Although Lithuania is a small country, even by European standards, its a fair old drive from Vilnius in the south to Šiauliai, a distance of some 213km. Šiauliai (pronounced “shoo-láy”) is an industrial area in the north with the nickname, Saulės miestas, which means the “Sun City“. Driving along the main street of the town, Tilžės Gatvė, its clearly a small place but it looks fairly modern, if the Saulės Miestas shopping mall is anything to go by. We park the Mercedes near Resurrection Square and walked back to the plaza in Vilniaus G for a 150 minute reconnoiter of the town.
The focal point of the township is ‘Cockerel’ Clock Square, one of Šiauliai’s principal landmarks with its Lord Nelson-like monument, a high column. This is the spot in the town which locals tend to use as a meeting point. After observing the various human interactions in the Square, we moved down Vilniaus Gatvė which we discovered was a very long plaza, the busy hub of the city in fact with clothes stores, cafés, restaurants and fast food eateries in plentiful supply. Šiauliai is not a big centre of tourism, the core business for the tourist info centre is to promote tours of the nearby, magnetic Hill of Crosses. Other items of interest in the street include various statues and fountains dispersed here and there (of particular note are the Pelicans’ Fountain and the ‘Girl with a little pipe’).
Down the other end of Vilniaus street is the Šiauliai Markets which are “small potatoes” by Riga’s (Centrāltirgis) standards. I skirted past the cheap fruit and veg and found a clothing and luggage section where I managed to pick up a replacement bag for my broken one and a warm jacket for the inevitably cooler weather further north. Opposite the Vilniaus street markets is a large grassy square called Sukilėliu kalnelis (Rebels’ Hill), where a monument honours local martyrs executed in the failed 1863 Rebellion against Tsarist rule. The city of Šiauliai is nothing flash but its a decent stopover to grab some respite from several hours of non-stop highway driving.
After hurriedly picking up some lunch we returned to the vehicle and moved on to our real Šiauliai destination. The Hill of Crosses (Lt: Kryžiu Kalnas) is 12km north of Šiauliai. You turn off the A12 on to a road that arcs through flat, open land seemingly heading towards nothing in particular, and then suddenly there it is in the middle of nowhere, a small single building and parking lot which is the site’s entrance. Here, the administrative office has a ticket box and a toilet. An adjoining little pavilion is chock full of religious souvenirs, iconography and other devotional memorabilia.
Once inside the turnstiles, you still can’t see the religiously significant hill, there’s still is a surprisingly long walk along a winding path to get to the actual site. But when you get close to it, it is a bizarrely spectacular sight – albeit one a little disagreeable to secular minds and vampires alike! There is over 100,000 wooden and metal crosses, crucifixes and Christ on the Cross sculptures of all sizes and descriptions piled upon each other on the small hill, so many that they overflow down its sides, expanding the scope of the spectacle. So many crosses – it is of no wonder that Lithuanian people have a forté for Kryždirbystė (cross-crafting)! Despite determined efforts by the Soviet authorities to eradicate the collection of crosses, in fact even by eradicating the hill itself three times, the Hill of Crosses has survived as Lietuva’s national symbol of defiance to foreign oppression (be it German, the Teutonic Knights or Russian) and as the place of pilgrimage for devout Lithuanian Catholics.
As I was walking back to the exit a silver metallic sign on the path in front of the Hill got my attention: it listed a vast list of things (over 40 points) that you can’t do on the Hill … can’t walk dogs, can’t ride bikes, can’t light fires or make camp sites, can’t smoke, can’t play music or otherwise make audible noises, can’t beg for money, can’t damage the crosses/crucifixes or abscond with the ‘Valuables’, can’t cut down trees or bushes, can’t dig up the ground, can’t pollute the waterways, can’t “spread sectarian strife” (my favourite of the prohibitions!), can’t interfere with processions of pilgrims, and so on and on! However, the sign does stipulate, several times, that the prohibitions apply only to “natural persons” – presumably this means if you are a zombie, alien or artificially created cyberborg, you are free to do whatever you like on the Hill!