The original inhabitants of today's Lithuania, the Balts, are said to have arrived there as early as 2000 BC. In the mid 13th century, their leader Mindaugas converted to Catholicism to defuse action by the Knights of the Sword who had invaded what is now Latvia and Estonia and by the Teutonic Order that had taken over northern Poland and Prussia.
This religion of convenience was endorsed by Gediminas who pushed Lithuania's borders south and east into territories held by the orthodox Slavs. In the 14th century, Lithuania needed to form an alliance either with the Orthodox Russians or with the Catholic Poles to resist continued aggression from the Teutonic Order. The Lithuanian king Jogaila chose Catholicism, married the Polish princess Jadwiga, became Wladyslaw II Jagiello and founded the Polish Jagiellon dynasty which led to the Rzeczpospolita (Commonwealth) which lasted until the partitions of Poland gave most of Lithuania to Russia in the 18th century.
Russian rule brought intense russification, the persecution of the Catholic religion and desire for independence. In the following century, the first world war, the communist revolution, and the second world war brought moments of hope for independence but it finally came only after the disintegration of the soviet empire in 1991.
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I arrived here by bus around 5:00 PM and got a room for 4.40 $US at the Gintaras Hotel in front of the train station shown here.
Lithuanians have steadfastly held on to their language and religion through the century and a half of Russian and Soviet occupation. The Vilnius Cathedral in the center of the old city is not only a place of worship but also a symbol of their identity.
Below left, the Cathedral Bell Tower and below right, the Gate of Dawn in the northern part of the old city. The only gate left of the 17th century fortifications it now houses a highly revered image of the Virgin Mary.
The narrow winding streets of Old Vilnius, like this Stikliu gatvé, date from the 15th and 16th centuries and constitute a tourist attraction full of charm and history.
Pilies Gatvé is the main north south thoroughfare of the old city.
Here is another view of Pilies Gatvé further south, near the Cathedral.
The Neris River, seen from the Zaliasis bridge.
My internet friend Pavel Petenko in front of his home on the right. Pavel guided me around town and his mother Nina showed me Trakai.
Trakai was the capital of Lithuania in the 14th century. The Island Castle behind me is said to have been built around 1400 by the Grand Duke Vytaulas who extended Lithuanian control beyond Kursk in the east and almost to the Black Sea in the south (see Ukraine).
Trakai Castle would be almost 500 years old so you can imagine how heavily it must have been restored to look like this now.
The barracks inside the castle fortifications have been transformed into a museum and shops for the tourists who flock to this place.
Not only tourists but also ordinary people from Vilnius love to come here to enjoy Lake Luka surrounding Trakai Castle and the old town of Trakai built on the narrow peninsula leading up to the castle.
After three days, I left for Riga but I was turned back at the border and had to come back to get a visa for Latvia. The bureaucrats at the latvian consulate here charged me 60$US but they gave me a receipt for only 30 $US...