather than a natural way. In these areas Lithuanians are a minority, sharing the land with numerous centuries-old communities. Polish-speaking people are the largest of these groups (80% in Šalčininkai district, 60% in Vilnius district excluding Vilnius city). There are no ethnic tensions but there is a political discussion on the spheres where native Polish and official Lithuanian should be used in the minority-majority regions. As of now most public schools use Polish as the medium of instruction but street signs are Lithuanian.

Poškonys village in Eastern Dzūkija. Dzūkija has many authentic wooden villages little changed by progress. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The multi-ethnic feel of Eastern Dzūkija may be felt at many places. You can visit Tatar villages of Keturiasdešimt Totorių and Nemėžis (both near Vilnius) with their wooden mosques. In Mikniškės there is a walled Russian Orthodox community Michnovo, while Jurgėliškė (Švenčionys district) and Daniliškės (Trakai district) are Russian Old Believer villages. Tabariškės has a nice wooden church with entrance gate in the belfry (the mass there is held in Polish just like in most surrounding villages and towns). Norviliškės former monastery served as a home to the yearly Be2gether musical festival aimed at crossing the ethnic and national divides (it takes place right next to the Lithuania-Belarus boundary).

Many of these Eastern Dzūkija villages feel "stuck in time" with unrenovated wooden buildings, people's hens and cows roaming streets and some horses still used for transportation. The ethnic separateness generally prevented urban dwellers from moving in en masse and transforming them into suburbs, as happened elsewhere around Vilnius.

The pinnacle of Eastern Dzūkija for any tourist is the Trakai town – because of its natural beauty, historical value, and proximity to Vilnius. This town full of lakes once was the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The nicely rebuilt island castle, now housing a history museum, attests this well. Just like the region's out-of-the-beaten-path hinterland Trakai is a multiethnic zone, with the usual Lithuanian and Polish communities joined by a third group, the Karaims, an unusual Turkic-speaking nation practicing their own syncretic religion. Their numbers are now in decline, but their three-windowed houses still dominate the Trakai main street just as in those days when the Karaims were so important that their district had a status of a separate city.

A Kenessa (Karaite temple) in Trakai, one of many buildings in Eastern Dzūkija that serve the region's numerous religious and ethnic minorities. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Note that the capital of Lithuania Vilnius is also technically part of Dzūkija. However, the Lithuania's largest city is a melting pot of people from all over the country and, indeed, Europe. Therefore it is typically considered to be a separate area on its own. Moreover, the easternmost Dzūkija is now ruled by Belarus but it has many Lithuanian castles.

Map of Dzūkija (without the areas currently in Belarus). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Click to learn more about Lithuania: Dzūkija (Southeast), Regions 2 Comments