Not too far from Vilnius (a 30 minutes train ride west), you’ll find an idyllic place called Trakai. It has only about 6,000 inhabitants, but it was once the capital of the country in medieval times.
Its main attraction is the Trakai castle. In Gothic style, it is definitely in the right place, picture-perfect, lying still in the waters of the Lake Galvè. But you’d be surprised to know the only reason you can still admire the beauty of the castle was the Germans.
The town suffered immensely during the wars between Russian in Poland in 1654-1667 and then again during the Great Northern War (Swedish Empire vs Russia), burnt down to almost nothing.
Germans occupied Trakai during the World War I, and that’s when they send out specialists to research the castle and think about ways to preserve it. This was probably the only good thing the Germans did – Trakai was historically occupied by a good number of Jews. Over 5,000 were murdered by the Nazis.
The now restored castle is home to the Trakai History Museum. And the town itself is simply adorable. Wooden colourful houses make your company from the train station until you reach the island. It seems as if a child was given new crayons and an entire town to colour in.
Despite such a turbulent and bloody history, Trakai is today a warm and colourful small town, where you can relax and have carefree long walks alongside the lake. And, if you can afford, you might even enjoy a hot balloon ride! Something I’ll definitely do one day.
Trakai is also home to the Karaims (Karaites), a small Turkic-speaking religious and ethnic group resettled to Trakai from Crimea in 1397-98. Despite several invasions, particularly by the Polish, Trakai remained until today a notable centre of Karaim cultural life. There you’ll find Karaim Kenesa, a rare surviving wooden synagogue.
You can (and should) try Kibinai, a traditional Karain pastry. The meaty ones are the most traditional, but you have some veggies options as well.