Lithuania, one of the Baltic States, has had a rich and turbulent history. Until 1990 it was part of the USSR and was the first former Soviet republic to declare its independence. While many tourists head to the capital Vilnius, I visited the fascinating second-city of Kaunas. It’s emerging from a long and sometimes troubled history as a positive and forward-looking destination. That’s one reason why it’s been awarded European Capital of Culture for 2022. Citizens of this city of 300,000 people are proud of their distinctive food, folklore and music.
Kaunus’ city centre is in two distinct parts. There’s the quaint Old Town that you see on the tourism websites, with its pink, yellow and cream buildings set around cobbled streets and a red-brick castle. But I think the New Town offers the most unique experience. When I say ‘new,’ it’s approaching 100 years of age.
My tour guide Linas Žabaliūnas started by taking me to the top of a steep hill, across the river and overlooking the city. You can also take a short funicular railway to the hilltop here, or you can ride a similar cliff-railway in the New Town. The trains were installed in the inter-war era to encourage settlement of the outer suburbs. High up on the ridge, in the distance, are the brutal, functional, communist-era high rises. The New Town extends from those hills down towards the Old Town in the middle distance.
From our vantage point we could make out a V-shaped piece of land – a peninsular – where the Neris and the Neman rivers meet. It is easy to see how this sliver of land would have been easier to defend from attackers. That’s why it was chosen for the castle, which was first mentioned in 1361, and the surrounding Old Town.
Linas exlained that a brick fortress replaced the initial wooden structure and you can see part of this today. The most striking part is the castle’s round tower with its steep, pointed, red-tile roof. There’s been some reconstruction over the years. “It really suffered badly from river flooding and that’s why today we only have the southern defensive wall and there’s nothing in the front, just the towers in the southeast and southwest corners,” Linas told me. “They are different. The southwest tower is square and is an old-fashioned style. The other one was reconstructed with a round shape.” Linas told me the castle was never a royal residence. The King of Lithuania would not have lived there. It was a fortress for the town’s people where they could defend themselves.
Kaunus first found wealth as part of the Hanseatic League, a powerful trading block that lasted from the Middle Ages until the early Victorian period. It enabled commerce between Prussia, northern European and the Baltic countries. The city became a centre for trading wax, which was a valuable commodity.
Linas beckoned me to follow him across the vast, stone-paved market square where he pointed down to a glass-covered sunken space. When I peered into the hole I could see the kiln, which was used in wax production. This immense square would have been filled with the merchants who made Kaunas wealthy. The city made them stay for three nights and they could only sell wholesale to local retailers. That was a stroke of genius.
The square’s centrepiece is the old hall, which was rebuilt in the 18th century. Its slim white tower rises up in six tiers, rather like a tall wedding cake, and it’s nicknamed The Swan, due to its graceful appearance.
At the other side of this plaza is the cathedral. “It’s a magnificent Baroque building,” enthused Linas. “The construction took nearly 200 years. You can see amazing gothic brickwork, but by the time they finished it, the fashion was for Baroque.” Lithuania was the furthest northern boundary of the Baroque architectural style. Unfortunately during the Second World War the cathedral lost one of its two towers, when the city was bombed.
We headed back through the stone-surfaced lanes and stood in the castle moat, which is obviously now dry. On July 6th each year, this grassy mound is the setting for an opera to mark’s Lithuania’s Statehood Day. The country’s only king, Minadaugas, was crowned on that date in 1253. Locals, proud of their newly regained independence, mark this historic milestone.
Lithuania has been occupied many times. All attempts to extinguish strong nationalist views have failed, though. The Russian Tsar occupied the nation throughout the 19th century and tried to kill off the language. Linas took me to see a sculpture by the artist Juozas Zikaras, which shows a 19th-century peasant smuggling banned Lithuanian language books from printing presses located in Prussia, just across the river. “Most of the schools were closed so younger generations could not be taught in Lithuanian. You could only print books in Cyrillic script,” Linas explained. Visitors can still view remnants of a century of Russian rule, including some of the impressive defensive forts that once encircled the city.”
There was an interesting quirk of Russian rule. Crossing the river, “would take weeks,” Linas told me. I was intrigued, so he took me to an Old Town street overlooking the fast-flowing river where a bridge once stood. It linked Kaunas, then part of the Russian empire, with Prussia on the other side. “It was considered the longest bridge on earth because the journey from one side to the other took nearly two weeks. That’s because Russia used the Julian calendar but Prussia, at the opposite end of the bridge, followed the Gregorian dates.”
In 1919 Lithuania gained independence and that lasted for around 20 years. The capital, Vilnius, was occupied by Poland, so Kaunas became the seat of power and they started erecting buildings worthy of a capital city. “It was the capital of a young country that wanted to make a showcase,” said Linas. “They were building quickly and beautifully, with love and care.” It resulted in the New Town, filled with the Modernist architecture that was fashionable at the time. Kaunas still has one of the highest concentrations in the world of this style of building.
I set off towards the New Town, walking from the Old Town, down the wide, pedestrianized, tree-lined shopping street that links these two sides of the city. It’s topped by the huge and impressive St Michael the Archangel’s Church, now Roman Catholic but built in the Russian Orthodox style, with five blue domes. You’ll find the main chain stores, restaurants, street musicians and fountains along this avenue’s two-kilometre length.
Journalist and writer Rytis Zemkauskas told me, “It’s always been called the ‘Avenue of Freedom’ in all the different regimes. Every government wanted to rename it and every time they failed.” Rytis also explained the inspiration for the city planners. “During the interwar period, Kaunas looked upon itself as ‘Little Paris.’ This boulevard was modelled on a wide Parisian Boulevard.”
Art historian Virginija Vitkienė will be highlighting the New Town’s architecture during the upcoming European Capital of Culture year. “During the 20’s and 30’s, 6,000 new Modernist style buildings were put up in the city. In the European context it’s one of the biggest Modernist heritage sites,” she told me. Modernist architecture made use of new 20th century building materials like reinforced concrete and steel. The buildings were sometimes stark and without the decoration and trimmings of the past.
Local blogger Kotryna Lingiai is a fan. The Modernist style incorporated sleek lines and curves. It was a break from the detail and decoration seen on older buildings. “A small team of eight architects worked quickly to create the New Town,” she told me, “and that’s why there’s so many of these structures. They are fascinating and beautiful, particularly the round shapes of the corners and the balconies.”
Kaunus’ Central Post Office is one of the best examples, with its curved concrete walls and criss-cross windows on all four of its storeys. If you’ve seen the movie Metropolis, you’ll know the style. Inside, the tiled floor features a design used in local weaving.
As a capital city, Kaunas was home to diplomats, government officials and academics. Then the Second World War broke out, the Nazi’s invaded, followed by Lithuania falling behind the iron curtain of the Soviet Union. Rytis explained how Communism changed Kaunas massively. “Kaunas was the capital. The country’s intelligentsia was here. We had businesses and military forces. But the years following the war hit the city badly. Many upper class people were killed or they faced deportation,” Rytis explained.
Under Soviet rule, teachers, intellectuals and the clergy were considered enemies of the state and many were sent to labour camps. Rytis took me inside the abandoned upper floors of the Central Post Office. We walked down deserted corridors and into bare high-ceilinged offices, all with beautiful, golden parquet floors. We went a further two floors up, on the sturdy concrete stairs, and then up a narrower wooden staircase to the top floor, our footsteps echoing in the silent, empty space. Up here the building showed signs of decay. The paint was peeling, the ceiling was sagging and cracks were apparent. Finally, we reached a tiny office.
“This was where Russian officials jammed Western radio signals,” Rytis said in a rather matter-of-fact way. “The KGB people would sit here and interfere with foreign radio broadcasts. Wives of Soviet officers and generals would do it,” he added. Next door was a tiny, gloomy room dominated by cheap bookshelves filled with Russian language paperbacks. “This was the library,” explained Rytis. “It was boring to sit and listen to the BBC World Service and Voice of America, so they used to read.”
I was surprised that all of the reading material was still there, untouched since the last Russian troops left in 1993. Lithuania was the first country to declare its independence from the Soviet Union in 1990, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Looking out of the small library window, across the city, I realised that secret police would have surveyed this same scene within living memory.
Rytis pointed out another striking modernist building – a tall white structure on a hilltop overlooking the town. “Christ’s Resurrection Church is always visible above the central part of the city,” he told me. “During the Soviet regime it was converted into a factory building.” They turned this impressive place of worship into a radio factory. The building is a work of art. The main body of the church looks like two, white rectangular boxes. From a distance, with its many tall, narrow, grille-like windows, the building has the appearance of a brilliant white radiator. Its 70m high, square tower shoots up skywards. The Soviets removed the cross on the top, but that’s now been restored.
The Soviets were anti-religion, so Lithuanian worshippers went underground. “Religion was practised in enclosed communities, or in smaller towns, or by elderly people who had already retired,” Linas explained. He took me to the St George Church next to the castle. It’s a tragedy that this beautiful medieval building was confiscated by the Soviets for use as a storeroom. “This church was magnificent inside before the Second World War,” said Linus, as he pointed to some of the old black and white photographs that lined the church walls. It is a wonder that they had not curled up. The cold, damp atmosphere was chilling. “It’s also an example of how the Soviet-era could destroy the heritage and the extent to which that was done. It was closed and used as a warehouse for medical supplies.”
This was another building in a terrible state inside, with plaster falling off the walls and exposed masonry. The slow process of restoration was underway and luckily, a worker had the foresight to protect the beautiful frescos from his Soviet masters. “Someone covered up the wall paintings. You see these wooden boards – somebody nailed them and blankets up to protect the frescos. It might be possible to restore them,” said Linas.
The USSR has gone, but keep your eyes peeled for references to their 45-year rule. Whilst walking across the Market Square, Linas stopped to point out a drain cover marked with the letters ‘CCCP.’ There’s no museum dedicated to this period of Kaunas’ past but there is a Cold War remnant – a nuclear bunker. “During this period everybody was getting ready for a nuclear attack. At school we had to do training every year and learn how to put a gas mask on. Everybody had to know how to get to the nearest shelter,” Linas told me. “In one factory they restored the bunker and you can visit it today and see what it looked like.”
When the USSR fell and Lithuania gained independence, most of the statues of the Soviet era were removed, sometimes to cheering crowds. In the New Town you’ll find the Liberty Statue – a symbol of Lithuanian statehood. The winged woman stands on top of a tall, pink plinth. The sculpture was first erected in 1928 when Kaunas was independent. It was torn down by Stalin but returned to its original position in 1990.
As you walk around the New Town there are quite a few buildings that haven’t been well maintained. The property was state-owned in Soviet days, when the government repaired the buildings, but things changed after the regime ended. Linas explained, “When the Soviets took control they seized homes and divided them up for many families to share. When we declared our independence, they were sold off. It meant that buildings could belong to eight different families. Now it’s very hard for everybody to reach agreement on what to do with the house – whether to paint it or repair the roof. That’s why so many buildings are not in the best shape right now.”
Another problem is that there really isn’t much demand for property. Since Lithuania joined the EU, thousands of residents have left to work in other countries. There are a number of empty shops in the town centre, but you don’t see vandalism or graffiti. The unoccupied units are just neatly vacant, ready for the next occupants to move in. One day. Rytis says that the mood of the city has changed as people have left. “It’s becomes more soft as it becomes emptier. They even had to decrease the number of policemen. It is very safe.”
There’s another sad side to the Kaunas story. Before Nazi occupation, the city had a sizeable Jewish population. The Capital of Culture year will reflect on the massacre of this community. Virginija told me, “We had about 40,000 people in Kaunas in 1939. That was one quarter of the city’s population at that time. During the Nazi period we lost 95% of them.”
There’s a memorial at the fortress built by the Russians, the Ninth Fort. Kotryna told me that this was the Holocaust site, where thousands of people died. “The memorial was built in the 1980s. It’s very touching and an important place to see. It’s a peaceful place now, with a really big park to walk around and think about what happened here seventy years ago.”
Kotryna and her husband Kęstas write a cultural blog called Kaunastic. They’ve also created a map, which shows some of the key Jewish sites from around the city, including the former Jewish bank. “We marked some existing houses, where important people lived or worked or where the streets named after them are now. The best place to start is a house that used to be the Japanese consulate, before the Second World War. The vice consul, working with a Dutch diplomat, issued more than 6,000 life visas for Jewish people to escape the Holocaust. He saved thousands of lives.”
Lithuanians are proud of their rich and distinct culture and the Folk Music Museum really does help you appreciate how different the nation’s cultural roots are. It’s a hi-tech and interactive visitor centre. As soon as you walk in you will end up performing. Every step you take on the stairs plays a musical note. After using my feet to create a tune, I was encouraged to pick up and play any of the instruments lining the walls. Some were familiar, others completely alien to me.
Lithuanian wooden trumpets look a little like a short didgeridoo. And there’s a room devoted to the national instrument, a type of zither. It’s called a kanklės and its size and shape varies according to the part of the country it’s from. There are examples of each sort.
I was fascinated by the polyphonic singing called sutarine, which is popular in the North East of Lithuania. Three or more singers sing the same words and music at different times. There’s a video display, which follows the music and then splits the screen in three so you can see whether you can do it.
Part of the exhibition is devoted to field music – instruments used by shepherds. There are clay whistles, beautifully fashioned into the shape of animals such as birds, goats and horses, and cattle bells. When I said the pipe reed reminded me of Middle Eastern music, I was quickly corrected. “Middle Eastern music sounds like Lithuanian music,” my guide laughed.
I was impressed at the sound of the panpipes fashioned out of one of the world’s worst invasive plant species – Japanese knotweed! I got a musical demonstration. Lithuanians don’t play panpipes like South Americas do. Instead a group of four or five people will play together in a group, one pipe per player, although the leader will use two.
Another interesting aspect of local folklore is the depiction of the devil. Although the Soviets tried to suppress religion, they were keen to encourage folk stories. Virginija told me, “They didn’t allow religion but the devil was part of our folk traditions. Folk songs and celebrations were far away from Christian traditions and they preferred them.”
The city even has a Devil Museum. I’d not come across one of those before. It’s a collection of locally-carved stone and wooden figures and Satan statues from all over the world. There are over 3,000 displayed behind glass, on three floors. Virginija explained, “The museum is next door to what was the private house of a famous Lithuanian painter Antanas Žmuidzinavičius. He was very important in the interwar period. He started to collect those small devil sculptures after receiving one as a present.”
Some of the overseas sculptures were terrifying, whilst many of the local ones were more comical. “It’s our folk culture, folklore and tradition. Our Devil is a comic character and is reflected as a stupid guy. If you’re brave enough, you can make some fun of him,” she smiled.
You will notice some large street art displays around the city. Virginija told me that locals were initially suspicious thinking it was vandalism. That changed in 2007 when a local graffiti artist started creating murals. “Opinion changed a lot and now you can count about twenty nice murals around the city. We also have a permanent festival of street art,” Virginija told me.
Just outside the castle, Linas pointed across a busy main road to indicate one of these works of art. A rather bland looking building has been brought to life with a large, vibrant image of an Einstein-like figure, puffing on a pipe. “They wanted to symbolise the wisdom of the town. This man has no shoes. It’s a reminder of the purpose of the building – it was a shoe factory.” Many statues and sculptures have been placed around the city. I laughed at one large metal installation with the inscription “In this place on May 11th 2014 nothing particular happened.”
Here’s something else that I had not expected in Kaunas. The city is passionate about basketball. It’s on a par with rugby in New Zealand or football in Manchester. It was introduced in the 1930’s when US players coached local kids. Kaunas’ club was successful from the start and it’s generated quite a following. Linas had told me, “Through basketball we could legally beat the USSR Red Army club. That was something which would make the whole city stop and celebrate.”
I walked across a bridge from the Old Town to an island in the river, which is home to the impressive 15,000-seat Žalgirio Arena. I asked Žalgiris Basketball Club President Paulius Motiejunas how he would rate Lithuania in terms of ability and proficiency in the world of basketball? “Lithuania is fourth in the world at the moment and second in Europe, according to the FIBA rankings.”
“Lithuanians are quite tall. Does that help?” I asked. Paulius laughed, “As soon as we see a guy is tall, we take him to the basketball school and tell him he’s going to be a basketball player. That’s how all these guys start as professionals!” The Kaunas players are household names here, like British Premier League football stars. If you fancy taking in a game make sure you visit at the right time. “Our season starts at the beginning of October and ends in April. Every other week has a home game. You should come for the atmosphere,” said Paulius.
There are lots of good places to eat in Kaunas. On my first night I headed to a Lithuanian restaurant – Berneliu Uzeiga – near the castle in Old Town. The staff were all wearing national dress and the décor appeared quite Alpine, with its wooden beams and flowers. They were serving a meat and mushroom stew, using a loaf of bread as the bowl. I started with marinated herring and then enjoyed pike fillet in cream sauce. The delicious main course cost just €5!
Next day, I headed to a New Town for lunch at Višta Puode. The restaurant name means ‘chicken in the pot.’ Guess which ceramic birds decorate its shelves? It consists of three separate restaurants in one – there’s a dining room for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
I started with a seasonal freshwater fish, caught from the river, called vimba. It looked like herring and came with a delicious, thick, creamy mushroom sauce. I asked owner Egidijus Trumpa whether this could be considered a local restaurant. “Lithuanian and Nordic I’d say,” was his reply.
I also tried the local favourite, a thick, cold beetroot soup made with salted yoghurt. It was bright pink and looked like Gaviscon, but tasted delicious.
I nervously sipped another popular Kaunas offering, gira – a fermented fruit bread drink. It looks like cold, milky coffee but when you look closely there are soggy croutons and bits of dried fruit inside. “It is not alcoholic unless you leave it for a long time and then it ferments,” Linas assured me. I found it very sweet and could only manage a few sips. My hosts were quite happily knocking it back though!
Eating out in Kaunas is cheap and craft beer is on sale for at least half the price of Britain, too. I recommend the tiny Vingui Dugin Giu bar, in the New Town.
So where can you stay? The New Town based Hof Hotel kindly accommodated me. They’re locally owned and not part of a chain. Their 22 stylish rooms are in a new building, built in a courtyard behind the National Bank – perfect if you’re planning a heist! It’s in a great spot, just around the corner from bars and restaurants and the long boulevard that runs through the centre to the Old Town, about 20 minutes walk away.
I was impressed at the breakfast choice, which included salads, local cheese, pasta, fish, breads and the usual cooked breakfast items of sausages and scrambled eggs or pancakes. Hotel sales manager Gintare Valataviciene told me that’s a sign of Lithuanian hospitality. “I think that all hotels in the country are trying to offer a big variety for breakfast. And we are trying to do it better!”
If you’re planning a visit to Kaunas you should check out the Kaunastic blog first. Kotryna and her husband Kestas list upcoming attractions and things to do. The couple have also designed really useful stylised maps showing you where to find their recommended cafes, bars and even yoga workshops. The free guides highlight interesting landmarks, which I wouldn’t have found on my own, such as the ‘Stairs’ – a long, grand, concrete staircase leading up a steep hill in the New Town.
With good hotel rooms from £45 and low cost flights from the UK from under £20, you can quite feasibly spend a weekend in Kaunas for under £200. The 2022 Year of Culture is approaching, so get in there quick. When everyone learns about Kaunas, it won’t stay so affordable!