GREEN AND BLUE: Aukstaitija National Park

Surprised we scan the empty campsite. There is not one tent! What a joke; in the car we had been discussing it: what if the campsite would be fully booked? In Nida, on the Lithuanian coast, it had been packed with tents and campers. After all, this is the high season. Plenty of wasps are buzzing over the grass, they seem to have the place all to themselves. The sun is carefully trying to appear. Fortunately, as during our 110 kilometer ride from Vilnius - the capital of Lithuania - to Paluse it had rained continuously.



We do not fancy putting up our tent here, so we decide to first pay a visit to the small tourist office. CabinWe are informed that a night spent in a cabin is cheaper than a spot among the wasps; our choice is made within seconds. The stone cabin stands amidst numerous tall, slender pine-trees. There are three beds, a table and some chairs. That's all. We are permitted to use the showers and toilets in the big yellow wooden house, the so-called ‘Tourism Centre’. Then we hop back into the car and drive the three remaining kilometers to Ignalina, a larger town with gray flats in the style of the old Sovjet empire, to do some shopping. Just an hour later we are back for lunch on the terrace in front of our cabin.

In the afternoon we walk around tiny Paluse, that serves as the central focus in Aukstaitija National Park. Past the beautiful church Paluse churchon the hill, built around 1750. The oldest wooden church of Lithuania. Behind the church lies the campsite. Surprisingly, this time we find a lone tent. We take a closer look: another Dutch family! Alright, let's have a chat. Here, take a seat and an orange-juice. This is nice. The son of the family has already been stung by a wasp. It does not surprise us. We stroll along the water. Paluse is beautifully situated on Lake Lusiai. On the small beach some swans totter about in search of people with their baskets full of food. We find out that there is a small supermarket too. Good to know, now we do not have to drive to Ignalina each time. Paluse is quiet, wonderfully quiet.




At the tourist office we buy a map of the national park and next day we walk by the lakeside to the even smaller village of Meironys, a distance of just two kilometers. Alongside the path you find wooden sculptures; this route is known as the "sculpture-trail". Lake LusiaiEach name, each lake, each hill or village in this region is attached to a certain story or legend. These sculptures depict scenes from such legends.
Lithuanians adore woodcarving. You can find woodcarvings in each garden. Even the structures on playgrounds are make of wood; all villages and restaurants have such similar playgrounds. Houses and farms too are made of wood, as of old.
Meironys turns out to be a picturesque little village with just one street and colourful houses on each side. Most houses come with the typical Lithuanian front-porch and there are pots with flowers everywhere. Half way in the village we cross a small bridge under which we see two canoers wrestle with the shallow of the stream, while attempting to bring the canoes from one lake to the next. At the end of the village we sit on a landing-stage where we eat our lunch - bananas and mandarins - in the fierce, cold wind. Here too there is place to camp, but again no tents, and there are two wooden cabins for hire on the water. An ideal spot to spend your holidays. And what it that, swimming in the water? A beaver!

picking berriesWalking back, we eat handsful of small raspberries and wild strawberries that dangle invitingly in the shrubs. Deliciously sweet fruits. The locals are known to pick mushrooms. In the park you can find some 600 species of mushrooms and toad-stools, of which only about a hundred are edible. But to our unaccustomed stomachs even the edible ones will probably cause quite some stomach-ache.
The insects seem to have awakened from their siesta. They nag us the whole way back with their inceasing buzzing and they stay put on your skin. There are also a couple of annoying stinging creatures among them.Sculpture trail

Aukstaitija in the north-east of Lithuania is the first national park of the country (1974) with a size of over 400 square kilometers. Two thirds of the area consists of forest, mainly pine-trees, some of them older than 200 years. Scattered among the forests you can find as many as 126 christal-clear blue lakes that are connected with each other by rivers and small streams. Lake Tauragnas is, with 60 meter, the deepest lake in the country. You can find many rare and protected species of plants in the park; as much as 59% of the country's flora can be found in this area of just 1% of Lithuania's total surface. Hiding in the forest are elks, deer, wild boar, foxes, the occasional wolf and a large number of birds.
All of the around a hundred villages and hamlets in the park have managed to preserve their authentic character in the shape of wooden farms in different light colours; mostly there are not more than a couple of farms of one family in one hamlet. In total there are about 2000 peope living within the borders of the park.
Most visitors choose to come during the summer months; the winters are long and from December to March there is usually heavy snowfall. On the other hand the weather in summer can be very unpredictable. We are lucky: we only see sun during our four days in the park.

Bears and wolves

We had already enquired at the tourist office: how about those bears and wolves? In some brochures you read that they are still seen every now and then. Don't get me wrong, I would love to see one, but rather not now, with our five year old son joining us… PaluseNo, I was being reassured, bears are only seen sporadically, at best a lost Russian bear. And a wolf? The young guide that has been working here for ten years, has only seen one once. And that was deep inside the forest, where tourists do not go. I am glad. Or?… it does show that this park has no real big shots to protect anymore.
Yet this place is truely paradisiac. The sun is shining from morning till sundown and there is lots to do. On our third day we go for a ride in the park. From atop Ladakalnis (which means ice-hill) we have a lovely view of the forests and lakes. Everything surrounding us is of the colours green and blue. This hill has a height of 175 meter, quite something for such a flat country.

Approaching Ginuciai, stuck between the lakes Ukojas and Linkmenas, we stop at the information-board along the way. Here lies a so-called piliakalnis: an ancient fortress-hill. During the Middle Ages there used to be a wooden fortress or a fortified settlement on such a hill. In Lithuania one can find hundreds of such piliakalniai (plural). We climb the steps and arrive at an open space where once history was written. There is nothing, I mean absolutely nothing, left and my imagination is of such an inadequacy that I am incapable of forming any kind of idea about what the place must once have looked like. But who cares? The forest looks beautiful, what more do we want?
LadakalnisNext to the 19th century watermill of Ginuciai we find quite a few Lithuanian cars in the parking lot. All these Lithuanian daytrippers are splashing about in the water behind the mill. They try to swim against the current. And they are right to do so, as it is such a lovely sunny day today. Still, we'd rather look for a quiet place to go into the water. On the shore of Lake Dringis we find an empty campsite with a couple of landing-stages. A perfect place for a swim. The peace and quiet, only agreeably interupted by a corpulent, authentic farmer's wife - large, old-fashioned dress and headscarf, walked straight out of the Sovjet times - who is letting out her cow. For a while, she lets her cow drink from the lake, and chats a bit with another farmer's wife that has joined her, before disappearing leisurely over the hill.


On our last day we rent a rowing-boat for the whole afternoon. Still the best means to enjoy this environment. The sky is (again) of a deep blue and it is getting warmer each day. We row along the shores of Lake Lusiai till past Meironys and every now and then we jump in the water to freshen up. Just the stinging insects and buzzing projectiles were trying hard to spoil our day on the water, they are always near. In the evening it starts to rain and we take this as a sign to move on.

But we shall only leave this country after seeing the disreputable Ignalina powerplant of the same (but newer) type as the one in Tsjernobyl, and after we have driven through the Russian town of Visaginas. Lusiai LakeThe road is flanked by huge pipe-lines and electricity poles. Visaginas turns out to be a clean, but boring town full of flats and little green parks. The city had been built specially for the workers in the powerplant. The building of the powerplant started in 1975, just one year after opening up Aukstaitija. However, under pressure of the EU the first atomic reactor was closed down in 2004. The second and last reactor is scheduled to close down in 2009. The future of the inhabitants of Visaginas remains uncertain. Also the question as to where Lithuania is supposed to get its energy from remains unanswered, as the powerplant now provides the country with 75% of its needs.
We see very little of the powerplant, but we do not regret this at all; we'd rather hold on to the beautiful green and blue image of Aukstaitija National Park a little while longer.