Search
  • Noah

The Land of my Forefathers

Updated: Nov 12, 2020

When we last left you, we were boarding a bus heading north to Lithuania, the southernmost of the three Baltic States. Why Lithuania, you ask? For one, it’s a country we haven’t yet been, full of beautiful cities and sites (some of which you’ll be reading about shortly). The real reason though is much simpler: family.

~

Zelvis is a Lithuanian name, and we’ve been able to trace it all the way back to my great great grandparents. My great great grandparents had six children, and my great grandfather left Lithuania for America a few years before World War I started. He met my great grandmother in the USA and the rest of that chapter is history, but the rest of the Zelvis family line more or less stayed in Lithuania. After communicating with them for years, I finally got the chance to meet several of them this last week. But first, let’s talk about how we got there.

~

Our bus from Poland arrived exactly on time to the city of Kaunas, where we changed to a different bus and rode to the town of Klaipeda. Although one of Lithuania's larger cities, Klaipeda has a very small town feel sitting right on a small river which feeds the Baltic sea. The town itself is very cute, but we really wanted to see the Curonian Spit, a long, very thin island half owned by Lithuania and half by Russia.

Downtown Klaipeda

~

Sleeping on a bus is not ideal, so we arrived tired but immediately headed for the ferry port to get out to the Spit. Even with the island so close to the mainland, a 5 minute ferry to the northern top of the Spit is the only way to get there. Once on the Spit we took a bus to the southern edge of the Lithuanian part, to a town called Nida. Once there we rented bikes, and, with lunch in our tummies, started riding back north. We had some places in mind to visit along the way, but we were hoping for about a 5 hour ride to get back to the ferry terminal.

Homes in Nida

~

It was a toasty day, but that didn’t deter us as we visited beautiful evergreen forests and sand dunes. The Spit is an incredibly stunning piece of land, and this was apparent everywhere we looked. We were keeping our eyes peeled for wildlife, but didn’t see any. The route was pretty flat but at about half way it was definitely taking a toll on me. Frustration set in when we couldn’t find a unique cormorant colony among a dead forest. I was wiped by the time we rolled into the second to last town, so we took a break, got some ice cream, and hunted through witches hill, which is full of large wooden carvings from Lithuanian mythology.

Biking the Spit

~

Sand dunes meeting the sea

~

One of the interesting wood xarvings

~

Catherine encouraged me to bike the rest of the way to the ferry terminal, and we did make it with 10 minutes to spare before the ferry left. My legs felt like they did after a marathon: rubbery, yet stiff, and oh so painful. Stairs became my enemy for the rest of the day. I think Catherine fared better than I did, and Ethan acted like he hadn’t pedaled at all! Wait a minute… he was riding on the back of my bike the entire time!

~

Putting the Baltic Sea temporarily behind us, we headed east to Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius. With a UNESCO rated city center, the city is truly a sight to behold. I know I say this a lot, but everywhere you look there is something amazing to see. Although the last pagan country in Europe, it is now full of churches that date back 500, 600, even 700 years.

Looking out over Vilnius

~

On our first day in Vilnius, we took advantage of the nice weather strolling the winding, cobblestone streets of the old city. We climbed up to the hill of three crosses, where it’s said some monks were martyred. The site also happens to boast some amazing views of the city, so while we paid our respects we looked out over all those old buildings. On the way down we strolled along the Vilnia River to the district of Uzupis, an artsy part of Vilnius that playfully has its own constitution, president, and the like.

Pretty cobbled streets

~

Uzupis constitution... Some things got lost in translation

~

Lithuania has a long heritage of being in a commonwealth partnership with Poland, but many of the kings of Lithuania-Poland came from Lithuania, so there are a few palaces in Lithuania that were frequented by these kings. One such castle is in the town of Trakai, and the other in the heart of Vilnius. In the morning of our second day in Vilnius, we took the bus to Trakai castle to see how the kings of Lithuania once lived.

Trakai Castle

~

Trakai castle sits beautifully on an island in a small freshwater lake, but Lithuania’s real seat of power always was in Vilnius at the Palace of the Grand Dukes. This massive castle has been destroyed and rebuilt over the ages, but the current site and structure does a fantastic job of outlining the history of Lithuania, its rulers, and how they have impacted the castle itself. It took us several hours to comb through the history of the country and see the beautiful state rooms of the castle. I wanted to have my history under wraps since I was meeting my family the following day!

Vilnius Palace of the Grand Dukes

~

Palace of the Grand Dukes from the inside

~

At 10am one of my distant cousins parked in front of our apartment and I got to talk to one of my Lithuanian relatives face to face for the first time. For the next two hours we talked about family and country as we drove north to the city of my great great grandparents, Panevėžys. When we pulled into the parking lot of the local park, we were greeted with applause and cheers like we were some kind of celebrity. My distant aunt Gita, who I’ve been communicating with all these years stepped forward and excitedly introduced herself. In truth, we were all just excited that the missing Želvys line had finally returned to Lithuania.

Family gathering

~

We spent the next several hours chatting about life in our respective countries, family history, food, and the like. I won’t bore you with all the details but it was an incredible and emotional experience to be able to meet all these wonderful people. At least 20 people were present, but Gita has been able to track the Želvys line quite a ways and there are currently around 100 of us! I hope that doesn’t scare you too much. After an amazing Lithuanian meal, photos, and many great tear jerking moments, we were given several gifts, including some Lithuanian soil to place on my great grandfather’s grave since he never returned to his home country. I can’t wait to go back and meet more of my family in the near future.

The Želvys family

~

My family tree

~

On our last day in Lithuania, we spent the day in the far north, in the town of Siauliai. Just 10 kilometers from town is a site that we really wanted to see, the Hill of Crosses. This hill, dotted with hundreds of crosses, became a symbol of hope and silent rebellion against the Soviet occupation. Although the Soviets came through and cleared out the site more than once, warning of repercussions if anyone places another cross, they still appeared during cover of night. Eventually the Soviets gave up, a sign that their power in the region was weakening, and independence was close at hand. Over 100,000 crosses dot the site today.

The Hill of Crosses

~

So many crosses

~

It was really depressing to leave Lithuania, a land that is such a big part of my personal history, but we had to continue heading north and see what the other Baltic States had to offer. Next stop, Latvia. Stay tuned!

87 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All