We didn't have a definite plan for what to do with today when we woke up this morning, so we decided to consult our Lithuania guidebooks. Both of them were full of interesting suggestions of places which could be reached as a day trip either from Vilnius, or from Kaunas which we knew wasn't too far away. The only problem was the train timetables. While our experiences this week have proved that Lithuanian trains are comfortable and efficient, they run to timetables which are rather sparse. Everywhere we looked at travelling to seemed to be served by one train in the morning, and one train in the late evening, making it difficult to plan a short day trip anywhere. In the end we opted for the village of Marcinkonys, to which there was a train leaving Vilnius at 10.46 and a train returning into Vilnius at 21.17.
We chose Marcinkonys because we knew that it was situated in the Dzūkija National Park, a large area of protected pine forests to the southwest of Vilnius. We had really enjoyed our visit to the Aukštaitija National Park earlier in the week, so we thought it would be interesting to see another national park, and the guidebook suggested that there were a number of marked trails through the forest starting from Marcinkonys.
The train journey to Marcinkonys took two hours. We arrived just before one to a pretty little station in the middle of nowhere.
The station garden was really cool.
The guidebook said that the village consisted of a long main street of 2km, partway down which would be the national park visitor centre, so we started walking. The first statue we saw didn't inspire me with confidence for a walk in the woods.
The population of the village is around 800 people and it soon became clear that it wasn't a place with a lot of facilities. We found one cafe, which we mentally earmarked for future reference. The village grew up in the nineteenth century as the Warsaw to St Petersburg railway was being built through the forest. At the time, both destinations and all the points the train passed through were part of the Russian empire. These days, the original line is no longer used by trains travelling between Warsaw and St Petersburg, because the route involves crossing in and out of Belarus three times. Marcinkonys has been the end of the line for Lithuanian trains since Lithuania joined the EU and it became too cumbersome performing border checks with Belarus.
Halfway along the main street we found a large building which we thought might be the national park centre, because it had a few information boards with maps outside. We weren't completely sure though, because when we took a closer look it appeared to be a huge empty building, and we couldn't see any signs of information inside! We stood looking at one of the information boards for a while, trying to work out where the signposted route started, and became aware then a man had emerged from the building and was beckoning us over. He proudly herded us inside what turned out to be a brand new state-of-the-art visitor centre, featuring what is possibly the only air-conditioning in Lithuania, but sadly devoid of visitors. He seemed quite excited to see us, particularly when he found out that we were from England (I'm not sure he'd had any English visitors before!). He spoke excellent English and provided us with a leaflet for the Zackagiris trail, a 14km circular path in the woods around the village. The leaflet was only available in German, but that was fine for us He advised that the walk would take about 5 hours. 5 hours sounded like a long time to walk 14km, but we knew we had 6 hours until our return train to Vilnius so that didn't seem like a problem.
We set off enthusiastically. The route was waymarked by means of little white squares with red lines through them painted onto the sides of trees.
The pathway immediately started leading us deep into the woods. Perhaps we should have known that the walk was going to be rather edgy when, within the first two minutes of setting off, we had to clamber over two fallen tree trunks which were blocking the path! And then we found this "bridge" across the river. Not quite my idea of a bridge.
We walked deeper and deeper into the forest. The trees were amazing.
We were very grateful for the little red and white squares marking the way. It felt like without them you could easily have got lost and walked in the forest for days before finding any sign of human habitation. We didn't meet any other people walking the same trail throughout the course of the next five hours, though we did come across some people canoeing in the river at one point.
After about an hour of walking we came to a beautiful viewpoint over the river.
There was a rare bench here so we stopped for a while to admire the view.
Little did we know what was waiting for us around the corner! The path led us down a set of recently constructed wooden steps on the side of the hill towards the river, which we needed to cross in order to continue our route.
This was the bridge; a log placed across the river, with a smaller log to use as a handrail.
I wasn't very impressed, but I made it across in one piece. Phew!
We continued walking on the far side of the river for a while. At times the path was quite overgrown. Perhaps not everyone made it across the bridge!
We soon reached one of the sights which was marked on our map: a hollow tree which had been used for bee-keeping. It looked very old.
As we stopped to consult the map, we realised that the path was about to lead us back over to the other side of the river again. Fingers crossed the bridge was going to be better this time.... No....seriously..... that can't be the bridge......!
That was the bridge; a log across the river, but a narrower one than the first bridge, and with a handrail that had a strange kink in it, presenting an obstacle in the middle of the bridge when you were over the deepest part of the water. It looked like there might have been a second log involved at some point somehow, but this had now fallen away into the river. I didn't think there was any way I was going to get across it!
It was rather traumatic, but I managed it in the end without falling in. It was either that, or turn round and walk back all the way we'd come, crossing over the other scary bridge again.
The national park is beautiful, but I think that if they want to attract more overseas visitors then they need to do some serious investment in bridges!
Thankfully, the walk became a little more sedate after that, leading us through some sunny clearings in the woods...
...and back into the dense forest.
The ground was covered in places by a strange sort of moss or lichen.
We soon emerged at the top of the main road in Marchinkonys, having completed the first half of the walk. We walked past the village church, entirely wooden but painted a rather striking shade of yellow.
We walked through the village and back into the woods. One of the things which had struck us on the walk so far was how sandy the ground in the forest was. In a rather perplexing turn of events, given how far we were from any kind of sea, the next sight marked on our map was a sand dune.
It was absolutely enormous. The leaflet explained that it was the only dune left which hadn't been successfully covered by pine trees and mosses. It was located in a windy enough spot for the dune to be able to fight encroaching plants off, burying them under fresh sand as soon as they attempted to grow.
It was quite a surreal experience being there; a bit like being in the middle of the desert!
We walked back into the woods, on paths that were increasingly sandy.
After a while we emerged at a swamp, which the man in the visitor centre had proudly told us was known locally as the Bear's Bottom. Hopefully not because there were any bears in it.
Parts of it were beautiful...
...but you could see that the ground was very wobbly and it wouldn't be a good idea to stray from the path.
Bizarrely, right in the middle of the swamp there was a viewing platform with a bench. We stopped for a while to have a rest and sip some of our diminishing water supplies. We were pretty exhausted by this point, but there was still a fair amount of walking to go.
Back into the woods again. It was slow going on the sandy forest roads and we could feel our shoes filling with sand. By the time we got back to Marcinkonys, we were covered with sand all over.
The next highlight of the route was something referred to as "the Blind Lake". Fifty years ago it was apparently still possible to swim in this lake, but it's now been taken over by the forest so that you can hardly see the water any more. The bridge was a little primitive, but nothing compared to the ones we'd crossed earlier in the day.
There was still a fair amount of walking to do (we were following the red dotted path and the blind lake was at number 6).
The latter part of trail appeared to be less well-used and at times we had to fight our way through overgrown grass and bracken. There was one slightly scary point where everything was so overgrown that we lost the markers, but lucikly we found our way back onto the correct path within a few minutes.
It was about 5.30 by this point and we were definitely flagging. We were now walking on a forest road which looked like it should ultimately lead back into Marcinkonys.
We were just questioning where we were on the route and wondering how much further we had to go, when we went round a corner and realised we were on something which looked suspiciously like the main village street. We turned around and right behind us was the only cafe in the village. Yay!
Luckily it was open and we went and sat in its nice shady interior to recover and get something to drink. We bought a large bottle of what appeared to be Russian water but unfortunately it turned out to be undrinkable because it was carbonated. Yuk! We had to resort to drinking beer instead.
It wasn't actually beer, but something called "Beer mix" which was raspberry-flavoured and very nice.
We sat there for an hour before it was time to stagger back to the station for our train. It might only have been 14km, but it was a very challenging 14km and we could see why the man in the visitor centre had advised that it would take 5 hours. The Dzūkija National Park is a beautiful place, but it's quite wild!