The only castle on an island in Eastern Europe attracts more than one million visitors a year and it’s easy to see why.
Red bricked and towered, the pretty fortress was built by the grandest of mediaeval Lithuania’s dukes, Vytautus, who needed stronger defences than his father Kestutis’ existing castle, built on the peninsular, could offer.
A footbridge links the castle – or pilis – to the shore, and a moat separates the outer courtyard from the main tower with its central court, galleries, halls and rooms. By the end of the 15th century, with the capital Vilnius safe from foreign attack and booming economically, the castle was the summer residence of the Grand Dukes.
We cycled to the castle from a nearby campsite that was busily building a giant stage for its annual summer music festival. It was the first of many we were to discover being made ready in Lithuania.
The end of the school term and the start of the summer holidays seems to signal a collective festival week where villages, towns, cities and even campsites throw a great big party, enjoying rock and traditional music, food and beer.
At Trakai we encountered tourists in numbers that we had not seen before in our tour of Lithuania. Scandinavians, Slavs and bizarrely, Japanese, piled out of luxury tour coaches and thundered past the shoreline souvenir shops selling wood cuttings, wind chimes, key rings and very cute ‘flower fairy’ inspired felt hats.
We joined them at a lakeside inn for a kybyn each. This is similar to a pasty but thinner, and arguably tastier, being stuffed with spiced meats or curds and spinach.
The kybyn (or kibini) is the signature dish of Trakai’s ancestral immigrant community, the Karaims. Originally a Judaic sect and Turkic minority originating in Persia’s Baghdad, around 400 families were bought to Trakai from the Crimea by Vytautus to serve as bodyguards to the Grand Dukes.
Today only a dozen or so families with direct links to the original settlers live in the town and although completely assimilated into Lithuanian culture, they continue their proud traditions of food and crafts.
The colourful clapperboard houses that line Karaim Street is considered their Mecca.
Leaving the crowds we wandered a few kilometres along the lakeside venturing out onto wooden pontoons to greet crowds of coots, swans and ducks. Herons and storks circled above.
Away from the shoreline the town showed itself to have two supermarkets, two schools, a doctors and dentists, a police station, orthodox and catholic churches and several banking and insurance offices.
Everyday life bustled on and we enjoyed the ordinariness of it all, dodging kids on scooters and flashy cars, farmers tractors and harassed mums all vying for prime parking spaces outside shops and services.
This was a far cry from the selfie sticks and pedaloes from the main promenade on the most popular of the 21 islands. It was lovely to get a sense of local life in perhaps the most photographed corner of Lithuania.
Staying a second night in the town we moved onto the front lawn of Viktor, a entrepreneurial chap who charges 10 euros for a day’s parking with an extra five for a safe night’s camping. His garden backed onto a building development of three intended luxury homes but he explained the developer had run out of money.
We watched local daredevils scale the unfinished rooflines hooting and calling at the setting sun. In the morning the dragon-like breath sound of a hot air balloon floated above us, signalling the start of another busy day of sightseeing at the castle.