It is hard to believe today that Lithuania (Lietuva) was once the largest country in Europe and controlled a vast empire that stretched from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south. Under Grand Duke Gediminas, who ruled from 1316 to 1341, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania gained control of Rus (predecessor of Russia) and ruled over large portions of present-day Belarus, Ukraine and parts of modern Poland and Russia. In 1385, Grand Duke Jogaila accepted Christianity and the following year, he was also crowned King of Poland, extending Lithuania's influence even further.

Although the union between Lithuania and Poland dissolved in 1401, the two nations remained allies and in 1410 achieved a monumental victory at the Battle of Grunwald over the Prussian Teutonic Knights. In 1569, the two nations formally reunited as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, but both entities retained many sovereign powers. By the 18th century, however, the Commonwealth had come under the domination of the Russian tsars and, after a series of partitions, Lithuania lost 90% of its territory, including the city of Vilnius, mostly to Russia (with some western territory going to Prussia).

The 20th century continued to be largely unkind to Lithuania. Although the country declared independence in 1918, there were territorial disputes with Poland over Vilnius and with Germany over the Baltic port city of Klaipeda. These disputes, however, were soon overshadowed by the Soviet Union's 1940 occupation of the country pursuant to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, followed by German occupation during which up to 300,000 Lithuanians, mostly Jews, were killed in urban ghettos and Nazi death camps. After World War II, the Soviet Union re-occupied Lithuania and brought with it Soviet style repression under which an estimated 200,000 Lithuanians were killed or deported to Siberia. Further bloodshed came in 1953 when tens of thousands of Lithuanian freedom fighters (known as "forest brothers") were massacred by Soviet forces.

On March 11, 1990, Lithuania became the first Soviet republic (and the first of the Baltic states) to proclaim independence from the USSR. The Soviet Union resisted and matters simmered until January 10, 1991 when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev ordered Red Army troops to seize key government buildings. On January 13, Soviet tanks and troops surrounded the Vilnius TV tower, killed 14 civilians and wounded many others. After widespread condemnation by the West, the Soviet Union finally recognized Lithuanian independence on September 6, 1991 (the same day it also recognized independent Estonia and Latvia).

Shortly after independence, Lithuania had the economic problems (particularly inflation and outdated infrastructure) common to countries moving from a command economy to a market economy. Before long, however, the economy started growing rapidly. Today Lithuania has the largest economy (by a sizable margin) among the Baltic countries. In 2004, it became a member of both the European Union and NATO.

I spent a few days in Lithuania in May 2006. Driving from Latvia, I first spent a night in Nida, on Neringa (the Lithuanian portion of the Curonian Spit), a small sliver of land that juts into the Baltic Sea along Lithuania's western coast near the port city of Klaipeda. Next I drove east toward the capital, stopping at the castle town of Trakai for a brief visit along the way. Then, I stayed for two nights in Vilnius. In retrospect, I wish I'd had more time to devote to Vilnius. Due to the short time – and some uncooperative weather – I missed a lot of the historic sites in the city. But, I guess that just means I will have to return some day!