Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Autumn colours and an encounter with an improbable cultural minority on the shores of a lake in Lithuania. Guest contributor Laurence Mitchell visits the Karaim of Trakai.

article summary —

A visit to a popular destination out of season can show it in a very different light. However alluring a place may be, the pleasure of a visit in high season can be spoiled by hordes of fellow sightseers and a constant procession of daytrip coaches. Lithuania is no different in this respect: during the Baltic summer - a heady time of long warm days and short bright nights - Trakai, a lakeside settlement twenty kilometres or so southwest of Vilnius, becomes a veritable honey pot. The bees are day trippers; the honey, a pristine castle set in a glacial landscape of clear blue lakes and birch forest. On the other hand, a visit to this same village at the end of October, when the Baltic region slips quietly over the edge of a flameleafed autumn into the first throws of winter, is a completely different matter.

Trakai lies close enough to the Lithuanian capital to enjoy regular public transport connections. We follow a skipping schoolboy all the way from the Gate of Dawn in Vilnius' Old Town to the bus station. It turns out that the boy is catching the same bus - his daily commute from school in Vilnius to his home in an outlying village. At first, the bus heads through dull industrial suburbs that seem a far cry from the quaint Old Town with its castles, cathedral and extravagant churches. Then we steer west along an unpromising dual carriageway - the main highway to Russia's Baltic exclave at Kaliningrad. A half hour later, our bus turns off the main road to drop slowly down to the edge of Trakai village - a long, sprawling community that follows the shoreline of the largest of several interconnected lakes.

By the time we arrive, menacing black clouds have blown in from the west and the village streets are almost deserted as we walk towards the lake. A sudden wind picks up to scatter the curled red leaves that lie in the gutters and, almost immediately, the clouds start to release their payload: cold rain that turns rapidly to sleet. Trudging rather miserably towards the tourist office we see a light and head inside, as much for shelter as for information. The woman on duty seems bemused to see us, as well she might. If it is true that Trakai is visited annually by some three hundred and fifty thousand visitors then this inclement day, at the very end of the tourist season, must be anything but typical. It seems likely that we might well be the first visitors of the day. And probably the last.

At first glance, Trakai may appear like any other southern Lithuanian settlement, albeit one that is more self-consciously beautiful than most. A closer inspection reveals a few anomalies however. The spick and span wooden houses passed en route to the lake sport a curious oddity of design. Each has three windows facing directly onto the street at the gable end. This is more than a mere architectural whim. It reveals a cultural and religious tradition that stands well apart from Lithuania's Catholic mainstream.

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Laurence Mitchell became a travel writer almost by default having squandered his youth travelling in North Africa and India. These days he concentrates on writing and photography, and prefers to travel to those places that Colin Thubron describes as the 'nerve-ends of the world': transition zones and cultural frontiers like Central Asia, the Balkans and the Caucasus region.

This article was published in hidden europe 11.