“The hill of what?”
“The Hill of Witches!”
“That’s a thing?”
“Yes! And we’re going!”
This is how every conversation about this wonderful place should go. Shorter versions are also acceptable.
The Hill of Witches is a forested sculpture park in the village of Juodkrantė in Lithuania. While recently travelling through the Baltic states, we spent just over a week in Vilnius, the capitol of Lithuania. During our stay, we wanted to explore the vibe and culture of Vilnius. But we also wanted to plan a day trip or two to check out some sites of local interest.
During our extensive research (thank you Google) we discovered this hitherto-unknown-to-us gem and immediately made plans. Juodkrantė is a seaside village just across the water from the city of Klaipėda in the far west of Lithuania. It’s just over 3 hours by car from Vilnius to Klaipėda, and a further hour to get to Juodkrantė. So while a day trip is possible, it might be better to stay overnight in Klaipėda as we did.
We stayed at The Aribe Hotel with friendly staff and Breakfast included. For a short stay, we definitely recommend. It was conveniently about a 20 minute walk to the bus and train station and just outside of the historic old town of Klaipėda.
Juodkrantė is one of the most popular destinations for Lithuanians and other Baltic state residents. Because of this, in high season, the village becomes much busier. So if you wanted to avoid the crowds, high summer might not be the time period for you. However, you also may not want to go when everything’s closed … like we did.
FYI: It takes more than 18 minutes to get around the trail. Plan for 1-2 hours, depending on how lost in awe you get!
N.B. This trip was one of our nominees for Best Day Trip in our annual COTAs!
Hill of Witches Bound: Leaving Klaipėda
Our journey out to the Hill of Witches did not go entirely smoothly. As previously mentioned we stayed overnight in Klaipėda, so we had a relatively early start to our day. (But not too early - we’re bloggers for a reason).
We found the bus station and managed to get return tickets out to Juodkrantė easily enough. The ticket seller pointed us towards where our bus would depart, and as it was due in 15 minutes we headed outside to wait.
When using public transport, I’m always super happy to see electronic information boards about the place. I like to know that I’m in the right place and (more importantly) getting on the right bus. Klaipėda bus station did not disappoint: the board had our destination, departure time and bus number. We were in the right place.
As we waited, I wondered what kind of vehicle we would be getting. There were parked buses of all shapes and sizes lined up across from us. I was hoping for a nice big coach with interactive entertainment like films, TV and games, because I am a child. We had assigned seat numbers - surely that must mean a large commercial vehicle? With lots of legroom? My hopes, however, usually exceed reality, and sure enough a small twenty-seater minibus pulled into our lane.
I didn’t know if this bus was starting it’s journey here, or if Klaipėda was part of its longer route. No one got off, and we were the only two people waiting for it. So we climbed aboard.
While the woman in the ticket office had spoken some English, the bus driver gave no indication of speaking much of anything at all. We presented our tickets, and he gave them back with a vague mumbling that I could only discern was not English. Fair enough; at least our tickets had seat numbers so our lack of language skills wasn’t going to cause trouble.
There was only one passenger on the bus, right at the back. We found our seats and encountered a problem: there was a bag on the floor. It was a carrier bag with what looked like some groceries. Someone has forgotten their bag! No one got off the bus when it arrived, so someone must have left it when they got off at a previous stop. How frustrating! I’d hate it if that happened to me.
My first thought was to tell the driver, but based on our brief exchange I didn’t think I would be able to correctly explain the situation as I didn’t speak a word of Lithuanian. So I moved the bag to the seats opposite and hoped that whoever had accidentally left it would contact the bus company and they could get the bag back eventually. The driver would do a sweep of the bus at the end of the day and the bag would be found and kept safe until then.
After a few minutes, two more people appeared at the bus door. It was two older ladies, and they were talking to the driver and pointing towards us. Ah, I thought, they’ve come to get their bag! They’ve tracked down the bus and everything will work out. Excellent. That’s a lot quicker than I would have expected ….
As we were already buckled in and it was a little complicated to get up on the cramped bus, I pointed at their bag by the seat opposite and tried to make the international expression of ‘don’t worry, the bag you accidentally left is here’. They came onto the bus and over to us.
“You are in our seats,” said one of the ladies, in English.
“I’m sorry?” I said in Confused British Tourist.
“We were sitting here. We left our bag. These are our seats,” she said.
Apparently, the bus had stopped at a different part of the station when it first arrived. The women had been sitting where we were now, and gotten off to stretch their legs and get a coffee. This practice does not really exist in the UK. The bus doesn’t have a layover period (because there usually isn’t time). It also doesn’t have two drop-off/pick-up points - it goes to one place and then leaves again. All of these concepts became clear to me about one step too late in the conversation we were now having.
“Oh,” I said. I was a little bewildered. We had seat numbers; we were in the right place, weren’t we? Also, the rest of the bus was entirely empty apart from the one guy at the back. It’s not like they now had to sit separately. Couldn’t they have just sat in another row?
Mainly, I was thrown by the fact that we were in the correct seats according to our tickets. Doesn’t that outrank a left bag? Isn’t there some order in the world?
In order to make peace, we acquiesced. As we made apologies and seat-changing movements, the lady spoke up again. “No, don’t move, we will sit somewhere else. But you shouldn't make people have to move seats on the bus. It’s very disrespectful and ….” and with that, she launched into an unending stream of disparaging remarks about the state of the youth today. We tried to gather ourselves and move seats but they just ignored us and sat towards the back. We also tried to apologise for making a fuss (even though we were in the correct seats) but we couldn’t get a word in edgeways.
Eventually they switched to Lithuanian, and the other passenger joined in their conversation. Even the bus driver got up and started talking and gesturing in what seemed like an ‘I've also had to experience the disrespectful youth’ sort of way. In the end we put our headphones in and tried to make ourselves as small as possible.
Now, it’s entirely likely they weren't talking about us once they switched to Lithuanian. But one problem with language barriers is that we just don’t know. From our perspective, everyone on that bus now hated us. The atmosphere was super uncomfortable as we made our way through Klaipėda and onto the shuttle ferry. (This would take us across the Curonian Lagoon and onto the Curonian Spit, where the Hill of Witches resides).
Once across the water, the journey takes you through some beautiful forested areas. With the sunlight streaming through the trees and ambient music playing on my iPod, I tried to focus on losing myself in relaxation, instead of my burning embarrassment at having turned the bus against us.
The lesson we learned from this: seat numbers don’t matter on Lithuanian buses.
Arriving in Juodkrantė
The village of Juodkrantė was quiet, peaceful, calm, picturesque and empty. We were the only ones who got off the bus, and there were no pedestrians in sight. Once the bus drove away, we were alone.
The main road follows the water in a long, slight curve. It makes the place seem a little like it goes on forever, which gave it an ethereal quality. To me that seemed like appropriate preparation for entering a place like the Hill of Witches!
As we walked along I was struck by how normal the village was. Brightly painted wooden houses with terracotta roof tiles passed us on our right hand side. Freshly mown grass patches and park benches overlooking the water were on our left. Many houses had ornate, well-kept gardens with miniature trees, bird baths, garden gnomes and statues.
Into the woods
After ten minutes of walking, we came across the entrance to our destination. Rather than a street sign, there was a structure of carved wooden beams engraved with “RAGANU KALNAS” (The Hill of Witches).
Sitting atop the sign, also carved from wood, was an effigy the size of a young child. A smiling woman in robes and a jewelled necklace pointed across the road towards steps leading into the trees. She was holding an axe. It was a good representation of what we could look forward to.
And at the entrance opposite was another indication of what was in store. On either side was another sculpture. One was a detailed depiction of a woman surrounded by waves and sea creatures. The other was (in my opinion) a rather goofy-looking totem/fish rack. Together they go some way to defining the atmosphere of the place: serious and also playful!
THe Hill of Witches is More than just Witches
There’s somewhat of a duality to the Hill of Witches. The area was originally the site of an annual festival called Jonines (St John’s Eve). People came together for one night for a mixture of pagan and Christian celebrations. Attendees would traditionally head into the woods at night to try to find magic fern blossom at midnight.
More recently people moved away from the religious ideas of the area, and brought in a creative element. In 1979, the first creative sculpture camp was held, with master sculptors from all over Lithuania in attendance. Inspired by their love of folklore and old stories, they regularly convened to create new pieces. Eventually they began to also restore older works that had fallen into disrepair.
Today, new works are still being added, though somewhat irregularly. Each piece represents a piece of Lithuanian folklore, myth, legends or fairy tale.
The legend of Neringa
The park is dedicated to one of the main heroes of local folklore - the mythical Neringa.
Legend tells of a giant girl born to the rulers of the castle Ventė called Neringa. She was a beautiful giant with braided hair that reached to the ground. Tales of her beauty, and of her good deeds, spread across the land.
One day a great storm came, causing much destruction to the western coast of Lithuania. The castle Ventė was in great peril. Neringa saw this, and quickly started to build an embankment to protect it. She gathered up a huge pile of sand from the sea bed in her apron. Through wind and rain she carried the sand and deposited it down in front of the castle. She did this again and again, and saved the castle. This is how the Curonian Spit was formed.
Perhaps because of its duality, the trail was conceived in two parts: light and dark. The first part is wide and open, and features carvings of more lighthearted beings such as fairytales and legends. Once you’re halfway around, though, you encounter the sculpture of Lucifer and the Hell gate.
This is the start of the dark section. From here, braided maidens and laughing fishermen become replaced by devils, demons and witches. Dagney enjoyed this half a lot more, and eventually so did I, once we found the interactive part …
Back into the ghost town
Having come to the end of the trail we walked back out into Juodkrantė proper. The long walk had given us both an appetite, so we ventured back along the waterfront in search of food. Unfortunately, we were in off-season.
Every eatery that we could find (and there weren’t many) was closed. Lots of houses appeared to have been adapted into small, cosy cafés for the tourists. But there aren’t many of those about in November. Just us idiots.
The main restaurant, which would have been our backup choice, appeared to be undergoing refurbishment. So no joy there. There weren’t even any shops/stores for groceries. It felt a bit like I was back in a seaside ghost town in the UK, but more extreme.
After wandering up and down the main road for a while, we decided to try exploring up some side streets. Sadly we found nothing but more residential areas (though again, they were exceedingly pleasant).
With our main objective accomplished, we decided to call it, and head back to Klaipėda for food.
Passing the time in Juodkrantė
We had given ourselves plenty of time to explore the Hill of Witches, so our intended bus back wasn’t coming for a while. Fortunately, there was a service every hour, so we weren’t left strung out for long. When we got to the bus stop however, we had just missed one, so we had 55 minutes to kill.
Just opposite the bus stop there was a public building: the Ludwig Rose Cultural Centre. On the basis it was warmer inside, we decided to investigate. The centre turned out to be something similar to a converted church hall. There were offices and a larger room with a piano and stacks of chairs off to the side. Artwork from local artists adorned the walls
For the princely sum of 1 Euro each we were also allowed access to the upstairs museum. The whole history of the town of Juodkrantė is laid out there, complete with a full scale model of it!
Leaving Hill of Witches & Returning to shore
The journey back was not identical to our trip out to Juodkrantė. As we were getting a different bus, this one did not take us all the way to Klaipėda bus station. While we were enjoying more space on the larger bus (and not being yelled at), it stopped suddenly.
Everyone else got off. We were in a parking bay at the edge of the lagoon. There wasn’t any clear place to go, or sign as to what to do next. Some of the passengers were tourists and seemed unsure where to go as well. Others seemed to be walking over to an area by waterside next to a small kiosk. Dagney and I looked at each other; shrugged and started to follow them.
Happily, fortune smiled our my well-thought-out tactic of winging it, and after a few minutes a ferry arrived. As we boarded with everyone else, however, my mind began to worry a little. We didn’t exactly have ferry tickets. We only bought tickets for the bus. Would they last us back to the mainland? Or did they stop working at the water’s edge?
Through more good luck, that issue never arose, as no one checked anyone for tickets for the whole journey. Disembarking on the other side of the lagoon, we were right in the heart of Klaipėda city centre. After a short walk we were back at the bus station and on our way back to Vilnius.
Have you been to the Hill of Witches? What was your favourite sculpture? Were there more than zero residents in view? Have you been somewhere else on the alternative outdoor activity scene? Let us know in the comments!