A Dream Lost In Time: A Trip To Trakai Island Castle: The Memorable & The Unforgettable (Travels In Eastern Europe #61b)

In 1866 a Polish artist by the name of Jozef Marsewski visited Trakai. He proceeded to paint a view of Trakai Island Castle from an opposite shoreline of Lake Galve. In the painting, the bare ruins of the Castle stand austere and dignified. Two decrepit bastions appear to the left of the main castle tower which rises above everything in the painting except for a luminescent sky. Sunlight warms the left side of the tower and collection of ruins which spread out beneath it. The waters of Lake Galve are placid and act as a giant watery mirror, reflecting an array of colors across the sky. On the left side of the painting, the sky and water almost become one, blending in a glorious shade of pastel pink. In the foreground, two figures on either end of a boat glide atop the still waters. I saw this painting long after I visited the castle. It made me yearn for another visit to Trakai. One that would take place in the waning afternoon hours of an intensely warm summer day. To watch the sun slowly evaporate into a pink hued horizon while the castle shimmered in a medieval mirage.

Trakai Island Castle in ruins by Józef Marszewski

Trakai Island Castle in ruins by Józef Marszewski (Credit: National Museum in Warsaw)

Capturing Trakai – Ruins & The Imagination
Such a scene did not materialize on the day I visited Trakai. It is highly unlikely that I will ever have that experience , but I can always dream or at least gaze at Marsewski’s painting which has much the same effect. The painting can be seen today in the National Museum in Warsaw.  The scene Marsewski captured at Trakai evoked an intense mysticism in me. That mysticism was shadowed by a sense of irrevocable loss. It would be difficult enough to find a day similar to the one Marsewski portrays, but impossible to find Trakai Island Castle in ruins. The restored castle I visited on that gray autumn day looked thoroughly grand and astonishingly beautiful. Unfortunately, it did not speak to me the way those ruins did as seen in Marsewski’s painting. Perhaps that was because the finished product of the present does not lend itself to the imagination the way ruins do.

One thing that could be recreated from that picture was a boat ride on the waters of Lake Galve. As I was leaving the castle, a lone boatman pleaded with me and a handful of others walking the grounds to go on his watercraft. He was insistent to the point of irritation. His beckoning followed me in and out of the castle. I heard him bellow forth at others with the same phrases. His cacophonous voice was the only sound in an otherwise silent environment. He was persistent, following whomever would listen or look his way. There was nothing remotely threatening about the boatman. When I thought about him later I felt a bit sad. Here was a man at the end of tourist season trying to make a living. His prospects for the next six to eight months were bleak. No wonder he was trying so hard. I think he deserved payment for being so adamant and obstinate. He left an impression on me that developed into an eternal soft spot for him in my heart.

Trakai Castle ruins sometime between 1870-1880

Trakai Castle ruins sometime between 1870-1880 (Credit: Arz1969)

Imperiousness – At Everyone Else’s Expense
On my way back to the mini-bus I met the Englishman who was on the tour with his mother. We struck up a conversation. He thought the castle was a fabulous sight, but Lithuania was not for him. The people were reserved, if a bit cold. There was so much silence. Even though I enjoyed Lithuania, I knew what he meant. There was something about this land and the people that made me feel alone. A quietness and solitude seemed to pervade everything. The only exception was our tour guide, who came walking briskly up to us ready to unload a mindful of information. It was supposed to be a short ride back, but I felt a sense of inevitable interminability coming on. Sure enough, as soon as we began the ride back toward Vilnius, the guide told us everything she wanted us to know about Lithuania. What Lithuanians did for fun, what sports they played, what the economy was like, what daily living was like and strangely enough, when she might get married. She was the Lithuanian version of a walking almanac.

I had to give her credit though for trying so hard. Plus, I came to value her torrent of information much more after the imperious, older Norwegian lady began to talk about herself. She owned many businesses, had been insanely successful and made sure we knew it. She reminded me of a haughtier version of successful small-town businessmen in America that I have known. No one could do it better than her. And she did it at everyone else’s expense. I wondered what the Englishman and his mother thought. They were humble middle class people, polite and deferential. By the time we got back to Vilnius I knew this woman was better than me and everyone else she had ever met. It was a relief when the mini-bus dropped us off in the Old Town.

Ready to go - Boat on Lake Galve with Trakai Castle in the distance

Ready to go – Boat on Lake Galve with Trakai Castle in the distance (Credit: Henryk Kolowski)

Warmth & Wonder – A Mother’s Instinct
The Englishman then asked me if I wanted to have a drink with him and his mother. I said sure. We found a nice outdoor café and ordered a few beverages. I noticed when we were at Trakai that his mother always stayed behind. When she walked, it was with noticeable pain. I wondered if this was the product of some sort of recent injury. It turned out that she had a chronic arthritic condition. She winced while trying to sit down and getting up was just as difficult. It was painful  to watch her facial expressions as she tried to get comfortable in a chair. Her son was infinitely patient. He helped her get up or move around. The mother looked to only be in her early 50’s, if that.

Despite her physical condition, her outlook on life was cheerful. She enjoyed talking to me about her life on the outskirts of London. Her eyes radiated a sense of warmth and wonder. I could not imagine how painful it must have been for her to travel to Lithuania or on the bus just to visit Trakai. She and her son gave me their addresses and phone numbers, then told me to come visit if I was ever near their home. We finished up our drinks and said short goodbyes, hoping to meet again in the future. I deeply regret that somewhere along the way I misplaced their contact information. It is almost certain that I will never see them again. It is also certain that I will never forget them. That was worth the trip, both to Trakai and Lithuania.

The Floating Fortress – A Trip To Trakai Island Castle: Irritability, Beauty & Tranquility (Travels In Eastern Europe #61a)

After a couple of days in Vilnius I decided that it was time to see something of the Lithuanian countryside. My newfound friends at Vilnius Home Bed & Breakfast recommended a day trip to nearby Trakai Island Castle. One look at a photo of Trakai convinced me this was where I should go. Trakai is the eye candy of Lithuanian castles. It sits on an island, its red brick image reflecting off the water. The photos I saw of Trakai before booking the tour were astounding. So much so that when the tour operator told me that the interior of the castle would be closed because it was a Monday, I could have cared less. Such minor scheduling details would not preclude me from taking photos or walking along the walls. Trakai was not going to be an exercise in history so much, as it was an exercise in vanity. Thus, I found myself at 10 a.m. on my last morning in Vilnius boarding a bus with a small group that included an English woman, her adult son and a broad shouldered, imperious looking Norwegian lady.

Hill fort mounds in Kernave

Hill fort mounds in Kernave (Credit: Jan Mehlich)

The Unimaginable Past – Kernave
Our guide was a Lithuanian woman who looked to be in her late 20’s. Once she started talking, she hardly ever stopped.  We heard, but did not learn, a withering amount of Lithuanian history over the next 45 minutes. Her idea of leading a tour was to tell us so much information that we would be too exhausted from listening to ask any questions. Between the bus ride and an unending stream of facts, I was ready to sleep for a month. Finally, the bus made a stop at an overlook for the ruins of Kernave. Here stood what was reputed to be the first capital of Lithuania. The ruins are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and were supposed to be the main attraction. Unfortunately, during the 1920’s a magnificent, yet entirely out of place neo-Gothic Church was constructed nearby. There were other churches in this area from the 15th through the 19th century, either they fell into ruin or were removed. The irony is that during Kernave’s golden age, the inhabitants were pagan. They were fighting for their very existence from Christian crusading Teutonic Knights. Now a massive church overlooked all that remained of their glorious past.

The remnants of Kernave sat on a plateau just above the Neris River. While I found the various mounds and ruins impressive it also was a reminder of just how few people lived in even the most important settlements during the early medieval period. A small town in Lithuania today would easily swallow these mounds the represented Kernave. During this time, the overwhelming majority of the population lived in the countryside, their existence was precarious at best. Kernave’s population would have expanded to capacity when they were under attack. It was as much a seat of protection, as it was of power. Kernave was likely the greatest Baltic hill fortress of its time. Nevertheless, its current condition did not look very impressive. Those were very different times, as unimaginable to us as today’s world would have been to Kernave’s residents.

A Magic Moment - Lake Galve & Trakai Island Castle

A Magic Moment – Lake Galve & Trakai Island Castle

The Magic Of The World – In Progress
The guide continued to talk incessantly as we headed towards Trakai. It was difficult to even get in a word. When I did ask her a question, if it did not fit in with her pre-prepared narrative, she became rather abrupt. By the time we arrived in Trakai, I was less interested in seeing the castle than getting a break from her ceaseless chatter. I fled from the bus and headed straight towards the edge of Lake Galve, which surrounds the island that Trakai stands on. Just about the time I was getting ready to snap my first coveted photo of the castle, I noticed a sailboat sliding silently across the water. It was a moment of stunning beauty and picturesque serendipity. I was instantly pleased with the photo, which looked so enchanting that I could hardly believe such a scene was there for the taking. Sometimes beauty and tranquility conspire to create a perfect moment that captures the magic of the world in progress.

I then made my way over the footbridge leading to the castle. Though the interior was not open, just walking around the castle walls proved illuminating. Trakai Castle had undergone an extensive restoration which was visible to the naked eye. The lower parts of the walls were original and did not match up with the bricks that had been used to rebuild the taller parts of these walls. The restoration had taken over a decade. Strangely enough, it was done under the communist regime. This seemed odd, as the idea of nobility was anathema to the communists. I noticed this same phenomenon at work while visiting the Old Towns of Riga and Warsaw. What possessed these regimes to rebuild historic neighborhoods and structures was hard to fathom. Perhaps it was done in a paradoxical bid to create confidence in a communist system that was an imposition on national honor. A reminder that not all was bad. Or at least the past offered respite from the present. Whatever the case, the restoration was fabulously done.  It did make me wonder though, had the castle ever really looked this good. All restorations approximate the past. This one was so magnificent that any faults I could find seemed like mere quibbles.

Reconstructing history - The brighter red brick is from the mid-20th century castle restoration

Reconstructing history – The brighter red brick is from the mid-20th century castle restoration

At The Mercy of History – The Decline Of Trakai
And what of the history of Trakai Castle? The castle underwent three phases of construction between the latter half of the 14th century and the first half of the 15th century. Its principle usage was as a fortress guarding against attack by the Teutonic Knights. One of these attacks brought it to ruin in 1377. This brought home to me the martial prowess of the Teutonic Knights. Taking Trakai meant overcoming nature as much as man. The castle would be rebuilt only a few decades later in stouter and stronger form, accentuating the Gothic elements. After the Teutonic Knights were soundly defeated at the Battle of Zalgiras (more famously known as the Battle of Tannenburg) in 1410 the castle morphed into a palatial residence for the Grand Dukes of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The castle only went into perpetual decline after being badly damaged in the 17th century wars with Muscovy. It fell into disuse and was abandoned, left to the mercy of the elements.  The fact that it would eventually be resurrected in its current form did not mean that the ruins were without value, especially for artists.