Just outside the Lithuanian city of Siauliai is the Hill of Crosses. Without doubt this was highlight of our Baltic trip last September, but I've spent months faffing around trying to write about it. After a dozen false starts I still can't get the words right to convey what an incredible experience it was. So I will just crap on a wee bit and show you the photos.
From the In Your Pocket guide:
"The history of the area is a hotbed of dissent… Most believe that the crosses probably were planted a few decades earlier to mark the Lithuanian uprising against the Russians in 1831. The amount of crosses burgeoned after the death of Stalin, when Lithuanians returning from the gulags began planting crosses in memory of those who never returned. In Soviet times, the crosses here were bulldozed repeatedly with the largest campaign against the area taking place in 1961 when wooden crosses were burned and metal ones sent to the scrap heap. The hill was even guarded by the KGB while plans to flood the area were being discussed. However almost as a testament to the local significance of the monument, the crosses continued to swell."
In 1985 the Soviets finally gave up and the Hill flourished again. Today there are tens of thousands of crosses crammed onto the twin hillocks, planted by locals and thousands of visitors from around the world.
Our pilgrimage began at dawn in Vilnius. We boarded an aging bus with generations of body odour trapped in its orange carpeted walls. It wobbled through every town and tiny village along the way, stopping for cows that sat in the middle of the road, and collecting old ladies with headscarves and battered suitcases.
By the time we arrived at Siauliai we'd missed the bus that went by the Hill so we splurged on a taxi. After a brief exchange of halting English and pathetic Lithuanian (the only words we knew were yes, noham) the driver said he'd wait for us. He lit another cigarette and went off to chat with the folk selling crosses by the roadside, leaving us to gawk at the Hill in awe.
Beneath a blinding blue sky, thousands of crosses smothered two little hillocks, then spilled down each side like giant outstretched arms. For once in our lives, Rhi and I were lost for words. Instead of our usual tourist routine of chit chat and chocolate bar demolition, we wandered off separately and silently. Giant carved crucifixes loomed over as I made my way up the wooden stairs. There were crosses of all shapes and sizes; as well as statues, photos, inscriptions and paintings. Crosses hung from crosses. Some were piled high with rosary beads, all tangled up like seaweed. Narrow dirt paths forked from the stairs, leading to even denser rows of crosses amongst soft weeds. It was haphazard yet so completely calm and peaceful. The silence was broken only by the eerie chime of the rosaries in the breeze, and me oofing and grunting coz I'd forgotten I was wearing a backpack and had become wedged between a giant iron cross and a peeling statue of Mary.
This Catholic site calls the Hill "a potent symbol of suffering, hope, devotion, and the undefeated faith of the Lithuanian people". Even for non-religious clods like us it really was an unforgettable sight, the perfect place for some quiet reflection on all we'd seen and learned about the Baltic countries during our trip.
As we headed back to the taxi, a group of American tourists were watching a local man unload a giant crucifix from the back of a truck, the latest addition to the Hill.
"Did you see that concrete Jesus? Oh my god. He was like, totally staring at me."
"Ahh, that's coz Jesus is always watching you!"
Even the taxi driver rolled his eyes.