As Seen in…
Places to visit in Lithuania and on our tours of the Baltics
Why visit Lithuania?
A casual visitor to modern Lithuania’s almost quaint world of gothic quarters and idyllic wetland-based national parks might be forgiven for assuming little of consequence can have occurred in this Baltic backwater. And yet this is the land which gave birth to a burgeoning trade that established the Amber Road, connecting Lapland to Egyptian shores; this was the last European bastion of paganism and yet also the bedrock of the northern Jesuit-led Counter-Reformation in 1579; this was the pulsating heart of the largest European empire of the 1300s which held territory from Klaipėda to the Crimea.
Today covering a mere 65,000 km², having a short coastline guarded by the amazing 100km of sandy Curonian Spit, and commanding little land over 200m high, its origins are obscure, perhaps named after the minor Lietava river. Nonetheless, the vital amber trade established the Balts in the region, meaning their tribal domains thrived, building hill forts and maintaining their ancient religions until well into the 12th century A.D.. Pragmatism and political intrigue has seen Lithuania repeatedly weather offensives: thus tribute payment kept Viking raiders at bay. By the 12th century, Lithuania was rapidly expanding its territory into Ruthenia, the 13th century Grand Duch’s forcesy defeating the pope’s German crusaders.
Hence, following promises of Christian conversion, the papacy in 1253 and the Holy Roman Emperor in 1429 both recognised the Lithuanian kingdom. Meanwhile, Vilnius’s great building works continued and castles such as Trakai and Gediminas signalled a belligerence which drove the realm through the Rus lands to Kiev and beyond, defeating the Mongols in the process. Christianisation followed and led to a flowering of sacred architecture, such as in the gothic core of today’s Vilnius cathedral and the incomparable beauty of nearby St. Anne’s. Union with Poland shored up the massive empire and lasted for 400 years until ravaged by war, plague and famine, Russia subsumed Lithuania into its empire in 1795. Undercurrents of nationalism and independence characterised the 19th and 20th centuries, with independence achieved in 1918, leading to a period of strong economic growth. This lasted until the Soviet-German pact of 1939 carved up the Baltic States and ushered in invasion by the USSR who committed some of the worst ecclesiaclasm in its republics in the destruction of many of the finest gothic and baroque churches. Most have been rebuilt or, like Vilnius cathedral, re-consecrated from a spell as a museum.
The invasions and counter-invasions of the 1940s saw hideous purges, deportations and mass executions, virtually removing the estimated 100,000 Jews from Lithuania almost entirely. Soviet control was dogged by nationalist resistance amidst the wilderness areas of the country – most famously the ‘Forest Brothers’ and so Lithuania was inevitably the first Baltic state to achieve independence in 1991, despite initial fierce repression. Today’s Lithuania, a member of the EU has a growing economy and a keen eye on the role of tourism in promoting growth.
You will encounter history, tradition and modern culture in equal measure in this outward-looking and welcoming nation.