When the low-cost airlines took off (sorry), it gave me the opportunity to visit some places that I’d always wanted to visit – and also some that I hadn’t; places such as Kaunas.
Kaunas was to be my first destination to the Baltic States, simply because it was the only place in that part of the world that I could fly to from my regional airport at the time. So, in the summer of 2012 I took off from Bristol not really knowing what to expect, so before I completely lose my marbles, here is an account of what I remember.
Kaunas is the second largest city in Lithuania with an urban population around the 400,000 mark, so it’s not surprising that we landed in the country’s second largest airport.
What did surprise me though was that it was so warm it was like arriving in Spain – and it was 10 o’clock at night.
I usually try to use public transport where possible, but on this occasion, I just jumped in a cab which took me directly to the hotel, which although it was called the Ibis Kaunas Centre, wasn’t quite in the city centre but convenient all the same.
The following morning, I was pleased to see the sun shining, and so after breakfast I didn’t waste any time in making my way past the Orthodox Church of the Annunciation to Laisves aleja.
Laisves aleja (Freedom Avenue) is the main shopping street in Kaunas, and it wasn’t far to walk to from the hotel.
The first thing that I came across was the Church of St. Michael the Archangel, which looked as though it should be Kaunas Cathedral – but it wasn’t.
On closer inspection I could see that it needed a good lick of paint so I guessed that it wasn’t as important as I first thought.
Even so, I decided to go in because I’ve always liked the architecture of Russian Orthodox churches. This one also had some neo-Byzantine columns which made it slightly different, but if I’m being honest the interior of this 19th century building was a bit of a let-down, mainly due to its chequered history; Over time, it was a garrison church for Russian, German and Lithuanian troops and then closed down by the Soviets until Lithuanian independence in 1991 restored it as a Catholic church.
Freedom Avenue is a pleasant pedestrianised shopping street that runs for over a mile: It has two rows of Linden trees which reminded me a bit of Unter den Linden in Berlin, although obviously not so grand.
Shopping streets are not my thing in England, let alone Lithuania, and so I didn’t waste too much time along here. There was a fountain half way along which tends to be a meeting point, and which I needed to look out for, and at the western end of the street is a monument to a national hero, Vytautus the Great, the Grand Duke of Lithuania during the 14th and 15th centuries.
Freedom Avenue leads to Vilnius Street and the Old Town, which is much more interesting for people like me, and if Freedom Avenue can be regarded as the main street in the New Town, then Vilnius St can be regarded as its counterpart in the Old Town.
Like Freedom Avenue, it is also pedestrianised, but the buildings are generally much older, some dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries including the real Kaunas Cathedral Basilica.
Many of these old buildings are put to good use for the modern age with plenty of bars and restaurants on offer.
The centrepiece of Kaunas Old Town is the Town Hall Square, and the centrepiece of Old Town Square is – you’ve guessed it – the Town Hall. This graceful, white Baroque 16th century building is affectionately called the ’White Swan’ and it’s easy to see why.
Over the years it’s had a multitude of uses, some more acceptable than others, but today it’s used as a ‘Palace of Weddings’, which seems to me to be very appropriate, not only because of its appearance, but also because of its proximity to the confluence of the Neris and Nemunas rivers, which I’ll be coming to in a minute.
At the far end of the square is an attractive collection of buildings including Holy Trinity Church.
The seminary buildings here were recognised as the most important Catholic learning establishments in the country, and one of its most famous sons was Pastor Jonas Maciulis Maironis: A writer of patriotic poetry, his statue stands in front of the 18th century house where he lived, and which is now the Maironis Museum of Lithuanian Literature.
On the other side of these buildings on a slightly raised piece of land is Kaunas Castle.
Near to the confluence of the rivers Nemunas and Neris, Kaunas Castle is the oldest historical building in the city, dating from the 13th century. It has to be said though that not much of the original stone building has survived, and Lithuania’s tendency to restore buildings to something like their original appearance is something I’m not all that sure about.
It’s not difficult to see why a castle was built where the two rivers converge. Under constant threat from the Teutonic Knights, the castle saw its fair share of action, but as the threat from the Teutonic Order waned, so did the importance of the castle.
Flood damage added to its demise, and eventually it was just abandoned until reconstruction started in 2010.
The castle stands above Confluence Park which leads down to where the two rivers merge, and for all you romantics out there you may be interested to know that Neris is a feminine noun in Lithuanian and Nemunas is masculine. After the male and female rivers join, they never split up and the confluence has now become a romantic site for newlywed couples; so, I shouldn’t have been surprised to find a young couple being photographed frolicking around in the river when I arrived.
Overlooking all this at the top of the park is a large statue of Pope John Paul II who attracted a huge crowd here back in 1993, but it was my intention to perhaps get an even better view of everything by taking the Aleksotas Funicular which was located on the other side of the Nemunas.
To get there I made my way over to the Vytautus the Great Bridge via the House of Perkunas, a fine building constructed during the 15th century for merchants of the Hanseatic League.
I like bridges, all sorts of bridges, which is just as well because I had time to have a closer look at this one as the funicular was unexpectedly closed.
The bridge, connecting the Old Town with Aleksotas, is not particularly attractive, which is understandable when you consider that the original was destroyed in WWII and replaced by the Soviets in 1948.
I noticed that the Hammer and Sickle symbols were daubed with yellow paint, but it wasn’t until I got home that I found out that it’s one of the few reminders of the Soviet period that still remain in Kaunas, and still a bone of contention for some that they’re still here.
I’d covered as much ground as I needed to for one day, and as I had a pre-arranged meeting this evening, I made tracks back to the hotel for a bit of a scrub up.
At the time, I was a member of a group called Couchsurfers, which was essentially a group of travellers who opened their doors to anyone who belonged to the group. It was a good idea but I have to admit I was a bit of a fraud because I never couchsurfed once, but it did enable me to meet people abroad if I was on my own, and greet people from elsewhere when back at home.
I wasn’t sure how many people would turn up at the Fountain in Freedom Avenue, but word must have got around because when I arrived, only Evelina, the organiser, had turned up.
She was a young lady in her twenties, and I was an older man well past his sell-by date, and so I did the honourable thing and gave her the opportunity to call the whole thing off, but she wasn’t having any of it. As far as she was concerned, I was a guest in her country and she was going to make sure that she didn’t let her country down.
Between us, we decided to go to a restaurant called Berniliu Uzeiga, which literally means ‘Shepherd’s Inn’.
The choice couldn’t have been better, because I wanted to try some local food and this traditional rustic sort of place was ideal.
The waitresses were dressed in national costume, and so it was a bit kitsch, but it was a lovely old building, with a good selection of Lithuanian food and beer, good service – and cheap.
I ordered some Kepta Duona, which is a plate of fried black bread sticks served with cheese and garlic mayonnaise which we shared, and very moreish if you like savoury snacks.
Evelina turned out to be the perfect host and told me a lot of things about Lithuania I couldn’t have got from guidebooks, and I’d like to think that she also learnt a little bit about where I came from.
After a convivial few hours we went our separate ways, which for me, meant going back to the hotel to get ready for my trip to Vilnius the next day, and hoping that it would be as successful as the one I’d just had in Kaunas.