Lithuania’s most gorgeous sight, and one of the country’s premier tourist attractions, receives throngs of visitors every year. Have it all to yourself with a trip in winter.
Visiting Lithuania’s lake district in winter might not seem a great idea – temperatures plunge to -25°C so the lakes are frozen solid with an extra layer of snow on top of the ice. But while cruising on a pleasure boat, cycling around the lakes or hiring a pedalo might be out, you’ll be one of the few tourists around and the city’s highlight – Trakai island castle – looks stunning with the white of winter as a backdrop.
28km to the west of Vilnius, it’s hard to believe that sleepy Trakai was once the nation’s capital, albeit in the medieval era. Nowadays it has a population of just over 5,000 and has the feel of a village – I counted just one bar and one restaurant on my day-trip, and saw only a handful of other people.
The castle is situated on an island in the middle of one of the lakes to the north of the city. You get here by crossing a wooden footbridge over the water, but as the lake is frozen in winter it’s just as quick to walk on the ice. In summer you can take a pedalo or sailboat there, but in early March it is hard to imagine how this could ever be.
Access to the island is free, although it costs 14 Lt (£3.50) to enter the castle itself. There’s a pretty odd museum inside devoted to the history of the castle – there are some interesting artefacts discovered in archaeological digs like dinner plates and smashed wine jugs, and a bizarre collection of beaded gloves which, we are told, were popular in the 14th Century.
But the biggest shock is finding out that the castle was only completed in 1987! I just assumed it was a relic of Lithuania’s empire, which once stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea. But although it was built in the 1300s, the castle was left in ruins after war with the Russians in the 17th Century. The museum houses oil paintings depicting how Trakai castle looked in the 19th Century when it was in ruins, and it looked a lot like Kenilworth castle in Warwickshire, UK.
Restoration began in the 1960s and this year marks the 25th anniversary of its completion.
There are three ways to get to Trakai from Vilnius for those without their own transport:
- Organised 3 and a half hour excursions from Vilnius cost a pricey 100 Lt (£25) with www.vilniuscitytour.com. The price includes return mini-bus travel from Cathedral Square to Trakai, and entrance to the island castle.
- Train – the journey takes 35 minutes from Vilnius’ central train station and costs 6.40 Lt (£1.60) one way – for timetables, see In Your Pocket Vilnius. It’s a slow commuter train making around five stops before reaching Trakai, which is the end of the line. The station in Trakai is about a 30 minute walk to the castle, but the journey is well signposted and you’ll pass the excellent AJ Sokoladas on the way if you fancy a tea break and some handmade chocolates.
- Bus – it takes just over half an hour from Vilnius, depending on traffic and costs 6.20 Lt one way (£1.55) from the bus station which is right next to the train station – look for the IKI supermarket. Again, once in Trakai it’s a good 20-minute walk from the bus station to the castle so wrap up warm.
It’s easy to mix and match like us – we took the train on the way and the bus home.