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New Europe

Day Ninety-one: Palanga to Vilnius

The Hill of Crosses 
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The Hill of Crosses, symbol of Lithuanian freedom.
Michael Palin - New EuropeHalfway to Vilnius, a small hill stands out from the wide, flat agricultural plain. Every inch of it is covered in crosses, a cruciform forest spilling out onto the fields around. Coaches appear from the middle of nowhere and pull off the road, crunching across the powdery dirt of a makeshift car park. They come from all over Europe and every one is full of visitors who, in one day, can add a few hundred crosses to the collection.

No-one quite knows how long this has been going on, but there is irrefutable evidence that crosses were put here in the nineteenth century to commemorate those who gave their lives in two rebellions against Russian rule. When the Russians returned in 1944, the hill became a rallying ground, not just for Lithuanian nationalists, but for all those anxious to assert their religious loyalties in a godless state. The Soviet authorities were irritated enough to try and clear the hill at least four times and once to divert a sewage outlet across the fields leading to it.

This only encouraged the cross-planters and further enhanced the symbolic significance of the place, and when the last Russian soldiers left Lithuanian soil in 1993 the Hill of Crosses changed from landmark to national icon.

To be honest, I wandered amongst its forest of crucifixes, carved statues of the Virgin and scattering of rosary beads with increasing despondency. What might have been inspiring seems to me to have been tarnished by a sort of quick-fix, off-the-shelf piety. The original, dignified, tall crosses are now just hangers for an awful lot of tat, much of it sold in the stalls at the car park to tour groups who leave their mass-produced knick-knacks and move on.

I was much more moved by hearing, as we reached Vilnius, the capital, a few hours later, that in the summer of 1989 a human chain had linked arms across the length of the Baltic republics, from Vilnius to Tallinn. It was organised to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, in which the Germans, in return for non-aggression against their invasion of Poland, agreed to let the Russians occupy Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

The line of clasped hands must have stretched some 400 miles. Now that's what I call devotion.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Ninety-one: Palanga to Vilnius
  • Country/sea: Lithuania
  • Place: Palanga
  • Book page no: 218

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