Around 30km west of Vilnius lies the little town of Trakai, a mix of concrete Soviet-style buildings merging with the wooden cottages of the Karaite community. The former capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Trakai was founded during the fourteenth century and, standing on a peninsula jutting out between two lakes, it’s the site of two impressive medieval castles and makes for a worthwhile day-trip from the capital.
Once you arrive, follow Vytauto gatvė and turn right down Kėstučio gatvė to reach the remains of the Peninsula Castle, now partially restored after having been destroyed by the Russians in 1655. Skirting the ruins along the lakeside path, you will see the spectacular Island Castle (Salos pilis), one of Lithuania’s most famous monuments, accessible by two wooden drawbridges and preceded by souvenir and rowing-boat rental (15Lt) stalls. You can also rent yachts here. Built around 1400 AD by Grand Duke Vytautas, under whom Lithuania reached the pinnacle of its power during the fifteenth century, the castle fell into ruin from the seventeenth century until a 1960s restoration returned it to its former glory. The history museum inside displays artefacts discovered while excavating the site.
Trakai is home to three hundred Karaim, Lithuania’s smallest ethnic minority – a Judaic sect of Turkish origin whose ancestors were brought here from the Crimea by Grand Duke Vytautas to serve as bodyguards. You can learn more about their cultural contribution to Trakai at the Karaite Ethnographic Exhibition. You can sample kibinai, the Karaite culinary speciality – a mincemeat pasty – served up at the cafés arounds; wash it down with gira, a semi-alcoholic drink made from fermented bread.