We present a new tourist attraction in the municipalities of Zarasai (Lithuania) and Augsdaugava districts (Latvia) – a route in the footsteps of the First World War.
Travelers in these regions can enjoy a unique route through the First World War fortifications or the unique heritage left by the Germans, as well as First World War expositions in Medumi and Turmantas.
Northeast Lithuania, the region of Zarasai, Augsdaugava district has been filled with a new tourist object – a route that leads to the border of Lithuania and Latvia following the traces of the First World War. Almost 100 km. long route can be covered on foot, by bicycle, by car or by bus for tourist groups. The route includes over fifty fortifications built 100 years ago or their fragments, which still amaze today with their unique architectural solutions, reveal the scale of the battles that took place across Eastern Europe, and remind the history of the first great war.
The route of fortification objects scattered in the territories of the Lithuanian Zarasai and Latvian Augsdaugava municipalities, just like more than 100 years ago, was re-connected into a coherent chain of fortifications dictated by the logic and conditions of the last war, only today it no longer serves for warfare, but for cognitive, educational purposes, the history of military engineering and for getting to know the wonderful lake region, which is fun to visit for those who want to relax, and for lovers of active tourism.
The route, which still has no analogues in Lithuania, was created after the implementation of Interreg V-A cross-border cooperation between Latvia and Lithuania in 2014-2020. the program project “Creation of World War I heritage tourist routes and expositions to increase visitor flows in the border region”. The aim of the project is to attract visitors to the Lithuanian-Latvian border region, using World War I heritage objects located in Augsdaugava and Zarasai districts.
A unique heritage of World War I fortifications
In the area where the educational route leads today, the front line was established during the First World War and was one of the most important points of resistance of Kaiser Germany in North-Eastern Lithuania. The German army concentrated here relied on Daugavpils and a large number of military forces were concentrated around it – about 40 thousand. soldiers in Zarasai (that was the name of Novoaleksandrovsk until 1919) and about 200 thousand. Soldiers of the Russian Imperial Army on the front lines.
The engineers who designed the fortifications recorded everything in detail because they believed that their experience would be useful in the future and would be described in military textbooks. Although there were typical requirements for fortification objects, the fortifications were actually unique, they were designed taking into account the terrain of the area, adapting the shapes of the corresponding buildings to it, so there are very few identical buildings. Each division had so-called pioneer teams, each of them designed and built their own fortifications at their deployment locations. Some buildings are included in the register of cultural heritage, and their valuable features are precisely the uniqueness of architectural objects – there are rarely or no duplicates among them”.
Artillery emplacements, observation posts, armories, trench strips….
On the Lithuanian side, there are about 40 interesting and valuable objects that are worth visiting, 30 of them are easily accessible by traveling along the route, to reach all of them – it is recommended to go with a guide. The fortifications are very diverse – they are observation posts, warehouses, very interesting artillery sites, of which there are at least several – one near Turmantas on the Latvian side, the other – a huge two-battery artillery site is in the village of Šakii. Along the route, you can see bunkers dug into the hills, as well as emplacements with partitions that protected the soldiers from enemy artillery. There is a surviving military hospital building next to the road, as well as at least a few German soldiers’ cemeteries with their original monuments still standing.
Although a lot of things have been destroyed in the course of economic activities, concrete parts of buildings have remained, winding chains of trenches can be seen fragmentarily, and in some places the entire fortification has been preserved, which is even more impressive when you know what it means and why it was installed in one place or another. The huge scale of trench strips can be understood especially on the Latvian side by examining the maps of that time.
57 km – in Lithuania, 42 km – in Latvia
The route extends 57 km on the territory of Lithuania, and 42 km on the Latvian side. It is very convenient for travelers to reach it, because on the Lithuanian side practically all the main objects are located near the roads, so you can travel both on foot and by any means of transport. Only by bus it is more difficult to pass the forest roads in some places, so you would have to leave them and walk to the fortifications on foot.
“There are at least several places where you can start the route, but we recommend that tourist groups in Lithuania start from Turmantas, from the primary school, where it is convenient to gather, besides, there is also an exposition dedicated to this route, which demonstrates everything that was achieved more than 100 years ago to collect and save the war battles that took place. A similar exposition dedicated to this stage of the history of the First World War can be viewed in the town of Medumi in Latvia.
The center of the route in Lithuania is the Turmantas borough, in Latvia the Medumi settlement
There are a lot of interesting things to see while traveling at a distance of 5 km, but you can also cover the entire 99 km. Since most of the facilities are accessible by road, the route can be modified in various ways depending on the needs of travelers and the type of vehicle they intend to travel with. A 40-50 km route is recommended for cyclists, and 10-20 km for walking. Most of the objects that are worth visiting on the Lithuanian side are concentrated in the territory of the Turmantas ward. The two main sections have already been established and have been tested by visitors – they are 10 km around Turmantas and about 12 km of an interesting eight-shaped route along the shores of Drūkšiai, Bestinis and Skirna lakes.
There are also surviving fortifications near Zarasai. A particularly interesting object is near the village of Smėlynė. On the Latvian side, in a village in Egypt, there is a Lutheran church, next to it there is a cemetery of German soldiers. The church itself was destroyed – it was hit by a shell during the First World War. On the Lithuanian side – the site of the unsurvived Smėlynė church, the old parsonage is still standing, and further on you can find the location of the command post of the 77th German division, which was located in the unsurvived Laukesa manor. After walking a little further, travelers will find at least a few fortifications on the Laukesa mound.
The rear of the front – soldiers’ homes for rest, entertainment and cemeteries
According to the historian, there are also interesting objects behind the former fortifications. During the First World War, the front passed through the entire territory of the current municipality of Zarasai and further, the territory of Latvia, to Daugavpils. The area was of great military importance due to the railway network. Turmantas is the first city in Lithuania to which, in 1862, after the construction of the St. Petersburg-Warsaw railway, the first train arrived. The railway line from Turmantas leads towards Daugavpils, turns there and continues towards Rokiškis. The route of this old railway was crossed by the “narrow” railway network installed by the Germans during the First World War.
The entire territory along the Daugava was marched by the Kaiser German forces. The forward positions of the Germans were about 5 km away from Zarasai towards Latvia, and the larger towns – Salakas, Novoaleksandrovsk and the estates of Stelmužė, Laukesa, Imbrado, Antazavė were used as part of the rear front. There, soldiers withdrawn from the front lines rested, wrote letters, a soldiers’ home was established, a theater, casino, brothels, etc. operated there. Dead soldiers were buried deeper in the rear.
Four cemeteries of German soldiers can be seen on the route, and in total there are more than ten of them in Zarasai municipality. Interesting, but harder to find, is the cemetery with the pilot’s grave (the Germans had built an airfield here). The cemetery of the 175th brigade of the 88th infantry division, which consisted of two infantry regiments, is also preserved in Šakiai village. The huge cemetery of the 88th division remains in Turmantas. They were destroyed during the Soviet years, and the huge monument to German soldiers standing there was transformed into a monument to Soviet soldiers who died during the Second World War. Since the old gravestones of German soldiers were found in modern times, there are plans to restore this cemetery in Turmantas.
Turmantas can be reached by train from Vilnius
Although the route Turmantas – Medumi – Zarasai can be visited independently – there are signs and information stands, but the organizers of the route recommend that you start planning it by contacting the Zarasai Tourism and Business Information Center, where you will get all the information, useful directions and advice, or use the services of guides. Also, with the help of the Zarasai Tourism and Business Information Center, you can organize meals and agree on other matters. services. For example, in Turmant you can order an educational game, an interpretation of the “escape room” adapted to the local color, – find the bunkers of Turmantas.
This route creates quite large opportunities for attracting visitors to the town of Turmantas, which nowadays has lost its long-established “city near the railway” function, when cargo warehouses were gathered here, and a certain logistics center was formed. It is hoped that the town can recover as an interesting attraction with the expansion of the range of tourism-related services in the long run. Especially since Turmantas is easily accessible by train from Ignalina, Švenčionėlii and Vilnius. In addition to the historical heritage of the First World War, the Turmantas ward is also interesting in other aspects – the southern border of the ward runs along the coast of the largest lake in Lithuania, Drūkšiai, and in the territory of the ward you can visit probably the cleanest lake in Lithuania, the water of which the locals still boldly use to quench their thirst and cook food.
The route Turmantas – Medumi – Zarasai – awaits hikers and vacationers
The international route is just gaining momentum, but even now excursions and hikes are constantly being organized. The expositions in Turmantas and Medumi are still being filled with newly found artefacts, the footpaths are not yet famous for the flow of visitors everywhere, so if you are ready to travel around Lithuania or Latvia – these regions can surprise you with unique objects, interesting knowledge of history and fun experiences of traveling in the land of lakes.
About the project. Zarasai Tourism and Business Information Center, together with its partners, the Augsdaugava District Municipality, prepared the project “Creation of World War I heritage tourist routes and expositions to increase the flow of visitors in the border region” (or “WWI ROUTE” for short, project No. LLI-501). The project is financed from 2014-2020. Interreg V-A cross-border cooperation programs of Latvia and Lithuania. The total project budget is EUR 731,450. 85 percent, i.e. 621,730 EUR, consists of the general financing of the European Regional Development Fund. The project is co-financed by the municipality of Zarasai district, allocating 15 percent to it. project funds. The project started in January 2021 and will be implemented until the end of March of 2023.