My Lithuanian explorations continued with a long walk through the early morning streets of Vilnius, and a bus ride out of town.
Our goal was Trakai, probable site of Gediminus’s capital in the 1320’s.
You’ll recall from my last blog that Gediminus had based his Grand Duchy of Lithuania in hilltop Kernave. Well, the story goes that he discovered Trakai on a hunting expedition and decided to build a castle there.
Trakai was definitely centre of Grand Duke Kestutis’s 13th century court. We first see mention of it in 1337, in the chronicles of the Teutonic Knights.
But those names most likely mean nothing to you.
I didn’t know anything about Lithuania’s early history either, before flying here. And I’m still having a hard time finding comprehensive sources in English. The place is a bit of a mystery, with the knowledge of illumination shining down in little patches, the way sunlight penetrates a thick green forest to strike water.
All you really need to know at this point is that Trakai sits on a little tongue of land which projects into a lake.
The streets are filled with old-style wooden houses belonging to the Karaite people. They were a Judaic sect, a Turkic minority that originated in Baghdad. Their descendants were brought here from the Crimea in the 1400’s to serve as bodyguards at the royal court. And there are still a dwindling number of their descendants living in this part of Lithuania.
But history aside, most people come to Trakai for the setting. And because they want to believe in fairy tales.
At the end of the peninsula and over a little bridge, you’ll find a red brick castle with an orange roof sitting on a tiny island.
The setting couldn’t be more postcard-perfect. And the best way to see it is from the water.
Most of the day trippers were floundering around in pedal boats — a silly mode of transport at the best of times, and one that should be reserved for small children and rather effeminate men.
But thankfully there were a few vendors renting good solid rowboats. And so I slotted the oars into the oarlocks and pushed out into the lake to circumnavigate the castle.
It was a beautiful sunny day, and after circling the castle I rowed all the way across the lake, and then found a quiet corner absent of traffic, where we drifted beneath the trees and listened to the sounds of birds and forest insects.
My dad taught me to row when I was 8 or 9 years old, and I spent every May 24th weekend taking a heavy wooden rowboat back and forth by our rented cottage at Dalhousie Lake. I loved those solitary rows on the annual fishing trip, finding a quiet bay to just sit and think, or exploring the outlet of Paul’s Creek with a shore landing and brief forest expedition.
It was nice to know that those skills stayed with me.
And it was very gratifying to approach the dock at a fast clip and then turn the boat sideways with a deft flick of the oars, ship one, and with a couple gentle single oar adjustments, to slide in next to the other boats — sideways — without a ripple or a bump, and stop two inches from the dock.
The boat rental guy was clearly surprised.
But I was too lost in my memories to notice very much.