Finding peace in the forests

  • 2008-05-14
  • By Howard Jarvis

PERFECT PANORAMA: Once the site of a castle built for defense against the Teutonic Knights, today the fort hill in Merkine affords a blissful panorama across Dzukija National Park.

VILNIUS  - The view to the horizon is of uninterrupted forest, broken only by the snaking river, a panorama that has remained the same for centuries. If it wasn't for the functional metal bridge below, which updates the scene to at least the early 20th century, you might expect a couple of rampaging dinosaurs to suddenly appear, breaking trees.
But the view is from the top of a hill in the small town of Merkine, deep inside Lithuania's Dzukija National Park, a mound that has itself been conspicuously shaped by man. The wooden fort that once stood on its dusty summit served as a defensive outpost against the Northern Crusaders, invaders from Christian enemies in the west on their way to lay siege to Trakai and Vilnius.

Reached like so many other fort hills in Lithuania by a steep set of rickety steps, it is a perfect spot to contemplate the vastness and beauty of the landscape. There isn't a soul in sight. Below, the Merkys River merges effortlessly with the broad and sluggish Nemunas, also a natural defensive feature. Behind it dwelt the last pagan country in Europe.
The densely forested Dzukija National Park, established soon after Lithuania regained its independence in 1991, covers 550 square kilometers of blissful countryside at the southern edge of the country close to the border with Belarus.
Besides thousands of hectares of luscious pine forest in the sandy Dainava Plain, the park covers sweeping bends in the broad Nemunas valley from the picturesque hamlet of Liskiava in the south to untouched Netiesas Forest north of Merkine.

It is not just the 200 species of flora and fauna that are protected and preserved, but a way of life. Few villages are located within the park, but those that are offer a glimpse of Eastern European life that has stayed much the same for a century or more.
Surrounded on all sides by thick forest, the town of Varena is generally known as Lithuania's mushroom capital. A rich variety of mushrooms, edible and poisonous, grow all over the Baltic region, but here they grow like a carpet on the forest floor. One day a year, generally the last Saturday in September, the sleepy town springs into life for its Mushroom Festival.

The road from Varena to the village of Marcinkonys winds pleasantly through the national park. Immediately on the left once inside the park, a tiny road leads to Zervynos, an enchanting village lost in time with thatched houses, unpaved streets and the pretty Ula River bubbling underneath foliage and wooden bridges.
In Marcinkonys, where the national park headquarters are located, a track leads southwards to Cepkeliai Reserve. This remote area protects Lithuania's most extensive marsh, which stretches into Belarus. Paths and raised wooden walkways reach observation platforms that are immersed in silence except for the calls of the migratory birds that stop here.

The national park has been made much more visitor-friendly in recent years, with old logging roads tidied up for trekking or cycling between the sleepy villages and isolated campsites.
Detailed maps of the area can be bought in bookstores all over Lithuania, and tourist information is posted on occasional notice boards throughout the park. But if you do choose to camp out under the stars, bring your mosquito net. Those devils with wings can frustrate even the easiest of sleepers.
Another fort hill in the park with an excellent vantage point over the Nemunas is in Liskiava. Like Merkine, the castle that stood here also defended the Grand Duchy against the might of the Teutonic Knights, but it crumbled into ruin once Vytautas the Great crushed the sword-wielding Bible bashers at the Battle of Grunwald in 1410.

The domed, 18th-century church in Liskiava is an impressive landmark in the forested valley. Its rich interior includes seven Baroque altars. A series of frescoes depicting images from the history of Christianity were covered in plaster in 1823, and were only recently restored.
Most of the cars on the Vilnius-Merkine road are, of course, heading straight for Druskininkai, Lithuania's foremost spa resort. Tucked inside a bend on the thickly forested Nemunas, major roads bypass this tranquil town and noise restrictions allow placidity to reign.
But as Druskininkai transforms from a glorified medical convalescence home filled with sterile sanatoriums into a family-friendly spa and wellness resort, commotion levels are bound to rise. A water park opened there 18 months ago. If it's divine peace and tranquility you're after, better to head deep into the ancient forests of Dzukija.