LITHUANIA (Lietuva as it is called by its own citizens), the largest and southernmost of the three Baltic states, the first of the republics to break free from the Soviet Union this inspiring her other Baltic neighbours to follow, with one of the world's oldest language, related to Sanskrit, a religious and literary language of India.
Its area is 65,2 thousand sq km (a bit larger than Denmark or Switzerland), population 3.7 mln, official language Lithuanian, religion predominantly Roman Catholic, currency Litas and cents.
Lithuania borders with Latvia in the north, Belarus in the east and south, Poland and Kaliningrad (Konigsberg) district of Russian Federation in the west. The Baltic seacoast belonging to Lithuania is only 99 km long but is famous for its kilometers long beaches of white clean sand and a unique Curonian Spit, a narrow sandy area with dunes, low-growing pine woods and popular resorts, lying between the Curonian Lagoon and the Baltic Sea. According to the French Geographical Institute, Lithuania lies in the exact centre of Europe.
Lithuanian landscape is mostly low-lying plains and hilly uplands up to 300 m high. About 28 % of the country is covered by forests, 40 % of them are pines. Wild berries and mushrooms grow in abundance and the picking of them is the most popular hobby of local people. There are 3000 lakes, the majority in the Eastern part of the country, called Aukstaitija (the Highland) and in the southern part, called ‘Dzukija' due to a peculiar peoples' dialect in which sounds ‘dz ‘and ‘ts' dominate. About 300 species of birds can be found in Lithuania and 4 Nature Reservations are their breeding grounds. White storks - the most popular birds, returning to Lithuania every spring exactly to their nests from a distant Egypt where they spend winters. The best of country's scenery can be seen in its 5 National Parks in different parts of Lithuania, differing in their landscape, wooden farms, quantity of lakes or hills.
The Lithuanian language is an Indo-European language with roots in Sanskrit, the ancient language of India. The only similar language is Latvian. So both of them belong to the Baltic linguistic group. But of the two, Lithuanian has preserved more of its archaic character which makes it very interesting to linguists.
As Lithuania coverted to Christianity only in 1387, the last country in Europe to do so, we have many festivals with Catholic and pagan traditions. St.John's Night on June 23 eve, with its bonfires,singing and dancing ( as in Latvia), is a continuation of a pagan tradition of Rasos,the old summer solstice festival,held on the eve of Midsummer's Day. All Souls' Day on November 1 when the whole Lithuania lights candles at cemeteries,is a pagan autumn festival in honour of the dead.Even at Christmas Eve, the old winter solstice festival, we have an old tradition for the family to meet and taste 12 courses - symbolizing 12 Apostles.
SONG AND DANCE FESTIVAL
Of many secular festivals,the most spectacular are Song and Dance Festivals, as in Latvia and Estonia, held every 4 years in July. As the richest part of the Lithuanian cultural heritage is folk music. We have many ethnographic ensembles performing local old songs of the area,dances and instrumental music.About half a million old Lithuanian folk songs are collected. In Dzukija,the southern part of Lithuania you can hear the most remarkable ancient polyphonic songs, known as ‘sutartines',which are unique. Lithuanian folk art has ancient pagan motifs,connected with the Sun,the moon,mingled with Christian symbol,the cross. Very often in Lithuanian countryside you can see wooden crosses,made by local handicraftsmen featuring the cross or the crucifix with a stylized sun, moon, flowers and plants.
Major towns and cities in Lithuania: Vilnius,the capital, Kaunas, Klaipeda(the sea-port), Panevezys, Siauliai.
The capital Vilnius with a population of 580 thousand, preserves a multicultural flavour of the 15th - 18th centuries, its central-European architecture nicely contrasting with the Scandinavian or German influence felt on the other two Baltic capitals,Riga and Tallinn. Although its Jewish quarter is now a sad shadow of its former self, the Old Town is rather intact, with the domes of the Orthodox churches competing for attention with the towers of the more numerous Catholic ones. The skyline of Old Vilnius is a marvel of Gothic and Baroque spires, domes and crosses. The outstanding quality of Vilnius Old Town has gained it a place on UNESCO's World Heritage List. Vilnius boasts one of the greatest assemblages of Baroque monuments outside Rome. While the panorama of the city centre now is decorated by multistoreyed buildings adding a lot to the modern city image, pretty well suiting to the rhythm and style of the 21st century.
One should not miss a red-brick early 15th c. Gothic Castle in Trakai, just 28 km from Vilnius, Lithuania's best known and most impressive small town with a glorious history and a fantastic landscape - 5 lakes surrounded.
Explore a retro atmosphere of Kaunas, Lithuania's second largest city, the interim capital between the two world wars, when Vilnius belonged to Poland.
Although often mentioned together with Latvia and Estonia, Lithuania is very different from its two northern neighbours with its history standing in total contrast to theirs. While Estonia and Latvia lived under permanent foreign rule, in the early 13th century Lithuania established itself as a powerful independent state. Lithuanian King Mindaugas united separate principalities in 1240 into a powerful independent state. After 200 years of constant wars with the German Teutonic Knights, Lithuania survived and was never conquered by them. On the contrary, the Lithuanian army defeated a powerful Crusaders' Order together with Polish troops in 1410 in a famous Grunwald battle.At that time, in the 15th century the Lithuanian Grand Principality was one of the largest states in Europe, with its borders stretching from the Baltic up to the Black Sea. The contacts with Poland which started in the 14th century when the Duke of Lithuania Jogaila married a Polish Princess Jadvyga and became the King of Poland, were more and more close. In 1387 Lithuania became a Catholic country. In 1569 both countries made a royal union, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth ,which existed till the end of the 18th century when three more powerful countries, Russia,Austria and Prussia, divided it between themselves. The major part of Lithuania fell to the Czarist Russian Empire, up to the World War I. As the other two Baltic States, Lithuania became an independent country in 1918-1940, in 1940 was incorporated into the USSR . Actually after the World War I - the history was the same for all three Baltic countries, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania: independence of about 20 years in 1918-1940, incorporation into the USSR in 1940,nazi occupation, and again the fate returned all three Baltic States back to the Soviet Union, up to the year 1990 when independence of all three states was re-established. Now it is a member of European Union and NATO, accepting all challenges of the 21st century as other countries of the world.