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“.
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.
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.
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.
The favorite day-trip from Vilnius, the town of Trakai (pop. 5000) is famous for its island castle.
Trakai takes a great pride from having been the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania although the Grand Duke ruled from this area only for a couple of years in 1321-1322. Even after the move of the ruling family to Vilnius Trakai remained an important city, the capital of one of the several Voivodships of Lithuania from 1375 until the 18th century.
In fact, Trakai was considered to be two different cities: one Roman Catholic and one Karaite. Karaites are ethnic Karaims, a peculiar Turkic community with its own religion (an offshoot of Judaism). They were brought to Trakai in the 15th century and only 65 of them remain in the town, but Trakai is their heartland to this day. The Kenessa (Karaite temple) still operates, many wooden homes still have the iconic Karaim three façade windows. You can taste the Karaim kibins (hot pasty with meat inside) and krupnik (38% alcoholic beverage) in most local restaurants, even if this renaissance of Karaim cuisine is mostly due to tourism. Additionally, you may visit the Karaim museum.
The former importance of Trakai is evident in the mighty 14th century Trakai Island Castle in Lake Galvė (Eastern Europe's only water castle). It has been reconstructed in years 1929-1987 and currently houses a museum of Lithuanian history. Some events such as Pilėnai opera performance are periodically held in the castle courtyards.
Even older is the Peninsula Castle built on the mainland. It lays in ruins but its yard houses wooden medieval tools. All these spring into life during the two medieval festivals that take place here (~2nd weekend of June and ~3rd weekend of August). The plaque "Trakai historical museum" near the Peninsula castle is misleading as this is actually a small museum of religious art located in a former Dominican monastery near the castle.
The Transfiguration of Virgin Mary church dating to the 15th century is among the oldest churches in Lithuania's smaller towns, its miraculous altar painting reportedly having been brought from 12th century Byzantium.
Only after the Russian Imperial occupation (1795) did Trakai cease to grow and became an ordinary provincial town it is today. To cater for the new Russian community a Russian Orthodox church was constructed in 1863.
Entire Trakai town is squeezed between multiple lakes and therefore is long and narrow. The lakes attract many people of Vilnius in summer weekends. In addition to sunbathing and swimming it is popular to rent a boat, a yacht or a catamaran for a romantic sail, or join an organized tour in Lake Galvė.
From the water, you may see the castle from every possible side. On the opposite shore of Lake Galvė you may see the Užutrakis Manor. Built by Tiškevičiai family in 1897 the palace and its formal garden recently restored. Many concerts take place there in summer.
There is no bridge to Užutrakis and thus a 6 km detour is needed. Close to that route the Hill of Angels has been created in 2009, which is a collection of wooden angel sculptures, each of them funded by a different institution or family.
The town is easy to reach from Vilnius by car, by train or by bus. If you come by car during the tourist season be prepared for parking troubles in the center. Local people typically allow to use their own yards for a price, additionally, as Trakai is a small town, it is always possible to park beyond town limits and have a stroll 1 or 2 km to the main sights.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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).
South of the Dzūkija NP there is extensive Čepkeliai swamp (110 km2) of limited access.
Medininkai village (pop. 500) 2 km from the Lithuanian-Belarusian border is (in)famous for several very different things.
A medieval 14th-century castle still towers above the village marking the importance it once held. Today however it is just a large walled enclosure. One tower has been restored to house a small museum offering nice images of Lithuanian castles in their heyday and medieval weaponry.
The wooden church next to the castle may be not that old (1931) but it is one of the first 7 parishes established in Lithuania. Today the mass is in Polish as 92% of the villagers are Poles. As the rest of Eastern Dzūkija, Medininkai has Polish street name translations next to the official Lithuanian plaques. This is controversial as centuries of Polonization, Germanization and Russification left Lithuanians wary of any official status to other languages.
During the Medininkai massacre (July 1991) Russians murdered 7 Lithuanian customs officials and handicapped the 8th one in order to make a point that Lithuania could never be an independent country nor have its own customs. The cold-blooded killing is marked by a memorial 2 km north of the village which includes the original demure customs office trailer where the tragedy took place, a plaque with gunned down ten commandments. While political events made Russia recognize Lithuania merely a month later (August 1991) it refuses to hand over the perpetrators so the sores of Medininkai are still alive. One of the busiest Lithuanian-Belarusian border crossings right next to the memorial shows that the desperate attempts to save the Union failed (while both Lithuania and Belarus were Soviet-ruled there was no border in this location).
3 km south of Medininkai Aukštojas hill is the Lithuania's highest place; a local lookout tower offers few vistas however as the height is merely 293,84 m (Lithuania is the world's largest country to lack a 300+ m locality).
The public transport is available but limited (~6 buses a day from Vilnius) so Medininkai is best accessible by car (30 km from Vilnius). It is not a top destination but is a pleasurable detour if one prefers out-of-the-beaten-path locations or a convenient stop en route to Belarus.