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  1. It was another wonderfully sunny day when we woke up in Vilnius this morning. Our main aim for the day was to visit the town of Trakai, which is located slightly outside of the capital and is home to a beautiful castle on a lake. The trains to Trakai run quite infrequently though, with one departing around 7am and the next not being until 12.32. We definitely didn't want to be up early enough for the 7am one, so we had decided to spend the morning in Vilnius and travel to Trakai on the 12.32. We started our morning exploration of Vilnius from the Gate of Dawn, which is one of the old entrances into the city walls. As you enter the city, the gate looks quite plain... ...but once you've passed through it, the other side is very elaborate. From there we walked down one of the main streets in the city... ...past Vilnius's Orthodox church. There were lots of beautiful buildings... ...including, of course, lots of churches. We were soon at the square with the Town Hall... ...and from there it wasn't far until we could see Gediminas tower on the horizon again. We spent some time admiring the cathedral square again... ...before setting off on a path towards the side of the square, which we hoped would lead us towards the three crosses on the hill above the town. We crossed the river and soon found the tarmac road leading up the hill which we had discovered on our previous visit. It was a bit of a tiring climb up, but soon we were there. These crosses used to be a landmark of Vilnius until they were bulldozed during the Soviet occupation. They were reinstated after Lithuania became independent again. From the hill there is also an amazing view out over Vilnius. It was about 11am by this point so we decided to climb back down the hill to the cathedral square and begin the walk back to our apartment to check out. We made it back and collected our stuff in good time, with plenty of time to put our bags in a locker at the station and buy tickets to Trakai. The tickets cost an amazing €1.80 each, which wasn't bad for a train journey of over 30 minutes We got off the train in Trakai not long after 1pm and only had to walk a few hundred metres from the train station before we got our first view of one of Trakai's lakes. The castle is located about 2.5km from the train station and there are two ways of getting there; along the main road of the town or via a path around the lake. We decided to choose the lakeside path. It was really peaceful walking around the lake, and nice and shady too There was plenty of wildlife too; we saw swans, ducks and a little family of coots. Eventually we came to a bridge over part of the lake and decided to cross. It was a good decision, because from halfway across the bridge we got our first glimpse of the island castle. It was still quite far away, but we could just make out some of the turrets After exploring the lakeside a bit more, we eventually came to the bridge which leads across to the castle. The castle at Trakai was originally built in the fifteenth century as part of the defences of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. It fell into disrepair in the seventeenth century, before being restored during the twentieth. It cost €7 each to get inside, plus an extra €1.50 to be allowed to take photos, but when you've come all this way it seems like a price worth paying. Once we'd bought our tickets, we were able to enter the main courtyard of the castle. We climbed up the steps at the far end to begin our tour. There's a well-organised one-way system in place throughout the castle, with little signs to tell you where to go next. That's quite useful, because once you get into the centre of the castle, there are some rather steep and narrow wooden staircases to negotiate. There were lots of interesting artefacts from Lithuanian history inside the castle, including some nice pictures of the castle itself... ...and this rather scary-looking figure in armour. There was a large room with thrones... ...and some really beautiful stained glass. The worst bit of the castle was probably leaving it, which required going down this very scary stone staircase. Once outside, we were able to stroll around under the castle ramparts for a while. It was nearly 4pm by this stage, so we decided to leave the castle behind and go in search of something to eat. Trakai is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Lithuania, so while there were quite a few restaurants near the castle, they were all quite expensive, at least by Lithuanian standards. We eventually found a pizzeria, where the pizza was okay but the prices were significantly higher than in Vilnius. We were definitely paying for the location though Most of the restaurants were located on the side of the lake facing the castle, and this is definitely where you can get the best views from It was still a while until the next train back to Vilnius, so after lunch we strolled back in the vague direction of the train station, following the bank of Trakai's other lake. This part of town was home to some really colourful wooden houses, known as Karaite houses. Once in the main part of the town, we found a cafe which was more geared towards locals than tourists and were able to sit and relax for a while with wine, coffee and water at much cheaper prices than down by the castle. Tim did have to order them in Polish though Suitably refreshed, we went for a final stroll around the town to find the Orthodox church... ...before we caught the train back to Vilnius, and then another train from Vilnius to the airport. The airport train is a real bargain, with the tickets being a mere €0.70 each! We've had a wonderful weekend in Lithuania and feel that we've been particularly lucky with the weather, given the horror stories we've heard about rain and thunder in the UK this weekend. I have the feeling that we'll be back here for a longer holiday some day
  2. 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.
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