Day trip to former capitals of Lithuania – Karnave and Trakai

KARNAVE and TRAKAI, LITHUANIA: Visiting Karnave and Trakai was a tempting day-trip for us during our trip to Vilnius, Lithuania. Both of the towns were so close to Vilnius that we decided to get out of the capital for a day and enjoy some suburbs time.

A howling iron wolf - an official symbol of Lithuania
A howling iron wolf – an official symbol of Lithuania
         

Karnave is about 35 km NW of Vilnius. This was the first capital of Lithuania. It was a trading city back then. But unfortunately the city was badly destroyed by the Germans crusaders and then Lithuanians themselves (to defend) in the 14th century and was never rebuilt. Now it’s enlisted in UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Trakai was Lithuania’s former medieval capital when Grand Duke Gediminas moved it from Karnave sometime during 14th century. It was first mentioned in the history in 1337. This small town is well known for its many different inhabitants like Lithuanians, Jews, Poles, Russians, Tatars, and Lithuanian Karaim (an intriguing Turkish speaking offshoot of the large Judaic Karaim movement who arrived in the town at the end of the 14th century and who are currently on the border of extinction). The city is about 28 km from Vilnius and is a lake district with 5 beautiful water bodies. I am happy that we took this tour…makes a perfect full or half a day trip if you are in Vilnius.

Thanks to our hotel who helped us to book this trip through a company, called Vilnius City Tour (vilniuscitytour.com). It was a private tour just by ourselves along with a driver and a great guide, Asta. We were picked up from our hotel around 9am. After visiting Karnave, Trakai, and some portion of Vilnius old town, we were brought back to hotel around 6pm. It cost us about $400 (290 euros or 1000 LTL) for our family of 4 (2 kids: 7 and 3 years old). Lunch wasn’t included here but we didn’t have to pay any entrance fees in anywhere.

TIME of TRAVEL: We visited Lithuania at the beginning of November 2013. It was not-so-great day when we took this trip. It was very cold and definitely cloudy at the beginning. Up to Karnave, the weather was fine…just had to deal with the cold. But when we were in Trakai, it started raining. But we still managed to visit the Trakai’s castle but if the weather permitted we would have had great time by the lake too.

OUR HOTEL: We stayed in Hotel Atrium in old town of Vilnius. Please check the “Our Hotel” section in my page on Vilnius under Lithuania.

EATING and SHOPPING: I didn’t find many shops or restaurants in Karnave but Trakai was a good place for some local souvenir hunt. Along the side of Lake Galve where Trakai Island Castle is located, there are lots of outdoor vendors who were selling variety of different trinkets. There were many cafes and restaurants by the lake too. We had lunch in a lake-view restaurant, called Bona Pizzeria…enjoyed the stunning view of the castle from our table as well as good food. They had pizza and pasta for the kids and soups, salads, and some Lithuanian dishes for our adult taste buds.

One thing that you just have to try in Trakai is kibinai. It’s a meat pastry which is Karaim (a minority tribe in Trakai) specialty. You can find kibinai in Vilnius or other towns in Lithuania, but Trakai is the where you can find it in its best form.

Kibinai - meat pastry, a specialty of Trakai
Kibinai – meat pastry, a specialty of Trakai
  

PLACES WE’VE VISITED: This was a day trip we took from Vilnius. First we were taken to Karnave and spent about couple hours there. Then our guide took us to Trakai. Here we spent about few hours too including lunch. We were done with these two places about 3pm. Our last destination was Vilnius where she showed some sites that we didn’t cover on our own. Please visit my page on Vilnius to see all the places we’ve visited there.

1) KARNAVE: As I mentioned before this was Lithuania’s first capital and a very historic place. It was very quiet that day, I think we were the only tourists there and it was the weather to blame. Overall, there aren’t much to do or even see in Karnave, at least not around this time of the year.

Church of Saint Mary of Scapular was built in 1920. We didn’t go inside the church but our guide did take us to a gated area where church Father lives to show us a memorial for Jerusalem and a man-made lake in the shape of Lithuania’s map. At one side of the church, there are some ruins of an early church (mainly some bricks/stones where the original nave used to be) from few centuries ago in the 15th century.

Church of Saint Mary of Scapular in Karnave, Lithuania
Church of Saint Mary of Scapular in Karnave, Lithuania
         

You can see River Neris flowing at a distance when standing behind the church and in front of the mounds. It’s a beautiful valley and very historic place for this country. As we were standing behind the church and facing the mounds and River Neris, left mound, called Mindaugas Mound, was where Lithuania’s first and last king, King Mindaugas was crowned. Out of total 5 original mounds, you can see 4 of them. We climbed on two mounds and let me tell you, view from there is just too pretty. During summer, big festivals and events take place on these mounds.

Historic mounds of Karnave in Lithuania
Historic mounds of Karnave in Lithuania
          

We were done with Karnave in about less than 2 hours, then headed towards Trakai.

2) TRAKAI: From Karnave to Trakai the distance is about 25 km. This is mainly a lake resort area and a perfect holiday place during summer. It started raining when we got off the coach in Trakai and walking towards the castle. But I could imagine how beautiful it probably looks in the summer months. I am sure visitors at that time can enjoy the waterscape and expanse of lakes everywhere in Trakai.

The main attraction of Trakai other than the lakes is Trakai Island Castle which was the residence of Vytotus the Great. This grand and romantic castle ruins of Trakai attract major tourists in Lithuania. Sitting quietly on Lake Galve, construction of this Gothic masterpiece started in the 14th century. The castle was damaged and eventually abandoned in 1655 after a war with Muscovy. Ironically, it was during the Soviet occupation of Lithuania that the castle was eventually restored to its former glory.

Trakai Island Castle on Lake Galve in Lithuania
Trakai Island Castle on Lake Galve in Lithuania
          

We crossed a footbridge and walked little more to reach the main entrance to the castle. Two main structures of this castles are the defensive outer and the Ducal Palace. Upon entering to the main front courtyard, you can see beautiful fortress of red bricks in all three sides. Trakai History Museum is spread around the castle and linked via many arrays of wooden steps and dark spiral staircases. Soldiers’ barracks, Great Hall, and other small rooms are filled with some original furniture, decors, ceramics, potteries, and etc. Though Trakai Island Castle looks more like a fortress than a palace, there are bedrooms of kings and queens that you can visit.

Inside Trakai Island Castle in Lithuania
Inside Trakai Island Castle in Lithuania
      

A collection of items were dug up in the vicinity of the castle, such as a huge collection of coins. Some explanations in the castle are in English, but mostly they are in Lithuanian and Russian.

 

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Bloody history and current look of Vilnius, Lithuania

VILNIUS, LITHUANIA: Vilnius is the capital of Lithuania and definitely one of the most vibrant and unique cities of former Soviet Union. Historically, it was formed in 1236 by Lithuania’s first and last king, King Mindaugas.

Lithuania has about less than 3 million people, among which mostly are Catholics. Their language roots back to Baltic tribes and interestingly very similar to Sanskrit. But locals speak very good English and most of the older generations speak Russian too.

Vilnius, Lithua by River Neris
Vilnius, Lithuania by River Neris
  

The years 1940 to 1941 reflect a very difficult and tragic period in the history of Lithuania. The country’s future was decided by other states when it was occupied in June of 1940 by the Soviets, and later annexed. Sovietisation and the brutal persecution of its citizens began. Over 30,000 people were persecuted under the first Soviet occupation (from June 1940 to June 1941). These persecutions and deportations of Lithuanians were only the beginning of the story of brutality and loss that lasted half a century. This experience is still alive in the memories of people of that generation, and to others through the stories of grandparents or parents. It has affected their fates and the fates of succeeding generations.

Deportations, the mass evictions of people from their places of residence to the remotest regions of the Soviet Union, were one of the most brutal measures taken by the Soviet regime against civilians. Entire families, parents, grand-parents children, newborns, and the sick were secretly, usually in the dead of nights, carried away in cattle cars.

The armed resistance by partisans between 1944 and 1953 took the lives of over 20,000 people. More than half of them perished fighting for freedom between 1944 and 1945. Most of the fighters who died were younger than 21. Even their deaths were brutally displayed in the public. In order to frighten civilians, the bodies of partisans were laid out in town squares, yards, and farmers’ markets.

Vilnius reminded me little bit of St. Petersburg. Old town of Vilnius is very nice and is enlisted as UNESCO World Heritage Site. Look for howling iron wolf in many places of Vilnius that depicts Gediminas’ (Grand Duke of Lithuania) prophetic dream. There at total of 52 churches in Vilnius, some…may be most of them date back to the medieval ages. But interestingly religious wise Lithuania was originally a pagan country and was the last country in Europe to accept Christianity.

Old town of Vilnius, Tower of Gediminas Castle in the back
Old town of Vilnius, Tower of Gediminas Castle in the back
  

TIME of TRAVEL: It was the first week of November 2013 when we visited Vilnius. Eastern Europe can get really cold and chilly around this time of the year but we were very well prepared. The temperature was around early 40s during the day and mid 30s around the evening. We got a little bit of drizzle here and there but no major rain or snow.

OUR HOTEL: We stayed in Atrium in the old town of Vilnius which was only a few steps from Cathedral Square and right in the middle of the shopping district. It was a gorgeous hotel with nice breakfast and free Wi-Fi in our room. The only thing I didn’t like about this hotel was that it didn’t have any elevator. The staffs were helpful giving us different options of making day-trips to nearby sites of Vilnius. Vilnius’s only Argentinean restaurant “El Gaucho Sano” is in this hotel where we had our last dinner…very fancy and truly good food. The location was also a plus point for this hotel, since we were within walking distance from all the main attractions of the city including St. Anne’s Church, Town Hall Square, and the overall old town pedestrian zone. The hotel is surrounded by many restaurants from fast food to authentic local Lithuanian kitchens. Also, many souvenirs shops and other boutique stores were very close by.

EATING and SHOPPING: Like Riga, Vilnius is an amber city too. There countless amber stores in the old town. Most of the decent stores will give you their authentication certificate with the jewelries or decors you buy. Many Russian influenced souvenirs are very common here, like Russian dolls, lacquered boxes. Many squares have local hand-craft vendors in the weekend.

Some Lithuanian souvenirs in Vilnius stores
Some Lithuanian souvenirs in Vilnius stores
       

Our first dinner in Vilnius was in Forto Dvaras on Pillies Street, very close to Cathedral Square. Seemed like all the locals knew about this restaurant. It indeed offers some great local dishes with reasonable prices. We mostly tried some local Lithuanian dishes, like cheese dumplings, potato pancakes (Lithuanians eat lots and lots of potatoes). The building itself is a historic place with underground sitting arrangements. Cili Pica is a chain restaurant where we had 2 of our meals in Vilnius. You can find them almost in every neighborhood in old town. They have a nice combination of pasta, variety of pizzas, salads, soups, and some Lithuanian dishes. The price is very reasonable and the menu is very kids friendly. We also ate in Charlie’s Pizza on Pillies Street couple times. They mostly have lots of different types of pizzas, soups, salads, and some Lithuanian dishes. If you get a chance try their unique black breads…either in breakfast or with soup.

Cold beetroot soup...a very famous Lithuanian dish
Cold beetroot soup…a very famous Lithuanian dish
         

PLACES WE’E VISITED: We spent 2 full days in Vilnius and 1 day outside the city in Karnave and Trakai visiting the oldest capitals of the country. There are plenty of museums in Vilnius if they interest you. The old town of Vilnius is big, bigger than many other European cities we’ve visited, but everything can be cover on foot. Notice the Green Bridge on River Neris which is the oldest bridge of Vilnius dating back to 1536. The Town Hall Square is a very lively place here which once used to be the main market square during the middle age.

1) CATHEDRAL SQUARE and VILNIUS CATHEDRAL: Cathedral Square is a big place and a historic place of this country.

Vilnius Cathedral is Lithuania’s most important sanctuary since its construction started in 1387. The cathedral changed its appearance many times with each new century. The present classical form of Gothic elements is from the 18th century. The exterior statues were added in the 19th century. Many biblical paintings are on display here, carvings on the ceiling are very beautiful too. The altar is simple with few columns.

Vilnius Cathedral after dark, standing there since the 14th century, Vilnius, Lithuania
Vilnius Cathedral after dark, standing there since the 14th century, Vilnius, Lithuania
     

The most decorative part here is Baroque style St. Casimir’s Chapel (saint patron of Lithuania). His tomb along with other remains is kept here. This chapel is considered as one of the country’s national treasures. Although we didn’t go there, crypt beneath the church contains the remains of Lithuanian rulers and bishops. The 3 statues of St. Stanislaus, Helena, and Casimir on the roof supposedly represent Poland, Russia, and Lithuania. Belfry (57m) outside the church was built in 1522 on one of the 14th century towers of the Lower Castle.

It is free to enter the cathedral and located at the bottom of Gediminas Castle.

2) KGB MUSEUM: Also known as Museum of Genocide Victims, KGB Museum is a unique and moving museum and a must-see in Vilnius, even if you are not the museum type person. This is one of a kind place in the Baltic region. The museum is set up in the former KBG headquarters and prisons where Soviet crimes were planned and committed in the course of 50 years. Nazi Gestapo and the KGB occupied this building at different times of the 20th century. Genocide of the population was planned here. Citizens of Lithuania were imprisoned, interrogated, tortured, and killed here in a mass level. Visitors can learn about the most tragic period in Lithuanian history in exhibitions in prison cells, the execution cell, and the rooms of the KGB officers. The exhibitions deal with the painful and dramatic times of this country including the loss of independence, brutal reprisals at the hands of the Soviet regime, and the bitter fight for the reestablishment of independence.

Inside KGB Museum where  thousands of Jews were killed by Nazis during WWII, Vilnius, Lithuania
Inside KGB Museum where many Jews were persecuted by Nazis during WWII, Vilnius, Lithuania
            

The museum is housed in a 19th century neo-Classical mansion previously used as a court building. The main façade with a front entrance faces Gediminas Avenue. Throughout the Soviet era (1940 to 1941 and 1945 to 1991) the building was occupied by the Soviet repressive institutions such as the NKVD-NKGB-MGB-KGB while during the period 1941 to 1944, the Nazi Gestapo reigned in the building. Out of this building came the evil thoughts for the extermination of residents and persecution of many people. The bottom bricks on the exterior of this museum have the names of those who were believed to be executed inside this building.

The basement of the building served as a prison for the Nazis while the Soviets used it as a prison with an execution chamber inside. From autumn 1942, the building houses the Special Squad of the German Security Police and SD which carried out mass massacres in the forest of Paneriai (just outside of Vilnius) of Jews, communists, Soviet activists and members of the resistance movement. The stones outside the building bear the names of the freedom fighters killed from 1944 to 1947. Other than the museum, the building also houses Genocide and Resistance Research Centre of Lithuania and the Lithuanian Special Archives where the former KGB archive documents are stored.

A prisoner's cell in the basement of KGB Museum in Vilnius, Lithuania
A prisoner’s cell in the basement of KGB Museum in Vilnius, Lithuania
             

The main part of the exposition is on the top floor which houses material about anti-Soviet and anti-Nazi resistance and information about the participants in the fights for freedom and genocide victims. Here, visitors can see furniture from the 40s, things used by NKGB-MGB officers, the inventory of the desk, and the interiors details are shown here, with materials from the period 1939 to 1941. Also the pictures and stories of civilians who were deported from their homelands to the remotest areas of Soviet Union are in display here.  The documentary materials displayed acquaints visitors with the procedures of organizing and carrying out deportations, the legal status and living conditions of the deportees, and statistical documents about the deportations. Documentary and feature films, and photographs of burial grounds in Siberia, supplement the factual information, and show the fate and misery of the people who suffered humiliation and injustice.

It is situated in the very heart of Vilnius about less than a mile from Cathedral Square, took us about 20 minutes to walk there. The museum is open Wednesday to Saturday from 10 – 6, Sunday from 10 – 5, and closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Ticket is 6 LTL per person, 8 LTL if you want to include an audio guide, and 5 LTL for camera pass.

3) GEDIMINAS CASTLE and TOWER: Also known as Upper Castle, this castle is considered as a symbol of Vilnius. The castle and its tower are located on the 48-meter high hill and were named after the city’s founder Gediminas, the Grand Duke of Lithuania. Built at the beginning of the 14th century, and replacing an earlier wooden one, it withstood the attacks of the Crusaders. At the beginning of the 15th century, it was rebuilt strengthened, and along with the Lower Castle, composed a powerful defensive complex. After damage caused by the war with Moscow in 1655, the castle lost its importance and was not rebuilt. After WWII, the best surviving tower in the upper castle, Gediminas Tower, was restored and now houses a museum and an observation platform that offers visitors an impressive panoramic view.

Vilnius after dark, a stunning view from Gediminas Castle
Vilnius after dark, a stunning view from Gediminas Castle
           

Gediminas Castle offers best view of Vilnius. We went there after dark and enjoyed stunning views of old town and new town. Also River Neris and bridges on it look fantastic from here. We didn’t go inside the museum or tower as it was closed by then.

Gediminas Tower in Upper Castle in Vilnius, Lithuania
Gediminas Tower in Upper Castle in Vilnius, Lithuania
           

Funicular to the castle is open in May – September from 10 to7 daily and October – April from 10 to 5 daily. You can also walk up the castle from either Cathedral Square or by the river Vilnia. Ticket price is 3 LTL for round trip and 2 LTL for one way ticket. The castle hill opens at 7am and is visitors can stay there until 9pm.

4) THE GATE of DAWN: The Gates of Dawn, the only one of ten original defense wall gates remaining, was built in 1514. After the reconstruction of 1829 the Chapel acquired the features of late Classicism. The Chapel in the Gates of Dawn houses a gold image of The Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Mercy, which was placed above the gate to protect the city. The chapel is very small but beautiful, it can get crowded since many worshippers go there to for prayers. Free to enter and is located very close to city’s town hall.

The Gate of Dawn in Vilnius, Lithuania
The Gate of Dawn in Vilnius, Lithuania
       

5) CHURCH of ST. PETER and PAUL: This is considered as the pearl of Lithuanian Baroque and the most splendid example of the style. Exterior of this church was built around 1668 – 1674, and the interior took another 30 years. The interior of the church is famous for its exceptional baroque sculpture works where one can see about 2,000 stucco moldings representing miscellaneous religious and mythological scenes. The founder of the church Grand hetman M. K. Pacas was an Italian noble man who settled in Lithuania and wanted to build his own church.  The coat of arms of the Pacas family can be seen above the entrance. Two Italian architects created a harmonious synthesis of architecture, sculpture, and art: about 2000 figures are arranged according to the principle of the world as a theater. Behind the altar is a picture of Saints Peter and Paul by the famous artists P. Smuglevicius. Many war memorial/depiction can be seen since it was built after a war. Look up to the elegantly decorated and detailed carved dome and some 17th century frescoes on the walls. Painting in the altar depicts Peter and Paul saying goodbye to each other with 4 evangelists: Luke, Mathew, Mark, and John.

Inside Church of St. Peter and Paul in Vilnius, Lithuania...a masterpiece of Lithuanian Baroque
Inside Church of St. Peter and Paul in Vilnius, Lithuania…a masterpiece of Lithuanian Baroque
             

6) HILL of THREE CROSSES: 165 meters above sea level, this hill is one of the symbols of the importance of Christianity in Lithuania and Lithuania’s mourning and hope. Three white crosses were erected to commemorate 7 Polish Franciscan monks, who, according to a legend, came as missionaries and were tortured and martyred by pagans on this site and were thrown in River Vilnia. The first wooden crosses of Holy Trinity were built in 1613, and later renovated, but removed by the Russian administration after the revolt of 1863. A concrete monument was built in 1916. The Soviet authorities destroyed the crosses with explosives in 1950, but after it was rebuilt in 1988 they have been standing in their original place, imprinted in the silhouette of Vilnius as symbols of Christianity of Lithuania.

Hill of Three Crosses in Vilnius, Lithuania
Hill of Three Crosses in Vilnius, Lithuania
       

An excellent view of old town is also to be found at this spot. You can also see Gediminas Castle along with a beautiful panoramic view of the old town from up here. The entrance is free.

7) PRESIDENTIAL PALACE: This is the official residence of the President of Lithuania. This building is in the central part of the former Governor’s Palace. The first palace here was built in the 15th century and was used as the Vilnius bishops’ residence until the last division of the Polish-Lithuanian state in 1795. In the 19th century it was visited by many distinguished personalities, such as Napoleon Bonaparte and M. Kutuzov. Now it’s an Empire style building having impressive and decorated colonnades on the both sides of the palace. Although we didn’t go inside since it was already end of the day, the interiors are supposed to be very beautiful. The president’s office is the on the right side of the palace.

8) VILNIUS UNIVERSITY: The University was established in 1579 representing different architectural styles: Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and Classicism. It consists of 13 enclosed courtyards. St. Johns Church (14th – 18th century) and the highest viewing point of the old town – 68 meters high campanile. This is one of the oldest and biggest universities in Easter Europe. The university has the oldest library of the country. Visitors have to pay 5 LTL to go to the front courtyard.

9) ST. ANNE’S CHURCH: This church was built at the turn of the 15th-16th century and is the most fascinating and prominent late Gothic building in Lithuania. This is one of the oldest churches in Vilnius. It was built from 33 types of simple clay bricks. It is a small church but so beautiful that Napoleon wanted to take it on his palm and bring it to Paris. There is a statue of a famous Polish poet (Adam Mickiewicz) beside the church who was a student and then teacher at Vilnius University. There is no entrance fee and it’s located before entering Uzupis District.

St. Anne's Church and Bernardine Church near Uzupis District in Vilnius, Lithuania
St. Anne’s Church and Bernardine Church near Uzupis District in Vilnius, Lithuania
          

10) AMBER MUSEUMS and GALLERY: The museum and gallery were established in a Baroque style house of the 17th century. The cellar keeps a valuable archeological finding: well-preserved kilns dating back of the end of the 15th-16th century. Museum houses exhibition about history of amber origin, differences in form, size, and color.

11) UZUPIS DISTRICT or UZUPIS REPUBLIC: Uzupis is a unique state within a state by River Vilnia in the old town – it has its own president, anthem, constitution, flag, and guardian – the bronze Uzupis Angel (look for the big statue of an angel standing over an egg and blowing trumpet). The constitution of the Republic of Uzupis is available in many languages for public viewing at the beginning of Paupio Street. We’ve heard that on the April Fools’ Day mock border polices actually stamp tourists’ passports for fun.

A small portion of Uzupis District's constitution in Vilnius, Lithuania
A small portion of Uzupis District’s constitution in Vilnius, Lithuania
    

Historically this place used to be occupied by artists, painters, and…poors. Now city’s mayor lives in Uzupis District and many other rich families. This is a hub for many art galleries. Walk by the river to see some sculptures and creative art works on the street. Overall, this is a very nice place.

Uzupis District in Vilnius, Lithuania...beautiful located by River Vilnia
Uzupis District in Vilnius, Lithuania…beautiful located by River Vilnia
    

12) ST. FRANCIS OF ASSISI CHURCH (BERNARDINE CHURCH): This Roman Catholic Church was built at the end of the 15th century and is one of the largest sacred Gothic buildings in the country. The church is said to have the oldest crucifix in the country from the 15th century. Brick exterior and wooden interior of this church is small but worth visiting.

There was a service going on when we went there, could only peeked from outside the glass door. Bernardine Church is located right behind St. Anne. Church is open from until 7pm every day and there free to enter.

13) LITERATU STREET: It is thought that this street was named “Literatu” only at the second half of 19th century in the honor of the poet Adam Mickiewicz who lived here. This is a small stretch of street with many artistic objects mounted on the wall mainly created between 2010 and 2012. This wall was solemnly opened in the street where painters and other field artists created outdoor proof techniques like plates or small objects made of ceramics, sculptures, metal, wood, glass, etc, in the color of litterateurs.

A wall in Literatu Street in Vilnius, Lithuania, decorated with many artworks
A wall in Literatu Street in Vilnius, Lithuania, decorated with many artworks
           

14) RUSSIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH of ST. NICHOLAS: In 1514 a Gothic church with elements of the Byzantine style was erected on top of another old church that was burnt down previously. During it reconstruction after the fire of 1748, its architecture was changed: the pediment, the facades, and the heightened tower became Baroque. In the 19th century the church acquired its present Byzantine appearance. The chapel inside contains a mosaic of St. Michael the Archangel, created at the Art Academy in St. Petersburg. Despite the reconstructions, the building has preserved many authentic Gothic elements and some valuable pieces of Byzantine art.

It’s located very close to Town Hall. Inside and outside of this church are both beautiful. It’s small but has a gorgeous altar inside and many golden crosses outside on its domes.

15) ST. CASIMIR (JESUIT) CHURCH: St. Casimir is the patron saint of Lithuania. This is the first and one of the finest Baroque churches in Vilnius built by the Jesuits. The cornerstone, dragged by some 700 people, was laid in 1604. The building suffered a great deal from wars and fires. In the 18th century, the collapsed dome was replaced by a new one with a crown, and the interior was decorated with 13 Late Baroque altars, most of which were destroyed by Napoleon’s army. In 1868 it was adapted for the Russian Orthodox Church: the towers were lowered and topped with onion-shaped helmets, and the Baroque frescoes and sculptures were demolished. After WWII the church was turned into the Museum of Atheism and in 1991 returned to the Jesuits.

St. Casimir Church in Vilnius
St. Casimir Church in Vilnius
   

The majestic cupola of 40 meters rises where the central nave and transept meet. 17 meters in diameter, it is topped on the outside by the crown of the grand duke of Lithuania. It’s elegantly decorated red and white altar with marble columns and high dome make it a really beautiful church to visit.

The church is open on weekdays from 4:30-6:30 and on Sundays from 8:30 to 2pm. It is free to enter and located near Town Hall.

16) VILNIUS JEWISH GHETTO: Here is a brief history on the two ghettos of Vilnius, collected from the information board:

“The Vilnius Ghetto was established on 6 September 1941 on the initiative of Vilnius City Commissioner Hans Hingst. Up to the end of October 1941, there were two ghettos in Vilnius – Large (about 30,000 prisoners) and Small (9000 – 11000 prisoners). Most of the Jews imprisoned in the Large Ghetto were qualified specialists and skilled workers, while the Small Ghetto was the ghetto of the incapacitated (the elderly, frail, and sick). By the end of 1941, German and Lithuanian police units and SD special squad had killed about 30,000 Vilnius Jews in Paneriai Forest, located outside the city. During the mass killing actions, all the residents of the Small Ghetto were killed and this ghetto ceased to exist.

Present look of what once used to be a Jewish Ghetto before WWII in Vilnius, Lithuania
Present look of what once used to be a Jewish Ghetto before WWII in Vilnius, Lithuania
              

During the period of December 1941 – March 1943 there were no mass killings of ghetto prisoners as the demand for labor force in the German war economy increased. During this period the ghetto became a kind of “state within a state”, with its own government, police, various workshops, forms of spiritual and cultural life and institutions…

On 23 – 24 September 1943, the occupational authorities liquidated the ghetto. About 14,000 Vilnius Ghetto prisoners were deported to labor and concentration camps in Estonia, Latvia, and other countries. Around 2000 – 3000 Jews still worked at various institutions in Vilnius, which were important to Germans. In early July 1944, with the Red Army approaching Vilnius, however, the last remaining Jews in Vilnius were killed. Only about 2000 – 3000 Vilnius Jews of 58,000 survived the Nazi occupation.”

We entered the former ghetto from Stikllu Gatve from the Town Hall Square. There is nothing much to do or see here except for going back in time and try to feel the situation of the victims here from 1941 1944. There are some beautifully designed buildings, high-class hotels, exquisite shops, and cafés here. The whole neighborhood is very calm and quiet.

Bits and pieces on Kiev, Ukraine

KIEV, UKRAINE: Situated by River Dnieper, Kiev is the largest city in Ukraine. After the fall of Soviet Union in 1991, Kiev became the capital of Ukraine. This is also ONE OF THE OLDEST cities in Eastern Europe dating back to 5th century. The city was pretty much destroyed when former Soviet Union was invaded by the Germans during WWII.

Kiev skyscraper as seen from Motherland Statue
Kiev skyscraper as seen from Motherland Statue
    

I didn’t want to be judgmental but my first impression of Ukrainians were that they were a bit unfriendly. But that thought changed as we interacted more with the locals. The locals are very helpful if they can properly communicate with you. Most of them barely speak English, but they try to help tourists as best as they can.

Independence Square from our hotel window in Kiev, Ukraine
Independence Square from our hotel window in Kiev, Ukraine
  

For transportation, Metro is probably the best way to get around. Look for the big green “M” sign for Metro stations. We paid only 2 UAH to enter the platforms to go anywhere. Some taxis go by meters, but with some, you may have to bargain. Another way to get around from upper town to the lower town near the river is the funicular. It costs 1.5 UAH per ride and the ticket station is behind St. Michael’s Church. Funicular is open from 7 am – 10 pm in weekdays and 8 am – 10 pm in weekends. It takes you down the small mountain and in Podil which is a hip area with many restaurants and shops.

TIME of TRAVEL: We flew to Kiev during Easter Break of 2013 at the very beginning of April. Temperature on the day we arrived and the next day were very low…either freezing or below freezing. But luckily, the last two days turned out to be a bit warmer and sunnier.

OUR HOTEL: We stayed in an apartment style hotel in the heart of Kiev, called “Khryschatyk Business Suites”. They have few different locations in the city center and ours was located right off of Independence Square. Along with a bedroom, a family room, nice bathroom, and a kitchen, we also had a great view of Independence Square right from our 6th floor apartment. There was no breakfast, but had free Wi-Fi.

EATING and SHOPPING: Other than pizza, shwarma, McDonald’s we had lunch in one fancy Ukrainian restaurant on our first day, name “Spotykach”. Borsch is a popular soup that I saw here and in couple other restaurants which is made from beet combined with some meat. We ordered some pumpushkin (Ukrainian breads) with the soup that came with 3 different types of yummy spreads. Also Ukrainian pancakes are very filling and good too, you can find these pancakes almost everywhere in Eastern Europe. I ordered my pancake with zucchini and sour cream…it was fantastic. Overall, food is very reasonable here compare to other European countries, I guess because they don’t use Euro here. You don’t have to empty your pocket to eat in a good restaurants in Kiev.

Ukrainian zucchini pancakes in Kiev
Ukrainian zucchini pancakes in Kiev
  

Since Ukraine was under Soviet Union once, many souvenirs have Russian influences, like Russian dolls and other trinkets. Russian dolls, known as “Matrioshka”, are very popular here. They can be cheap or expensive depending on the design and how many pieces they come with. The one we got had 10 pieces and we paid about 250 UAH. We saw many other traditional dolls in the stores too. Also colorful flowery wooden bowls and cutleries, jewelry boxes are beautiful to take back home. Scarves, embroidered tunics are almost everywhere too. There is also a big underground mall in Independence Square…very nice and has lots of brand name stores with a big food-court. Khryschatyk Street is a long stretch of shopping street that runs in the main city center near Independence Square. The street is very lively and crowded during weekends…a good place to just wander around.

Russian dolls "Matrioshka" in Kiev, Ukraine
Russian dolls “Matrioshka” in Kiev, Ukraine
   

PLACES WE’VE VISITED: The following places of Kiev we have visited were done in three days. Most of them we did it on foot while some were with metro.

L-O-N-G stretch of Kiev's escalator in subways
L-O-N-G stretch of Kiev’s escalator in subways
 

1) INDEPENDENCE SQUARE or MAIDAN NEZALEZHNOSTI: Located on Khryschatyk Street, this is the main square and center of Kiev where you can spend hours roaming around. Independence Square is where Ukrainians met for protests many times in history. This is a beautiful and busy place to hang out day or night. “Monument in Honor of Independence of Ukraine” stands across the street on one end of this square and from the other end you can see green domes of St. Sophia’s Cathedral on Sofiyas’ka Street. Don’t forget to go to underground mall for good food and cool shopping.

Night view of Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine
Night view of Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine
 

2) ST. SOPHIA’S CATHEDRAL and MUSEUM: St. Sophia’s Cathedral is a beautiful center-piece in the City of Kiev. This is the oldest remaining church of the city and an UNESCO World Heritage Site. This 11th century architecture has been preserved almost intact. It was built by the Greeks and is an orthodox church.

Whole ground of this monastery is secluded with a boundary. Uniquely designed turquoise and white designed Bell Tower and the gilt copper entrance door to the cathedral are both from the 18th century.  You can’t miss the sparkling multiple green domes when standing out in the square. The statue in the square where St. Sophia’s Cathedral stands is a statue of Bodhan, who was liberated Ukraine in the 17th century.

Domes of St. Sophia's Cathedral in Kiev, Ukraine
Domes of St. Sophia’s Cathedral in Kiev, Ukraine
  

St. Sophia’s Cathedral has world’s BIGGEST ensemble of FRESCOES and mosaics from the 11th century revealing ancient exposed masonry.  Some of old mosaic floors have been preserved in fragments. The present cast-iron floor slabs were laid in the 19th century. Some wall paintings from the 11th century, mosaics, and about 3000 sq. meters of fresco were preserved very mannerly and still can be seen inside the cathedral. Gorgeously decorated altar is the focal point and high dome with rich color frescoes are very eye-catching. We were told that builders used gold for all the mosaics here.

This artwork inside St. Sophia's Cathedral was created by 15,000 hand-painted Easter eggs
This artwork inside St. Sophia’s Cathedral was created by 15,000 hand-painted Easter eggs
  

Metropolitan’s Residence of this cathedral is place, which is open to public now, was primary residence of the Father of the cathedral in the 18th century. You can see many decorative fireplaces and stoves here along with some old frescoes. It is considered as an outstanding and a historical monument of Ukraine. Refractory of St. Sophia’s Cathedral is another building in the monastery where you can see some old ruins, mosaic arts, and paintings. Nothing is written in English here but it’s a nice place to look around.

St. Sophia’s Cathedral is within walking distance from Independence Square and St. Michael’s Monastery. The museum and cathedral are open daily from 10 – 6 pm and 10 – 5 pm on Wednesdays. During winter, from November to April, it’s closed on Thursdays. Just to enter the territory, visitors must pay 3 UAH and 10 UAH extra to go top of the Bell Tower. General ticket, which includes admission to the territory, St. Sophia Cathedral, Refectory, and the Metropolitan’s Residence…the fee is 53 UAH for adults and 23 UAH for children. Visitors cannot take photos inside the cathedral; there are few green-robed ladies who sit in every corner of the cathedral and will shout if they see you clicking.

3) ST. MICHAEL’S GOLDEN-DOMED MONASTERY and STATUE of PRINCESS OLGA: This is a working monastery that dates back to the 12th century. The blue and white Bell-Tower from the early 18th century and the big mural before entering the monastery are eye-catching. Inside the church is very similar to St. Sophia’s Cathedral with striking and graceful mosaics. Exterior structure of the church is Ukrainian Baroque style while the interior kept its early Byzantine style. Colorful altar façade and frescoes of many saints are drop-dead gorgeous too. The place was destroyed by the Communists in the 1930s and was rebuilt in 1990s. Shiny golden domes add incredible beauty to the whole surroundings and to the monastery.

St. Michael's Golden-Dome Cathedral in Kiev, Ukraine
St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Cathedral in Kiev, Ukraine
 

The monastery is located in Mikhailovska Square and can be seen from St. Sophia’s Cathedral. There is no entry fee to enter the monastery or the church inside. Tourists can take photos outside in the perimeter but not inside. Visitors can pay to climb the Bell Tower for a 360 view of the city.

Statue of Prince Olga dominates the big square, Mikhailovska Square, in front of St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery. She was the FIRST known FEMALE RULER of the country. Behind the statue is Diplomatic Academy of Ukraine and on the right side is Foreign Ministry office near the square.

Statue of Princess Olga in front of St. Michael's Monastery in Kiev, Ukraine
Statue of Princess Olga in front of St. Michael’s Monastery in Kiev, Ukraine
   

4) ANDREW’S DESCENT and ST. ANDREW’S CHURCH: Andrew’s Descent is a rough cobblestone street; at the one end of this winding road is Kontraktova Ploshcha in Podil and the other end, at the top of the hill is St. Andrew’s Church. There are many small shops, galleries, and souvenir sellers in Andrew’s Descent and near the church. Once on top of the hill, go up the stairs to enter the church. It’s a small church but very beautiful and richly decorated with red and golden colors. You can see River Dnieper and the city from up there.  There is no fee to go inside.

Charming path of Andrew's Descent in Kiev, Ukraine
Charming path of Andrew’s Descent in Kiev, Ukraine
 

We took funicular from behind St. Michael Cathedral down to Podil then walked to Kontraktova Ploshcha and up to St. Andrew’s Church. This was a bit tiring, may be better way to do this is walk down Andrew’s Descent to Podil then take funicular up to the upper town.

St. Andrew's Church in Kiev, Ukraine
St. Andrew’s Church in Kiev, Ukraine
  

5) CHERNOBYL MUSEUM: I’ve heard of Chernobyl disaster when I was very young, so going to its museum was a must while visiting Ukraine. This is a very moving museum for adults and educational for kids. This nuclear plant disaster happened on April 26th, 1986 at 1:23 am due to faulty infrastructure and machine designs. As many as 76 communities near Chernobyl plant were destroyed and evacuated after the incident. Many are still suffering even after all these years of that catastrophic event. More than 7,000 items are on displayed in the museum. Museum has pictures of many rescuers, liquidators, and authorities who helped, suffered, and died due to heavy radiation burns or side effects. Tourists can also see some of their families and material belongings. The museum isn’t very graphic as far as after effects of the burst, like mutated human beings or animals…makes it very suitable for children.

These boards in Chernobyl Museum in Kiev show all the communities/villages that no longer exist after Chernobyl disaster in 1986
These boards in Chernobyl Museum in Kiev show all the communities/villages that no longer exist after Chernobyl disaster in 1986
   

A century old fire station houses Chernobyl Museum and it can be reached via Metro at “Kontraktova Ploshcha” and then few minutes of walk from there. It took us about little more than an hour (may take longer for some) inside the museum. It’s closed every Sunday and last Mondays of each month and open from 10 am – 6 pm all other days. Entry fee is 10 UAH for everyone including kids and we also had to pay 50 UAH to use our camera in the museum. Most of the information in the display are described in Ukrainian language…we couldn’t find anything in English. Therefore, I’d highly recommend it to rent English audio guide tour which gives a lot of background and detailed information on the museum and what actually happened in Chernobyl. There is a refundable 100 UAH fee for the audio guide.

6) MONUMENT to an UNKNOWN SOLDIER: #6 to #9 are all in one area and can be done together. We got off at Metro station “Arsenalna” and started walking towards Pechersk Lavra and saw these places along the way. This is the hilly part of Kiev, therefore you get a view of the lower city from this part. A big park before arriving to Lavra has few memorials and is decorated with many beautiful statues where we saw #6 and #7.

Monument for an Unknown Soldier in Kiev, Ukraine
Monument for an Unknown Soldier in Kiev, Ukraine
   

Monument to an Unknown Soldier was our first stop after getting out from the metro. The tall obelisk stands in the middle of an open park. Walk around the monument and you will get a nice view of River Dnieper from above.

7) MEMORIAL for FAMINE VICTIMS in UKRAINE: During Soviet Union reign Ukrainian people suffered horrible tragedy/famines which took millions of Ukrainian lives. The WORST humanitarian CATASTROPHE of 20th century for Ukraine was man-made Famine of 1932 – 1933 (artificially engineered by Stalin’s regime), during which few millions of people died. A white, black, and gold memorial with a statue of a little starving girl in the front was built for all those victims. Walk pass the Monument to an Unknown Soldier and walk towards Lavra…you can’t miss it.

A starving little girl in front of Famine Monument in Kiev, Ukraine
Statue of a starving little girl in front of Famine Monument in Kiev, Ukraine
    

8) PECHERSK LAVRA (CAVE MONASTERY): This is one of the oldest and most important monasteries in Ukraine and former Soviet Union. It was founded in 1077. The caves in lower Lavra were dug out by the priests who lived there as hermits. Nowadays, tourists can visit these caves for free if properly dressed…but they were closed during our visit, so we missed it. This is an UNESCO World Heritage Site and definitely a must see in Kiev.

The cathedral inside Perchska Lavra in Kiev, Ukraine
The cathedral inside Pechersk Lavra in Kiev, Ukraine
   

The monastery is still active and surrounded by many small old neighborhoods. This is a big compound and within the territory of Lavra you can see many golden domes and steeples shinning at every corner…some are of small chapels and some are big. We visited a small chapel of the main church near the grand Bell Tower since the main one was not accessible at that time. Many exhibitions were going on in different buildings of Lavra which are free to enter once you are inside the compound.

Walking around Lavra Monastery in Kiev, Ukraine
Walking around Lavra Monastery in Kiev, Ukraine
    

Metro station “Arsenalna” is only few blocks away from the monastery. Opening hours are 9 – 6 pm in winter and 8 – 8 pm in summer. They are closed on Tuesdays. We paid 50 UAH per person (kids free) to enter the perimeter. It’s not strictly maintained, but visitors are not supposed to take any pictures inside any chapel…outside is ok.

9) MOTHERLAND STATUE and GREAT PATRIOTIC WAR MEMORIAL:  This is not a typical war memorial. It’s is a big open park within walking distance from Lavra with many war statues and couple of museums. Walking towards the focal point of this complex which is “Motherland Statue” we passed few small memorials, statues, a museum that features all the vehicles and tanks that were used in WWII. Gigantic silver “Motherland Statue” is a lady looking over Kiev and River Dnieper with a sword in one hand and a shield on the other. The Museum of the Great Patriotic War (WWII) is located at the base of the statue. The museum was already closed by the time we went there but it’s a must if you are interested in German-Soviet war in WWII. The whole complex was built in memory of WWII from 1941 – 1945. You won’t miss the massive sculpture of many soldiers representing combats of German-Soviet war. Walk around areas surrounding the museum and the statue, especially under the bridge for many groups of statues depicting some touching pictures of WWII. You can see many examples of classic Soviet-era war pictures. This is also probably one of the best places to get a good view of Kiev skyscrapers and the river.

Motherland Statue on top of Great Patriotic War Museum in Kiev, Ukraine
Motherland Statue on top of Great Patriotic War Museum in Kiev, Ukraine
  

This is a big open park, great for walking, strolling, and enjoying Kiev from top. Metro station “Arsenalna” is the closest station from here. But if you are already near Pechersk Lavra, it’s about 10 – 15 minutes’ walk from there.

A collage of many statues near Motherland Statue in Kiev, Ukraine
A collage of many statues near Motherland Statue in Kiev, Ukraine
   

10) GOLDEN GATE of KIEV: This is very close to St. Sophia’s Cathedral and in Metro station “Zoloti Vorota”. Honestly, I wasn’t too impressed with the exterior of the building…it’s a big square-shaped building. We didn’t go inside but the statue in one side of the building was nice.

Side view of Golden Gate of Kiev in Ukraine
Side view of Golden Gate of Kiev in Ukraine
   

11) BABYN YAR: This was a site where German NAZI armies MASSACARED Jewish, Gypsies, and many others during WWII. As many as 60,000 VICTIMS were executed in and near a big ravine. The surrounding area of 1 or 2 km was used to commit the mass murders. Now it’s an open park with many trees and a pathway. A big memorial to “Soviet Citizens” stands in one side of the ravine. There isn’t much to do here but the place does make you feel sad. The park can be reached via Metro station “Dorohozhychi”.

A monument in Babyn Yar to commemorate 60,000 innocent victims death in the hands of German Nazi during WWII in Kiev, Ukraine
A monument in Babyn Yar to commemorate 60,000 innocent victims death in the hands of German Nazi during WWII in Kiev, Ukraine
   

1st day in Kiev, Ukraine

It’s freezing cold here in Kiev, Ukraine. But we were packed and ready to roll on our first day in one of the oldest cities in Eastern Europe. I am loving the wintry look here, although wish it was little warmer. Nevertheless, Kiev is a wonderful city in any time of the year and we are glad to be here. We visited three historical and main churches of the city. Sharing a beautiful picture of St. Michael’s Cathedral from Kiev which was built somewhere in the 12th century…come back for more beautiful pictures from our Easter Break trip 2013.

Golden domes and stipples of St. Michael Church in Kiev, Ukraine

Golden domes and steeples of St. Michael Church in Kiev, Ukraine

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