Lithuania has the most ethnically homogenous population of the three Baltic states. Modern Lithuanians are descended from the Balt tribes, and the Lithuanian diaspora is by far the biggest of any of the peoples of the Baltic states, mainly due to emigration for political or economic reasons in the 19th and early 20th century and during WWII. Lithuanians are stereotypically gregarious, welcoming and emotional, placing greater emphasis on contacts and favours than method and calculation. Cooler Estonians and Latvians see Lithuanians as hot-headed and unpredictable. The independence campaign of the late 1980s and early _90s illustrated the contrast between Lithuanians and their Baltic neighbours. In Lithuania the struggle was romantic, daring, cliff-hanging and risky, with at least 20 deaths. In Estonia it was gradual, calculated and bloodless, leading to the unkind saying that _Estonians would die for their freedom – to the last Lithuanian_.
Lithuanian is one of only two surviving languages of the Baltic branch of the Indo-European language family. Low Lithuanian is spoken in the west and is a different dialect to High Lithuanian, which is spoken in the rest of the country. The Catholic Church is a conservative force in Lithuanian society, and its head is the Archbishop of Kaunas. Russian Orthodoxy is practised in the country, and there are also Old Believers, a sect of the Russian Orthodox church that has suffered intermittent persecution since the 17th century. There are also pagans in Lithuania, highlighted by the Romuva movement, which has congregations in Vilnius and Kaunas as well as among Lithuanian communities overseas. The movement works towards rekindling Lithuania_s ancient spiritual and folklore traditions.
The first major fiction in Lithuanian was the poem Metai (The Seasons), by Kristijonas Donelaitis, describing the life of serfs in the 18th century. Jonas Maciulis, known as Maironis, is regarded as the founder of modern Lithuanian literature thanks to the poetry he wrote around the beginning of the 20th century. Lithuania is also the birthplace of several major Polish writers, among them Czeslaw Milosz, winner of the 1980 Nobel prize for literature.
An interesting Lithuanian folk-art tradition is the carving of large wooden crosses, suns, weathercocks or figures of saints on tall poles that are placed at crossroads, in cemeteries, village squares or at the sites of extraordinary events. In the Soviet period, such work was banned, but it survived to amazing effect at the Hill of Crosses near Siauliai.
Dairy products and potatoes are mainstays of the Lithuanian diet, and pancakes are particularly popular. A traditional (and unforgettable) meal is cepelinai, a zeppelin-shaped parcel of a glutinous substance (allegedly potato dough), with a wad of cheese, meat or mushrooms in the centre. It comes topped with a sauce made from onions, butter, sour cream and bacon bits. Sakotis is a tall, Christmas-tree shaped cake generally served at weddings, while dinner on Christmas Eve consists of 12 different vegetarian dishes. Utenos and Kalnapilis are the best local brands of beer, perhaps preferable to midus (mead), which can be as much as 60% proof. Those who prefer to make their own decision about when to lie down should look out for stakliskes, a honey liqueur.
Lithuania is the biggest of the three Baltic states and covers an area roughly the same size as Ireland. It borders Latvia in the north, Belarus in the south-east, the Baltic Sea in the west and Poland and the truncated Kaliningrad Region of Russia in the south-west. It_s a predominantly flat country, and its highest point, Juazapinés, measures only 294m (964ft). Lithuania_s Baltic coast extends about 100km (62mi), half of which lies along the extraordinary Curonian Spit – a pencil-thin 98km (61mi) long sandbar that_s up to 66m (216ft) high.
Just over one quarter of Lithuania is forested, in particular the south-west of the country. Elk, deer, wild boar, wolf and lynx inhabit the forests, though you_re unlikely to bump into any without some guidance. Lithuania also has about 2000 otters, and Lake Zuvintas, in the south, is an important breeding ground and migration halt for waterbirds. There are five national parks in Lithuania and a number of nature reserves, the highlight being the Kursiu Nerija National Park, a special environment of high dunes, pine forests, beaches, a lagoon and seacoasts.
The Lithuanian climate is temperate. From May to September daytime highs vary from about 14°C to 22°C (57°F to 72°F), but between November and March it rarely gets above 4°C (39°F). July and August, the warmest months, are also wet, with days of persistent showers. May, June and September are more comfortable, while late June can be thundery. Slush under foot is something you have to cope with in autumn, when snow falls then melts, and in spring, when the winter snow thaws.
Getting There & Away
Frequent flights operate between Vilnius or Kaunas and most European capitals. There are no direct flights between Lithuania and North America, Australia and Asia. Vilnius airport is 5km (3mi) south of the city centre, in the suburb of Kirtimai, while Kaunas airport is 10km (6mi) north of the Old Town.
Buses are the cheapest but least comfortable method of reaching Lithuania, with direct buses from Belarus, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Norway, Poland, Russia and Sweden. The buses between Poland and Belarus and Lithuania are notoriously subject to long delays: motorists have had to queue for as long as four days at the border between Ogrodniki, Poland and Lazdijai. Lithuanian border guards are pretty nonchalant nowadays. They don_t bother stamping passports and have even been known to smile.
The Berlin-St Petersburg train passes through Vilnius. If coming from Poland, you can take a direct train from Warsaw to Kaunas, then pick up one of the frequent connections to Vilnius. The direct train from Warsaw to Vilnius passes through Belarus – make sure you have a Belarus transit visa if you require one. The daily Baltic Express, which links Poland with Estonia, stops at three Lithuanian destinations. Ferries link the west coast port of Klaipeda with Århus, Fredericia and Copenhagen (Denmark), Kiel and Mukran (Germany), and Harwich (England).
back to top
Buses and trains are the best ways to get around, as they go just about everywhere. Although buses are quicker and slightly cheaper, train travel is far from dear: you can track 100km (62mi) on little more than small change in general seating class. Driving isn_t a bad option since the main roads are good, traffic is light and distances are small. It_s best to bring your own vehicle, because car rental is very expensive. Lithuanians drive on the right and a zero blood-alcohol level is strictly enforced. Cycle touring hasn_t really taken off in Lithuania, but the country_s flatness, small size and light traffic make it good pedalling territory.
The Baltic Revolution, by Anatol Lieven, is an insightful account of the heady days of the early 1990s, written by the Baltic States correspondent for the London Times.
Russia, by German author JG Kohl, includes a lengthy section on the Baltic states as part of his account of travels in the tsarist empire in the 1840s.
Journey into Russia, by Laurens Van Der Post, is an account of the author_s travels through Soviet Russia in the 1960s, including a visit to Vilnius.
William Palmer_s Good Republic conjures up the atmosphere of the pre-WWII Baltics, the Soviet and Nazi occupations, and the feel of émigré life.
Bohin Manor, by Tadeusz Konwicki, is set in Lithuania in the aftermath of the 1863 uprising. It evokes tensions between locals, their Russian rulers and a Jewish outsider, as well as the foreboding and mysterious nature of the Lithuanian backwoods.
The Baltic States: The Years of Independence 1917-40, by Georg von Rauch, and The Baltic States: The Years of Dependence 1940-80, by Romuald Misiunas and Rein Taagepera, are both weighty historical tomes.
Forest of the Gods, by Lithuanian dramatist Balys Sruoga, is locally published and available in Vilnius. It is a powerful account of the author_s time spent in the Stutthof Nazi concentration camp.