Trakai is for everyone

  • 2010-03-11
  • By Lasse Felsen

TRAKAI - The historical town and recreational lake resort of Trakai every year welcomes tens of thousands of visitors eager to study the history of the medieval Trakai Castle and soak in the authentic atmosphere of the small fisherman’s town, which is inhabited by less than 6,000 permanent residents. The town lies about 30 km west of Vilnius, and is easily accessible by car or public transport. The place is surely worth a visit for anyone looking to get away from the noise and pace of the capital. There is pleasure to be found for both the historically interested individual, the family going for an enjoyable lake boat trip with the kids, or the romantic couple looking for a relaxing weekend hiatus.

Trakai’s legacy is legendary in Lithuanian history. The castle was built on a small island on the major Lake Galve in the 14th century by monarch Kestutis, who was then Duke of Trakai and governed the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The town that since then grew around the castle became the political and administrative center of the Duchy during the Late Middle Ages, making Trakai the most important city in Lithuania at the time. The old castle was shattered several times during wars in the 17th and 18th centuries, but since then it has been reconstructed and preserved. Today, the castle hosts a popular modern day museum with an exhibition about the Grand Duchy. Various genuine artifacts that used to belong to the Duchy and survived the ages are on display, and with many renovations having been done, there has been a real effort to vividly capture how the daily life of the monarchs was back then. It is an often chosen destination for school trips too, and you are likely to meet groups of little children getting history lessons when you visit the castle. During weekends, live operas and concerts are also arranged inside the complex.

The town is also well known for its population of Karaite people, who are ethnic Turkic peoples with Jewish faith. The Karaites settled in and around Trakai in the late 14th century and, up until today, they continue to live within their own community, demonstrating their own way of life and speaking their own language. The Karaite cuisine is definitely worth a try for the visitor. Very popular is Kibinai, which is an oven-baked crispy bun with minced lamb, beef or pork inside. A great place to go for authentic Karaite and Lithuanian food is the restaurant Senoji Kibinine; this restaurant has been running and serving hungry customers since 1979, and it is undoubtedly one of the most popular eating places in Trakai. Senoji Kibinine is never empty, as it always offers good food and service in a warm and cozy atmosphere.

During summer holidays, all of Trakai is literally overrun by Lithuanian and foreign tourists swimming or fishing the freshwater lakes, while others frequent the many cafes along the lake for drinks and snacks in the sun before partying all night long in the streets. During winter and early spring, prices on accommodation and food are considerably lower than during the season, and with less crowding it is surely worth visiting during this period. Whatever your heart desires, you will find it in the form of recreational saunas, heated swimming pools and spas. There are several B&B’s offering good quality and decent prices, and there are also luxurious hotels for more demanding guests with a bigger pocketbook.

My wife and I had the pleasure of staying in the guest house Prie Galves Ezero during one weekend. This hotel is situated by the major Lake Galve, with a view of the Trakai Castle right outside the window. It is an ideal place to stay for visitors looking to not spend too much on accommodation and still get value for your money. You get a private room with bath, television, refrigerator and other niceties for less than 30 euros per night. If you add a little extra on top, you have access to a sauna and outdoor swimming pool as well. During winter, guests sweat inside the birch-heated sauna before running for the outside pool for an icy cold bath. It is an exercise recommended only for guests with a strong medical record, as it has been known to cause seizures and heart attacks due to sudden shifts in body temperature. It is also popular to combine the consumption of chilled Degtine (vodka) with sauna-going, but you have to be careful with this sort of activity if you don’t have experience.

However, it is recommended to try out this ritual if you like to socialize and meet new friends in a fun and different environment.
From the hotel courtyard of Prie Galves Ezero, there are steps leading down to Lake Galve, and you can walk along the lake towards the Trakai Castle. As you walk along the path you pass the famous sports club, where rowing athletes during the season compete for honor and glory in fast-paced kayaks. You then cross the bridge leading towards the island with the old castle, and you can walk all around the castle and study the view of the reconstructed building complex.

When crossing the bridge, you meet local children playing flutes and acoustic instruments, as they hope for generous souls to drop a coin in their hat. During wintertime, the lake waters are frozen, and fishermen walk the iced-over lake in search for an ideal place to set up their fishing rods. After a lucky catch, the men bring the fresh fish to the restaurants along the shore, and later guests enjoy good fish for lunch. Notably, it is recommended to pay a visit to the Kavine Prie Galves for this purpose. This cafe has a very local feel to it, and every week it receives freshly caught fish straight from the lake. The fish is then cooked over a charcoal grill, to make the most simple yet delicious meal you will find anywhere in town. After experiencing life in Trakai like this, you will be self-assured that you will want to return for another visit as soon as you get the chance.