Far north of the magical setting of Vilnius’ turrets, spires and towers, another of Lithuania’s unique and unmistakeable skylines is shaped by the spiritual, and mutinous, Hill of Crosses.
It’s not clear exactly when the first crosses were brought to the small mound north of the former 20th century Soviet military base of Siauliai. It’s understood that from the 14th century onwards, carved wooden crosses clustered on top of and around the hill as an act of prayer, desperation and ultimately, rebellion.
Anti-tsarist uprisings throughout the 1800s and 1900s contributed to the popularity of the site, and crosses of all shapes and craftsmanship are still evident today.
Iron-wrought and elaborate crosses stand like weathervanes amongst traditional hand crafted wooden ones.
Over the centuries, some have rotten and fallen and in doing so have felled a track through those around them, carving paths downwards as a pack of dominoes would.
During the Soviet years, it was an arrestable offence to plant a cross. Spiritual beliefs whether Catholic, Orthodox or pagan, were of course banned.
All the revolutions of the world have desired that there is no place for faith. The hill was bulldozed several times, but the crosses kept coming back. In 1961, the Red Army destroyed the mound and sealed off the tracks that led to it, digging ditches at its base. Its reported that more crosses appeared overnight.
By the 1990s tens of thousands of crosses massed into the site and Pope John Paul II visited to set in the earth of the hill his own papal cross, and to leave behind the message that told of his feelings:
“Thank you, Lithuanians, for this Hill of Crosses which testifies to the nations of Europe and to the whole world the faith of the people of this land”.
Our visit in the hot sunshine of early afternoon, and then later again in the early evening, was one of surprise and awe. The crosses must surely now number more than one million, and they are decked with rosaries, votives, icons and messages. Some are elaborately carved or worked, others are almost naïve in their craftsmanship.
Colourful plastic beads of children’s rosaries shine like jewels in the sunshine and indeed there are many semi-precious stones amongst the decorations. Metal and tin crucifixes tinkle as they knock against each other or the iron poles of larger crosses. The occasional ‘flower fairy’ or even Father Christmas is poked amongst them.
Where the tiny figures of Jesus have fallen from long-ago rotted wooden crucifixes they have been carefully gathered into small groups and placed along stone markers. Bereft of their crosses, the figures looked, to me, like synchronised swimmers in elaborate formations.
The message of the hill is one of faith, but also of rebellion. You can’t visit here without being struck by the strength of belief and hope of the people, but also their determination not to be cowed by their aggressors, whether Polish, German or Russian. It is a uniquely special, and uplifting place.
We stayed overnight next to a wheat field glowing gold and red in the summers’ evening. In the morning, early mists rose above the hill’s skyline.
The first tour coaches arrived shortly before nine o’clock and the local bus service dropped off backpackers and locals keen to have the place to themselves for a short time.
We heard the voices of Lithuanians, Russians, Germans, Italians, Japanese and Americans. This unassuming place not particularly advertised (or indeed promoted as a highlight in our Lonely Planet guidebook) seems to act as its own magnet.
Driving the short distance to Sunny Nights campsite we found a cosmopolitan crowd of campers.
Owner Saulius has created possibly the best campground in Lithuania, with top notch facilities and well thought out touches. He served up tasty dishes of his sister’s potato dumplings, beer from his friend’s brewery and his own cider from the orchard in which we all camped.
We shared an evening with a Canadian on a bike, a Frenchman and a Czech both on motorbikes and three Slovakians in a car and on shots.
Stories were swapped in pigeon languages and fine company was enjoyed by all, ending only with the sudden violence of a summer thunderstorm and dark, pelting rains.