True Lithuania

Regions of Lithuania: Introduction

Regions of Lithuania. ©Augustinas Žemaitis. ©National Geographic.

Traditionally, Lithuania is divided in five ethnographic regions: Dzūkija, Samogitia, Aukštaitija, Sudovia and the Lithuania Minor. This is not reflected in the administrative division of the country despite many calls to create administrative units based on these lands.

Rather, the regions are based on differences in culture, history and the prevalent dialects of the Lithuanian language. They are used in this website to divide the many interesting sites. Click on the region’s category bellow the posts in order to see all the articles associated with that region. It is useful if you plan to visit only a certain part of Lithuania.

In the map above you may see the extent of different traditional regions. As the regions are more closely related to the Lithuanian ethnicity than the Lithuanian state, parts of them now fall outside the Republic.

The capital city Vilnius is technically a part of Dzūkija whereas Kaunas is divided between Aukštaitija and Sudovia. However due to their size and attracting people from many different areas these cities are usually not considered to be part of any traditional regions.

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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.

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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.

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Samogitia (Northwest Lithuania)

Samogitia (Lithuanian: Žemaitija, literally Low Land) is the traditional name for northwest Lithuania. The Samogitian dialect is more different from the standard Lithuanian language than other dialects.

In the 13th - 15th centuries Samogitia was sought by the Teutonic Order. More than once it had been conquered but eventually returned to Lithuania. Due to these disputes and the inaccessibility of its woods, it was the last area of Lithuania to Christianise, this taking place only in 1412. In Samogitia, even the nobility continued to speak Lithuanian language at the time its counterparts elsewhere opted for Polish. "Stubborn as a Samogitian" is still a popular proverb in Lithuania.

The town of Telšiai (Telše in Samogitian dialect) is known as the capital of Samogitia and they take it seriously: 2,5% of Telšiai people even reported "Samogitian" as their ethnicity in the census. It is worth a visit for its nice museum, cathedral, and wooden old town.

Palanga seaside resort is the most popular Samogitian tourist attraction. It is the biggest resort in Lithuania and offers a wide array of activities. Nearby Šventoji resort is its smaller and cheaper alternative (but only a little bit).

The extensive beaches of the Samogitian resorts are among the most crowded in Lithuania on hot summer weekends, but you may always find a more secluded spot away from the main resorts. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The city of Šiauliai is the largest one in Samogitia but with its old town obliterated in the World Wars it is of little interest except for some buildings, like the Renaissance cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul and the Frenkelis villa. Nevertheless, with its many large shopping malls, Šiauliai is a good place for shopping and eating.

The most interesting location of Šiauliai region is outside the city itself: it is the Hill of Crosses where people put crosses for more than a century and there are hundreds of thousands of them visited by pilgrims and secular tourists alike.

Despite the late Christianization, most other rural Lithuanian prime Christian sites are also located in Samogitia: Šiluva Virgin Mary shrine, Tytuvėnai monastery. Former diocesan seats (Varniai and Kražiai) also have religious sites as their prime historic locations.

Samogitia excels in fine 19th century manors. Manor of dukes Oginskiai in Plungė is sometimes called "The Versailles of Samogitia" (this is an overstatement but the restored manor is beautiful indeed). The manor of the same family in Rietavas was unfortunately destroyed in early 20th century. Other buildings (church, warehouses) and a park remind the glory of Oginskiai in Rietavas. After all, it is in Rietavas where the first power plant in Lithuania was located and the first telephone line connected Rietavas and Plungė.

Oginskiai manor in Plungė. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Tiškevičiai family had the title of count rather than duke but their manors in Kretinga and Palanga are also worth a visit.

Outside of the main towns and cities, Samogitia has many villages famous for their wooden churches and a lake district, now a national park around Plateliai. Its natural beauty hides the Plokštinė Soviet missile base where nukes once waited for an order to obliterate the United Kingdom.

A wooden church in Beržoras village of Samogitian National Park. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The southernmost part of Samogitia includes the famous Panemunės Road beside Nemunas river. Here several nice castles stand - Raudonė, Panemunė as well as the Raudonvdaris manor.

Map of Samogitia. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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Sudovia (Southern Lithuania)

The smallest ethnographic region of Lithuania Sudovia (Lithuanian: Sūduva, Suvalkija) is far from the least important. In the 19th century, a favorable political climate (Sudovia being part of the semi-autonomous Polish Kingdom rather than directly ruled by the Russian Empire) meant that it was in the Marijampolė high school where many luminaries of Lithuanian national revival studied. This also led to the fact that Lithuanian language is standardized based on the Sudovian dialect.

An alternative name for Sudovia is Suvalkija, literally, Land of Suvalkai (Suwalki). It is a reminiscent of that era over 100 years ago when the area was part of the Suvalkai (Suwalki) governorate of the Russian Empire.

Agricultural landscape predominates Sudovia. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The Sudovian plains have quite a few interesting places to offer. This is the only Lithuanian region to lack a national park and while once-rich towns have more large historical brick buildings on average than elsewhere few areas are fully authentic.

Marijampolė (pop. 44 000) is regarded to be the regional capital. It has some nice buildings including two churches, a monastery and the famous 19th century Rygiškių Jonas high school which is still among the better schools of Lithuania. However, Marijampolė old town is not intact with many newer Soviet buildings surrounding the older ones.

Other larger Sudovian towns are Kybartai, Vilkaviškis, Šakiai, Kalvarija, Kazlų Rūda.

The Southern Sudovia is in Poland today but still has a decisively enthusiastic Lithuanian spirit, characterized by places such as the Prussian-Yotvingian settlement. Never more than 20 km beyond the Lithuanian border yet over 300 km from the main Polish cities these areas are best visited from Lithuania (there is no customs control).

Sudovians are stereotypically extreme skinflints; English jokes about Scots may be translated into Lithuanian by changing "Scot" to "Sudovian".

Th original Sudovians were a Baltic tribe more different from Lithuanians. However, the area was largely abandoned in the late Medieval era as it stood on the frontline of Lithuania and Teutonic Order. After the peace settled in Sudovia was repopulated by Lithuanians from elsewhere.

Map of Sudovia. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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Lithuania Minor (Southwest Lithuania)

Lithuania Minor used to be the Lithuania's most distinct region. Save for a few brief periods it had been ruled by German states until the 20th century. Its peasantry, however, spoke Lithuanian and, in a sense, this region was the heartland of Lithuanian culture. First Lithuanian books were printed in Lithuania Minor (1547) and knygnešiai (book carriers) of the 19th century smuggled Lithuanian literature from there to the Russian-occupied Lithuania where Lithuanian language was banned. Even the flag and anthem of Lithuania Minor predate those of Lithuania.

Over the centuries the Lithuanians of Lithuania Minor adopted some German cultural practices, among them the Lutheran faith, and called themselves "lietuvininkai". Some campaigned for unification with Lithuania-proper and were partly successful after World War 1 when Klaipėda Region, the northernmost tip of Lithuania Minor, went to newly-independent Lithuania amidst German protests (to this day, Klaipėda Region is the only part of Lithuania Minor inside the Republic of Lithuania). Klaipėda region was ~55% Lithuanian at the time - as in the rest of Lithuania Minor its cities were primarily German.

A monument to the unification of Lithuania in Klaipėda. Klaipėda Region (brown pole) was unified with the rest of Lithuania (gray pole) in 1923. The broken off concrete symbolizes that most of Lithuania Minor remain separated. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Lithuania Minor and both its communities were shattered by World War 2 and the subsequent Soviet Genocide of Lithuania Minor (1944-1949). Soviet army atrocities left 300 000 civilians dead, including 130 000 Lithuanians (most of the remaining locals fled or were expelled). In a sense, this killed the region itself. Most of Lithuania Minor was then ceded to Soviet Russia as Kaliningrad Oblast, new Russian placenames coined for its towns and Russian settlers came from the east. Klaipėda Region remained more authentic as it is still Lithuanian and uses the original placenames. However most people there are also post-WW2 settlers and their descendants as lietuvininkai communities were destroyed or displaced.

However, the buildings still remind of the past. The downtowns here are built of bricks. The barns are brick, the churches are built of red brick as well. Some wooden frame buildings exist.

A small red-brick Lutheran church in Juodkrantė village, Neringa (Curonian spit), built in 1885. Today Catholic masses are celebrated here as well. Wooden frame buildings are visible on the left. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Klaipėda is the area's most interesting city. Albeit severely damaged in the World War 2 and afterward with most of its imposing churches torn down by the Soviets its downtown with a rectangular street plan and German-built homes is still nice.

Curonian Spit, a peninsula reachable only by a ferry or some 200 km detour via Russia, is a popular resort and the most popular tourist attraction of Lithuania Minor. Its beautiful dunes and forests that were planted to tame these moving sands are inscribed into the UNESCO World Heritage.

Smaller towns of Lithuania Minor, such as Šilutė, are also of interest especially for their architectural difference from the similarly-sized towns in the rest of Lithuania.

The part of Lithuania Minor along Nemunas river delta is flooded every spring. Local people are well adapted to this. Many own boats whereas others rely on military amphibian transporters that help local people in these times. These are prime locations for angling and birdwatching. Rusnė island sometimes becomes inaccessible due to floods, but if it is accessible, it is worth a detour.

Šilutė-Rusnė road. Trees used to be planted alongside streets and roads by the German authorities to provide a shade for travelers of the horse-and-carriage era. Now a potential cause for car accidents they were partly destroyed by the modern powers-that-be and partly by time. However, many tree-lined roads still traverse the countryside of Lithuania Minor. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

In the Kaliningrad Oblast, a smaller share of historical buildings remains and out of the surviving ones many are ruined. The area was completely ethnically cleansed and not only the entire German and Lithuanian population replaced by Russians after 1945, but also every placename and even many river names changed into communist-themed Russian ones.

Map of Lithuania Minor (without the areas annexed by Russia in 1945). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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