The 555-sq-km Dzūkija (dzoo-ki-ya) National Park (Lithuania’s largest) is a nature-lover’s paradise. Four-fifths of it is swathed in pine forest, cover for 48 lakes. The Ūla and Grūda Rivers, perfect for a days’ canoeing, flow through it, and an abundance of mushrooms and berries grow here during the season.
Cycling is a wonderful way to explore the park, and bikes can easily be hired in Druskininkai, in season. The tourist information centre also has excellent free maps for cyclists. There are two visitor centres, at Marcinkonys and Merkinė.
In addition to natural reserves, the Park houses ethnographic and cultural reserves, plus protected villages such as Zervynos and Liškiava. Merkinė, 10km further down the Nemunas River, is the starting point for a 12km black potters’ trail around workshops where pots as black as soot are made from red clay. The extraordinary colour comes from pine-wood resin fired with the pot in an outdoor kiln.
Falling just outside the boundaries of the park, 22km northeast of Marcinkonys and 58km northeast of Druskininkai, is Varėna (www.varena.lt). Founded in the 15th century when Grand Duke Vytautas built a hunting lodge here, it is the birthplace of noted Lithuanian painter and composer MK Čiurlionis. The main road (A4) leading from Varėna to Druskininkai is lined with sculpted wooden ‘totem’ poles and sculptures, erected in 1975 in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of his birth.