Besides traveling to major places, I also enjoy discovering small, quirky sites to document. The Hill of Crosses is no exception: located about two hours north of Vilnius, its unknown origins and strange display of numerous crosses proved intriguing enough for a day trip while in the Lithuanian capital.
Although its origins remain unclear, the Hill of Crosses (“Kryžių kalnas“) is believed to have been first erected in the 1830’s on a hill fort left over from the Polish-Russian War. About 9,000 crosses were placed in the beginning before its number fluctuated greatly in the 20th century, as the Soviet Union tried numerous times to destroy the religious site during its occupation of Lithuania (1944-1990). Since the country’s independence, the number of crosses grew exponentially, from a mere 50,000 in 1990 to over 100,000 in 2006. Numbers continue to grow to this day, as it’s not privatized property– technically, I could’ve erected a cross while there, if I wanted to!
I’m by no means a religious person, but I respect any religion out there. With Lithuania being about 80% Catholic, I could see why there was a Hill of Crosses to begin with. Even Pope John Paul II has declared it a sacred place! Secular as I am, I was still mesmerized by such a unique landmark, and I wanted to make the trip over while in Lithuania– after all, when would I return?
Getting to the Hill of Crosses is a little tricky, especially if you don’t plan to take a guided tour. However, it’s not impossible– you just need to be careful with the timing of trains and buses. You first need to take a two-and-a-half-hour train to Šiauliai, a city about 12 kilometers from the site, and then a regional bus to the nearest stop, Domantai. From there, it’s about a two-kilometer walk to the Hill of Crosses.
In order to maximize my visit (as well as to return to Vilnius at a reasonable hour), I opted for a bright-and-early train at 5:10 to Šiauliai. It was a quiet ride through the green countryside before arriving in Šiauliai at 7:23. There was a bus that would leave at 7:25 to Domantai from the main bus station, but it was about a 10-15 minute walk from the train station, so unfortunately, I couldn’t make that one. I took the next one at 8:25, and I was dropped off at Domantai around 8:50.
Literally, I was in the middle of nowhere: it was just the highway and sweeping fields of rapeseed as I made the two-kilometer walk to the Hill of Crosses. Aside from the occasional car that would whiz by, it was eerily quiet. It was also peaceful, though, and perhaps the silence was a sign of the site’s sacredness that I was to see in moment’s time. Maybe the two-kilometer walk had its purpose, as the “pilgrimage” that people take to reach a holy place…or maybe I’m just adding unnecessary symbolism to it all.
After about a 20-25 minute walk, I reached the entrance of the Hill of Crosses. I’d seen photos of it online, but I didn’t expect it to be so overwhelmed with crosses. There were literally crosses on crosses– big and small– dotting the small mound (“the hill”) upon which they stood. The site itself isn’t very big, but it’s extremely dense with crosses and more crosses. There were also the occasional Virgin Mary statue and prayer beads, which added more character to the already very-religious site.
I spent some time exploring its nooks-and-crannies; I climbed the main steps up and down the small hill, as well as encircled its perimeter and strayed along the narrow side paths. Some crosses were unmarked, while others had dates of people who’ve since passed. Some were from Lithuania, while others from elsewhere (Poland, Germany, Spain, etc). Crazy to believe how such an interesting place like this exists in the middle of nowhere in Lithuania!
Soon, I had my fair share of seeing all parts of the Hill of Crosses. I headed back to the Domantai bus stop, but not before stopping by the souvenir shops at the welcome center to buy a gift for my family. I caught the bus back to Šiauliai, then the 12:15 train back to Vilnius, and I returned by the mid-afternoon.
The Hill of Crosses is certainly a fascinating place, although it would be no more than a 30-minute to one-hour visit. Especially when spending most of the time just getting there and back is longer than the actual visit, some people might find it unworthy to check out. I would *partially* disagree: while I agree that it’s time-consuming to get there for a short visit, I wouldn’t rule it out as a place to go. Perhaps if I’d gone while on my way to Riga, for example, it would’ve been more efficient– all the same, I would recommend the Hill of Crosses, especially if you are in the Baltic countries, for a piece of its sacred, quirky, and distinctive presence.
Coming up: Riga, Latvia!