Lithuania isn't generally a very popular tourist destination, but if there's one place in the country which does draw crowds then it's the small town of Trakai, located about 17 miles southwest of Vilnius. Trakai is home to another of Lithuania's national parks, but this one is different to the national park near Ignalina in that it's a historical national park. The highlight of Trakai is its castle, built on an island in the middle of Lake Galvė. We saw a photo of it online some time last year and instantly decided that we had to visit Trakai next time we came to Lithuania.
Trakai is on a train line from Vilnius, although the trains aren't terribly frequent. We made a relatively early start to the day to make sure that we didn't miss the one at 09.48. The journey only took half an hour and cost a mere €1.68 each, which seemed like a bargain The train station is located a few kilometres outside the historic town centre, but there was a good map of Trakai in the Bradt guide to Lithuania, plus a steady stream of other tourists heading in the same direction, so it wasn't hard to find the right route.
The town of Trakai is situated on a strip of land between two large lakes. Almost as soon as we got off the train we caught a glimpse of the first one.
It didn't take long before we had found the second one as well
We walked through the town, passing the church which was originally built by the medieval Lithuanian ruler Vytautas the Great, although it has been substantially rebuilt since then. It was so large that we struggled to fit it all into one photo.
The church was surrounded by wooden carvings, which looked quite similar to the ones we'd seen earlier in the week in Palūšė.
We continued walking and soon came across a castle, albeit not the one we had actually come to see. This was the Peninsula Castle, built in the fourteenth century on the peninsula between lake Luka and lake Galvė. Its aim was to protect Trakai, and also Vilnius, from attacks by the Teutonic Knights. It was later used as a prison, finally being destroyed during the Russo-Polish war in the seventeenth century. Some of the walls and towers are still quite well preserved.
We clambered around the castle ruins for a while, before descending back down towards the lake.
There are a number of bridges built across the lake, making it possible to walk between some of the different islands. Walking across the longest bridge, we got our first glimpse of Trakai's main attraction: the island castle.
The island castle was built in Trakai during the fifteenth century to strengthen the fortifications of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania which existed at that time. No sooner was it completed, however, than Lithuania managed to decisively defeat its main enemy, the Teutonic Knights, at the Battle of Grunwald, meaning that there was no longer a real reason for the castle. It was used as a royal residence for a while, then as a prison, but fell into disrepair during the seventeenth century. Restoration attempts began in the early twentieth century, with first the Russians and then the Germans making attempts to reconstruct it. Major reconstruction work started in earnest after the Second World War and was substantially completed in 1962. Unfortunately Khrushchev wasn't terribly impressed by the restoration, complaining that it was glorifying Lithuanian history, so the finishing touches weren't made to the castle until the 1990's.
From the bridge we also had a view back towards the church we had just walked from.
We walked back around the lake to what we could see was the main tourist path towards the castle. There were a lot more tourists here than we have seen anywhere else in Lithuania, but still not large numbers compared to what you would expect in other countries There were a few tacky souvenir shops around the edge of the lake, but we were actually quite pleased to see them because it meant that we could finally buy some postcards, something which hadn't been possible at all in Ignalina
We crossed over the main bridge to the island which houses the castle. The view was spectacular.
We walked around the edge of the castle first, admiring the different towers and turrets.
The style of the towers seemed quite reminiscent of some of those we had seen in the old town of Tallinn a few years ago.
It's only a small island and almost the entire surface area is taken up by the castle. Everywhere we went we had a view of the lake.
It cost €6 each to get into the castle, which seems expensive by Lithuanian standards but I guess not expensive for anywhere else. You were supposed to pay and extra euro or so to be allowed to take photos, but we may not have correctly understood that part of the sign...
The first thing we saw when we entered the castle courtyard were the stocks!
The hole was barely big enough for Tim's neck.
Inside the castle are a number of very serious exhibitions about Lithuanian history. They're all helpfully translated into English, but we may not have managed to read them all.
The castle is very well-organised though, with a one-way system of balconies and staircases ensuring that visitors don't have to pass one another in tight spaces. There were staff in each room making sure that people were walking in the correct direction (and telling them off if they weren't!)
This was just as well, because some of the staircases were rather steep and winding.
We made it down all the staircases in one piece and went for a walk along the opposite side of the lake, where there was the best view back towards the castle.
This was the angle that we'd seen it from on photographs and postcards, and it was just as beautiful in real life.
We stopped for a drink to cool off before starting the long walk back up the road to the train station for the journey back to Vilnius.