When snow obliterates Lake Galvė, the red turrets of Trakai Castle seem to appear out of nowhere. From the white void, a wooden walkway emerges to its entrance. A useless path, as long as you can walk on the ice cap.
This is the most beautiful picture of winter in Lithuania. A Christmas postcard, a tourist attraction, just 30 kilometers from the capital, Vilnius. But at the same time, a witness of more than six centuries of the country’s history. Here was born one of its greatest heroes – Vytautas.
The castle that we can admire today is a reconstruction in the 15th century style, although in reality its origin dates back a little further: to the second half of the 14th century, during the rule of the Grand Duke of Lithuania Kęstutis. According to the legend, to please his wife, Birutė, who longed for the sea in her native Palanga – a city in the west of the country, on the shores of the Baltic – Kęstutis had a fortification built in the middle of the water. The chosen place was one of the small islands that dot the Galvė. The couple and their entire court settled in Trakai.
The castle would be besieged and finally destroyed in 1391 by the knights of the Teutonic order, whose mission was to Christianize one of the last pagan territories in Europe. And it was precisely a stonemason of that order who later supervised the reconstruction work. In that phase the area of the castle was enlarged and a dungeon was added. A network of wooden galleries was also built around the courtyard that connected the rooms without having to enter the ducal palace.Trakai Castle.
The fortress lost its strategic importance in 1410, after the Lithuanian-Polish alliance managed to defeat the Teutons. Then it was converted into a residence to receive ambassadors and kings. Already in the middle of the 17th century the castle was again reduced to ruins during the wars against the Principality of Moscow. And so it languished for more than 300 years.
It was not until World War I that German specialists began planning its reconstruction. Years later, between the wars, Lithuanian and Polish restorers such as Witold Kieszkowski and Ksawery Piwocki worked on it. However, work was suspended at the outbreak of World War II. They would not be resumed until the 1950s, under the umbrella of the USSR. Even so, the Soviet authorities, aware that the Trakai castle represented a symbol for Lithuanian nationalism, did not show great interest in accelerating the works. In fact, they would not be terminated until after independence, in 1991.
The origins of the castle are linked to a Shakespearean plot. Or ‘Game of Thrones’ style
Currently, the enclosure houses the Trakai History Museum, which reviews the chronology of the castle and the region through a multitude of objects and works of art (furniture, clothing, weapons, maps, coins, stamps, silver, ceramics, clocks, pipes, etc.). Several rooms can be visited, including the tower of the Grand Duke, as well as the parade ground.
Setting of a Shakespearean drama
The origins of the castle are linked to a Shakespearean plot. Or in the Game of Thrones style, to each their references… Grand Duke Kęstutis –who ordered the building in the middle of Lake Galvė– came to power after dethroning his brother, Jaunutis. He did it with the help of another brother, Algirdas, with whom he later shared the possessions. When Algirdas died in 1377, he was succeeded by his eldest son, Jogalia. He conspired against Kęstutis through a secret treaty to leave him in the lurch as soon as the Teutons attacked. Kęstutis, however, discovered the plot and had his nephew imprisoned.The tower of the Grand Duke seen from the parade ground.
Jogalia was released after swearing allegiance to Kęstutis, but soon returned to his old ways. Taking advantage of his uncle’s absence during a military campaign, he seized the throne from her and allied himself with the Teutonic order. Kęstutis then gathered a large army to face his nephew.
The blood did not reach the river, since both sides agreed to negotiate. But when Kęstutis arrived at the Jogalia camp, they seized him and locked him up in the castle of Kreva. Days later he was found dead in his cell. Jogalia announced that her uncle had hanged herself. A version that, according to the chronicles, very few believed.
The Karaites, a community that professed a variant of Judaism, settled in Trakai to guard the castle
Here the eldest son of Kęstutis appears on the scene. Vytautas – born, as we said, in the castle of Trakai – was then about 32 years old. He had marched with his father to confront Jogalia and ended up imprisoned in Kreva as well. Instead, he managed to escape. It was during a visit from his wife, Ana. Vytautas disguised herself as one of his servants.
After the escape, he sought the support of his former Teutonic enemies, as Jogalia had done. Eventually, however, the cousins reconciled. Vytautas regained all the territories his father had ruled, including Trakai. And not content with it, he took up the idea of his late uncle Algirdas to expand his domain. So in 1398 his troops reached the Crimea, where they built a castle. At that time Lithuania stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea.Perspective of the center of Trakai with the characteristic Karaite houses.
By the way: the Karaites emigrated from the Crimea, a community that professed a variant of Judaism. Many of them would settle in Trakai, to guard the castle on the lake. Even today the Karaite houses are a unique attraction of the town. Made of wood and painted in bright colours, they are characterized by the three identical windows lined up on their façades. One is dedicated to God, another to the family, and the third to Grand Duke Vytautas.