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A collection of wayside crosses encountered on the road from Šiauliai to Vilnius.
A collection of wayside crosses encountered on the road from Šiauliai to Vilnius. Photos by John Baltrus.

On the Road Again in Lithuania

John Baltrus.

As promised almost two years ago (in Draugas News, July 2017) this past summer, I returned to Lithuania to continue my exploration of its countryside by bicycle. All I needed to do was dust off my bike, put air in my tires, and hit the road. I thus squeezed in a five-day, 400 km journey in late June between Joninės (St. John’s Day) and the Song Festival. 

Bicycle route from Šiauliai to Vilnius.
Bicycle route from Šiauliai to Vilnius.

I carefully planned my trip, relying on Google Maps. From my previous trip, I learned that it was wise to avoid dirt roads and major highways whenever possible. One thing that wasn’t avoidable was the cold and wet weather. It greeted me on my first day as I departed from Vilnius. My planned ride from Vilnius to Trakai that day was short, so I held off as long as I could, waiting for a break in the intermittent showers. Mid-afternoon I started down Gedimino Prospect, but no sooner had I turned the corner to head up the long hill towards Vingio Park than I was met with a deluge of rain which accompanied me during the entire climb. 

After taking a short break under some trees, skies brightened, and so did my mood. This was a familiar route that I had ridden on my last trip, but one I felt I needed to get back my bicycle legs since I hadn’t much time to train before leaving my home in Pittsburgh. I again enjoyed the challenge of the preserved section of the Old Vilnius-Kaunas Trail, taking pride in making it up the steep, rough and wet path through the trees without dismounting. I soon encountered some heavy traffic in spots and, of course, more rain. My evening in Trakai was spent partaking of their famous kibinai (lamb and onion-filled pastries, a traditional dish of the Turkic Karaite ethnic minority that resides around Trakai) and sampling various meads. Not exactly a proper meal for cycling, but I was on vacation, after all!

Mead tasting in Trakai.
Mead tasting in Trakai.

Day two didn’t start very auspiciously. As I left town, I unexpectedly encountered a TV cameraman filming in my direction. At first, I thought that perhaps someone heard about my bicycle journey and wanted to publicize my follow-up trip. Then I looked to my left and saw an overturned tanker truck that was the real subject of the cameraman’s interest. I was glad I wasn’t riding by when that accident occurred.

The rolling hills out of Trakai were different than the mostly flat terrain I experienced in other parts of Lithuania, but I was up to the challenge as I approached Birštonas. The unpredictable weather added to that challenge.  It was still quite cold, so I wore a jacket and leggings to stay warm. There were intermittent showers along the way. Looming on the horizon were dark clouds suggesting imminent heavy rainfall. Just when I thought I could not outrace the rain, I was lucky enough to change direction and buy some extra time. Much of the ride was rural with hardly any traffic until I reached the outskirts of Birštonas. It was peaceful except for encountering two dogs, my first while on a bicycle in Lithuania. The first one was not very attentive, only noticing me after I had taken a several-minute water break near his residence. He gave me the chance to speed away.  I approached the other dog from behind. My initial fear was assuaged when I realized that he was probably quite old, and did not hear my approach. As I passed by, he gave me the requisite solitary bark and a pro forma slow chase down the road.

Rock sculptures on the road to Birštonas.
Rock sculptures on the road to Birštonas.

This was my first visit to Birštonas other than a very short stop many years ago. I was pleasantly surprised by its beauty and cleanliness. It was a Tuesday evening, so the town was practically empty of tourists. I had a chance to walk the pedestrian path along the Nemunas River in the early evening and enjoy the sights and flowering shrubs. My accommodations in a new resort hotel were outstanding. I enjoyed relaxing on the balcony so much that I considered extending my stay there for an additional day. But that would have meant doubling my planned mileage on the last day and probably arriving at my friends’ place in Šiauliai exhausted and possibly late. I found later that my decision to move along as initially planned was the right one. I was sitting outside enjoying the view, the storm I had been avoiding all day began its approach up the river. First, there were heavy winds, then torrential rain, and finally a drop in temperature of probably 20 degrees. Luckily I did not encounter anything like that again along the way. I was glad that I had the opportunity to enjoy Birštonas before the storm hit.

On my third day, I journeyed from Birštonas to just east of Jurbarkas. I had already been warned by reading Internet postings that the road from Prienai to Garliava, just outside of Kaunas, could be quite dangerous. It was all of that and more. After climbing another long hill out of Prienai, I hit the main road with cars and tractor trailers whizzing by while I tried to ride on what little asphalt pavement was available. Sometimes I was lucky to find about six inches of pavement, but more often much less or none at all. And there was no way to avoid the inevitable potholes except by riding off into the mud alongside the road. As I was getting discouraged, I ran into another cycling tourist headed in the opposite direction, loaded down with panniers twice in size and number as mine, and smiling away as he held up traffic behind him. He didn’t seem to have a care in the world, so I figured why should I? At least for a couple of miles!

Monument to Jonas Basanavičius in Birštonas.
Monument to Jonas Basanavičius in Birštonas.

The roads became easier to bear and more rural as I rode beyond Garliava and circled Kaunas. I made what turned out to be another wise decision when I stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant just outside of Kaunas for an hour. Then I headed further on the south side of the Nemunas river, opposite the side and direction of my ride two years ago. This side was pleasantly more rural with almost no traffic. I managed to reach the ferry across the Nemunas in Vilkija minutes before it departed. Otherwise, I would have had a long wait. After another break in a park on the other side of the river, I headed toward Jurbarkas.

It didn’t take long before I encountered an unusual and disturbing scene. A long line of traffic and an ambulance approaching with sirens blaring. I didn’t remember that many cars passing me on that road, so traffic must have already been stopped for a while. As people exited their cars and waited, I thought I would forge ahead slowly to see how far I could get since no traffic was coming from the opposite direction. Then I saw many old refrigerators and the remnants of a wooden trailer in a ditch, but no other vehicle that appeared damaged, which seemed odd. I approached the ambulance and police, who did not stop me. As I passed the spot where the paramedics were working, I caught a glimpse out of the corner of my eye an overturned bicycle and shuddered at the thought of what happened. A couple from the Netherlands had been riding about an hour ahead of me and a vehicle with an intoxicated driver and hauling a trailer of old refrigerators was traveling towards Kaunas when the trailer broke free, crossed the road, and ran directly over the husband and his bicycle. I immediately stopped after passing the scene to gain my composure and call my wife to tell her that if she heard of a cyclist being killed along that route, it wasn’t me. The experience affected me the rest that day and cast a shadow over what was otherwise the best weather day of the whole trip.

A curious park in Birštonas. Visitors walk on various-sized stones to massage their feet.
A curious park in Birštonas. Visitors walk on various-sized stones to massage their feet.

That evening I stayed at a combined farm, hotel and banquet center near Jurbarkas. I was the only guest there that night and was treated to a delicious meal of pancakes made from freshly harvested potatoes and, of course, plenty of cold beer. The next morning, I set off to Šiluva, which I purposely included in my route. But first, I stopped at the Vytėnai (Panemunės) Castle in Raudonėnai before turning north. The castle dates back to 1610.  I was impressed by its restoration and the museum inside. I wish I could have spent more time there or even stayed a night in the onsite hotel.

Heading north, I ran into stiff winds and more hills, which made riding challenging again, but at least it was sunny. Three young German tourists cycling to Riga passed me, and then I, in turn, overtook them. I was surprised that I could keep up with them until I decided to pull off for lunch – nothing better than gira and fish at the country resort Karpynė near the Kaunas-Klaipėda freeway to re-energize. As I reached Raseiniai, about 20 km from Šiluva, my religious experience began. There I encountered wayside crosses that were erected about every 1 km along the road into Šiluva. I stopped at almost all of them to take photos. They were of all shapes and sizes, mostly new and some under construction. This is something best visited on a bicycle rather than having to pull a car off the road and park it every kilometer.

Panemunė Castle in the Jurbarkas district stands on the right bank of the Nemunas river.
Panemunė Castle in the Jurbarkas district stands on the right bank of the Nemunas river.

Šiluva was free of tourists. There was practically no one outdoors the evening I was there. I was the only guest at my hotel, probably the nicest accommodations and banquet hall in town, and I was given a key to the front door because no workers stay after 8 p.m. I took my time and wandered around town, visiting the Basilica of the Nativity of Mary, which dates back to 1775, and had undergone extensive restoration since I last visited here. Then it was over to the Our Lady of Šiluva Shrine. Inside I expected to find the usual collection of močiutės that I had seen praying when I visited a couple of times in the past. I was amazed that I was the only one there! I couldn’t believe I had a private audience with Mary. Just as the accident the previous day moved me in a negative way, this opportunity moved me in a completely different direction. I relished our “conversation,” or rather, more precisely, my monologue. (A month later, I heard a sermon where the priest recalled his visiting Lourdes and the crowds he encountered there. That was at the same time that I was visiting Šiluva. I just smiled then.)

My final day – Šiluva to Šiauliai. Sounds simple enough and at first glance not that long of a ride either. That is until the weather changed again just a few kilometers out of Šiluva. What were sunny skies and warm temperatures quickly turned into menacing clouds and a cold howling  wind. Fortunately, no more than a few drops of rain fell, but the cold headwind was unbearable at times. It seemed more like late October than June 29th. The enormous breakfast I ate that morning at the hotel didn’t help either. The only good part was recalling that I didn’t choose to double my mileage that day by staying an extra day in Birštonas. Otherwise, I might still be on that road, pedaling against the wind.

Saint Nicholas Orthodox Church - Semeliskes.
Saint Nicholas Orthodox Church – Semeliskes.

Afterward, I compared my two bike trips to Lithuania. The first one in 2016 was probably better although it was some 100 km longer. Then, I took days in between to relax and spend time in Baltic resort towns of Palanga and Nida. Now, it was five straight days of riding, almost feeling like having to go to work, because of my compressed schedule. The novelty of the first bicycle trip in Lithuania wasn’t there, although the places I visited were new. It was still a great feeling to ride the Lithuanian countryside and see the fields in their full summer beauty. It was a bit sad to pass through tiny villages and see more abandoned homesteads. Finally, the depth of sadness from seeing a fellow cyclist lose his life doing something I was doing to the joy of spending time in Šiluva, made this trip a highly emotional one.

Will there be a third trip? My bicycle currently sits in a garage in Šiauliai collecting dust. If the Lithuanian winds blow it off,  there is always the possibility. But perhaps then I will play it safe and stick to the scenic trail between Palanga and Nida. 

Biker John Baltrus revisits Lithuania.
Biker John Baltrus revisits Lithuania.