Aukštaitija (Northeast Lithuania): Cities, Towns and Resorts | True Lithuania
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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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Kėdainiai Town

Kėdainiai (population 32 000) is a town near the center of Lithuania well known for its brick old town. With most Lithuanian old towns being wooden and therefore less intact, the lovely small medieval district of Kėdainiai is unusual. The well-cared clean streets run towards numerous squares where markets used to take place. Kėdainiai was especially important for medieval trade.

The main square is "Great Market" (Didžioji Rinka) opens to Nevėžis river at one side. On the opposite side there stands a former city hall with a tall roof.

Main Market of Kėdainiai (City Hall on the left). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

In times when Lithuania was virtually ruled by several important families, Kėdainiai was the seat of Radvila family. This branch of the famous family adopted a Reformed faith and therefore the Kėdainiai main square is dwarfed by a Renaissance Reformed Christian church (1652) rather than a Catholic one. The Reformed community has since dwindled and the church has one monthly mass, but the sarcophagi of underground Radvila family crypt with long epitaphs still attracts tourists. Outside summer one needs to ask at Kėdainiai museum to have the Reformed church opened.

On the opposite side of Radvilų street stands a 17th century Arnett House, built by a Scottish merchant family. Kėdainiai once had a thriving Scottish community, attracted by a common Reformed faith.

A view of Senoji Street in Kėdainiai Old Town. A massive belfry of the Reformed Christian church is visible.©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Catholics have a black wooden church of Saint Joseph not far away (Radvilų street). It is famous for being one of the oldest and largest wooden churches in Lithuania, having been built in 1766. The entire interior is wooden, including three 18th century baroque altars.

Gothic St. George Catholic church on the opposite side of Nevėžis river is even older (1662).

Other religious communities set their footprint in Kėdainiai as well. Lutheran church has been constructed by German traders in 1629 and its famous for interior decorations. Russian Orthodox church dates to the Russian Imperial rule (1861). Two white synagogues (summer and winter, 18th-19th centuries) at Senoji Rinka (Old Market) have been restored as a Jewish museum. A third synagogue stands in Smilgos street.

There aren't that many towns of this size in the world where houses of worship of 5 different faiths would stand, each of them at least 150 years old. However that old tolerance was replaced by destructive Russian and Soviet occupations of 19th-20th century when most religious buildings were looted and closed (and some destroyed), and only after 1990 was the religious life reborn, but minority faiths remained small in numbers of followers.

St. Joseph wooden Catholic church of Kėdainiai. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Pediastrianised Didžioji street is the pretty main axis of Kėdainiai Old Town. Its cute old homes house several hotels and restaurants. The former Carmelite monastery now serves as Kėdainiai museum. It has a nice collection of Lithuanian wayside crosses, as well as some modern art by local artists, historical exhibits and furniture/clothing from regional manors (furniture made of horns brought back from 1900 Paris Expo by the local nobles is interesting, even if not local). Šviesioji Gimnazija (school), established by Radvilas in 1625, is another historic institution. A two-floored townhouse at Didžioji street's eastern end has been transformed into an art project where every window reminds an episode of rich town history.

Being a hometown of Radvilas Kėdainiai also enjoyed political importance. Union of Kėdainiai was signed here, terminating the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and establishing a Swedish-Lithuanian one instead. However the Swedes subsequently lost the 1655-1660 war, leading to the restoration of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Unfortunately, neither the magnificient Radvila palace, nor the later manor built by romanticist painter Czapski. The ruins of Czapski manor and the exotic Turkish-inspired minaret built as an observation tower in his park are beyond the train station rails.

English map of Kėdainiai.

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Lakes of Aukštaitija (National Park)

Known as the land of a thousand lakes eastern Aukštaitija is famous for its pristine nature. 1300 sq. km of it has been set aside in 1970s-1990s for protected areas, including the nation's first National Park.

Aukštaitija National Park is especially packed with lakes. They may be better if experienced rather than watched (which you could do by swimming, renting a boat, angling). That said, the prettiness of irregular forested shorelines are best grasped from above and there are free lookout towers for this. You may ascend a 30,5 m observation platform south of Šiliniškės, or enjoy an easier access to Ladakalnis hill near Ginučiai.

Farmstead at lake shore as visible from the Šiliniškės lookout tower. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

For the area's (and indeed Lithuania's) best natural panoramas you would need to leave National Park however and opt for the trembling-in-the-wind guyed observation mast at Lake Sartai. That long islanded lake is also famous for the annual winter sled carriage race on its ice. The tradition started in the 19th century, though the early February race has been moved to Dusetos hippodrome.

Limits on construction left the Aukštaitija National Park's villages quite authentic. Some hamlets (e.g. Salos II) reachable only by dirt roads have been designated as "ethnographic" as their wooden homes and barns are little changed since before World War 2.

Much of what happens takes place in the larger villages however where most tourist facilities are also located. Pretty buildings there include Palūšė wooden church (1757) and several water mills converted into hotels/museums. That said, Aukštaitija National Park lacks world-class wonders so if you want to be awestruck you may want to choose Neringa NP, Samogitian NP or Trakai NP instead.

Wooden church at Palūšė village. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

With its easy access from Vilnius (110 km) Aukštaitija National Park turned into a gentrified Lithuanian countryside, with all its original joys and none of the troubles. Lake swimming, boat rides, and saunas fully displaced hard farm labor as the farmsteads had been largely bought up (and neatly repaired) by urban dwellers for summer weekends.

Outside the National/Regional Park borders the towns are far more prosaic (but offer more shopping/eating opportunities that are extremely limited in protected areas). Molėtai (pop. 7000) area, merely 50 km from Vilnius, became a favored place for a second home and weekend tourism. Ignalina (pop. 6000) posits itself as a minor resort, also having a skiing hill winter attraction. Squeezed by lakes so much that its original 19th-century "fan layout" had to be altered Zarasai (pop. 7000) has a nice lakewatching platform and an island favored by Lithuanian summertime musical festivals. Utena (pop. 28 000) is the area's largest town completely detached from the lake resort atmosphere, while Visaginas (pop. 20 000) is a unique Russian-speaking Soviet-commissioned town.

Lakes are not the only natural experiences in Aukštaitija. Museum of ethnocosmology (Kulionys village near Molėtai) introduces the millennia of shifting relationships between the Man and Space. This unique-in-the-world topic is however not covered broadly enough and the museum is quite hard to visit with its limited opening times and required advance registrations. Nevertheless, its post-modern buildings that look as a UFO armada descended on the Aukštaitijan landscape are an attraction on themselves. The top "flying saucer" serves for observation (daytime) and stargazing (through an 80 cm telescope). An improvised prehistoric Baltic observatory has been laid out in the surrounding fields while the Lithuania's prime modern observatory with the Northern Europe's largest 165 cm telescope is merely 2 km north (open only on pre-arranged visits).

Lookout/telescope tower in the Museum of Ethnocosmology. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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Ukmergė Town

Ukmergė (population 25 000) is a town on the highway Vilnius-Panevėžys.

Destroyed by fire in the year 1877 Ukmergė was swiftly rebuilt and remains a great reminder of that era. Its two-floor homes that surround the central Kęstučio square are what have once adorned many small towns of Lithuania. North of the square is the small downtown where narrow streets still have cobbled surface and old advertisements invite to the shops of a gone-by era.

Renovated Vienuolyno street in downtown Ukmergė (next to the Holy Trinity church). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Two small but pretty Ukmergė's churches are east and west of the downtown. Eastern Saints Peter and Paul church (1820) is an interesting example of National romantic architecture. Western Neobysanthic Holy Trinity church was built as a Russian Orthodox church in 1869 on a ground nationalized from Catholic Piarist monastery. The church was transferred to Catholics in 1919.

Saint Peter and Paul church is a rare example of Neoclassical architecture in small towns of Lithuania. Built in 1820 it predates the great fire that ravaged the town in 1877. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

South of the main square there is a firefighter tower which is part of a local relatively dull provincial museum and may be climbed. Free views of Ukmergė downtown can be enjoyed from a hill (Piliakalnis) to the east, once crowned by a 14th-century castle. A wooden blue-and-turquoise Old Believer church (1873) is at the bottom of this hill on the banks of Šventoji river.

Old Believer church of Ukmergė and the castle hill beyond it in winter. These were the outer districts of 19th-century Ukmergė. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Among the Lithuania's largest cities in the interwar years, Ukmergė also received a fair share of investments back then, such as the Antanas Smetona gymnasium (not far away from the St. Peter and Paul church) or the "Lituania Restituta" obelisk in the main square.

Compact Ukmergė downtown is surrounded by the typical 19th-century outer districts, still consisting of detached single-family wooden dwellings in streets like Darbininkų, Kurklių or Vilkmergėlės.

Thanks to its place near the highway Ukmergė is easy to visit if you go from Vilnius to Panevėžys or Riga. While this road is new Ukmergė's position as a traffic hub is not as its main Vytauto street coincides with the historic Saint Petersburg-Kaunas-Warsaw route and lacking a bypass it is still full of traffic.

English tourist map of Ukmergė, Lithuania.

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Anykščiai Town

Anykščiai (population 12 000) lies on the Šventoji river, the longest river to both start and end in Lithuania. Despite not having magnificent buildings (other than the imposing gothic revival Saint Matthew church of 1909 with its tallest-in-Lithuania 79 m twin towers) the town has quite many interesting places for its size. Some of these places are outside the town, however (up to 10 km from the center), therefore a car would be convenient.

Saint Matthew church towers above Anykščiai. One of the towers may be ascended. Inside the vistas are coupled with informational panels on the town and its history. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

What you can see in the town itself besides the church is the narrow-gauge railroad, declared to be a technical monument. Built in the late 19th century this railroad once connected far-away places like Biržai and Švenčionys and had hundreds of kilometers in length, quite unusual for European narrow gauge railways. It was shortened to Panevėžys-Anykščiai-Rubikiai line by the Soviets. However, some of the stations, water towers are dating to the turn of the 20th century. After a brief cessation of service, the line has been partially restored by rail enthusiasts. Tourists may now enjoy a short ride to the nearby lakeside resort of Rubikiai in weekends. A hire of entire train is also possible. A short ride by a handcar or a railbike at the narrow-gauge railroad museum in Anykščiai station is much cheaper and you may also witness old rail machinery and memorabilia there.

Anykščiai narrow gauge railway station is the base of Aukštaitija railway with trains waiting before they go on their infrequent services. A narrow-gauge railway museum is also located here. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Southwest of Anykščiai lies the Puntukas stone, the second largest stone in Lithuania. It is covered by indentations reminding of the flight across the Atlantic Ocean by pilots S. Darius and S. Girėnas, the first Lithuanians to complete this mission (and worldwide air mail pioneers). The bas-relief was made in secret by Bronius Pundzius in 1943 as Lithuania was occupied by the Nazi Germany at the time.

Liudiškės hill, on top of which lies the grave of famous Lithuanian writer Jonas Biliūnas, is nearby. The grave is shaped like the "Phleron of happiness" in one of his short-stories. Everybody sought for that Phleron but it was on a large tower, and many people fell down to their deaths. Only after many died somebody climbed over the dead bodies of the earlier braves and took the Phleron, and made everyone happy (possibly an allegory of a fight for independence, where many have to die before somebody is able to successfully declare it).

Puntukas stone (left) and Liudiškės hill in Anykščiai. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

North of Anykščiai Šeimyniškėliai hill is a possible location of mysterious Voruta city where Lithuania's first king Mindaugas had been crowned. The massive triangular hill is surrounded by a defensive ravine and may be ascended by wooden stairs. Unfortnuately, no fortifications remain on top. However to help one imagine how the castle may have looked like a wooden tower and outer wall is reconstructed nearby. Tower hosts a mini-museum inside and one may also try out shooting old-style bows.

Rebuilt wooden castle tower near Šeimyniškėliai hill. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

In Niūronys north of Anykščiai there is a popular Horse museum, dedicated to horses and pre-war countryside lifestyle. Craftsmen (blacksmith, weaver, wheelmaker) show their work and its results. 19th-century horse-drawn vehicles and the cultural role of the horse are also well-covered (mostly in Lithuanian though). The museum is famous for programs where you can try the old village crafts yourself - such as making bread (reservation needed).

Anykščiai placed a bid to become an official resort. It offers active tourism opportunities including a skiing hill. In summer the same hill serves as a place for "summer sled" (a kind of roller coaster with an ability to control its speed) and zorbing. Wakeboarding park and labyrinth park are available elsewhere.

English tourist map of Anykščiai, Lithuania.

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Visaginas Town

Visaginas (population 20 000) has been built in the 1970s and 1980s for workers of a new nuclear power plant built nearby. Once a secret settlement, this is a good example of a Soviet city. All its buildings are multi-storey apartment blocks built according to common layouts. They are separated by pedestrian alleys and wide four-lane streets, all of which still bear names like Tarybų (Soviet), Kosmonautų (Cosmonaut), Taikos (Peace) or Draugystės (Friendship). In the Soviet Union, every city had streets named this way.

Gate to the yard behind apartment blocks now overfilled with cars. Such architectural designs had to be eye-candy in an otherwise monotonous red-and-grey city but even they were not unique with every yard of the same street having a same-looking gate. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Only the name of the city itself was changed from Sniečkus (surname of a Lithuanian communist leader) to Visaginas after independence. The new name comes from a phrase „Everybody defends themselves“ and while it reminds of poisonous snakes that used to live around the local lake, it is also surprisingly appropriate for a cold war nuclear town.

The ethnic make-up of the city strikingly reminds the former Soviet Union as well with 52% of the population being ethnic Russians. Other ethnicities that once lived in the Soviet Union, such as Ukrainians or Belarusians, are also well represented. Russian is still the lingua franca in Visaginas. The population density is highest among Lithuania’s cities, but you are never far from nature as Visaginas is surrounded by forests and several lakes are nearby. In fact, fragments of pine forests are left even between apartment blocks making Visaginas a unique forest city.

Pine forest in the middle of the city. The tower block nearby has never been completed. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Although it may seem so when you are in Visaginas time does not stand still here. The Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant which once employed half of the population was closed down as requested by the European Union. The gigantic industrial building east of the city that once housed the most powerful nuclear reactors in the world now stands empty. It never reached its full potential as 2 of the 4 planned reactors have not been built. Should they have been built Visaginas would have been doubled in size to house around 50 000 inhabitants. Right now the town's population already went down by a third from its peak. Visaginas ages as a whole: it was known as the "youngest town" in 1999 with an average age of 30,6 years but in 2012 the number went all the way to 39,3, showing little generational change.

The enormous power plant is a must-see. The massive pipes leading to Visaginas from the power plant once provided cheap heating. This was once the heart of the city that is now empty. In order to expedite the plans of a new power plant people of Visaginas are staging protests in favor of nuclear power. A NIMBY object anywhere else an NPP is more than welcome in what is the Nuclear Town.

Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant near Visaginas. Plant-to-city heating pipe is visible in the foreground. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Other than that, a simple stroll around the town is rewarding. The nuclear workers used to live well by Soviet standards, therefore Visaginas was built for upper middle class. With the exception of few additions, the city is still as it was in the 1980s (even the atom-shaped streetlights remain).

The post-independence additions are a modern shopping mall and several churches. The Orthodox Church of the Birth of John the Baptist (1992) constructed in a converted shop between two apartment blocks in Sedulinos Avenue is probably the most interesting. The Catholic St. Paul's (1998) and Russian Orthodox St. Pantaleimon's (2000) are more typical religious buildings. Atheism was the first Soviet-introduced cultural practice to wither: in 2001 the city still had the highest share of irreligious in Lithuania (25%), down to 9% in 2011.

A shop that was hastily transformed into Visaginas's first church after the atheist Soviet Union collapsed. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Visaginas is now also famous for the largest Country music festival in the Baltics, taking place in summer.

English tourist map of Visaginas, Lithuania.

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Biržai Town And Castle

This town (pop. 15 000) far in the northeastern Lithuanian outback is known for its 17th-century castle. The main building surrounded by fortifications forms the most impressive surviving military structure of this era in Lithuania.

The central building of the Biržai castle (surrounded by fortifications). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The castle/fortress (now housing a relatively dull provincial museum) was owned by Radvila family. Together with the Sapiegas and some other noble families the Radvilas virtually controlled the Lithuania’s political life of the 17th century.

Radvilas were proponents of Reformed Christianity and this is still visible in Biržai as the town has a red-brick Reformed Christian church (1876) as well as the usual Roman Catholic one (1861). Surrounding villages boast old Reformed churches as well although now only some 10% of district‘s population profess this faith. Biržai Reformed church offers services only on Sundays whereas the Roman Catholic parish celebrates mass every day.

Biržai is in a nice location near Širvėna artificial lake that is spanned by a long pedestrian bridge leading to a manor on the other side. The town used to be a terminus both for the Aukštaičiai Road from Kaunas and the narrow gauge railway, a kind of place in the end of Lithuania. But despite it being far from main tourist locations the town offers several restaurants and other facilities.

The area surrounding Biržai is notable for its numerous sinkholes, some of which are now considered tourist sights.

A sinkhole near Biržai. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

English tourist map of Biržai. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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Panevėžys City

Panevėžys Old Town with Senvagė (Billabong) in the foreground. Behind it you may see buildings of various eras standing side by side. Panevėžys theater is in the middle. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Panevėžys (pop. 100 000) is Lithuania's 5th largest city and the largest city in Aukštaitija region. Heavily hit by the World Wars and post-war demolition Panevėžys of today is different from the city it was before the war. Only some old buildings remain amidst post-war Soviet public buildings and apartment blocks.

In the Panevėžys Old Town probably some half of the buildings are pre-1940s and the other half is newer. As they stand side-by-side or on opposite sides of the same streets, it is hard to immerse yourself in that atmosphere of centuries gone-by that you could feel in Vilnius or Kaunas.

The key features of the central Panevėžys are the Senvagė (billabong), a popular "lake" for strolling around, and the triangular Laisvės square that serves as the central square of the city. A few more interesting buildings in this area include a modest church (Holy Trinity, 1808) and an old factory. Two theaters (drama and musical) are also located in the area, as is the municipality, city library, courthouse, and other institutions. Trade, however, has largely moved to the shopping malls elsewhere.

Districts that surround the downtown are dominated by suburb-style single-story single family dwellings. The oldest among them date to the 19th century when the first streets were laid in these areas, but the majority are newer, with recent homes having replaced the older ones. The majority of churches are located in those districts, including the wooden Lutheran (east of the downtown), Russian Orthodox and Old Believer churches (both west of the downtown). Among these smaller houses of worship, the square castle-like tower of the Lutheran church is the most interesting feature.

Panevėžys Cathedral, south of the downtown, is the most impressive among the city‘s religious buildings. Completed in the 1920s for the newly erected diocese this nicely restored church still boasts a solemn light blue interior adorned by murals such as that of the spires of diocese‘s main churches behind its altar.

Another imposing church is the neo-gothic Saint Peter and Paul's (1885) that stands north of the downtown, beyond the Nevėžis river.

Saint Peter and Paul church north of the downtown. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The Ekranas stadium where the local football team plays is also in the near north of Panevėžys. The modern multi-purpose Cido arena with velodrome and basketball court is in the near west. Built for the Eurobasket 2011 it hosted the coveted games of Lithuanian national team and now is the home of Panevėžys basketball team as well as various events.

Beyond the low-rise districts of Panevėžys stand the Soviet apartment blocks. They are most prominent in the western and southwestern parts of the city where Panevėžys expanded in years 1945 - 1990. In the very north of the city (north of the railroad) stands a Soviet low-rise district known as Rožynas.

Panevėžys bus station is next to the Laisvės square (downtown) whereas the railroad station is in the north of the city. It is only served by infrequent Šiauliai-bound trains.

Panevėžys is the central point between Vilnius and Riga and therefore a good stop if you go this way. Babilonas real estate project covering the area of 80 ha is only 2 kilometers from the Vilnius-Riga road on the western outskirts of Panevėžys. Here are located two major shopping malls and smaller shops.

One day trip possibility is Pašiliai European bison park (30 km south of Panevėžys) where a bunch of these majestic animals live in a large enclosure and can be spectated. There is also a post-WW2 Lithuanian anti-Soviet partisan defensive installation nearby, reconstructed to help you catch a glimpse of what the life in eternal danger in the forest should have been.

North of Panevžėžys, the Įstra aerodrome of general aviation offers a small museum of aviation with some Soviet aircraft (Paįstrys village).

Map of Panevėžys. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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Rokiškis Town and Manor

Rokiškis (pop. 15 000) is among the most appealing towns of northeastern Lithuania (Aukštaitija). It is centered around a very large rectangular main Nepriklausomybės (Independence) square. The square connects the Saint Matthew church (a neo-gothic masterpiece) on its western side to an extensive 18th century Tyzenhauzai family manor in the east.

The manor consists of 16 buildings. Its main palace and the nearby servant buildings restored and housing a municipal museum. Some other buildings are still crumbling, separated from the palace by Soviet streets, but the entire complex is impressive nonetheless.

The palace of Rokiškis manor (1801). ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The key exhibits of the Rokiškis manor museum includes the meticulously recreated interior of the manor building itself and the collection of Lionginas Šepka wooden sculptures. Šepka, although having lived 1907-1985, spent his life very archaically, lacking electricity. He devoted himself to the old traditional art of "Godmaking" (creating religious sculptures), however, his creations departed from the folk style and he created a style of his own, where every surface of every figure is decorated in patterns and Lithuanian words/sentences/stories, often having a secretive meaning.

1 kilometer separates the palace from the St. Matthew church, also funded by the Tyzenhauzai family (1877). The church and the palace are visible from each other through a straight urbanistic axis that consists of the 400 m long square, 400 m long Tyzenhauzų alley between two ponds and 200 m long paths of the palace garden.

A composition by Lionginas Šepka intended to adorn his brother's grave. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The church has fine exterior and equally interesting interior.

The northern and southern sides of Nepriklausomybės square are full of 19th-century buildings. Despite some modern additions, the area managed not to lose the atmosphere of an early 20th-century town center. The square is well kept with new streetlights and benches. There are two monuments in the square, the new one is for Rokiškis while the old one (built in 1928) is dedicated to the decennial of Lithuania's independence. Unlike nearly all other such monuments, it somehow survived the Soviet occupation. Depicting mythological and allegorical figures, it also has a Baltic swastika inscribed.

The western end of Nepriklausomybės square, with the Saint Matthew church and the independence decennial monument visible. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Streets immediately surrounding the square tend to have some old buildings as well, but if you wander further north or south, the magic of Rokiškis downtown will be quick to wane.

English tourist map of Rokiškis. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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Joniškis Town

Joniškis (pop. 11 000) is a town in northern Lithuania, dominated by a truly massive historicist church, dating to 1901. Uncommon to the area, this gray building with a mezzanine incorporates elements of various previous architectural styles rather than emulating a single one.

Church of Virgin Mary Assumption towers over Joniškis. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Among its historic residentials and other buildings the town also has two synagogues, named "white" (1823; neoclassical) and "red" (1865; historicist) as one is plastered and the neighboring one has its red masonry visible. The red one partly collapsed in 2007 but now both are undergoing state-funded restoration. Prior to World War 2, Joniškis was home to some 900 Jews.

Two synagogues of Joniškis stand side-by-side east of the main square. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Recently Joniškis became famous for its new museum of basketball, the only one of its kind in Lithuania. The museum's enthusiastic owner has a great collection of memorabilia of Lithuanian and Soviet basketball national teams and clubs. You may compare your own feet with a shoe of Arvydas Sabonis (2,20 m tall most famous Lithuanian player of the recent decades, who spent 7 seasons in NBA), review famous basketball games on a big screen, acquire bilingual books on the sport, see medals of important competitions, among other things.

Inside the Joniškis basketball museum. The screen beyond the ball-shaped door shows the controversial final minute of Munich Olympics final USA vs. USSR. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Joniškis is important to Lithuanian basketball as it was in this Lithuanian-Latvian border town where the Lithuanian national basketball team was greeted by happy crowds in 1937 after winning their first European championship in Riga. After this event basketball was catapulted to the level of national sport where it has remained ever since, despite all the trials and tribulations that fell on the Lithuanian nation.

The basketball museum is located in Livonijos str. 3 and you will need to contact it to arrange opening times. The official website is here.

English tourist map of Joniškis. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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Kernavė Castle Hills

This UNESCO inscribed scenery consists of several small round hills near the banks of river Neris. Until the 14th century Teutonic attacks every one of them was crowned by a wooden castle as Kernavė was the capital of Lithuania until 1321 and the home for Grand Dukes Traidenis and Vytenis. None of the castles remain today.

The surrounding town of the era had up to 5000 inhabitants. However, it has also turned into dust. The area is now best known for its lovely scenery, a nice background for a short summer hike. There are four castle hills next to each other, whereas beyond them an access path to Neris river and the branching paths pass through various historically important locations of the former town, cemeteries and the first wood-paved road.

Castle hills at Kernavė. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

To better imagine that old pagan town, start your visit by checking out the refurbished archeological museum. Its atmospheric dimly-lit halls offer a nice selection of Stone Age, Iron Age, and Medieval tools, jewelry and weapons, well explained by interactive screens and 3D graphics. After all, Kernavė is a real treasure-trove for Lithuanian archaeologists.

A reimagination of pre-historic Kernavė has also been constructed in the form of a wooden village near one of the castle hills (Pilies kalnas).

Reimagined fragment of a Medieval Lithuanian town in Kernavė. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Given its past importance, Kernavė is an important location for various Medieval-related or ethnic festivals. "Medieval days" are held every year, whereas arguably the prime festival at Kernavė is Joninės / Rasos. While it is celebrated across Lithuania, Kernavė celebration puts the most attention to the Pagan traditions. However, the mysterious atmosphere provides a great background to the Joninės bonfires, attracting not only the neo-Pagans.

The nearby modern Kernavė village is very small (population 350) but it has a church (1920) and a chapel near the archaeological site.

Kernavė has been a pagan town throughout its 1300s golden age. It received one of Lithuania's earliest churches in 1430. Limits of that church are now marked by stones. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Pakruojis Manor and Town

Pakruojis (pop. 5000) town is primarily known for its manor, the largest in Lithuania.

With 43 surviving buildings spread over 48 ha area it serves as a great reminder of a pre-WW1 Lithuania when noble families residing in such manors dominated politics, business and culture alike. They also effectively owned the surrounding villages with all local peasants (serfs) living there.

Pakruojis manor palace looking from the technical yard. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Pakruojis manor grounds consist of four sections.

Nobility and its guests would have stuck to the Main section, dominated by a small Neoclassical palace and a partly-overgrown park.

Two Technical sections were devoted to keeping the manor operational. They included servants housing, stables, barns and cattle sheds.

Industrial section held the manor owners' business power, with two mills, an inn and a Roman-aqueduct-styled dam (1821). It is prettier than its rather prosaic purpose would imply.

Industrial zone of Pakruojis manor with dam and water mill visible. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Like many of the Lithuania's large manors, Pakruojis was owned by non-Lithuanians (a German Von Ropp family). As the serfs were generally Lithuanians the manors were often seen as a source of discrimination. Together with independence (1918) came a land reform when  the manor landholdings were severely reduced, forcibly selling the rest to peasants. The true destruction, however, came in the 1940s as Soviets nationalized the manor, remodeling the palace for an agricultural school and letting many other buildings to slowly crumble. After 1990 independence much was restored, although the full splendor has yet to return.

In weekends part of Pakruojis manor turns into Lithuania's sole American-style living museum. Marketed as "a single day of Pakruojis manor life in late 19th century", the activity combines actual history (tours of the partly-renovated manor interior), 19th century-inspired performances, entertainment and artisan souvenir shopping. Each visitor may participate in shortened adaptations of historical traditions (a wedding party with traditional songs) and witness local urban legends (a "punishment cellar" is inspired by tales of manor owner Hermann Von Ropp bloodthirstiness, although the torturing devices exhibited there are copied from all over Europe). Professional actors perform the key roles and Lithuanian language knowledge is essential (non-speakers are advised to have somebody to translate for them).

A serf is to be beaten by the manor administrator (tijūnas) during the living museum event. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Pakruojis town itself has few sights: a 19th-century small red-brick printing house, a church, as well as a pre-WW2 fire station with its tower. This fire station has been converted into a small interactive museum.

Arguably the most famous there is the Pakruojis Synagogue. Built in 1801, it is the oldest surviving wooden synagogue in Lithuania. Long abandoned, it had its interior restored and turned into a museum.

A serf is to be beaten by the manor administrator (tijūnas) during the living museum event. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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