If this feels more like a promo than a proper feature, that’s because I think it’s a great project that deserves support.
I first visited remote Antaliepte in north eastern Lithuania in 2017, then went again in 2018. Both times I was the guest of a team of idealistic young people who are developing ‘Innovators Valley’ in the grounds of an abandoned Carmelite monastery.
The isolated village of Antaliepte (population 300) sits within the Grazutes (The Beauty) nature park, where the rivers Savasa and Sventoja meet in the Utena region of Northern Lithuania, close to the borders with Belarus and Latvia. It is an area of lakes and hills and forests haunted by history, where beavers and birds of prey abound.
Dating back to the 16th century, Antaliepte owes its name to the many bridges crossing local steams and rivers, and its existence to the establishment of a monastery by Discalced (barefoot) Carmelite monks sponsored by rich local families. Remnants of the area’s not so distant pagan past can still be found in the forests.
The 13 hectares of land around the dilapidated monastery buildings beside the Church of the Holy Cross which dominates the village, have been taken over by the National Institute of Social Integration www.zmogui.lt/en/. This Vilnius-based non-governmental organisation promotes social entrepreneurship and ecological initiatives, and awarded me a Fellowship in 2015 for my work over the years with their Media4Change www.media4change.co/ project.
The Innovators Valley scheme has brought fresh life to the village and the monastery grounds, echoing its past role as a centre for meditation, learning and creativity.
What was once in a brewhouse run by soldiers of the Czar has been transformed into a residential training centre by volunteers and local crafts people. The Medus House has been used by visiting artists, historians, and writers as well as hundreds of young people attending a wide variety of training sessions. It once also served as a school dormitory, a museum and the village dance hall. And at one time it was a convent laundry.
Each of the bedrooms is named after human rights heroes from around the world. On my last visit I was put up in the Anne Frank room, craftily hidden behind a bookcase. From the window I could see the stepped wooden platform sitting on the hillside that overlooks the site.
NISI Director Neringa Jurciukonyte explains why they built it there. “It felt like a place of calm and contemplation. We liked to sit there. Only later did we discover this was where the monks had set up their first wooden chapel.”
Behind it a natural amphitheatre has become an archery range, flanked on one side by beehives and other other by an arena for horse riding.
Volunteers are gradually revitalising the complex of buildings that now cover the site where the small community of monks set about building their home almost 300 years ago.
The original monastery was completed by 1734 but by the end of the century it had become unfit for habitation and was replaced by a larger building. Later a baroque church was built, connected by tunnels to the monastery, whose founders are buried in the crypt.
The Carmelites left in 1832 and the monastery was eventually taken over by an order of Orthodox nuns. By then Antaliepte was twice its current size, and a largely Jewish community many of whom found work at the reopened convent and its substantial grounds. Some were artisans and traders, though most lived in poverty. The local Rabbi earned a living by selling religious goods.
In 1905 residents of the village joined in the revolutionary fervour against the rule of the Russian Czar, but the German occupation during World War I radically changed the area. The nuns left and the old monastery became the German military headquarters.
When the War ended and Lithuania declared its independence villagers formed a Bolshevik council. The water-powered flour mill, and a steam-powered dairy were supplemented by a fish factory and the first government store for fish.
By 1924 Antaliepte had its own hydro-electric power station linked to a celebrate chain of lakes, and the monastery, now in the hands of the Holy Heart of Jesus Congregation of Roman Catholic nuns, had added a school and vocational training units. Emigration had greatly reduced the Jewish population, although the village still had a Hebrew school in 1937.
In 1940 Lithuania was annexed by the Soviet Union but the following year the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union. No sooner had the Germans reached Antaliepte than local Jews were rounded up and suffered torture and hard labour, often at the hands of Lithuanian militia and peasant farmers.
In August 1941, all the surviving Jews from the surrounding area, 2,569 men, women and children, were taken to the Paziemiai forest and executed. A few escaped with help from Lithuanian neighbours.
The grim periods of the area’s past are being replaced by the positive activities brought to the village by NISI and its partners. With some funding from the European Union the fishponds in the monastery grounds have been regenerated. Volunteers have created performance areas, and recreated an avenue of Linden trees which locals once knew as ‘Love Alley’.
Bees are once again producing honey on the hillside above the Medus House, and the monastery gardens are again growing fruit and vegetables.
This remarkable programme of renewal is all thanks to the efforts of young Lithuanians. Neringa says “We hope our efforts will not only revive Antaliepte as a thriving centre for ecotourism, but encourage new generations of activists, artists and social entrepreneurs to transform Lithuanian society.”
Contributions from artist and crafts people are evident throughout Innovators’ Valley – wooden sculptures, wooden wash basins, the unique interior design of the Medus House, and the benches and frames that dot the grounds highlighting the many photogenic views.
Heavy duty equipment has been installed in the basement of the Monastery so young people from the cities can learn woodworking and other skills which both help to restore the premises and should give them job opportunities and keep them out of trouble.
As the old monastery building is gradually brought back into use there is room to house large numbers of visitors – from those coming for summer music festivals to young people taking part in vocational training and therapeutic workshops. The spartan conditions and antique atmosphere give the place a special charm which has attracted volunteers and visitors from across Europe and beyond.