True Lithuania

Towns of Lithuania: Introduction

The towns of Lithuania are centered around a church. It well might be a large historicist masterpiece of the early 20th century built after Russian Empire eased its restrictions on Catholic religious buildings. Some of these churches are so massive that they seem to have been transplanted from much larger cities. The tallest church spire in Lithuania is not in Vilnius or Kaunas, but in a small town of Anykščiai. Churches of Švėkšna, Palanga, Rietavas and others are also impressive.

Church of Anykščiai

Massive gothic revival Anykščiai St. Matthew church (1909) towers over the old wooden homes of this town of 11 000 inhabittants in Aukštaitija. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Some other towns still boast older (19th or 18th century) smaller churches, more often than not built of wood in a vernacular style. Then there are settlements with post-1990 churches that either replaced ones previously destroyed by fire or were newly built because these towns never had a church as they gained their importance during the atheist Soviet era.

Churches are typically located at the pre-WW2 market square. Multiple Catholic churches or market squares mark the former importance of the town. Some towns also have a 19th-century Russian Orthodox church and an abandoned synagogue. In Lithuania Minor, there are Lutheran churches next to the Catholic ones, while in the environs of Biržai and in Kėdainiai – Reformed Christian churches.

Another gem enjoyed by some towns is a manor, built by a local noble family some 100 or 200 years ago. Such manors are sometimes still surrounded by elaborate parks that were once crafted by famous French or Italian architects. Unfortunately, the Soviet nationalization drive and subsequent destruction hit the manors heavily, but today some of them are restored. Ones in Palanga and Plungė are especially beautiful. Some of the manors, as well as other buildings, hosts regional museums but few of those are worth visiting.

Meticulously repaired palace of the Plungė manor (Plungė, Samogitia). It was built in 1879 by the duke Oginskiai family. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The historical districts of almost every town used to be built of wood. Many buildings were destroyed by fire, others by the Soviets, therefore few old towns are intact today. The old wooden buildings were joined by Soviet functionalist shops, schools, clinics, bus stations and so-called cultural houses that were built on similar designs and layouts all across the Union. Small towns, just like cities, also received entire new districts of Soviet apartment blocks. The size of these buildings correlated with the size of the settlement, with residential buildings in villages not exceeding 2 stories, in small towns – 4 or 5. Streets of these districts are usually named after different jobs of the 20th century: “Melioratorių” (Irrigation specialists), “Mechanizatorių” (Mechanization specialists).

Soviets also built new detached homes. A popular series of these prefab buildings is known as “Alytus homes” as they used to be manufactured in Alytus.

A local fair in Inturkė, Aukštaitija. Such events, known in Lithuanian as kermošius, typically correlate to locally important Christian feasts. Long sugar sweets are among the most popular goods sold.

The Soviet era districts of the towns today are somewhat run down due to low construction quality, urbanization, and emigration. These social tendencies meant that some of the towns changed relatively little since the restoration of independence (1990). However, most of them received one or more modern chain supermarkets. New family-owned restaurants and hotels were also opened in many towns to replace the gray Soviet ones although in some more remote places it may be difficult to find a place to eat on summer weekends when the marriages are celebrated.

For every rule there are exceptions, and these exceptions are the most interesting towns to visit. Kėdainiai is the only town to host a non-wooden pre-industrial Old Town. Ukmergė has a non-wooden historical district dating to the late 19th century.

Trakai (near Vilnius) and Biržai in the north are famous for their castles, a rare thing for the Lithuanian towns to have.

Resort towns of the 19th century are famous for elaborate wooden villas that were once summer retreats for their rich and noble owners. You may see such villas in Palanga, Druskininkai and Neringa.

A wooden villa in Juodkrantė resort, Lithuania Minor region. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The Lithuania Minor area that was part of Germany for centuries has different architectural styles with red brick facades and wooden frame architecture. You may see this in Šilutė, Neringa, and smaller towns of the area.

A couple of Lithuania’s towns were conceived and built by the Soviets together with major power plants nearby. The more interesting among them is Visaginas, a 1970s-1980s town for a nearby nuclear plant. Elektrėnai is the other one.

Map of the more interesting Lithuania's towns superimposed on Lithuanian regions. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Article written by Augustinas Žemaitis

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