Trakai Island Castle and Karaims

When I was researching things to do in Lithuania during my 9-hour stopover in Vilnius , I decided to visit Trakai, a small historical city ...

When I was researching things to do in Lithuania during my 9-hour stopover in Vilnius, I decided to visit Trakai, a small historical city located a short bus ride from the Lithuanian capital. There are many other interesting places to see in this small yet beautiful Baltic country - Kaunas, Palanga, Hill of Crosses, etc., but you definitely need more time than I had. 

Getting to Trakai is easy. Frequent and cheap bus service connects it with the main bus station in Vilnius. 
Once in Trakai, it's a no-brainer to get oriented there and find major attractions: information signs and maps are everywhere. 
The castle is about 20-30 minute walk from the Trakai bus station along the Vytauto street which turns into Karaimu street on the tip of the peninsula.
As you walk, you can see lots of traditional wooden houses painted in different colours - often yellow and green. 
Lithuania is traditionally a forested land with pines and other conifer trees. And apparently, many people still use hardwood stoves as a furnace during the winter season.
Not surprisingly, Trakai Island Castle is the biggest draw to this area. It was initially built in the 14th century and even became a de-facto residence of the Grand Duke during the golden age of the Great Duchy of Lithuania. 
Trakai remains a popular destination for Lithuanians and international tourists.
Conifer trees, that are abundant in Lithuania, yield amber, a fossilized resin (not sap) much loved for its colour and beauty. I found that amber is a main 'ingredient' for the majority of Lithuanian gifts.
I'm particularly interested in the golden age of the Great Duchy of Lithuania (14-15th centuries), because it's a period when Ukraine was actually part of it. Unlike other countries and empires that conquered and colonized Ukrainian land at different times (such as Poland, Russia, Golden Horde, Turkey, Austria-Hungary and Germany), Lithuania actually not only preserved the Ukrainian culture, language and religion, but also borrowed a lot from it for itself. 
As a matter of fact, Ukraine or what was left on the remnants of Kievan Rus (which at the time was weak and split into small duchies) voluntarily joined the Great Duchy of Lithuania, because the latter offered a protection from external threats as well as promised to keep a vast autonomy for Ukrainians in return of a reasonable tax paid by people.
So, I think, it would be fair to say, that the period of the Great Duchy of Lithuania was the golden age of Ukraine as well. 
Over time, Polish influence on Lithuania became much stronger to the point that Lithuania eventually lost its parity and political power to Poland in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. 
In the 17th century, during the war between Poland and Russia, the Trakai Island Castle was significantly damaged and remained in ruins until the 20th century. Russians, then Germans, then Polish, then again Russians (well, Soviets to be precise) tried to reconstruct it, but different obstacles such as wars and political will (or the lack of thereof) prevented this from happening. And only in early 1990s, the castle's reconstruction was finished by already independent Lithuania. 
Trakai is a great place for swimming, boating, kayaking, picnicking and other activities of that kind. 
Despite the crowds of tourists that pour into this area, it's still possible to find a secluded place to relax.
Trakai is also known for its famous Karaim (Karaites) community, a Turkic-speaking ethnic group whose religion is Judaism. Interesting combination, isn't it? According to one of the sources I've read while planning the trip, Karaims had something like an open tender back in the day where they decided to pick an official religion for their people. Christianity, Islam and Judaism competed among each other, but eventually Karaims picked Judaism. I'm really curious to know why. Maybe because of its age and maturity?
Karaims were invited from Crimea by the Grand Duke Vytautas in 1397-1398.
Karaim houses are located on the northernmost tip of the Trakai peninsula and are easy to distinguish by three windows facing the street.
Kenessa is a holy temple (synagogue) for Karaims. By the way, there is one in Kyiv, too, however it has not been used by Karaims for almost a century now (since the Soviet Union was created).
Kibinai, a traditional Karaim pastry filled with mutton and onion, is a popular meal in Trakai.
For those who want to learn more about Karaim history and culture, there is the Karaim Ethnographical Exhibition.

You Might Also Like