16 November 2010

Castle Hunting: Trakai Castle

Lithuania doesn't have a large number of castles, and a lot of the fortifications that they used to have are completely ruined at this point. Trakai is definitely the crown jewel of the Lithuanian castle scene. It's only forty-five minutes (maybe half an hour, if you speed - which, if you read on, you'll learn is a bad idea) outside of Vilnius and it's heavily publicized by tour groups, guidebooks and the Lithuanian government. It is, like so many castles, a majorly reconstructed building. During the postwar period it was essentially rebuilt from the ground up.
It is situated here in the middle of Lake Galvė. We got there early enough to avoid the swarms of tourists that were arriving as we left, but not before a number of vendors and beggars had congregated around the entrance to the bridge. There were kids playing recorders, people selling amber and carved wood - and one old man selling smoked eel. I wondered if he was selling the eel to the tourists or to the other profiteers.
This castle was almost completely rebuilt. It was initially built to help protect the Vilnius region from the Teutonic Knights (Malbork Castle was their headquarters) during the fourteenth century. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Polish and Lithuanian owners of the castle largely ignored its upkeep because it had ceased to be strategically located and was expensive to take care of. It fell into disrepair and was largely a ruin by the beginning of the twentieth century. After WWII, Lithuania began to rebuild the keep and the upper walls - it was seen as an important landmark in the new republic. During the soviet period, the reconstruction project was halted for twenty years after Nikita Khrushchev declared the castle a symbol of Lithuania's feudal past, saying that it glorified inequality. The final touches were put on in 1992, after independence.
One thing about our trip so far: we've been mostly in very low-lying, flat lands. This means that we've seen a lot of brick castles. Lowlands tend to have limited supplies of rock, especially in wetter land. It's not what one thinks of when thinking about castles, but I think they're actually very pretty. In addition, brick allowed the architects and masons to build smoother lines and more complicated angles. It's interesting to contrast the clean cylinder of the above tower to the rougher walls of many stone examples from the same era.
We left Trakai on our way to Kaunas, feeling lucky that we had an hour of good weather in an otherwise ugly day. About five minutes out of town we got pulled over by a pair of policemen. They weren't TOO surly, but they weren't overly friendly either. A warning to travelers: Lithuania is very strict about speed limits, especially around tourist attractions. Not that it does much good: they have the highest vehicle fatality rate in the European Union. I was luckily able to pay the fine on the spot and make one of the policemen laugh, so we were free to go (very slowly) on our way.


  1. stunning photos!! and no matter how dreary, or ugly the day is, you certainly always manage to capture beauty and interest.....thank you!!

  2. My jaw dropped. Thanks for sharing the beautiful photos.