The first national parks were established some two decades ago to preserve the most aesthetic natural features of the Lithuanian landscape, wildlife habitats and places of ethnographic interest. At the same time, Lithuania’s national parks are a focal point for recreation, ranging from one-day outings to natural history tours and ecological tourism.
In the south the national parks protect the bulk of the best forest land; in the northeast they guard the natural beauty of upland lakes. Each park also preserves valuable reminders of the local heritage, including farm buildings, agricultural implements and folk sculptures.
The national parks are excellent places for relaxation, fishing and sightseeing. Increasingly, traditional village houses are being fitted out to accommodate tourists. Boats for hire, information and other services are generally readily available. The parks are inhabited by game not often found in Western Europe, such as elk and wolves. Deer and wild boar are common throughout the country’s uninhabited areas.
Aukštaitija National Parks
In northeast Lithuania, the Aukštaitija National Park is characterised by gently rolling hills and sparkling lakes and streams. The park is studded with 102 lakes of varying size, many of which can be seen at a glance from almost any hill. From Ladakalnis Hill, the visitor can take in a spectacular panorama of six lakes surrounded by the dark greenery of pine, fir and oak trees. Forests cover 60% of the park‘s total area. Small likeside resorts are used for summer tourism. The lakes of the Aukštaitija National Park are connected by 34 rivers and streams, thus offering excellent opportunities for canoeing. A complete tour through the park‘s lakes would take about a week.
Motorists can drive to the nearby Museum of Beekeeping, and visit two picturesque water mills that have survived from the past. Visitors may purchase a fishing licence and try their luck.
Kuršių Nerija National Park
The Kuršių nerija National park was formally established only in 1991, although its delicate landscape was protected from human exploitation in the pre-war period. The Curonian Peninsula, with its towering dunes – same of which still shift with the wind – its wide beaches and lush wood, attracts visitors from around the world. Almost all the woods that a contemporary might see were planted by local residents to stop the sand from shifting. At present, the Kurių Nerija National Park includes the aettlements of Juodkrantė, Pervalka, Preila and Nida. These former fishing villages have modern accommodation and are well equipped for tourism.
They are linked by the road from Klaipėda to Kaliningrad, or can be reached by yacht and motorboat. Tourists enjoy the extensive network of cycling routes; the over 50 kilometres of sandy beaches are open to swimmers and beachcombers.
Virtually all of the coast along the Lithuanian side of the peninsula is unspoiled, and even in the summer, a visitors ca enjoy long stretches of beach almost all to himself. The well-maintained traditional architecture complements the natural features of this nature preserve. The park is home to same rare, protected flora as well as elks, deer, fox and sea birds. Most first-time visitors are pleasantly surprised and decide to return.
Žemaitija National Park
The Žemaitija National Park is just 45 kilometers from the Baltic Sea, and can be reached easily from Klaipėda or Palanga. The Žemaičiai uplands are centred around Lake Plateliai, the pride of the park. This, as well as the other 26 lakes in this nature preserve, are beloved by locals and visitors from more distant locations in Lithuania. Lake Plateliai has seven islands. This part of the region is famous for the town of Žemaičių Kalvarija, with its 19 chapels scattered over 12 hills. They were built in the 17th century, and today important religious festivals are often celebrated here. The park has 222 protected edifices, mainly small chapels and wooden sculptures.
Dzūkija National Park
Dzūkija National Park is southern Lithuania, and evergreen forests occupy over 60% of it. The sandy soil is not favourable for agriculture, and therefore the locals traditionally have found work in forestry. Local residents are fond of gathering berries, mushrooms and wild honey. The ethnographic villages in the national park are scattered among the pine forests, and are characterised by their unusual architecture, their wooden houses, and large yards. They are surrounded by relatively small fields, and, beyond them, the forest. The park has two larger rivers, suitable for canoeing, and quite a few smaller ones, which are a marvel to explore. One of them, the Skroblus, is notable for its meandering course and high, vertical, sandy banks. The roads are good and offer easy access to all objects of interest. The park is an easy two-hour drive from Vilnius.
Trakai National Historical Park
This park is located about 30 kilomtres from Vilnius. It is dotted with 33 lakes, which determined the siting there of the old town of Trakai and its imposing castle. Especially interesting is Lake Galvė with its 21 islands. On one of them stands a major symbol of Lithuania‘s statehood, the castle of Vytautas Magnus, with its red brick towers looking out over the placid waters of the lakes. Trakai contains numerous archaeological and historical monuments; it has been shaped by history and by the fact that
the town traditionally was cohabited by numerous ethnic groups.
There are four main regions in Lithuania, commonly called ethnographic regions. This is because each one has a distinct character expressed by differences in its folk culture. They also differ in their topography, flora and fauna, and each one has its own dialect version of the language.
The largest region covers the north, east and middle of the country. Its name comes from the word aukštai, meaning high, as it includes a range of hilly uplands.
Aukštaitija is a land of pristine forests and beautiful lakes, and is immensely popular with tourists during the summer months. Despite this, it has managed to retain its unspoilt charm. The country‘s deepest (Tauragas) and its largest lake (Drūgščiai) can be found here. Many of the forests are very old and same have never heard the sound of an axe felling atree. The famous oak tree at Stelmužė is thought to be 1,500 years old.
The region has a pronounced rural character. Farms here are generally small, as it was customary among farmers to divide their land between their sons. There are many villages designated as ethnographic, in which an plder, quieter way of life has been preserved. There is a wide variety of museums of local folklore and farming, among them a beekeeping museum in the village of Stripeikiai. Among the many towns of interest is Anykščiai, the home town of a number of popular writers. The region is also renowned for its beer and is home to two of Lithuania‘s largest breweries, in Utena and Panevėžys, as well as many smaller ones.