There are estimated to be over a hundred thousand crosses which measure over a metre in height. No one has managed to count the rosaries suspended from them… or the ones made of just two school pencils tied up with a hair ribbon or twigs secured by strips of bark. There are millions upon millions of them.
It’s an incomparable experience to stand in the middle of the jumble and stay still for a second or two. Even when the slightest breeze blows, the silence is filled with the sound of tinkling, implying, say believers, that souls are speaking to each other.
Those old pagan traditions are in evidence too. The majority of crosses are ornamented with symbols from nature and Lithuanian mythology. The Celtic circle of day and night or life and death formed by a simple entwining of twigs around the top of the cross appears on many, while day/life is represented by the sun and night/death by the new moon.
Our guide, Nerija Gulbinaite, told us: “It’s magic here and that touches everyone who comes to the hill although there’s much to represent sorrow and pain.
“This is a place which heals nearly every soul if not for the whole lifetime then certainly for a few minutes.”
Before arriving we had met a freaked-out couple from Gouda in Holland, Bradt Guide to Lithuania in hand, who had visited and found the experience “too spooky”.
I told Nerija of their reaction and she shrugged her shoulders, saying: “You should come at night, especially with a full moon when it is windy.
“You would need to have a strong nerve as the old crosses creak and groan and the smaller ones tinkle and jingle, each one making a different sound.”
In 1993, the Pope held a mass in the valley in front of the hill and donated a big cross which now has pride of place on the sandy square in front of the hill.
“Walking around the Hill is like reading a book of different lives – the story of exiles, tales of physical and spiritual pain, the book of love and desire, and the story of human kindness,” said Nerija.
Every inscription has its own message too.
“People are looking for silence and peace and we are tired of living in silence”, says one inscription on the cross erected by deaf people from Kaunas.
“Nothing makes people so happy and powerful as love” says the inscription on the cross signed simply by “Mother”.
Some set out to make you smile.
“God save me from everything that is Evil”, declares one, listing examples as “disease, misfortunes… and public institutions”.
Busy and bustling
In Vilnius itself, the very buildings which once housed those who were so hated can be visited back in Vilnius.
Today they double up as cafes, bars and even hotels. The Neringa, for instance, now wearing a chic 4-star makeover since the days when it was a hangout for the despised ruling elite, is as busy and bustling as any hotel in Prague.
All around, in the street called Gedimono are fancy shops, wine bars and fashionable boutiques.
The KGB Museum retains the hellish detention rooms, torture cells and execution chambers where thousands of dissidents endured horrors and were deported or died during the days of the Red Terror.
It provides as stark a reminder of just how grim things were not so long ago.
In the old quarter with the 13th Century Vilnius Cathedral as the main attraction, you wander on cobblestoned streets past rosy-faced stallholders selling amber trinkets and jewellery.
It’s worth making the effort to climb up to the red sandstone castle tower of Gediminas – a great vantage point from which to gaze out over the spires, domes and red-tiled rooftops.
In the streets below, it’s more fun-filled and culture-packed than I imagined possible. There’s a vibrancy and an air of new beginnings that floats through the streets. Proud young Lithuanians enjoy a nightlife that’s as good as any in Europe. Just say hello and they’ll bombard you with questions, all eager to try out their English.