The town of Trakai, with its reconstructed immense Island Castle, and environs including Senieji Trakai and 32 lakes, is an easy drive of about 30 km west of Vilnius. It's part of the Trakai Historical National Park established in 1991. Trakai is also known for its water sport facilities and green recreation possibilities. The lakes are a perfect place for canoeing, fishing and sailing.
The symbol of Trakai, the Island Castle on Lake Galve, is the most visited architectural monument in Lithuania. The Castle was part of the defense complex of the town. Trakai was then the capital of Lithuania. Construction on the island began in the latter half of the 14th century and ended on the eve of the Battle of Grünwald.
One of the principal residences of Vytautas the Great, the castle was also where the founder of Lithuania died, after the non-arrival of his awaited royal crown. Abandoned in the latter half of the 17th century it fell to ruin. Poles and Lithuanians mourned the lost ancient glory of Trakai alike. The disintegrating castle walls became a favorite motif of 19th century artists and romantic poets.
In 1926, monument conservationist Stanislaw Lorentz undertook a study of the ruins in preparation for reconstruction work. These started in 1951. The residency and enclosed courtyard were rebuilt in 1961, the defense area somewhat later. A defense wall and towers surround both areas. The principal residency consists of two parallel wings connected by a five story square tower - the donjon. You enter the yard from the defense area, through a gate at the bottom of the donjon. The castle has historical museums while the courtyard hosts concerts and plays.
History of Trakai in Lithuania
Grand Duke Kestutis moved his residency from Senieji Trakai to a new castle in Trakai in 1341-1342. Historical sources mention the new Trakai settlement as early as 1384. At the end of the 15th century the castle also held the state treasury and archive.
Trakai expanded after acquiring Magdeburg city rights in 1409. It became the home of a diverse ethnic population. An Orthodox monastery of the Nativity of the Virgin Mother of God (which also served as a defense fortress) emerged on a peninsula back in the time of Grand Duke Kestutis.
German craftsmen began to settle near the new castle in the 14th century. In 1388 Vytautas the Great granted a charter to the Karaims, entrusting them protecting the town and its fortresses. In 1396-1398 a Karaim community settled around present-day Karaimu Street, and a Tatar community established itself around Totoriu Street.
English merchants had warehouses in the town by the beginning of the 14th century. In 1409 the town had a parish and a school. The town diminished in the 15th century including because of restrictions imposed on the rights for the Karaims and the Jews. This resulted in a decline in trade. It revived in the beginning of the 16th century after reinstating the rights of the Kariams, but a fire in 1583 and a plague epidemic in 1603 resulted in another deterioration. Extensive reconstruction during the latter half of the 18th century did not help, for Trakai continued to suffer from fires and wars.
Old Urbanistic Structure of Trakai
The old urban structure of Trakai was partly preserved by the natural enclosure of lakes. The principal Vytauto Street leads from the town's main entrance to its old center at the crossing of Karaimu and Kestucio streets. At this crossroad, which for several centuries was the site of a marketplace, are the remains of the old Peninsula Castle and a bridge to the Island Castle.
The 15th century Gothic Church of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary stands on Birutes Street, which branches off Vytautas Street.
The church acquired Baroque features in the first half of the 18th century. Two square towers stress the church facade, there are Gothic elements in the apse, the interior is Baroque. The high altar, decorated with many sculptures and a painting on wood of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Child, covered in an 18th century metal raiment.
This painting, known as the miraculous Trakai Madonna, received gold crowns from Pope Clement XI in 1718, testifying that the Holy See had acknowledged its powers. Copies of the Trakai Madonna spread throughout the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. There are church festivals every August 15th and September 8th.
The church also has a copy of a portrait of Vytautas the Great from the church in Old Trakai (Senieji Trakai). The baroque ensemble in the central nave has a pulpit commissioned by Jozef Karp.
Franciscan Bernadine monastery Trakai
Located not far from the church, the former parish school building is one of the oldest extant wooden houses in town. Looming on a hill near Mindaugo Street are the ruins of a Franciscan Bernadine monastery. The church, built here in 1552, passed to he Franciscans in 1617. It was destroyed in the mid-17th century during the war against Moscow, and rebuilt in the 18th century. A monastery erected at the same time transformed into a prison in 1854. The deteriorating church was torn down in 1870, and the monastery, damaged during both world wars, was finally disassembled in 1956.
Former Dominican Friary Trakai
The Dominican friary buildings are in the Trakai Peninsula Castle, 100 meters north of the beginning of Karaimų Street at the end of Kęstutis street in the Trakai Island and Peninsula Castles Cultural reserve. Fragments of the mid-19th century friary garden survive in the castle.
Following a resolution of the Commonwealth Sejm in 1768 in 1779 the Dominicans began building a three-nave church with two towers on the main western front on both sides of the southern defensive ditch in the first yard of the Peninsula Castle. It was 46 meters long and 28 meters wide.
When building the church they tore down the bricks of the castle gate tower and used some of them for the foundations. The main entrance stood on the other side of the castle moat, that is in the town while the chancel stood in the castle yard.
The architect Augustyn Kossakowski began work on the church and Marcin Knakfus continued it. Construction work stopped as money ran out and in 1812 it stopped again because of the war against Napoleon. Work resumed around 1820. Because of a shortage of money reconstruction started in 1823-26 and the southern nave was used to build the two-floor friary with cellars and part of the north-west nave was used for the chapel, consecrated on August 4th, 1822 in honor of St Michael the Archangel.
The central nave of the incomplete church used to be the friary yard. Both buildings had two-slope roofs. A wooden turret was built on top of one of the incomplete towers as a bell tower. Reconstruction work was devised by Prior L. Glowicki. In the castle yard was a friary storehouse, ice house, wooden steward’s office, a stables and barn. The friary had three gardens.
The friary complex comprised two two-storey quadrangular buildings. The church walls were 2.6-3.2 meters thick and made of brick that was laid in renaissance style. Very large bricks were used (30-31 cm long x 15 wide x 7.2-7.5 cm high). Old wall paintings survive in the chapel – the side altars and a frieze were painted. The high altar and cross recorded in an inventory do not survive. The walls had narrative depictions and this and the decorative friezes and panels have survived in the southern wing of the friary.
The friary buildings are not of any clear style, the facades are flat and plastered, the sole decorative elements are the profile cornices above the second floor and the pillars on the yard façade by the entrance door.
On June 16 1864 the tsar’s governor general ordered the closing down of the friary. A gentry protection agency used the southern corpus while the other became home to the Trakai police cells, an archive and the home of guards and civil servants. A park was laid out in the friary territory in the mid-nineteenth century.
After World War I only the southern corpus was in use and a store was built in the chapel. The abandoned eastern building began to decay.
Work began restoring the friary around 1960. At first only fragmentary preservation work was carried out. After work done in 1988-1999, the Trakai History Museum administration used the buildings. Work continues and now the wall paintings in the chapel are restored and there are plans to open an ecclesiastical art exhibition here.
Work is done here according to the Trakai Island and Peninsula Castles Reserve directed maintenance and use programme. The Republic of Lithuania own the building.
Trakai National Park
One of a total of 5 national parks in Lithuania, at 8 hectares, Trakai Historical National Park is the smallest but by no means the least interesting. Set amidst rolling hills formed during the last Ice Age about 14,000 years ago, the park has a total of 32 lakes, some spectacular scenery, one or two ethnographic sights of particular interest and the town of Trakai itself.
A population of 14,000 rosy-faced locals, of whom many remain tied to the land, sprinkle the park with humanity, giving it an agreeable lived-in feel lacking in many other rural areas in the country. The proud recipient of national park status in 1992, Trakai Historical National Park is currently awaiting news of its application to become a Unesco World Heritage site.
Good and Bad
Things in its favor include its comeliness and the town inside it gives its name, woodlands brimming with wildlife, traditional farmsteads and villages, manor houses, heaps of fresh air and a sense of having gone back in time.
Things against, of which there are few, include a continuing lack of infrastructure and a patchwork of narrow, hairpin-strewn roads occupied by drivers who've lost the will to live and wish only to take you with them.