Unlike its Baltic neighbours,
once enjoyed a period of sustained independence. Having driven off the German Knights of the Sword in 1236 at Siauliai, the Lithuanians emerged as a unified state under Grand Duke Gediminas (1316-41). The 1569 Union of Lublin established a combined Polish-Lithuanian state which reached its zenith under King Stefan Bathory. But the Great Northern War of 1700-21, in which Poland-Lithuania, Russia and Sweden battled for control of the Baltics, left the country devastated, and by the end of the eighteenth century most of Lithuania had fallen into Russian hands. Uprisings in 1830 and 1863 presaged a rise in nationalist feeling, and Russia's collapse in World War I enabled the Lithuanians to re-establish their independence. In July 1940, however, the country was effectively annexed by the USSR. German occupation from 1941 to 1944 wiped out Lithuania's Jewish population and wrecked the country, and things scarcely improved when the return of the Soviets resulted in executions and deportations. When Moscow eventually relaxed its hard line in the late 1980s, demands for greater autonomy led to the declaration of independence on March 11, 1990, way ahead of the other Baltic States. A prolonged stand-off came to a head on January 11, 1991 when Soviet forces killed fourteen people at Vilnius TV Tower, but as the anti-Gorbachev coup foundered in August 1991, the world - soon followed by the disintegrating Soviet Union - recognized Lithuanian independence.
Travel in Lithuania presents no real hardships, and even in well-trodden destinations the volume of visitors is low, leaving you with the feeling that there's still much to discover here.
, with its Baroque old town, is the most architecturally beautiful of the Baltic capitals, with an easy-going charm all of its own. Lithuania's second city
also has an attractive old town and a couple of unique museums, along with a handful of surprisingly good restaurants and bars. The port city of
, despite its restored old town, is more a stopping-off point en route to the low-key resorts of
, a unique spit of sand dunes and forest that shields Lithuania from the Baltic.