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Kaunas City Highlights

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The capital of Lithuania Vilnius receives a lion's share of visitors and tourists coming to the country, so I would like to write a post encouraging them to spend a day or two in our second largest city Kaunas. Kaunas is a very old city indeed and, being located by the river, used to be a member of the famous Hanseatic league of merchants that also included famous cities of today like Lubeck the capital of the league, Hamburg, Stockholm, Bremen, Berlin, Gdansk, Torun, Krakow, Riga, Tallinn, Peterhof, Bergen, London, Antwerp... First mentioned in the written sources in 1361, Kaunas boasts a long history to discover.

So, what highlights are there in Kaunas?

Let's begin with Kaunas Castle, situated on the confluence of two rivers Nemunas and Neris. It was a strategically good place to build a brick castle during the turbulent times of Crusades to the last pagan land in Europe-Lithuania. It's worth visiting because of its profound history. To begin with, Lithuania didn't use to build castles from brick, and wooden castles didn't survive to this day. In the entire Great Duchy of Lithuania few castles were made of brick and they stood on the defensive route from Western Europe to Lithuania. A system of defensive castles by the river Nemunas used to operate for about 80 years until it was broken by the Teutonic Order that started building their own castles. Building a castle meant claiming the territory to keep. This particular castle was destroyed during one battle and after the Battle of Grunewald/Tannenberg in 1410 it changed its function from defensive to residential and a prison. It suffered a lot during the wars of the XVII-XVIIIth centuries. Today you can see a reconstructed one in its place with a TIC office in it.

Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Kaunas_Castle. Photo (c) to Algirdas.


Kaunas Old Town we know today is the result of the times of Queen Bona Sforza, who had it remodeled after a Renaissance fashion in geometric shapes (there was a tradition that the reigning monarch's wife was given lands of her own to rule). So if Vilnius has retained a Medieval network of streets, Kaunas has a totally different layout. Near Kaunas Castle there is a Town Hall Square and the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul.


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Kaunas Town Hall, a.k.a. "The Swan". Russian tsar used to have living quarters here for his travels within his Empire.

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A glance at  Kaunas Old Town, Town Hall Square.


Perkunas House (Thunder House) is a prime example of Flamboyant Gothic in Lithuania. Hanseatic league merchants had it built in the XV th century. In the XIX th century a statue of Thunder God was found here, and it is considered a possible place for a former pagan shrine. Now the building belongs to Jesuit Gymnasium.


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Thunder House. Difficult to get a clear photo as it's located on a narrow street that gives the word "narrow" a completely different meaning.

Vytautas's Church is located a stone's throw from Thunder House. It was built in the XV th century and was one of the first brick buildings in the city. The founder of the church Vytautas the Great wanted to thank Virgin Mary for saving his life at the battle of Vorskla.


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Vytautas's Church of the Assumption of Virgin Mary
Right behind Vytautas Church is a river and from here when it is the season you can take a boat trip to Zapyskis. The longest bridge in the world (from Kaunas Old Town to Aleksotas) is here. How come? Historically, after the Third Partition of the Commonwealth of Kingdom of Poland and Great Duchy of Lithuania by Russia, Prussia and Austria, the River Kaunas divided present-day Lithuania into two parts: Northwest Land belonged to tsarist Russia and Aleksotas belonged to Prussia and then Poland (Duchy of Warsaw by Napoleon Bonaparte), and the two calendars of East and West were used, with the difference of 13 days. Among other curiosities, A Museum of Musical Instruments has a selection of various musical instruments.As it has already been mentioned, Kaunas was an interim capital of Lithuania and hence it had a President's Palace. Now this building houses a museum of the period. Did you know that in the XXth century Lithuanian women were considered one of the best educated women in Europe? They wanted to obtain a university degree for feministical, political and economical reasons of the time that was aiming to return women to their role of wives and mothers.


Liberty Avenue (Laisves aleja) is a pedestrian street in Kaunas. Being 1,6 km long, it is considered to be the longest pedestrian street in Eastern Europe. It has a number of highlights on it. It was important for the interim capital to have a vivid cultural life and a theater. The Kaunas musical state theater became the source for modern Lithuanian drama, opera and ballet theaters.Vytautas the Great, our Great Duke from the XV th century, is a popular historic figure to represent and has a number of monuments erected in his honour. One of the most beautiful ones for me is in Kaunas. To find out more about his biography look here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vytautas


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Vytautas the Great
Tadas Ivanauskas is another name associated with Kaunas. He was our prominent zoologist and biologist. He is known for opening one of the first bird banding stations in Europe at Ventes Ragas (still functioning) in 1929, a zoological museum in Kaunas in 918, Kaunas botanical garden in 1923, Zuvintas reserve in 1937 and Kaunas zoo in 1938. I like visiting the zoological museum a lot.


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Crayfish for  lunch, anyone?
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Devils' Museum is the only museum in the world dedicated to this theme. Painter Antanas Zmuidzinavicius started the collection back in 1906 and today it boasts about 3000 exhibits.

An exhibit at Devil's Museum. Source: http://lt.wikipedia.org/wiki/Velni%C5%B3_muziejus. Image (c) to Usien.

Painter and composer Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis greatly contributed to the symbolism epoch. He left about 250 pieces of music and 300 paintings. His art was deemed unworthy by the Soviet government as it didn't depict the Soviet realism. His museum is right across the street from Devils' Museum.

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Entrance to Ciurlionis Museum.
There are two functioning funiculars in Kaunas. One brings you on Aleksotas hill and the other-to Christ's Resurrection church. The latter is the oldest funicular in Lithuania and one of the oldest in Europe, began in 1931.


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Christ's Resurrection church in Kaunas boasts a viewing platform on the roof. In 1918 Lithuania declared independence from tsarist Russia and a church to thank God for this was needed. The place to be was Kaunas, as the interim capital, because the capital Vilnius was occupied by Poland (yes, I know, Lithuania's history is complicated). In 1934 the first cornerstone was brought from Jerusalem Mount Olive. Funds were raised both in Lithuania and abroad. The church was meant to be a masterpiece of the modern style. In 1940 the church was almost completed but WWII broke out. It was used for different non-religious purposes during the war and the Soviet time, it finally saw consecration in 2004.

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Christ's Resurrection church.

 Vytautas the Great war museum was opened in 1936. It is dedicated to just what the name suggests. Among its exhibits there lay the remains of the plane "Lituanica", which was used by Darius and Girenas to fly across the Atlantic in 1933 from Chicago, the USA. Their plane crashed 650 km before reaching the end of the journey in Kaunas and it is unknown why. Rumour says, they flew over a concentration camp and Nazi shot them down as a spy plane.


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Vytautas the Great War Museum.

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Eternal Flame to those who perished for our freedom. Vandalized by the Soviets, proudly burning today.

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A book-smuggler.
After the Third Uprising against tsarist Russia in 1863, that was yet again subdued, ban on press in Latin alphabet was issued, prohibiting the press in Lithuanian for that matter. Under the ban, it was illegal to print, import, distribute, or possess any publications in the Latin alphabet. However, books were printed and translated abroad and smuggled in the country by book-smugglers and the total amount is several millions of printed units smuggled in during the ban. Even though we tend to refer to these people with some kind of romanticism and nostalgia, they were actual smugglers who earned their bread this way (though some patriots of the land also joined their ranks facing prison or deportation when caught). They travelled in small groups, carrying shotguns, staying over or leaving the books at designated places in forests or with trusted people. In 1904-1905 the ban was lifted (not that it was very effective to begin with).



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Liberty Monument.
One landmark that Kaunas is easily recognized from is Kaunas Soboras, a.k.a. Church of Archangel Michail. Tsarist Russia built forts in Kaunas and this church was meant to be an addition to them as well as serve a representational function. The rich altar had 122 paintings. 12 bells hung in the domes. It was consecrated in 1895 and until 1915 it belonged to Russian military. It saw a number of interior changes as well as its owners changed until it was given to Academy of Art in the Soviet times. Naturally, crosses were destroyed as well as the interior of the church. Crosses were put back in 1991 and first Mass was served in 1992.

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Soboras.
Mykolas Zilinskas gallery is part of Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis museum. It houses a number of foreign art. It is named after a collector and art mecenate Mykolas Zilinskas.


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Zilinskas gallery.
Kaunas mosque is one of four remaining mosques in Lithuania. It was first built in 1860 from wood and replaced by the one from brick in 1930. During the Soviet times it was tough for religious communities and this building was used for circus. In 1989 it was returned to the believers. Islam was first brought to Lithuania by the Crimean Tartars in the XVth century. There are about 4000 Tartars in Lithuania.


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Kaunas Mosque.
 During WWII Jews faced a very difficult time, many perished from Nazi regime. One name in Kaunas is connected with saving the Jews and this is Chiune Sugihara, Japanese vice-consul in Lithuania, 1985 received "Righteous among the Nations". He issued visas for the Jews to leave the country even when his country was a Nazi Germany ally, saving some 6000 Jews. They say, when he had to leave, he still wrote out visas by hand on the train surrounded by Jewish people and when the train pulled out he managed to throw his stamp through the window, so visas were issued without him for some time. You can visit a memorial museum in Kaunas. As far as the green spaces of the city are concerned, Oak Grove (Azuolynas) is a public park of 63 ha and presently is the largest European compilation of urban mature oak trees.

Some sights and sites are located away from central Kaunas.

9th Fort is a museum dedicated to show Soviet terror, including Nazi terror of the Jews. In 1924 it was used as hard labour prison. 1940-1941 Soviet authorities kept people here before deporting them to Siberia. In 1941 here Nazi authorities executed many Jews from Lithuania and abroad, the total of 30000.


Pazaislis monastery and church are the largest monastery complex in Lithuania. It is one of the three Baroque Pearls in our country next to Vilnius church of St. Peter and Paul and Liskiava church. It was founded in the XVII th century by the magnate family of Pacas and was home to Camaldolese Hermits. It was closed by the tsarist Russian authorities and converted to a church of their faith. It was returned to the believers in 1920 and sisters of St. Casimir's order took care of it. The Soviet time was tough for this place as it was turned into an archive, a psychiatric hospital and an art gallery. In 1990s it was finally returned to the sisters, several of whom reside and work there.


Rumsiskes have one of the largest open-air ethnographic museums in Europe. The total area of 175 ha houses about 140 buildings in XVIII-XIX th century style. They show what life used to be in farmsteads of our different ethnographic regions. It is located about 18 km from Kaunas.

How to arrive in Kaunas?

Flights are served from Kaunas airport . Kaunas bus station and Kaunas railway station are located at close proximity of each other.


How to use public transport?

Kaunas city public transport has a website in English: http://www.kvt.lt/en

For guidelines about food, shopping, accommodation please refer to Kaunas In Your Pocket or check out Kaunas Tourist Information Centre website.

Comments or questions?

Ele

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