I was staying at an apartment in Siauliai, and the owner, after I checked in, offered to drive me to the hill of crosses. That’s what I came to see, and even though I planned on taking the bus, I graciously took him up on his offer as it was quite cold, and I’ve heard the bus drops you off a mile from the site. As he drove he told me his family’s story, as they grew up in the area. His father’s family owned quite a bit of land, but when the communists took over after WWII, they seized it and sent him and his family to Siberia. After 10 years there, they were allowed to move back, but his father was then selected for duty in the Russian army, where he served for many years before reuniting with his family in Siauliai. He told me his father suffered from depression after he returned, and eventually drank himself to death before the age of 50. I think people who respect the ideals of communism should meet and have discussions with those who actually lived under communist regimes and dealt with their consequences.
This story is relevant to the hill of crosses. The communists didn’t like religion, as anything that took precedence over the government was feared and suppressed. Just as they broke the father’s spirit in the story, they tried to break the country’s spirit. Locals who clung onto their religion and national identity kept putting crosses on the nearby hill, and they were subsequently taken down by the communists…but the people didn’t stop. People kept this up, long after the communist regime dissolved decades later…and the result is over 100,000 crosses on a small hill in a rural area of Lithuania. It’s become a popular pilgrimage site for Christians, and was famously visited by Pope John Paul II in 1993.
I’ll stop short of calling this a religious experience, as that sounds very melodramatic. It was eerily peaceful, as I was one of the only people there, and as I walked through the crosses there was a recording of a prayer being played over and over. It sounded like a priest reciting something, then a couple kids repeating it in unison.
Although the summer is the prime season to visit the hill, I actually thought the lack of people and the presence of snow made things seem more beautiful. It was brutally cold, however, and I actually slipped on ice walking down the stairs, and came within an inch of whacking my head against the bottom step…that would’ve been a spiritual experience for sure! I definitely thought the hill of crosses was one of the most surreal things I’ve seen in Europe.
The rest of Siauliai was okay…it seemed like a small, industrial city. There was a nice church at the edge of town, and a cool shopping mall where I enjoyed one of the cheapest dinners I’ve had in Europe. I was there a few days before Lithuania went permanently over to the Euro, so they were still on the old currency which made things ridiculously inexpensive.
The apartment I stayed in was cheap, nice and huge, and I spent the night in watching the Steelers beat the Bengals in the last game of the regular season. Overall this was a nice city, and I would definitely recommend the hill of crosses…definitely worth the two hour bus-ride from Riga.