17 November, 2012

O Ye Lithuanians of Strong Faith

Siauliai doesn't ring a bell for most travelers, but I was determined to stop for one night there to see the Hill of Crosses. The what? The Hill of Crosses, situated about 10km north of the city, which as its name implies, is a staggering collection of crosses of all shapes and sizes planted on a hill (more like a mound). 

Estimates put the number of crosses at hundreds of thousands, but new ones keep getting added all the time by pilgrims, relatives of deceased loved ones, and even newlyweds. I saw a few that were planted just weeks before my visit. 

I wasn't quite sure why I wanted to visit the Hill of Crosses in the first place, probably curiosity at what it looks like. At first I was afraid that it was a tacky stop on the well-worn tourist circuit, but mentioning Siauliai or the Hill to fellow visitors in Vilnius drew mostly blank stares. Second, I thought it might be a bit eerie or scary to be amidst all those crosses, but i reminded myself this wasn't a cemetery but rather a religious site. Besides, there was only one way to find out. 

The helpful staff at the tourist office in Siauliai arranged a cab to take me back and forth to the Hill of Crosses, including an hour's stop, for 70 litas ($25). Being late afternoon, there weren't many other visitors around, but at least I felt less afraid. Small or large, wooden or metallic, plain or ornamental - crosses were everywhere.

Hundreds of small crosses dangled from the feet of a statue, or framed an angel's face. Walking paths take you around and behind each cluster to better appreciate them. Overall, it was a solemn place and an astounding sight, perhaps even inspiring to people more inclined to religion. 

Inscribed on a plaque are these words from Pope John Paul the Second: "Thank you Lithuanians, for this Hill of Crosses which testifies to the nations of Europe and to the whole world the faith of the people of this land". Amen to that. 


If you do visit Siauliai, here is a helpful link on how to get to the Hill of Crosses by public transportation, as well as the bus timetable for moving on to Riga. 

Cheap beds are available at the city's sole youth hostel, located on the ground floor of a university building. Kitchen and bathroom facilities are well-maintained, though it is somewhat quiet. 

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