A pilgrimage to Lithuania – once the last pagan country in Europe – its renowned Hill of Crosses, and its fascinating capital, Vilnius, a scenic and historic European gem is a rewarding experience, as Paul Maughan reports
CROSSES, crosses and more crosses – tens of thousands of them in endless variety and size smother the hill in front of me in such density that they obliterate the earth beneath.
I came prepared for a visual spectacle, but this is awe-inspiring.
I’m in Lithuania, the southernmost of the three Baltic States, and home to the wondrous Hill of Crosses, one of the great pilgrimage sites of Europe.
It’s early December, a chilly and blustery -2C here in the north of the country on the open plains surrounding the Hill.
The wind cuts through me like a rusty saw and I’m having difficulty holding my camera steady.
There are only a couple of other pilgrims here today as the cold weather is a deterrent.
Normally this place is busy, albeit in a dignified manner, with thousands of folk from all over the world descending on the Hill throughout the year.
Some come to pray for loved ones, others just want to connect with God; some are looking for inner peace and meaning in their lives while others are nothing more than plain curious.
Then there are the newlyweds, a Saturday feature, seeking a blessing on their union. Lithuanians, and neighbouring Poles, love the place and absolutely flock here on weekends for it has no parallel anywhere else in the world.
The first crosses were erected here in 1831 by relatives of fallen loved ones killed during an anti-Russian uprising at what was once the site of an old hill fort.
Over the years, as the site’s sanctity and popularity grew, the crosses proliferated branding the location as Christian and sacred.
The Hill, which is really not much more than a large elongated two-hump mound, is surrounded by a small stream set in flat open fields. The site is stark and simple.
There is nothing here other than a small information centre, a massive car park, and the Hill.
That’s it. Mercifully uncommercialised, it’s become a tangible display of peoples’ faith in God.
The underlying sentiment that I sense flowing through the place is that of love. Everywhere I look there are messages and dedications attached to crosses asking for blessings on loved ones both living and deceased. Some are poignant.
It is the custom here for visitors to leave a cross of their own. My wife and I brought a small cross and rosary with us from Australia and as we respectfully invade the melee of religious artefacts to secure a small spot for our offering we pray for loved ones and friends back home. It’s a special moment, very gratifying.
Pope John Paul II visited the Hill in 1993 gaining fame for it by celebrating Mass on the Hill in the presence of 100,000 worshippers.
Having a soft spot for Lithuanians and their indomitable faith he was, apparently, moved by the experience.
During the Soviet occupation of the Country from 1940 to 1991 the Hill was bulldozed at least three times by fanatical atheist Russian authorities, but after each attempt the crosses soon reappeared. No wonder the Hill has become a symbol of Lithuania’s national identity and its peaceful defiance to oppression.
At the recommendation of Pope John Paul II a small, but very impressive Franciscan Monastery has recently been established a short distance from the Hill, which remains perfectly framed within a large glass fixed window behind the Monastery chapel’s altar.
The Hill with its crosses and silence is a serene sacred wonder, a curiosity certainly but absolutely worth visiting. The place has power.
We made a day trip of our pilgrimage travelling there by train, a journey of about two hours from our base in Vilnius, the nation’s capital. It proved a relaxing, comfortable, and remarkably cheap trip.
Vilnius itself is a gem having Europe’s largest baroque old town at its centre. Exploring it on foot is a delight, especially so in December with the lights, festivity and excitement of its Christmas markets in full swing.
A forest of church spires and domes dominate the old town’s skyline, heralding a plethora of magnificent old churches begging exploration.
There are some real gems here too like the huge and famous Church of Sts Peter and Paul with its boisterous interior full of over 2000 white stucco mouldings; or the exuberant Church of St Casimir, a pleasing mix of baroque, gothic and renaissance touches.
This church suffered the indignation of being turned into a museum of atheism under the Soviets, however it’s back to its glorious old self again now.
Resembling an ancient Greek temple Vilnius’ St Stanislaus’ Cathedral is visually unique; there would be few Christian churches like it anywhere in the world.
With its sixty metre high free-standing bell tower, once a fortification in an old castle on the site, it dominates the city centre.
The big money item though is undoubtedly the classical chapel of the Blessed Mary that forms part of the legendry Gates of Dawn – the only remaining gate of the city’s original defensive walls.
The tiny chapel contains a grand painting from 1630 titled ‘The Blessed Virgin Mary Mother of Mercy’ reputed to have miraculous healing powers.
A major pilgrimage centre the site is revered by both Catholic and Orthodox faiths.
The image of Mary can be seen through the chapel windows from the street below and access from there is up a long flight of very steep steps that many pilgrims ascend on their knees.
Pope John Paul II prayed the Rosary here during his visit in 1993.
However, right in the centre of town is a ‘pilgrimage’ site with a dark side – the unique and chilling Museum of Genocide Victims, a monument to man’s inhumanity to man.
Its confronting, even harrowing, but it shouldn’t be missed.
Set up in the former KGB headquarters, which in turn was the former Gestapo headquarters during the Nazi occupation, its displays deal with the painful and dramatic history of Lithuania’s 50-year-long Soviet occupation that began in 1940.
The building’s basement is the former KGB prison and interrogation cells and includes the disturbing execution chamber. The museum guides are all former inmates.
On a brighter note, a half-hour from Vilnius, is the gorgeous village of Trakai with is dominant and handsome island castle afloat in Lake Galve.
It’s an idyllic fairytale sort of place with its quaint timber cottages giving it a Nordic appearance, especially snow-covered as it was during our visit.
So, if you are looking for a Country in Europe that is safe, friendly, interesting and inexpensive to tour then consider Lithuania.
As a tourist destination it is surely one of Europe’s best-kept secrets; as a pilgrimage destination it’s an ecclesiastical treasure trove. I loved the place and its people, and should you journey there I think you will too.