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Far Corners: Lithuania's Hill of Crosses
Looking for some great opportunities for cross photos? Do you want to travel to an eerily serene locale? Either way, Lithuania's Hill of Crosses is for you.
I visited the Hill of Crosses using only public transportation, which is more difficult. I also stayed in Šiauliai. Traveling this way is often harder, but sometimes offers more authentic experiences.
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How to Get to the Hill of Crosses and Where to Stay
The Hill of Crosses is located in north-central Lithuania just outside of Šiauliai. Getting there can be a little tricky, but it is worth the effort. If you are using public transportation, your base should be Šiauliai; buses to Šiauliai are frequent from Klaipëda, Kaunas, and even Riga in Lativa. If you are traveling by car, though, a couple hours should be enough for this diversion.
- Car: Road A12 toward Joniškis from Šiauliai; turn right directly after the road sign reading "KRYŽIŲ KALNAS - 2 km."
- Bus: Joniškis direction, get off at the DOMANTAI stop (look for the KRYŽIŲ KALNAS - 2 km) – verify times and platform at the bus station (it is advertised); from the stop you need to trek up a road towards the Hill of Crosses; follow the signs.
NB: Ensure you know what time the bus returns; is will leave from where it dropped you off.
In Šiauliai I stayed at a private accommodation called Pigi nakvynė. I had an Eastern European-style flat with single beds and a shared bathroom down the hall. I found a sweet, lost Japanese girl at the bus station, and we split the room, so it cost me only $10 instead of $20; there are few accommodations for singletons in Europe. I found this private flat through the Šiauliai tourist website; I emailed the owners ahead of time to ensure I would have a room, though I doubt it would have been a challenge even in the high season of June.
Crosses on a Hill
Trekking up the road from the bus stop, you will start to see the low hill on the horizon. Never fear, it is impossible to mistake; it bristles like a porcupine with crosses.
For around two hundred years people from Lithuania and other European countries, especially Eastern Europe, have put crosses on this hill. These crosses usually commemorate a departed loved one, but they are often also a symbol of deep faith.
How many crosses are there? Thousands. Tens of thousands. There are crosses of every size and material. There are old wooden crosses slowly becoming part of the land. There are plastic rosaries hanging from metal crosses. There are large, elaborate crosses. There is miniature of the Rio Jesus. Languages that I could identify included Lithuanian (of course), Latvian, Estonian, Russian, and Croatian.
History of the Hill of Crosses
The crosses date back to the mid-nineteenth century.
- Historians believe the first crosses were placed to honor the victims of the rebellion in 1831.
- Crosses on this hill are chronicled from 1850.
- By the 20th century, Catholic Lithuanians considered the Hill of Crosses sacred.
- From 1944-1990 the Soviets occupied Lithuania; Marx called religion "opiate of the masses," and the Soviet occupiers frowned on the Hill of Crosses.
- In 1961, government officials destroyed the crosses and bulldozed the hill. Lithuanians persisted.
- From 1973-1975 crosses are systematically demolished.
- In the late 1980s, the political climate changed; so, too, did attitudes towards the Hill of Crosses.
- On September 7, 1993, Pope John Paul II visited the Hill of Crosses.
This is still a little-visited site; for the most part, only Lithuanians, Catholic pilgrims, and adventurous travelers make their way to this corner of the world.
In addition to these crosses on a hill, the site features a monastery. There is a small gift shop where, naturally, visitors may purchase crosses as well as souvenirs. Bathroom facilities are also located inside. There are also several stands outside that sell crosses, crosses, and, well a few more crosses. Bring a lunch; there are only snacks available in this locale. There are a few picnic tables. Do not crack open your lunch box on the actual Hill of Crosses, though; it is a religious site for most of the visitors there.
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How to Make a Day of the Hill of Crosses
Again, if you're traveling by car, factor in a couple hours on your way to one of the better-known spots, such as Kaunas or Riga. However, bus travelers like me will need to spend the night in Šiauliai.
I took an early bus from Riga and arrived in Šiauliai late morning. I got information about buses at the bus station, dropped my bags off at Pigi nakvynė, and headed back to the bus station. I met one bemused Japanese girl, assured her she could get accommodations at Pigi nakvynė, and we boarded the bus for Joniškis. I always make sure the bus driver and other local friendlies know where I'd like to disembark, so we had a chorus of Lithuanians telling us when to get off the bus; a more reticent German couple followed our lead.
The walk to the hill takes about 15 minutes. You will walk along grasslands for a few minutes before you see the actual hill. From there, it is pretty obvious how to get there.
The Hill of Crosses itself offers quite a few photo opportunities. Catholic pilgrims like to spend their time there in prayer and contemplation. We tourists like to have our mind boggled by the sheer number and variety of crosses. The visit will probably last one to two hours. Factor in another 30 minutes to an hour if you plan to picnic at the monastery. Timing will be dictated by the return bus. Make sure you know the bus schedule – there are not so many, and I've never been one to try hitchhiking.
Šiauliai is a cute enough town. It does not feature the mediaeval architecture of Vilnius or the eclectic history of Kaunas. However, spending an evening walking around the old town, trying the local specialties and sinking into the rhythm of life there is no great hardship. If it's a weeknight, count on an early night. The next morning, get up, have breakfast, and head off to the next town on your itinerary.
If you have not traveled much in Eastern Europe, and you have to choose between, say. Vilnius or the Hill of Crosses, choose Vilnius. However, some of us have trekked up and down the former Iron Curtain. We've seen old town after Cathedral after Berlin Wall. Some of us have even eyed Communist Statue Parks and authentic factories. Some simply do not like the moniker "tourist" so much as "traveler," "visitor," even "adventurer." For these, finding a hill brimming with crosses tucked away in a far corner of the world makes the effort to arrive there well worth it.