The hillside is so steep that steps lead up to the top of five strangely shaped, almost conic hills at the edge of the Neris valley. All five of them are covered with grass and besides the hills there is not much else to see. An old woman with a knitted hat and a cool bag walks past us between the hills. She must be on the way to the brightly lit shop next to the bus station.
The village of Kernave became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2004 not only for the curiously shaped hills, which are in fact hill forts, but for the fact that about 10,000 years of continuous human occupation can be traced in the swampland by the river and the adjoining river terrace. Next to the river, a source of fresh water and a trading route even then, fire places were found where paleolithic semi-nomads produced flint stones and hunting gear. Later on, there were bronze age settlements on the river banks.
We stubbornly climb every one of the five hills and then make our way towards the adjacent history museum. Again we meet the old woman, who now walks back towards the river, where a few wooden houses are still allowed to stand in the protected archaeological area; the cool bag well filled this time. The village shop must still be open.
To our surprise the museum is quite interesting and good and a lot of the archaeological finds from several millennia are actually exhibited in this tiny village. Excavations of the site only began in the 1970s, led by nearby Vilnius University. Especially the prehistoric finds are impressive, ranging from flint stones and pottery to triangular arrowheads that must have come from the Huns' attacks on Lithuania in the 3rd century. From later periods beautiful jewelry and some urns and goods from pagan burials in the 13th century are exhibited. Most people were cremated then, and graves contained valuables for the afterlife.
When the museum closes at 4 pm, we still have more than one hour to kill before the bus leaves for Vilnius (there's only two a day on weekends), so we take another walk around the hill forts in the last daylight, admire the contry's oldest “paved” road – consisting of long fir logs to get safely over the swampland – and finally escape the cold and darkness in the village shop, where we meet two friendly Lithuanians who give us a ride back to Vilnius.
Is Kernave worth visiting?
Although the village is nicely situated above the Neris river, there is actually not much to see. The hill forts are just five green hills, and the quite detailed explanation panels still don't succeed in bringing the place to life. If you are interested in UNESCO World Heritage sites you might want to go anyway. We really enjoyed the museum which is not big, but well-presented.
How to get there
There are buses from Vilnius directly to Kernave which take about one hour. They go more often on weekdays.