Samogitia (Northwest Lithuania): Cities, Towns and Resorts | True Lithuania
True Lithuania

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.

Standard Lithuanian (left) and Samogitian (right) inscriptions in the Naisiai tourist village. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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.

The annual religious festival at the Hill of Crosses. Many of the Samgitia's top Christian sites host such festivals, drawing worshipers from the entire Lithuania and some even getting televised on the national TV. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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.

Click to learn more about Lithuania: Regions, Samogitia (Northwest) No Comments

Palanga Resort

Loved by many and hated by many others Palanga leaves few Lithuanians undecided. This is the country’s largest seaside resort town and its nickname “Summer capital” describes it well enough. In hot weather, this small town of 16 000 locals becomes a metropolis with hundreds of thousands of people flocking in.

When people remember Palanga, they frequently think of the Basanavičiaus pedestrian street with loud outdoor concerts in its restaurants and cafeterias every evening, with its lights, fountains, funfairs, lotteries, a fair share of kitsch as well as enormous crowds of people that sometimes remind Asian metropolis.

Basanavičiaus street is indeed a love-or-hate affair but Palanga is far more than that. Its long beach tends to be crowded in the summer weekends, however, you can always search for a place outside the city center. Palanga beach is unique in that there is a range of dunes beside it. These sand dunes are an ideal place for sunbathing in cooler days as there, you can get all of the sun and none of the wind. For nudists, there are two gender-segregated beaches north of town center. These pre-date the Western naturism by far: in 1920s Western diplomats used to be horrified by the naked swimmers here.

Palanga’s so-called 470 m long “Sea bridge” (at the end of Basanavičiaus street) is a great place to watch the fury of the storms or the spectacular sunsets into the sea.

Sunset over the Palanga Sea Bridge. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Unlike the Meditteranean resorts, Palanga has no large hotels built on its beach. Instead, a pine forest is hugging the dunes. Its paths and the Love Avenue (Meilės alėja) are ideal for strolling and cycling (cars are not permitted there and must be left further from the sea).

Palanga became a resort in the late 19th century on the initiative of Count Feliksas Tiškevčius who owned vast lands around what was then a sleepy fishing village. Tiškevičius era left many architectural gems such as the large wooden villas that once were the summer homes of the rich, each having a romantic name like Romeo, Džuljeta (Juliet) and Ramybė (Calmness). Arguably the prettiest one is named Anapilis (World of the dead). Some of the villas are better visible, but many others are away from the main streets.

Basanavičiaus Street with villa Jūros Akis (Eye of the Sea), built in 1898, in the foreground. Not every nice old villa is that easily visible for everyone who strolls the main street however. The area around Jūros Akis has more of them. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The main heritage of Tiškevičiai family, however, is their manor surrounded by a large Birutė park with so many exotic plants that it is now styled a botanical garden. The palace (1897) itself houses the largest amber museum in the Baltic States. Birutė hill, once a location of a major pagan shrine and crowned by a gothic revival Christian chapel since 1869, is also within the park limits. Birutė was a semi-legendary wife of grand duke Kęstutis, a former vaidilutė (pagan virgin priestess) of Palanga. A century-old tradition to provide free weekend wind instrument concerts in a park bandstand lives on.

The palace of counts Tiškevičiai in the Birutė park. The original statue of the Christ the Redeemer manufactured in Paris was of great artistic value but afterward desecrated and destroyed by Soviet soldiers. It was rebuilt in 1993. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

All the villas, the manor, and the Basanavičiaus street are to the south of a small stream variously spelled as either Rąžė or Ronžė. This is what was once the Resort zone built on Tiškevičius family grounds. Basanavičiaus/Vytauto intersection with the Palanga's first hotel Kurhauzas (1877) is the Resort's heart. Kurhauzas now hosts concerts, while a larger modern Concert hall is nearby.

The area north of Rąžė has traditionally been the domain of the locals. A tall gothic revival church tower dominates the skyline there (1907) and no building is allowed to surpass it in height. The surroundings of the church, however, date to the Soviet occupation era, as this area succumbed to the great fire of Palanga in 1938 that left some 1500 people homeless.

Palanga church. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Palanga has several museums, including that of a modernist sculptor Antanas Mončys (1921-1999) whose complex sculptures are each built from a single slab of wood (exhibit-touching is permitted as per sculptor's wish, making this one of a few art museums that can be appreciated by the visually impaired). He had to spend his life away from Lithuania due to the Soviet occupation but donated his works to Palanga after independence.

Entertainment, Accommodation, Shopping and Eating in Palanga

Outside the high season (June – August) some of the restaurants and clubs close down yet many others remain open. Therefore even in the depths of winter, there are far more opportunities for accommodation, eating, and entertainment in Palanga than in any other Lithuanian town of comparable size.

Basanavičiaus street of Palanga during a crowded festival weekend. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The area between the sea and Vytauto street has the most options for hotels, restaurants, and entertainment. Each of the sea-access streets is different. Over-the-top Basanavičiaus is counterweighted by a family-oriented Jūratės (with a musical fountain at its interesection with Vytauto street) and a tree-shaded Dariaus ir Girėno (where classical music is played on the loudspeakers), as well as a cheaper and emptier Žvejų further north.

Everything within the town could be reached on foot, but further suburbs too have some to offer, such as more reclusive hotels and the popular HBH park of low-scale family-oriented attractions and restaurants.

Basanavičiaus street in a June daytime. The best part of the Palanga season (and thus the time of largest crowds in the Basanavičiaus street) is July and August. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

In summer the hotels and B&Bs of Palanga are joined by a great number of Palanga inhabitants who offer accommodation in their homes. These “part-year businessmen” line up on all entrances to the town. The municipal efforts to replace this by Western-style rental agencies have failed so far.

Celebrations and Holidays in Palanga

Palanga is known for many local celebrations, usually spanning the entire weekend. Every year there is season opening (in May) and season closure (in September). In between those two dates, there is the 1000 km endurance race weekend in July when a wide array of cars ranging from old Volkswagens to Porsches and Ferraris strive to win in a strip of highway that becomes a racetrack for a couple of days. Palanga seeks to become a year-round resort, therefore winter also has its fair share of celebrations, the most famous among which is the smelt holiday when Basanavičiaus street gets crowded with stalls selling these fishes. All these events tend to (over)fill Palanga with tourists, as does every summer weekend that comes next to a public holiday and Christmas/New Year time.

Basanavičiaus street of Palanga during a crowded festival weekend. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Transportation in Palanga

Palanga boasts great infrastructure with is own international airport and a direct four-lane highway link to the Lithuania’s three largest cities (Vilnius, Kaunas, and Klaipėda). Frequent (every 15 - 30 min) buses connect it to Klaipėda (26 km south), Šventoji (12 km north) and Kretinga (11 km east). There are at least several daily buses and vans leaving for every larger city of Lithuania in summer, and rare services to many smaller ones, as well as various locations in Latvia. The nearest train station is in Kretinga.

English tourist map of Palanga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Click to learn more about Lithuania: Resorts, Samogitia (Northwest), Towns No Comments

Šventoji Resort

The smaller sister of Palanga, Šventoji is a bit cheaper resort town with a traditional orientation towards family fun. Its population is 1700.

The majority of restaurants and other activities of Šventoji are located in the main Kopų street, with some spilled to the nearby Jūros and Šventosios streets.

The main landmark of Šventoji is the unstable pedestrian suspension bridge over the Šventoji River known as Monkey Bridge. It connects Kopų street to the beach.

Šventoji hotels are located mainly in the surroundings of the center. Šventoji is known for the Soviet “tourist bases” of wooden cabins without WCs. These cabins were once owned by particular factories and used by their workers in summer. In the post-1990 era, some of these cabins are available for rent. Few are renovated. However, many are closer to the sea than any other non-exclusive types of accommodation in Lithuania.

Monkey bridge over Šventoji river connects Kopų street to the beach. Traditional Šventoji cabins and boats to rent are visible. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Šventoji was once a port and the talks of rebuilding this port never cease. The 1939 plan (drawn after Lithuania lost Klaipėda to Nazi Germany) envisioned a planned city in place of Šventoji. As the Klaipėda is once again a part of Lithuania, post-1990 visionaries imagine instead a fishing port and a yacht anchorage on the mouth of Šventoji river. All these fail to materialize and the pier of Šventoji lays abandoned.

One large project of Šventoji that was completed is its massive Roman Catholic church dedicated to Our Lady of the Seas. The 62 m tall plain tower dwarfs the town and is an example of post-independence church building boom (the construction started in 1991 and took some 20 years). The church gets full in summer alone.

More unique is the Neo-pagan shrine on a hard-to-find hill in the northern part of the town. Known as Žemaičių alkas (the Samogitian pagan shrine) it is one of just a few such structures in Lithuania. It consists of a group of wooden poles, each representing a different god or goddess. Between the poles, there are places for holy fire (which is burned on certain pagan holidays when celebrations take place here). This shrine was rebuilt in 1998 based on archeological finds and aims to be a reconstruction of a shrine that once stood atop Birutė hill in Palanga.

The Samogitian pagan shrine hill visible from below. To access the hill, you should cross the Monkey bridge to the opposite side from the Kopų street and then go further north. Check town maps for the exact place. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Unlike the other resorts of Lithuania, Šventoji is almost entirely closed down outside the season. You will barely be able to find anything open there in winter besides a couple of shops. Therefore if you visit outside of the summer months, opt for Palanga instead. Moreover, the season for Šventoji businesses is somewhat shorter than in Palanga.

English tourist map of Šventoji, Lithuania.

Click to learn more about Lithuania: Resorts, Samogitia (Northwest) No Comments

Telšiai Town

Known as the capital of Samogitia the Telšiai town (pop. 30 000) hugging the coasts of Mastis lake is interesting for its relatively authentic main street and main square.

Like many capitals, Telšiai claims to be built on seven hills. The most prominent hill is crowned by a Neoclassical Telšiai St. Anthony Cathedral (1794), the only two-floored church in Lithuania. 4-story diocesan priest seminary in a former monastery and a bishop's residence stand nearby. Telšiai diocese has been erected in 1926 and covers the whole western Lithuania, including the city of Klaipėda (until 1997 also Šiauliai).

Telšiai's religious importance helped to establish the town as the unofficial capital of Samogitia in people's minds. Locals take a great pride in this designation: ~2,5% of them even reported "Samogitian" as their ethnicity in the 2011 census. Samogitian dialect is widely used, including sculptures and plaques in the well-kept downtown.

Telšiai Cathedral (center) and some of the sculptured plaques that tell Samogitian history in the local dialect at the bottom of the hill. The right plaque in question reminds that the christianisation in Europe ended only in 1413, after Samogitia was christianed (600th anniversary in 2013). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The Main square, its Respublikos street approach and the surrounding side-streets on the bottom of Cathedral hill have the most authentic pre-WW2 buildings. Virgin Mary Assumption church is a former Orthodox church transferred to Catholics in 1932 as it has been built to replace a previous Catholic church. Some derelict industrial buildings stand on Gedimino street further west.

The Telšiai Alka museum that was established in the interwar period is among the best of Lithuania’s provincial museums. It represents art from the Samogitian manors, Samogitian clothes, church art and other things about Samogitia. Most exhibits are good quality making the museum well worth a visit.

~1,5 km southwest of Alka stands the Samogitian countryside museum, which is actually a neat park with authentic buildings dating to ~1900 moved in from Samogitian villages. Farmsteads of varying affluence and a mill could be explored introducing to the traditional Lithuanian peasant life (a smaller alternative to the Rumšiškės museum).

5 km to the southeast of Telšiai stands Rainiai village, where a chapel marks the place of the infamous 1941 Rainiai massacre when Soviets brutally tortured and murdered at least 73 Lithuanian civilians.

This chapel reminds of the Rainiai massacre which took place in the forest behind it. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

English tourist map of Telšiai, Lithuania.

Click to learn more about Lithuania: Museums, Samogitia (Northwest), Towns No Comments

Plokštinė Soviet Nuclear Missile Base & Samogitian NP

Soviet nuclear missile base in Plokštinė (part of Samogitian National Park) offers a rare opportunity to enter the shafts where Cold War nuclear missiles used to stand ready to be launched any minute.

Once top secret and still reachable only by a gravel road through a forest, this underground military installation was dug by soldiers using only shovels. A multi-story complex is barely visible from the outside and can be visited only together with a guide (hourly tours).

Inside the bunkers, the world's first Cold War museum has been established in 2010. It combines authentic machinery and propaganda posters with new dioramas, plans, and screens with period sights and sounds.

The most impressive part of the visit will be a 27 m deep nuclear missile shaft, still in a remarkably good condition. Had the World history taken a grimmer path and the Cold War turned "hot", the missiles based here would have wreaked havoc in the United Kingdom. Other visitable rooms include nuclear storage, generator room, command room.

Each of the 4 missile shafts (left image shows the top portion) is covered by a massive metal/concrete lid (right image) which could have been quickly moved aside on rails. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Fortunately, the Soviet Union collapsed and the Plokštinė bunkers remained devoid of weapons of mass destruction and soldiers. In fact, these installations were abandoned much earlier because the Western intelligence learned about their existence.

Less fortunately, the post-abandonment neglect meant that thieves broke into the bunkers to steal metal. As a result of their actions the other 3 missile shafts are damaged or flooded. However, the young Lithuanian state was quick to understand the importance of Plokštinė missile base and much of it was saved for future generations.

It is the easiest to reach the site by car.

Samogitian National Park villages

Samogitian National Park surrounds the Plokštinė base. It has numerous lakes. Central village is Plateliai (pop. 1000) where there are restaurants, bike rental, and accommodation opportunities as well as a lake. It has an Užgavėnės museum dedicated to the Carnival-like Lithuanian Christian holiday which has its most fervent traditions in Samogitia. Plateliai and other National Park villages are known for old wooden churches with the one in Beržoras most famous.

Žemaičių Kalvarija (pop. 800) is the region's prime religious center with a Baroque/Classicist church and monastery (1822). The village is given its unique atmosphere by 21 mostly wooden chapels, many located on hilltops. Visiting them in a certain order may help you better imagine the path Jesus Christ took to his execution (this is reenacted by many pilgrims in a festival every July 2nd-12th and archaic Samogitian Christian songs known as "the hills" may then be heard).

An inspirational place to some, a junkyard to some others the Orvidas farmstead combines the unique stone art of Vilius Orvidas (1952-1992) with rusting Soviet machinery. Targetted by Soviet authorities for its religious overtones the Orvidas farmstead gained a special meaning to many locals as well as "outcasts" from elsewhere (addicts, ex-inmates) who had been helped by Orvidas. Located 17 km west of Plateliai it is technically outside the Samogitian National Park but easily visited from there.

An installation of stones and broken gravestones from the Soviet-desecrated Lutheran cemeteries in the Orvidas farmstead. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

English tourist map of Samogitian National Park, Lithuania.

Šiauliai Travel Guide: Introduction

Šiauliai (pop. 110 000) is Lithuania's fourth largest city and the largest city in Samogitia.

The main draw here is the world famous Hill of Crosses 12 km north of city center. A very atmospheric place it hosts some 2 million crosses brought in by ordinary people in defiance to the Russian and Soviet occupational regimes. It is all at once a pilgrimage and meditation site, a symbol of Lithuania's non-violent struggle for freedom and a powerful work of art (Lithuanian crossmaking is inscribed in the UNESCO list of immaterial heritage).

View from one of the 'summits' of the Hill of Crosses. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Šiauliai downtown has been ravaged in both World Wars. Heavily rebuilt it lacks the charm of either Vilnius, Kaunas or Klaipėda. The gone-by eras survive as architectural isles rather than a contiguous Old Town. Mannerist Cathedral and several palaces are the prettiest buildings.

Luckily in Šiauliai, the dominating Soviet architecture is not limited to the boring similarly-looking apartment blocks. The city center was largely rebuilt in the 1940s and the early 1950s, therefore it received a fair share of monumental Soviet historicist buildings. Its heart is Vilniaus street, a.k.a. "The boulevard", a pedestrianized zone.

A Soviet historicist apartment building in the Vilniaus boulevard. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The commercial center of Šiauliai has moved to 5 large shopping malls all built in the boom times of 2005-2008 (Šiauliai is the top city in the Baltic States in retail space per capita). A miscalculation by developers provides decent shopping, eating and entertainment opportunities for visitors (the malls include cinemas, casinos, bowling and ice rink).

In other terms, Šiauliai is a regional hub as well. It is the smallest Lithuanian city to host a university (albeit one that lacks the prestige to attract students from further away). It also has several theaters and a modern 5500-seat sports arena, while its Gubernija brewery is Lithuania's oldest (est. 1665).

Bruklinas, one of the five large shopping malls in Šiauliai. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

In Šiauliai, it is easy to spend a spare afternoon at thematic museums as the city has many of them (photography, bicycles, chocolate, radio/TV, railroad, cat memorabilia...). Other museums are associated with the local history (restored windmill, ethnography/archeology).

In military circles, Šiauliai is famous for its major airbase used by NATO mission for Baltic States airspace defense. Every half a year a new alliance member sends some of its fighters and pilots here to compensate for the current Baltics' lack of air force capabilities. Šiauliai Airport was selected for having the longest runway in the Baltic States (3 500 m).

Main residential "sleeping districts" of Šiauliai are located southwest of downtown while north of the downtown is low-rise Gubernija district. Šiauliai lacks a river but includes multiple lakes with the largest one - Rėkyva - covering 13% of the municipal territory.

For maps of Šiauliai see the articles on Downtown Šiauliai and Šiauliai Outer Districts.

Click to learn more about Lithuania: Cities, Samogitia (Northwest), Šiauliai No Comments

Hill of Crosses

The most important place of interest in the area is the Hill of Crosses north of Šiauliai. Visited both by pilgrims and irreligious tourists this place is a remarkable symbol of Lithuanian peaceful resistance to the Soviet occupation. People used to bring crosses to a hill once crowned by a medieval castle. The atheist Soviet government used to tear all the crosses down and persecute the pilgrims, but very soon the crosses would spring up again, restoring the number to hundreds and thousands.

This Virgin Mary statue (erected by a visitor in 1994) became popular for pilgrimage as evident by many small crosses hanging on the large crosses that surround it. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

In 1990 when Lithuanian independence was restored 14 387 large crosses and 40 944 small crosses were counted, covering an area of 4602 square meters. By 2007 the number surpassed 200 000. In 1997 a Franciscan monastery was built next to the hill. The monastery chapel (open for visiting) has a large window with the hill visible in the background instead of altar paintings.

The atmosphere in the Hill of Crosses may be surreal. Thousands of large wooden crosses are used as platforms for many times that number of small ones, all of which beautifully chime in the wind. Most of them bear inscriptions with names of the people and their reasons for erecting the cross. There are crosses built by biker clubs, political parties, ordinary families, pilgrims from far away lands, priests and every other category of people you may imagine. They thank God or ask for his guidance, remember life-changing events, seek help for some particular groups of the population. The inscriptions are largely Lithuanian, but you may find those in countless other languages representing different Christian denominations. The crosses are eagerly erected up to this day as you can see in the recent dates inscribed on some of the crosses.

A part of the Hill of the Crosses in winter. In this season you may have the place all to yourself, meditate or pray with hundreds of thousands of little crosses chiming in the cold wind. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The tradition of erecting crosses here might have started under Imperial Russian rule in the mid-19th century. A legend tells that one person from Jurgaičiai promised God that he would build a cross on this hill in case his disease would pass. The disease passed and the man kept his promise - later to be followed by others. There are other stories, such as the one about a person whose daughter was ill and who received a vision that he should build a cross there. Whatever the reasons for its inception the place became an important pilgrimage site and erecting a cross here became a popular way to thank God.

The Lithuanian art of cross-crafting (kryždirbystė) is inscribed into the UNESCO list of immaterial world heritage. Not long ago most of Lithuania's roads were adorned by many large wooden crosses. Today there are few roadside crosses left but the Hill of Crosses is an important monument to this art. 50 of its crosses are regarded to be of major cultural significance.

Pope John Paul II visited the Hill of Crosses in 1993.

Click to learn more about Lithuania: Religious sites, Samogitia (Northwest), Šiauliai No Comments

Šiluva Virgin Mary Shrine and Tytuvėnai Monastery

World’s second earliest Church-recognised apparition of Mary (after the Virgin of Guadalupe) took place in Lithuania, in the Samogitian village of Šiluva. In 1608 the Virgin appeared to various local people protesting the destruction of a local church.

The church has been more than rebuilt: a long rectangular Christian-themed plaza now dominates the village. At its northern end stands the 1786 Baroque minor basilica of Our Lady of Šiluva with its miraculous altar painting. At the opposite end, the 1924 chapel by Antoni Wiwulski (a genius of monolith architecture) marks the exact place of the apparition. It is surrounded by graves of notable Samogitians. 40 m tall and much less wide the obelisk-like square chapel is unusual in Christian architecture. The centerpoint of its interior is appropriately left for a statue of the Virgin (surrounded by the faithful from every side during the daily Holy Mass).

Main plaza of Šiluva with the chapel in the background. Statues of Virgin Mary and Pope John Paul II (who visited Šiluva in 1993), stone crosses and wooden figures surround it. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Each September 8th-16th the square itself becomes a large open-air church as tens of thousands of pilgrims arrive here from all over the world. Prior to the World War 2, massive processions used to depart from every Lithuanian town for a tiresome walk to Šiluva. Soviets persecuted this tradition, arrested local priests and blocked roads, yet Šiluva remained the religious heart of Lithuania to this day.

Tytuvėnai town, 8 km north of Šiluva, is home to a 17th-18th century Bernardine monastery. Closed in 1863 by the Russian Empire it has been long abandoned, retaining the original atmosphere. In the cloister, you may easily imagine monks praying at the centuries-old murals and reliefs that adorn massive arcaded walls which hide the modern-era life outside. The monastery also includes a still-used lavish church, a partly repaired former monk dormitory, and the Holy Stairs chapel (1775) with stairs that should be both ascended and descended kneeling.

The cloister of Tytuvėnai monastery. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Šiluva and Tytuvėnai may be explored as a detour while traversing the Vilnius/Kaunas-Klapėda highway. It may also be easily combined with a visit to the former centers of Samogitia Kražiai, Varniai and Rietavas, with Kražiai being some 30 km west of Tytuvėnai and others further on.

Click to learn more about Lithuania: Religious sites, Samogitia (Northwest) No Comments

Nemunas Valley Road and its Castles

Nemunas Valley road is arguably the most scenic road in Lithuania. It traces Nemunas, Lithuania's largest river, running in its valley.

The road is famous for its castles and manors that can be visited en-route. These buildings were used as opulent residences rather than defensive structures but their impressive towers and strong walls may be deceptive. Only a couple kilometers from Kaunas limits is Raudondvaris with its castle-like red brick manor, built in the 16th-17th centuries.

Raudonė Castle. The main tower may be ascended. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Further on you will pass Raudonė, a castle with a 33,5 m fairy-tale-like gothic tower. It was originally built in the late 16th century and rebuilt after suffering heavy damage in World War 2.

Finally, there is the Renaissance Panemunė castle. Dating to 1604 it now houses a museum and you may climb its mighty towers. The castle is being restored, the surrounding park still providing a nice stroll even after heavy damages done by the Soviets.

Panemunė Castle, also known as Vytėnai Castle, Gelgaudai Castle and Zamkus Castle in different eras. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

There used to be far more castles next to this road - this is evident by many "empty" castle hills. These could still be climbed, offering great views of Nemunas and the road (e.g. the Seredžius Castle Hill).

There are other things to see on the Panemunė road. The scenery is nice and the surrounding towns are pretty. The towns in the Nemunas valley closer to Kaunas, such as Vilkija, are built on several terraces.

In the western reaches of the road (beyond Skirsnemunė) you enter Lithuania Minor. These areas were once ruled by the Germans and this is still visible in architecture. The largest town in the area is Šilutė, where you can make a detour to Nemunas delta if the approach roads are not submerged by the waters of Nemunas river (as happens every spring, but you may use a special tractor ferry).

Beyond Šilutė the road continues to Klaipėda, therefore making the Nemunas Valley road a slower yet more interesting alternative for Kaunas-Klaipėda or Vilnius-Klaipėda route by car.

By the way, the Skirsnemuniškiai town that you pass here is famous for having the longest name among the Lithuanian single-word placenames (16 letters).

Kretinga Town

Kretinga (pop. 19 000) is primarily notable for its Franciscan and nobility heritage.

Most places of interest are located along the north-south Vilniaus street. Tiškevičius family palace at its northern end now serves as a regional museum. It is primarily famous for its cozy indoor garden, housing a restaurant popular for celebrations. Other exhibits are lackluster but the Neoclassical atmosphere of some halls is nice.

Tiškevičius palace in Kretinga with an indoor garden in the middle. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Like many prime Lithuanian manors the Kretinga manor once boasted a well-landscaped park which has been destroyed and partly built up by Soviets. It is being slowly regenerated. A wooden sculptural composition for the annual holidays has been erected, while the former manor water mill now houses an exhibition of traditional Lithuanian celebrations.

The rest of the town also suffered damage by the Soviets, thus the important gems (just like the palace) are now surrounded by rather boring mid-20th-century architecture.

Going south Vilniaus street gets hugged by two cemeteries with nice chapels. The eastern gothic revival chapel houses Tiškevičius family remains.

Tiškevičius famiy chapel in cemetery. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Further south stands the Annunciation church and Franciscan monastery. Once among the prettiest in Lithuania, the church tower has been heavily simplified under the Soviet rule but the complex still has some charm left.

Nearby massive main square is the trade hub for the town, its surroundings having most shops and a marketplace. Kretinga being not far from Lithuania Minor it also houses a Lutheran church.

The passion of modern Kretinga is motoball, a sports resembling football on motorcycles that is played on some spring, summer and autumn weekends in a local motodrome, attracting attendances that surpass local basketball and football. The local "Milda" team plays in the Central European League against Belarusian and Latvian rivals.

A match of motoball in Kretinga. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

While Kretinga may not warrant a longer trip on its own, its location makes it a convenient place to visit from Palanga Resort during those overcast days. It is also the closest railway station to Palanga and well connected by frequent buses to Klaipėda.

English tourist map of Kretinga.

Click to learn more about Lithuania: Samogitia (Northwest), Towns No Comments

Historical Heartland of Samogitia: Kražiai, Varniai, Rietavas

In three small towns of central Samogitia, several out-of-scale buildings divulge their past importance. These are Kražiai, Varniai, and Rietavas, the political, religious, cultural and educational centers of western Lithuania in the 15th-19th centuries.

Kražiai, the original capital of Samogitia (1416-1464). The 1762 Late Baroque church here became notable again in 1893 when a mass of people protested the Russian Imperial decision to close it down. This led to a Cossack massacre of the unarmed Lithuanian peasants (9 killed, 53 injured, 150 arrested) which triggered an outrage in the religious 19th century Christian world that in turn saved the church from demolition (but not closure). Only a belfry remains from a much older wooden church (established in 1416). Kražiai’s third church was at the former Jesuit college. Today’s sleepy village hardly reminds an education center but it attracted many students from afar in 1614-1844. Recently restored former dormitory (bursa) is a witness of this era.

Church of Kražiai. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

In 1464 the center of Samogitian diocese was moved 28 kilometers west to Varniai. Two churches (one brick, one wooden) remind of that town former importance, as does the recently rebuilt 53 m tall tower of former priest seminary (1770), now home to the diocesan museum.

Baroque St. Peter and Paul church with 11 altars (left) and the priest seminary tower (right) in Varniai. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Rietavas, 33 km further west, is centered around a large neo-Romanesque church built in 1873. This was the golden age of the Oginskis family. Technology-loving dukes of Rietavas also constructed Lithuania’s first telephone line (1882) and power station (1892), established a famous music school in what were the last years when manors rather than cities were the source of progress and culture in Lithuania. The towered Oginskis Palace did not survive the trials of history, but other buildings of the manor did. Today Rietavas is also known for its bustling bazaar-like market which occupies a disused airfield every Sunday morning, attracting buyers and sellers from all over Samogitia and beyond.

Kražiai-Varniai-Rietavas route may be explored as a detour while traversing the Vilnius/Kaunas-Klapėda highway. It may also be easily combined with a visit to Šiluva Virgin Mary Shrine and Tytuvėnai Monastery, both some 30 km east of Kražiai.

Click to learn more about Lithuania: Religious sites, Samogitia (Northwest), Towns No Comments