There are 5 national parks and 32 regional parks in the Lithuanian Republic and these cover in total almost 11 percent of the whole of the country. Trakai Historical National Park is the smallest national park in Lithuania. This state-protected territory stands out from the rest in that it is centred on an ancient Lithuanian political centre, Trakai, and has a unique natural landscape to preserve. This task is difficult not only because of the fact that nowadays we are going through a complicated post-Soviet economic and mental situation but also because Trakai Historical National Park is highly populated with 14,000 people and lies only three kilometres away from the nation’s capital, Vilnius. A state-funded organisation, the Trakai Historical National Park Management, has been set up to meet the park’s aims and duties. The Management comprises thirteen persons and the function of founder and watch dog is played by the Lithuanian Ministry of Culture.
Trakai was given special protected status back in Soviet days (1960) and its value was appreciated even before then. In the 1857 Vilnius romantic writer Władysław Syrokomle (1823-62) posed a question typical of his generation: “O why is Trakai not somewhere in England, Scotland or Switzerland? Then crowds would come every day to gaze at its fairness. We would find thousands of their accounts in travel journals and novels. Thousands of painters from all over would sketch it. It’s honour would be conveyed across Europe in millions of prints and this honour would eventually even fall to Lithuania”.
However, it was only during the first year that Lithuania regained its independence in 1991 that the chance occurred for Trakai and its surroundings to win the exceptional status of an historical national park. Trakai Historical National Park was founded by the Lithuanian Restoration Seimas in order to preserve cultural sites of Lithuanian historical statehood along with their genuine natural environs. In this unique and compact ensemble of natural and cultural heritage, which reflects important periods and events in the history of Lithuania and eastern Europe as a whole, we can see a beautifully preserved cultural landscape centred on an historic town and castles which are nestled in lake land. Here there are traditional agricultural villages, fieldscapes and areas where primaeval natural formations still survive. The value of Trakai Historical National Park has been preserved finely and its special status has been recognised and protected by a whole body of national legislation.
The landscape of Trakai Historical National Park exudes particular beauty; in part this is natural and in part it is man-made. It covers an area of 8,200 ha which includes more than 32 lakes (occupying an area of 1,400 ha). The pre-Ice Age relief is responsible for the large formations which dominate the Park, namely the lakes and marshland, and hills which formed during the last Ice Age (between thirteen and fourteen thousand years BC). During the varied stages when the ice melted an undulating plateau formed in the southern part of the park with a chain of moraine hills. The morphological structure of this land relief is a unique feature of the formation of lake land in the Baltic Uplands. Lying in the embrace of a water system comprising Galvės (361 ha), Skaiščio (286 ha), Bernardinų (88 ha) and Totoriškių (76 ha) Lakes is the old centre of the town of (Naujieji [New]) Trakai (169 ha) with its Island and Peninsula Castles, which effectively form the kernel of the park ensemble. The town is girt by mixed woodland (3,900 ha) which gives way in the east to marshland, to a plateau in the south, and a contrasting hill and vale area to the north and west. This landscape forms perfect conditions for a large variety of flora and fauna, which includes species of Europe-wide importance as well as many that feature in Lithuanian and European lists of rare species. The Park’s territory contains well-sited hill forts, castle sites, manors, traditionally appointed villages and isolated farmsteads. All the components of Trakai Historical National Park combine to form an integrated, holistic territorial and visual unit which leaves the visitor with an unforgettable impression.
The natural treasures and the variety of the landscape, especially its specific land formations, provided favourable conditions for the human population which settled within the modern Park’s territory 4,000 years before the Birth of Christ. Trakai attained special significance in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries A.D., when the last pagan state in Europe, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, opposed crusade attempts to convert it to Christianity led by the Teutonic Order. Trakai is mentioned for the first time in written sources in the Chronicle of Wigand of Marburg under the year 1337. Trakai had become an important defensive centre close to the major grand-ducal residence of Vilnius. A unified defensive system was built in Trakai, which was difficult to approach because of its natural defences of wood- and lake land. There were wooden forts at Bražuolė (first millennium BC-fourteenth century AD) and Daniliškės (sixth-twelfth century AD) and stone ones at Senieji [Old] Trakai (early fourteenth century) and on the island and peninsula in Naujieji [New] Trakai (middle and late fourteenth century respectively). Tatars and Karaites helped Lithuanians defend their land from the late fourteenth century.
The polyethnic town of (New) Trakai with its Lithuanians, Karaites, Tatars, Jews, Russians, Germans and Poles grew up beside the castles and had broad political and commercial links with European towns and their communities and traditions of mediaeval sacral, secular and defensive architecture, secular and religious art and literature. The town had a unique form of self-adminsitration based on Magdeburg Law and from the fifteenth century autonomous Christian and Karaite communities governed their own affairs. Trakai was the centre of a separate duchy in the fourteenth-sixteenth centuries, which stretched to Brest Litovsk in the south (now part of Belarus) and Biržai in the north (close to the modern Latvian border), and it was an important residence of the rulers of Lithuania. Trakai was a favourite grand-ducal residence, an acknowledged centre for political theatre with hunting and diplomatic rituals, ecclesiastical holidays and trade fairs. From the sixteenth century Trakai held a dominant place in a nationwide religious cult. In 1718 Pope Clement XI crowned the wonder-working Trakai icon of Our Lady, which was the focus of pilgrimage for Lithuanians, Poles, Belorussians and Latvians. Alongside Catholic communities Orthodox, Muslim, Jewish and Karaite believers flourished in Trakai. In the seventeenth century the town ceased growing because the natural conditions which had favoured the defensive needs of the mediaeval town now formed an obstacle to economic and urban development during the period of the Commonwealth of the Two Nations (1569-1795), and occupations under the Russian Empire (1795-1917), the Second Polish Republic (1920-39) and the Soviet Union (1940-91). The historical and cultural heritage of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania has been preserved in the town of Trakai. This territory’s life was enhanced not only by historic rulers such as Vytautas the Great (1392-1430) or Casimir (1440-92) but also by other famous figures such as the counts Tyszkiewicz, the Radziwiłł dukes, the Sapiehas, Ogińskis, Gasztolds, the fifteenth-century bishop of Vilnius, Matthew of Trakai (who was also rector of the University of Siena), the Karaite philosopher and divine Isaac ben Abraham of Trakai (1533-94) and the physician-poet Ezra Harofez.