Trakai Castle: Lithuania’s Medieval Capital

IMG_0384Trakai Island Castle was one of the sites I wanted to visit the most on my first excursion to Lithuania. Trakai was at one time the capital of Lithuania and served as a major center for the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (Lithuania only ever had one king and then was ruled by dukes onward). The castle was first built in the 14th century and is unique as it sits on a small island in the middle of Lake Galve. Trakai Castle’s location gave it strategic importance during wars and military campaigns as it was very difficult to capture.

The castle unfortunately fell into disrepair sometime after the 17th century and it wasn’t until the late 19th century that preparations were made to start restoring it. It took over a hundred years to complete the restoration due to both world wars and funding. The restoration was complete by the early 1990s and today is one of Lithuania’s biggest tourist attractions. The castle has been turned into a national museum that features various artifacts from the castle as well as other items that likely would have been used there during its time as a royal residence and fortress.

For those looking to visit Trakai, it is a 30-minute drive outside of Vilnius. There are several rustic restaurants nearby where you can find Kibinai (a traditional Lithuanian pastry, not unlike a Cornish pasty). It’s easy enough to hire a boat to take you around the castle’s island as well as the rest of the lake. Lastly, there are several kiosks selling various postcards and souvenirs — including Lithuanian amber (the country’s biggest export). I did stop and pick up several postcards and considered picking up some amber jewelry but found that I could get the same quality of amber in Vilnius for a cheaper price.

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I’m Meeting My Lithuanian In-Laws For The First Time And I Don’t Speak Lithuanian!

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Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania

For the last week, I have been umming and ahing over what to write about. I have bounced around every idea; from recollecting a trip to Venice to writing about a Victorian port town on the peninsula of Washington state. But, every time I have sat down to write —  I have been mauled by distractions. Particularly, the fact that I’m going to Lithuania in six weeks to meet my in-laws — for the first time — and we do not speak the same language!

I understand that many many many people throughout the world have been in a similar situation and somehow have managed to stumble through. My predicament is also helped by the fact that my in-laws — in a very touching gesture — took a beginners English class a few months ago. In addition, I have been attempting to learn some basic Lithuanian. But, a big reason for my nervousness is the Lithuanian language itself.

Lithuanian is a very tough language to learn. Contrary to popular assumptions, it sounds nothing like Russian or any other Slavic language. This is because it isn’t Slavic, but one of the only two Baltic languages (Latvian is the other). Lithuanian is one of the oldest languages in the world and is definitely the oldest known Indo-European language. It actually shares many of the same features as Sanskrit. So, yes it is a very intimidating language to attempt. But, the history of the language and how it has been used to define Lithuania as a nation makes it seem all the more imperative to understand.

From 1795-1914, Lithuania was under the control of Imperial Russia and their language was banned from being spoken in public, their alphabet (Latin) prohibited from being taught. This was all in the effort of Russification. The Russians expected the language would become extinct, but their actions only created a cultural resistance from the whole society. Academics began to write poems and articles in Lithuanian, newspapers were published in Lithuanian and the upper classes began to speak only in Lithuanian (previously the poor had been the only group who exclusively spoke the language). This history is probably why many Lithuanians today culturally identify themselves by their language and why there are now laws in place to protect the Lithuanian language.

During the Soviet Union, Lithuanian was still considered the predominant language of Lithuania but Russian was commonly spoken alongside it. My partner was born in the Soviet Union and grew up in post-Soviet Lithuania. He had no interest in learning Russian in school and  while he understands it well enough, he doesn’t speak it. Neither do many of his generation. While he didn’t see the worse of what his country went through under communism and another wave of Russification, he grew up in the remnants of a post-Soviet state rather than what may have been a culturally rich Lithuania. For him, and I’m sure many other Lithuanians — this is a bitter pill to swallow. It is also what makes their language that more cherished. It defines them as who they are.

Knowing all of this has only added extra pressure to learning Lithuanian. There is no way I will be able to master even an intermediate level of Lithuanian before I meet my in-laws. But, I know it’s a language I will continue to encounter and learn in the coming years. Unfortunately, there are limited available resources to learn Lithuanian as it’s a language spoken exclusively by Lithuanians (Just over 3 million people). Rosetta Stone doesn’t even have a version of it. This leaves one option — my partner giving me pained looks as he listens to me butcher his native tongue while I attempt to learn the language. Sacrifices all around!

Does anyone have any stories or advice on learning a new language, particularly Lithuanian? Please share in the comment section below!