No Longer Under the Shadow of Vilnius, the Attractive City of Kaunas Lithuania is Ready for Her Close-Up!
By Rebecca Hay
Photos by A. Aleksandravicius
Sixty plus years have passed since the Soviet occupation of Kaunas in Lithuania. But images of a cold and hard life are difficult to shake off.
I am happy to report though that in 2020, Kaunas is a happy and vibrant city, with friendly locals who are putting their past hardships behind them and preparing for the biggest party ever to mark the awarded title of European Capital of Culture 2022.
The honor was bestowed upon Lithuania’s second city in 2017 and brought with it the chance for investment and opportunities to show off this grand East European gem.
No Longer in the Shadow
And there is plenty to show off. Fed up of being in the shadows of capital Vilnius, Kaunas is determined to exploit its history and impressive cultural links and bring in the tourists. They have come up with the catchy slogan “It’s Kaunastic,’’ featuring a cute and colorful cat as its emblem.
What better way to start than with a stroll down the tree-lined and majestic Laisvės Avenue, the longest pedestrianized street in Eastern Europe. Here you will see bustling shops and chic cafes and restaurants.
Accompanied by husband Kenny and children Ruaridh (12) and Flossie (10), we were on the hunt for our hotel for the three-day stay.
The Park Inn by Radisson is just off the main street, so in an ideal location for using your feet and the children were impressed to know, that they were staying in a hotel previously occupied by such greats as Robbie Williams and Sting.
The hotel was our first chance to experience the Kaunas hospitality and the staff at the reception were lovely and efficient and had us in our modern comforts room within minutes of our arrival.
With a small spa, handy restaurant, and sumptuous buffet breakfasts, we were happy.
And So, to Explore Kaunas
Between 1920 and 1939, Kaunas became the country’s temporary capital after Vilnius was seized by Poland. But when the fighting stopped, Vilnius regained its status as top dog and today is the main port of call for tourists visiting Lithuania.
Hopefully, the 2022 status will change all that and in the run-up to the event, there have been lots of festivals and events to entice locals on board.
Already well known for selling out concerts at its philharmonic orchestra and other cultural delights, the city has immersed itself in its heritage.
The city’s interwar architecture is regarded as amongst the finest examples of European Art Deco and Kaunas was the first city in Central and Eastern Europe to be designated as the UNESCO City of Design.
The way Kaunas transformed itself to meet European standards was incredible and the art deco buildings which remain today are a testament to that.
A 68-Building Heritage Trail
A heritage trail of 68 buildings dotted around the city gives the visitor a glimpse of the architecture on offer.
Some are in bad repair, but others have been lovingly looked after and the trail is fascinating, taking you from buildings such as the only brick mosque in The Baltics, known as The Tartar to the police headquarters, as well as some distinguished residential apartment blocks.
To vent their frustration during the years of Soviet occupancy, brave locals took to writing their feelings on the walls of buildings.
Many years later, this inspired artists to add color and one of the city’s most famous is Vytenis Jakas, who set up his own yard gallery and started drawing pictures of the Jewish families who lived in the same courtyard as he did.
Jakas is famous for The Pink Elephant, inspired by the words “love conquers all’’ and this along with 36 others including a huge caricature of The Wise Old Man, which was drawn on the side of a former footwear factory and can be seen for miles around, forms another trail.
There are also 13 statues or objects dotted around, including the insects of Vladislovas Starevicius, a stag beetle, ant, and grasshopper all together to mark the career of the pioneer of puppet animation, Zenonas Baranauskas.
Stuffed Animals and Birds
There are plenty of museums to visit too. The Zoological is one of the oldest in the country and the only one of its type in the Baltics and is full of well preserved stuffed animals and birds, shown in their native scenes and strangely fascinating.
Three Thousand Devils
Kaunas’ top museum for us was the Devil’s Museum, or, Žmuidzinavičius Museum. It is the only one of its kind in the world and full of, devils!
Initiated by prominent Lithuanian painter, public activist and professor Antanas Zmuidzinavicius, it started off as a challenge to collect 12 and once word spread, so did models and statues of devils from across the world, resulting in today’s collection of 260.
In 1966, the devils were handed over to the state and became so popular, that today the museum has 3,000 devils from Lithuania and 70 different countries across the world!
Trying out Old Instruments
It’s a quirky museum and the children especially loved it, as well as the fabulous Lithuanian folk music history museum where Ruaridh and Flossie spent their time trying out traditional instruments of all shapes, sizes, and materials listened to the country’s music and even had the chance to try out a beatbox and make their own songs!
M.K. Ciurlionis’s Paintings
Lithuania’s most famous composer and painter M K Ciurlionis, known for his abstract art, is celebrated in Kaunas’s national art museum with an exhibition of his finest works. Particularly impressive are his takes on the signs of the zodiac.
As with most places, walking around is the best way to see and Kaunas has a lovely old town, with the city hall in its central square, where you will find an interesting exhibition on the city and a chance to sample the view from the top of the building.
Famous Restaurant: Etno Dvaras
Rotuses Square is a lovely open space with fine architecture and the best place to find traditional Lithuanian restaurants.
Etno Dvaras has been officially certified by the Lithuanian Culinary Heritage Fund and specializes in hearty dishes such as potato dumplings and pancakes as well as delicious beetroot soup and tree cake, a sponge cooked over an open fire. The fruit teas and local beers are great too.
Just up from the square is the Lithuanian Pub Entry, which has devoted itself to reviving and fostering the traditions of interwar Lithuania.
The building is decked out in art deco and there is a special interwar menu where you can sample such delights as zander soup with crayfish tails and Pojarsky cutlet, chopped chicken rolled in ground pastry and served with peas, carrots, and fries.
Both restaurants were full when we visited and the staff was so proud that visitors were keen to try their local dishes. It is this spirit that will, I am sure help put Kaunas firmly on the tourist map!
Kaunas Tourist Information:
Park Inn by Radisson: radissonhotels.com
City tourism Website: visit.kaunas.lt/en
Rebecca Hay is an experienced travel writer and member of The British Guild of Travel Writers. Accompanied by husband Kenny and children, Ruaridh (12) and Flossie (10), the family love to explore new places and see countries through young and old eyes. Follow their adventures on Twitter and Instagram @emojiadventurer and on Facebook via EmojiAdventurers2.