Samogitia is the province in the west of Lithuania that is possibly its oldest established and certainly its most contested.
The ‘lowlands’ were home to one of two tribes, the Samogitians, the other being the Aukstaitija (highlanders) in the east and south east. Both tribes were pagan until their conversion to Christianity in 1413, making Lithuania the last pagan country in Europe.
The lowlanders’ way of life was based around the amber trade along the Baltic coast, and agriculture inland. Samogitia has been an attractive acquisition for land hungry conquerors from the Teutonic Knights through to the Prussian Empire, the Nazis and finally the Soviet Union.
We set out to explore more of Samogitia on a hot summer’s day. Setting off from the national park on our bikes we cycled through the rolling countryside on a 25-mile round trip which gave us an insight into Lithuanian rural life.
Life was lived in colourful and sun-bleached clapperboard houses and seemed sustainable with neatly tended vegetable patches evident everywhere. Typically, rural homesteads had one cow, tethered and grazing on lush grass.
There were none of the coastal displays of wealth although a handful of homes had highly manicured gardens with man-made ponds crossed by wooden bridges.
Storks also roamed in the rolling hills usually near to other livestock of cattle or sheep. Herds were very small and the largest we counted was just 12 dairy cows.
Cars were infrequent but driven noisily and at speed along the curving roads. Where our way passed through forest we were grateful for shade from the searing hot sunshine.
Even though the ‘Baltic Tiger’ is still growing its economy at a rate that would make the Bank of England’s eyes boggle, around a third of homes in farming communities are still below the poverty line.
We saw older people, or people who looked elderly but may not have been in years, dressed in tired and grubby clothes, which may simply have been their everyday work wear but may not have been. Without exception they were surprised to see strangers cycling past, some having to call their dogs back from chasing us.
There was evident pride in each homestead, gardens of blooming flowers and animals looked well-nourished and contented.
Dropping downhill and back on the cycle path around Lake Platelai we joined a throng of Sunday sunbathers, swimmers and sailors enjoying the late afternoon’s heat.
We stopped at the packed hotel bar, where bowls of cold beetroot soup were being enjoyed and toasted tired legs with a cold glass of local pils each. It had been a grand day out.