Lithuania's Hill of Crosses


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September 27th 2018
Published: October 12th 2018
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We are in Riga, Latvia now, another pretty Baltic city in whose Old Town I searched and searched for Echinacea tincture since the bottle I brought from home is now almost totally empty. I don't dare stop taking it, as many people on our tour are still quite sick and continue to infect others. No one wants to be sick, either on tour or on our long flights home, so I want to continue taking it prophylactically. I must have asked at ten or even twenty shops, by pointing to a photo of the Echinacea flower on small boxes of loose tea, and saying "tinctura," but had no luck at all. Most shopkeepers spoke no English, and my Latvian only covers "hello" and "thank you," so these were difficult and frustrating interactions. I was also hunting for Black Balsam, a local liquor we learned about that supposedly heals anything from coughs and flus to athlete's foot and maybe even cancer too. The shop called Black Magic in Riga's Old Town sold it in small bottles, also in candies and baked goods, but somehow I was focussed on finding Black Balsam in tincture too. This was also unsuccessful. But it was another very beautiful, tender day in Riga; the sun was shining and the weather had turned almost warm again, perfect for enjoying some of the pleasures of beautiful Riga.

But let's go back to Lithuania for a bit. Vilnius is also a lovely city, with the River Neris running through it. A friend and I went exploring, crossing over one of the bridges on our lunch break. Even though it was a briskly windy, chilly day, only about 10C or 46F, hopeful boats were still on the water, waiting for intrepid or hot blooded travellers. Today we fit in neither category.

In the afternoon on our drive north to Riga it started to pour buckets of cold, drenching rain. Lithuania's root name, Lietuva, means rain, or to rain, so downpours were not only predicted but to be expected. We hoped there would be a respite when making our stop at the famous Hill of Crosses in northern Lithuania, and while there we were rewarded (for what I do not know) with suddenly dry, but ferociously windy weather. The heavy dark clouds scudding above us and continuing to the horizon added to the drama of this place; as we were blown along the pathway it was hard to keep from running, the wind was so forcibly strong at our backs. Lithuania is mostly flat, so we could see a slight protuberance in the distance; this was the hill. What was most remarkable to me was how far out to each side the crosses extended. I had thought they were just massed on the hill, but the hill has width and also breadth; the expanse of this site is startlingly surprising. Who knows how many crosses are there; estimates reach into the hundreds of thousands! Every space is covered in crosses placed upon other crosses, attached on to still other crosses. There are steps that go up to the top of the hill, but they don't stop there; they continue down the other side, every place, every nook full of crosses. Rough pathways extend here and there from the steps. I followed a few, picking up crosses that had been blown down in the what felt like hurricane force winds, reverently tucking them safely in among the trees adorned with even more crosses. There are crosses of all sizes, mostly reasonably hand-sized, but some are tiny, and some are huge, large enough to be placed in churches. How those were brought here is a mystery in itself.

One story about the origin of this Hill of Crosses says that it dates back to the 1831 uprising against Russian authorities, but nobody knows for certain when it began. This is a place of pilgrimage, of remembrance, of resistance, and to show the endurance of Lithuanian Catholicism. After WWI and again especially after WWII when so many boys, men, sons, fathers, husbands did not return from wars, with no bodies to bury there was nowhere to go to pay respects to the dead. So crosses began to appear in this chosen spot, this graveyard for the spirits of all the lost men. After WWII the Soviets bulldozed this hill several times, to squash the spirit of the people I suppose, and to show who was in charge, but each time, almost overnight, this Hill of Crosses was rebuilt. Each time. I'll guess mourners found some small comfort in having a place to go, to remember their loved ones, even if their bodies weren't there. Many who visit bring their own crosses to place on this hill. Some visitors find the Hill of Crosses a spiritual place, much like a church, a cemetery, or a crypt. I found it eerie as I stood under the heavy sky among this massive monument to remembrance. How anyone would ever find their cross in this mass of muddy winding paths overflowing with crosses, banners, quilts, statues, seemingly millions of symbolic items nestled among and on the blowing trees, is a true mystery, but perhaps that is not the point. Maybe anyone's cross would do for offering silent prayers to or for the ones who were also lost.

Facing into the strong cold wind as I fought my way back along the path blended perfectly with my reluctance to leave. The sky had turned even darker; heavy, almost black clouds gathered higher and higher above us, no longer scudding away. Visiting Lithuania's Hill of Crosses is a powerful and dramatic experience, and one that is permanently etched in my mind. As we climbed back on the bus the rain began to pour heavily down again.

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