If the Orthodox Joy of All who Sorrow church in the Lithuanian spa town of Druskininkai had cheeks, I would have gleefully pinched them whilst cooing uncontrollably at their utter cuteness. This charming nineteenth century little church that stands in the middle of a large, leafy roundabout, is arguably the loveliest and prettiest building in town.
Nearby, the neo-Gothic church of Saint Mary’s Scapular may not generate such amorous feelings amongst visitors…
…but where it lacks in architectural adorability, it gains in artistic flare. Inside and out, this church is adorned with unique, locally produced art. One notable piece is this crucifix by the entrance to the church:
Antanas Česnulis is a folk artist and wood sculptor who has lived and worked in Druskininkai for over thirty years. Admiring his distinctive carving style, I was rather excited to learn that he had an open air exhibition of his work just outside the town near his home in the village of Naujasodė.
Being only three kilometres away from Druskininkai, I thought it would be fairly easy to find Naujasodė and Česnulis’s exhibition, believing it would be a well signposted turning off the main road out of the town. And it is, but my sat nav had other ideas and decided to take me off the main road as quickly as possible and direct me along a more rural, scenic route. After several disorientating turnings along dusty, unmarked tracks, the sat nav finally announced that I had reached my destination, but I was not convinced. What the sat nav believed to be a village turned out to be a sandy patch in the middle of dense forestry with no sign of human habitation whatsoever. Undeterred, I carried on down the track ahead and to my relief, not only did I come across human life but also some familiar carvings along the road.
The effort to get here proved well worth it as Česnulis’s work is prolific and outstanding. Not only does Česnulis’s work illustrate just how skilled a carver and sculptor he is, but also what a fabulous sense of humour, vivid imagination and strong Lithuanian pride the artist possesses.
As well as sculptures, Česnulis has also created huge reliefs depicting Lithuanian traditions and folk law.
The folk story of Egle, a daughter of Earth, describes how Egle was secretly married to Zilvinas, son of the Sea. They had three sons and one daughter named (translated in English as) Oak, Birch, Ash and Aspen. Much as she loved Zilvinas who she lived with under the sea, she missed her relatives on the shore, and so Zilvinas encouraged her to visit them to cure herself of her home-sickness. During the visit, Egle told her children not to reveal to their Earth family who their father was, but the daughter Drebule (Aspen) did so out of fear. In retaliation for this forbidden union, Zilvinas was murdered by Egle’s relatives, and in her grief Egle turned herself and her children into trees.
Antanas Česnulis’s sculpture park is open daily from 9am until sunset. It costs (2017) six Euros to enter. Parking just outside the park along the road, is free.
The sculpture park doesn’t cover a vast amount of land and can be walked around with ease. Although a complete circuit of the grounds can be done in as little as ten minutes, there is so much to see and admire here that an average visit will take the best part of an hour at least.
As well as the sculptures exhibited outdoors, there are also two indoor galleries on the grounds, one housed in a handsome windmill built by Česnulis specifically to exhibit his work.
Regardless of my experiences mentioned above, the easiest way to get to the sculpture park is by car. If happy not to rely on a sat nav and be taken the long, windy country lane route, take the main road M. K. Čiurlionio south-east out of Druskininkai and pick up the A4 going south. After a kilometre or so, there should be a brown sign at the junction pointing right for the sculpture park that reads “Droziniu Ekspozicija”. Take this turning and a little further down this road, another sign points right again to the sculpture park. This is Naujasodės gatvė, the dirt track I eventually found myself on. Take this track and keep going along it, albeit slowly as it is a very uneven stony track. Look out for the crucifix carvings on the right of the road, and the windmill which can be seen just before approaching the first group of chalet-like houses in the village. The dedicated parking space is just before the carvings, on the right.
If a car is not an option, go to Druskininkai’s tourist office in the heart of the town along M. K. Čiurlionio, and pick up a leaflet for the sculpture park. Then go to the bus stop just outside it, and board the number 3B bus waving the leaflet at the driver who should then be kind enough to stop at the top of Jaskoniu gatvė, which is the next turning right after Naujasodės gatvė. The walk from here into the village isn’t very long and the road is well tarmacked and peopled. Take the second right along a narrow dirt track which is Naujasodės gatvė approached from the other end, and the sculpture park is not very far along it, on the left.
It is worth noting that the number 3B bus only runs a few times a day, but the timetables for it and other routes are clearly displayed at the bus stop. The other alternative is to walk to the sculpture park from Druskininkai, a journey of around three kilometres.
Druskininkai is around a two-and-a-half hour drive south along Lithuania’s A4, from the capital Vilnius. There are around five coaches a day making the journey to and from Druskininkai via Vilnius’s main coach station.
Here is a short film I made of Druskininkai, featuring the Orthodox church and Česnulis’ work. Just press play.
Taking a selfie with Lenin at Grūtas Park, Druskininkai
Vilnius … and the TWO geographical centre points of Europe.