Devout, defiant. The forest of crosses will never stop growing

This description of a unique tradition in a remote evergreen landscape won Sara Evans the Bradt/IoS travel writing competition

Simple wooden steps snake up the green hill. Countless Lithuanians have ascended before me. From towns and villages, they have travelled through the dense pine forests that typify central Lithuania's evergreen landscape to this small hill surrounded by fields. Once here, they have planted crucifixes. Thousands of them.

This is the hill of crosses. It is estimated that well over a hundred thousand crucifixes stand on this hillock. Rising up and over the top, they spill endlessly into the meadows below. Yet such are the numbers that they seem compressed, almost vacuum-packed. There can be nowhere else on earth where so many crosses can be found all in the one place. As if in holy gridlock, crosses, large and small, vie for space. Under large crucifixes, smaller ones are stacked high in unsteady piles. Off the arms of crosses hang yet more crucifixes, tiny and fragile, wedged tightly against each other like clothes on a sale rail. And, where a small tree or bush has managed to grow, crosses are draped off these too or planted under their boughs.

Criss-crossing through the crucifix tangle to the top of the hill, I am amazed by the sheer variety of crosses. Mass-produced, cheap plastic crosses are heaped next to those hand-crafted from oak, painstakingly engraved with scenes from local folklore. Impromptu crucifixes made from matchsticks, held together by chewing gum, have been placed against large mock-gold crosses that glitter brightly with fake rubies and emeralds.

It is as if a hatful of crucifixes had been dropped from the sky. There is no pattern to the way the crosses have been planted. Small or tall, cheap or expensive, kitsch or sublime, the crosses here are intermingled, jumble-sale style.

As I reach the top of the hill, the wind picks up and an eerie sort of music starts spinning around me. It's the sound of thousands of rosaries, hanging from crucifixes, singing like wind-chimes. There must be millions of beads here, sprinkled all over the hill in rainbow colours like hundreds and thousands on a cake.

As I make my way back down, the wind drops and it's cemetery-quiet. The statues here make mute company. Wooden angels perch child-like around the hill. Virgin Marys smile in their plastic shrines. Life-sized characters from Lithuanian legend stare forlornly on. Their silence travels with me until I reach the road at the end of the hill where the sound of traffic breaks their spell.

At the bus stop I sit and wait for my bus. After the hill and all its treasures, the fields either side of the road seem incredibly empty. An old lady arrives. Slowly, she sits down next to me. A big, black shawl, drawn tightly in, keeps her warm. A brown headscarf holds snow-white hair back from her face.

From a worn-looking bag, she takes out a flask and pours black tea into a little cup. Sipping the tea, she asks in quiet, broken English, if I have been to the hill of crosses. When I say that I have, she wants to know if I planted a cross.

"No, I'm not religious," I reply.

"You don't need to be," says the old lady, her English growing more confident. "Do you know of the hill, of its history?"

As I shake my head she, like a folktale babushka, tells me the story of the hill of crosses. I learn that the hill - once a site of pagan worship - has been, for many Lithuanians for hundreds of years, the focus of national defiance.

Crosses were first planted here after bloody uprisings against Tsarist rule. The tradition has continued into recent times, when Soviet purges killed and exiled thousands, the planted crosses representing fallen countrymen and an enduring commitment to a free Lithuanian state.

As my bus comes and leaves without me, I discover that, on at least three occasions, the hill of crosses has been bulldozed to the ground. Iron crucifixes were melted down. Wooden ones burned. After each razing though, Lithuanians kept coming back, risking their lives to plant their freedom crosses.

Then, with the fall of the Soviet empire, came independence for Lithuania. The hill of crosses was left alone. Today, crosses are still planted on the hill. People travel not just from the Baltics, but from all over the world to add their cross, their own mark of respect. As another bus arrives, I thank the old lady for sharing the story with me.

On the hill I had been beguiled by the outpouring of religious eccentricity, but I was just seeing and not understanding. I should have planted my own cross. I should have acknowledged, like thousands of others, that inside this small Lithuanian hill lives the spirit of a people as strong as a mountain.

The Winner

Sara Evans (centre), the winner of the IoS/Bradt Travel Guides travel-writing competition, receives her award from Hilary Bradt (left), founder and managing director of Bradt Travel Guides, and Douglas Schatz (right), managing director of Stanfords, at a party at the travel bookshop in Covent Garden, London.

Ms Evans, who lives in Ely, Cambridgeshire, and edits an education website, wrote her piece on the theme of "If Only I Had Known". Ms Evans said, "I'd like to expand my travel writing, but it is a very competitive area. Winning this prestigious competition is a positive step." Her work was chosen from a shortlist of six by Douglas Schatz, who described it as "capturing one of those moments of personal enlightenment that travel often offers". She wins a week for two in Slovenia, courtesy of Just Slovenia.

The other shortlisted entrants were: John Carter of Bromley, Jacki Harris of Oregon, Tim Skelton of Eindhoven, Chris Smaje of Frome and Sally Watts of London.

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