The weather on our trip ended up being more or less the opposite of what had been forecast by the usually painfully accurate Norwegian State Weather Service. So it was that on a day promised to be bright and warm – the ideal weather for a quick day trip before taking the train to Minsk in the evening – the three of us found ourselves trudging back and forth along the main street of Trakai in what could best be described a freak Lithuanian monsoon. I didn’t mind, though, because I had an umbrella.
That makes Trakai sound like a much less appealing place than it is. The town is located on an isthmus between two lakes, with a third one to the north. It has one main street which stretches up the isthmus, which gradually becomes thinner and thinner until you can see the water on both sides. It’s hardly rural – it’s only 45 minutes from Vilnius on the slowest train imaginable – but it’s a nice escape from the capital and a chance to see something more of Lithuania. It is the day trip from Vilnius, for both native Lithuanians and tourists, and there are two reasons for this.
The first is its role in the country’s history. For centuries, as I explored in my previous post, Vilnius was not the centre of Lithuanian national feeling – that place was instead occupied by Trakai. Whether Trakai was ever the official capital or not is under dispute: some sources claim it became the capital in 1323, when Grand Duke Gediminas decided to build his castle here. Other opinions (for example, this map) claim that while Vilnius was the official capital, many of the subsequent Grand Dukes spent far more time in Trakai, which was essentially a de facto capital. No matter what, it’s probably accurate to say that Trakai, as home to two royal castles, was an important town until the absorption of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania into the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
Trakai is also home to the Karaim, and this is the second reason for its fame. The Karaim were a group of Turkic descent who lived in the Crimea and followed Karaite Judaism. Following a successful attack against the Golden Horde, Grand Duke Vytautas moved a community of them to Trakai in the late 14th century, and they have remained there ever since. Despite the frequent changes of ownership that Trakai suffered during the 19th and 20th centuries and the efforts of nearly every ruling nation to convert them from Judaism, they managed to resist. The Karaite kenessa in Trakai is one of two left in Lithuania (the other being in Vilnius).
Curiously, the one government which left them comparatively to their own devices was Nazi Germany; the Karaim in Germany had, just after Hitler’s rise to power, successfully petitioned the authorities for an exemption from the anti-Jewish regulations because they were not ethnically Jewish. Despite this, during World War Two several hundred Karaim were killed because the soldiers were not aware of the exemption. There are now fewer than 300 Karaim in Lithuania, most of whom live in Trakai.
The dual attractions of the extremely Lithuanian Island Castle and the extremely un-Lithuanian Karaite heritage make wandering through Trakai – particularly the older northern part, where the old Russian Empire post office stands at the end of a row of traditional three-windowed Karaim houses – a curious experience.
Sadly, because of the rain and the pressure of time, we only saw the castle across the lake and through the driving rain. I was pleased to note that the weather hadn’t put off a number of other visitors, who all seemed to be employing the “well, we’re here now, we might as well look around” attitude which regularly gets people into so much trouble in horror films. For our part, we spent more than an hour and a half enveloped in the warming bosom of a Karaim restaurant, and I think we made the right decision. The quintessential dish of the Karaim is the kybyn, which is essentially a Cornish pasty. I was unfortunately unable to control myself when choosing my food and opted for a whole fish, the species of which I was never able to ascertain, stuffed with lemon and baked in vine leaves. (My excuse for this is that I am so unaccustomed to travelling in countries in which seafood plays any part in the national diet that as soon as I see it on a menu, I seize upon it; clearly I just need to do some island-hopping in the Pacific.)
Lithuania’s national vegetable is the potato. The moment I discovered this was the point at which I realised that I was going to enjoy my visit. Lithuanian food is very similar to other national cuisines in the region, which is unsurprising if you consider how much time each of those countries has spent being controlled by one of the others in the past. The most identifiable Lithuanian food, although it is shared with its neighbours, is the zeppelin, which is essentially a massive potato dumpling stuffed with meat. In Lithuanian they are called cepeliniai or, more frequently, didžkukuliai, and they are absurdly delicious. In the restaurant we visited on our last night in Vilnius before returning to the UK, there was a chalk board in the entrance tracking the number of zeppelins they had sold (nearly 4 million). They are clearly popular.
As with most ex-Soviet nations, the Liths are fond of their alcohol. I tried the ever-present balsam (balzamas), which tasted roughly like every other sweet herbally-infused alcohol (Jägermeister, Zwack Unicum… take your pick, really), although the one flavoured with honey was particularly intense. On a teetotal note, I was pleased to see that Borjomi is on sale absolutely everywhere in both Lithuania and Belarus. Borjomi is a well-known brand of Georgian sparkling water with a curious, slightly salty, flavour to it. During the Soviet era, it was widely available all over the country, and that legacy remains.
The other common theme I noticed was dill. My God, there was so much dill! I had dill with meat, dill with fish, dill with potatoes, dill with zeppelins, dill in soup… I could swear that there was even dill in the balzamas, but that might be a little excessive.
Unfortunately we were almost entirely denied the hilarity of erroneous English renderings of types of food. In Lithuania, the standard of English is too good for that to happen; in Belarus almost nothing is in English. There were occasional gems, though ,and I still regret not asking about what exactly was in a ‘dumpling for naughty children‘.
(all photographs taken by me, Duncan Wane, copyright 2012)