What is Lithuania?
A mere speck on the world map to an outsider, it is much more to a Lithuanian – a country that was built over thousands of years. It is a place that intertwines the experiences of our ancestors, the battles that were fought, and the love that was shared. Lithuania is mostly about its people. The people who built the state and the cities, who engendered cultural enrichment and knowledge, and who searched for their true identity. Although Lithuania was first recorded as a country in 1009, the first people are thought to have settled in the territory as far back as the 10th millennium BC. The first Baltic tribes arrived some 7,000 years later and settled near the Baltic Sea. Lithuanians are proud to have been brought up in a country with such a rich historical past, and they try to accentuate their national heritage by doing their best on stages and in sports arenas, by being great painters and authors, by singing their hearts out to thousands of people, and by making their presence known with the tricolor flag.
Lithuania’s Independence Day, which falls on 16 February, is like a bridge that connects two Lithuanias – the old one born in 1253 and the newly restored independent Lithuania of 1990.
Our historians agree that the centenary of modern Lithuania marks a huge success story of a wonderful country about how we changed our perception in Europe and the world, shaped modern society and became a country of true freedom and democracy.
The name “Lithuania” was first mentioned in written sources in 1009, since when our country has travelled a long road of historical events. Modern Lithuania was born in 1918, when the Act of Independence was signed on 16 February. Lithuania, which had spent 120 years under the oppression of the Russian Empire, finally breathed again and started life as a new and free country.
The achievements of the young country suffered a crushing blow in 1940, when the Soviet Union occupied Lithuania. The tanks of the Red Army stayed in our country for a long time, until 1992, even though the Act of the Re-Establishment of the State of Lithuania was signed on 11 March 1990.
The events of 11 March 1990 would not have been possible without 16 February 1918. To celebrate the centenary, we therefore put the best we have on the gift table to Lithuania – our tricolours, friendly hugs, stories of 100-year-olds, books, exhibitions, records, memorable sports victories, heroic hikes, nights by the campfire and, of course, the most beautiful songs and dances in the anniversary song festival.
There is no point talking about football in Lithuania: nobody will tell you anything about our achievements in the sport, or give you any world-famous or impressive names. But basketball is a totally different story. Lithuanians are ready to do anything to watch and play it, quite literally.
Standing ovations after a victorious match are worth seeing; and we are not ashamed of tears when our favourite team loses the game. We play basketball in the streets, outside summerhouses, and at schools, lakesides and music festivals; we play two against one and three against two. Basketball and the emotions it creates are so deeply rooted in our genes that most children have no second thoughts about which sport to go for.
European basketball clubs and their fans are not the only ones who have a hard time learning the complicated surnames of Lithuanian basketball players; it’s also quite a task for the coaches and players in the world’s top basketball league, the NBA. The path to this league was trodden as early as before the restoration of our independence by basketball players Šarūnas Marčiulionis and Arvydas Sabonis. Today, we view them as legends of the sport.
The quieter the evening, the better. When the wind abates, hot-air balloons resembling colourful soap bubbles take off and fly over the red roofs of the Old Town. Sometimes they come so close that it looks as if you can catch them with your hand, only for them to fly away to dizzying heights. If you travel in a balloon in spring, you can admire the city’s blooming gardens; if it’s summer, you can count the tourists sitting on the pavements outside cafés; and autumn, with its colours, will leave you breathless. All this from a hot-air balloon.
Lithuanians are incurable romantics: we are among the top five countries with the largest number of hot-air balloons and balloon pilots per thousand residents; and international travel magazines have already put Vilnius and Trakai on lists of top 10 places to see from the sky for several years.
Vilnius is Europe’s only capital city that does not prohibit hot-air balloons from taking off from the city centre. If you happen to be sitting on the lawn next to the Tymas area, you can jump into a basket right away and take off. Flying in a balloon over Vilnius means falling in love with the city again. Let’s embark on an adventure together!Lithuanians are incurable romantics: we are among top five of the countries which have the biggest number of hot air balloons and their pilots per a thousand of residents; international travel magazines have put Vilnius and Trakai on the lists of top ten places to see from the sky for several years already.
Vilnius is the only capital city in Europe which does not prohibit air balloons from taking off from the Old Town. If you happen to be sitting on the lawn right next to Tymas quarter, you can jump into the basket right away and take off. To fly in an air balloon over Vilnius means to fall in love with it again. Let’s embark on an adventure together?
For more than 400 years, students have studied at Vilnius University; for more than 400 years, professors have carried out their research here; and for more than 400 years, the first step ad astra has been taken from here to the stars of science, culture, philology and philosophy. Vilnius University was founded in 1579 by Jesuits and given a blessing by the King of Poland and the Grand Duke of Lithuania, Stephen Báthory. The prosperous university had a printing house and lecturers who came from other Catholic universities in Western and Central Europe to give lectures that applied their teaching principles and intensive study programmes. Vilnius University’s Faculty of Theology was renowned in Europe for its modern ideas.
Today, voices of students from all over the world can be heard amid the university’s walls, which are adorned with masterpieces of art and architecture – and it is a place where scientific developments and discoveries are made that startle the world.
The architectural ensemble of Vilnius University situated in the Old Town houses the faculties of history, philology and philosophy. The ensemble’s numerous courtyards will tell you the whole story of the evolution of the architecture and its decoration, with the artistic forms of the buildings reflecting all the architectural styles that have predominated over time in Lithuania – namely, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Classicism. How many courtyards are there? Be sure you don’t lose count when you try to add them up.
In autumn, some birds raise their strengthened wings, use sounds only they can understand to get everyone together, and migrate to where it’s warm. They come back in spring, nest, breed and cheer us with their songs. We are happy when we can hear birds singing; we’ve even dedicated certain days to birds, such as Lark Day and Rook Day – not to mention Lapwing Day or the Day of Returning Storks. When birds start to migrate en masse in autumn, up to a million fly along our coastline each day. The birds’ flyway stretches above Ventė Horn, a unique place where the Ventės Ragas Ornithological Station was established in 1929. Its surroundings afford fantastic views to the Curonian Spit and Nemunas Delta, and the station’s ornithologists not only tell interesting stories to curious visitors, but also give them the possibility of ringing birds taken from the catching traps. These birds then carry the message about where they were seen.
Today, it is impossible to imagine what the world looked like 50 million years ago. It is known that Europe, including Lithuania, was covered in forest. Drops of resin that fell from trees did not dissolve in water and were carried by rivers to the sea. It was a long journey, so various objects became trapped in the resin on the way, including insects, spines of plants, grass and soil of different colours. After remaining for thousands of years at the bottom of the Baltic Sea, these pieces of resin have turned into amber, which is referred to as the gold of Lithuania. Baltic tribes used amber as early as 2000-1800 BC to craft jewellery and weaving tools, treat diseases and protect people against evil spirits. Amber incense was used to protect children against misfortune, as well as newlyweds and husbands going to a war. Today, we still count on the unique properties of amber, using it to craft jewellery, as well as in the form of amber powder, oil and incense in spas. Stormy seas still throw up pieces of amber, and finding some is a real joy. Just try it yourself and you’ll understand…
You may be upset to find out that you won’t learn Lithuanian in a week. The Lithuanian language is like a workout for the brain: anthropologists say that its archaic letters and unusual-sounding words really make our brains exercise. The language is truly old and is similar to the classical Indian language Sanskrit, as well as to ancient Latin and Greek to some extent. The oldest still-living Indo-European language has been researched by scientists to this day.
What do you need to know about Lithuanian? It has no articles, and uses word endings instead of prepositions to indicate relationships between words in a sentence. Words have stresses that can totally alter their meaning depending on how they are used. We love diminutives, and have no swear words. If Lithuanians feel the need to curse and swear, they might call someone mean a grass snake or a toad. We also have a letter, “ė”, that does not exist in any other language. This letter is a symbol of femininity, because it is used at the end of women’s names.
We also take measures to protect our language – previously from the influence of the Russian language, and now from the influence of English words that make their way into our language. We conduct a national dictation contest for the Lithuanian language every year to check our linguistic knowledge.
This hill near Šiauliai used to be the site of a castle, but the Teutonic Knights destroyed it and set it on fire. People started erecting crosses on the hill in the mid-1800s in remembrance of the dead, as a plea for health and long years of life. The crosses were put up by pilgrims and people who came here with their prayers and pleas, as well as artists and talented craftspeople. The Lithuanian art of cross-crafting, which survived austere Soviet times until today, is on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List. An extraordinary aura, gratitude, wishes, dreams and expectations are part of this hill, which brings to mind the atmosphere of Jerusalem’s Western Wall.
Many attempts were made to destroy and burn the Hill of Crosses, but it survived as a sign of our freedom and as a must-see place for pilgrims around the world. Pope John Paul II prayed on this hill in 1993, later made numerous references to this place in his speeches, and set up a crucifix on the hill as a gift to Lithuania. People begin and end pilgrimages at this cross.
The travel website Condé Nast Traveler listed this hill with its thousands of crosses among 20 scariest places in the world. Of course, the compilers of this list would maybe not like to spend a night on the hill, but to us it is a place of light and hope – and something that represents our historical and cultural traditions.
There are four different Lithuanias. If you have ever visited us in spring, you may think you came to the wrong country if you were previously here in winter.
Most of us look forward to spring. After a long winter, it makes us happy with its smell of blooming flowers, blossoming apple and cherry trees, and chestnuts covering everything on ground with their petals. Spring awakens our yearning for travel and adventures – would you like to give this a try as well?
After that, we have green summers. The forests are full of wild strawberries, and the cities open their doors and windows to guests. Come and visit us when night conquers the day, when we jump over fire, make flower wreaths and wade through the morning dew. It’s going to look like you’re dreaming, but it’ll be true – we promise.
Autumn smells of apples and mushrooms, and is a season of great jazz, theatre, exhibitions – and also modern art. Autumn is a perfect painter that gives vivid colours to forests, fruits and vegetables in gardens, and plates in the best restaurants. And even when the sky becomes heavily overcast with an elegant grey and rains start to wash everything away, we still have things to show you. You don’t believe it? Come and see for yourself.
You will need warm clothes and footwear in the winter here, as it’s likely you will have to wade through snowdrifts. If you want heat, you will find it in the nightclubs of Vilnius and Kaunas – and if that is not enough for you, we’ll get a real Lithuanian bathhouse ready for you and relax you with a massage using bath brooms we made during the summer. Just don’t forget to allow enough time for such pleasures!
We have ambitions. These are apparent when we look up to the sky, where our satellites orbit the Earth along with others. Lithuania has always been a nation of dreamers – and even though we are a distance from the big science centres of Europe and the world, we have our own creators of whom we have always been proud. Our country is small, but we are ambitious and are always several steps ahead of others in focus areas we pursue.
Antanas Gustaitis developed the first monoplane, ANBO I, in 1925, making Lithuania famous for this worldwide; and today, Lithuanians develop LituanicaSAT satellites at the space technology company NanoAvionics.
Laser systems developed and manufactured by Lithuanians are used by NATO soldiers; components produced in the country help develop quantum computers; and scientists of the world have already used DNA scissors technology developed by Lithuanians. Meanwhile, NASA engineers and researchers show great interest in human brain diagnostics and monitoring technologies being developed at the Health Telematics Science Institute at Kaunas University of Technology. Talented young Lithuanians have made big strides in the Internet arena by developing world-famous mobile applications that help people edit their photos, find their way round town and even train their dogs. Artists also use technological innovation in their creations: have you ever heard the musical sounds created by Internet users browsing on a 4G network?
If a Lithuanian you meet in a bar proudly declares that Lithuanians once watered their horses in the Black Sea, don’t get the impression that this is all because of the amount of beer that person has drunk. The truth is that the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was one of the biggest countries in the world for more than 300 years, stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. King Mindaugas defeated the Livonian Order in 1236 and united the lands of the Lithuanians. His work was continued by Grand Duke Gediminas, who swore loyalty to the pope, created effective unions, and managed to develop a country in which people of different nationalities and religions lived together. Vytautas the Great, who succeeded Gediminas, continued to make Lithuania stronger and its lands stretched as far as the Black Sea. In the 15th century, Lithuania was a central European state that covered the territories of modern Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine and part of Poland. Adeptly ruled, strong and modern, the country survived until 1795. Lithuanians always remember this glorious period in the nation’s history, which is reflected in literature and art – and some brave hearts even try to repeat the war march from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea.
In Lithuania, it is easy to travel through time. We have places where the time seems to have stopped and reminds us of those who travelled from day to day, from year to year, from century to century. We are the last pagans on this continent, the last people of the authentic Baltic faith that existed until Christianity – paganism began to disappear in Lithuania at the end of the 14th century when Lithuania’s rulers accepted Christianity. The Samogitians held on the longest – they only converted in the 15th century.
Today, many don’t even remember what gods ancient Lithuanians believed in, who they prayed to, what songs they sang, and how they worshipped their land. The sun was their fire, and Perkūnas was the almighty god of justice, punishing the disobedient with bolts of lightning. The stories that survived over the centuries have now turned into beautiful myths, but the old Baltic tradition is still alive in Lithuania. With its rites, traditional sutartinės (multi-part songs) and infinite respect for nature and the earth, it is yet another colour of our identity. And if you get lucky, you might catch an old wedding ceremony on one of Lithuania’s many hill forts. This is not theatre – this is life.