In Rīga the next morning, Monday, we greeted our new van drivers and loaded the bikes onto the trailer behind the van we and the two German couples in our group climbed aboard. About an hour later we crossed the border into Lithuania. Since both Latvia and Lithuania are in the EU’s Schengen Area, there is no need to stop at the border control station, shown below (by the way, that blue van contains the rest of our group, Stewart and Belinda from New Zealand who I already mentioned, Stefan and Marianne from Paris, and John and Debbie from Virginia Beach):
Another hour down the road near Šiauliai (try guessing how to say that), we stopped to visit Lithuania’s Hill of Crosses which is thought to have first come into existence in 1831 following the Polish-Russian War of 1830, the site of a peaceful protest against the subjegation that the Lithuanians have endured over the years.
It is estimated that there are currently more than 200,000 memorial crosses and crucifixes placed here, most of which are from Catholic pilgrims (the Pope visited in 1993), but I also noticed a handful of Orthodox crosses (two horizontal bars), usually smaller ones like the tiny one at the base of the sword cross, above.
Viewed from the top of the hill, the crosses seemed to go on forever:
During the Soviet occupation and subsequent domination of Lithuania from 1944 to 1991 (when the U.S.S.R. collapsed and Lithuania became a sovereign nation), the Hill of Crosses gained special significance for the Lithuanian people who held to their traditional Catholic beliefs in the face of the communists’ effort to quash religion.
Being at this place and trying to appreciate what these people have gone through over the years was a moving experience, diluted only slightly by vendors of cheap wooden crosses at the parking lot. We passed several piles of these “throw-away” memorial crosses, ready for the dumpster, but it was a minor distraction from the seriousness of the memorial.
The Soviets bulldozed the hill three times in an attempt to crush the soul of the people, but they kept returning to replace their memorials. As we walked around the hill on our way back to the van, we noticed that the crosses around the perimeter are dated more recently; apparently, the hill has been expanding at its base.
Back in the van, we still had another 4 hours to go before reaching the seaside and the beginning of our day’s ride. I was sitting shotgun and talked at length with our driver, a friendly and informative Lithuanian. The rest of the passengers napped. Schlaf gut, meinen Freunden!