Kaunas, August 17, 2005 - Wednesday

Trip Start Aug 12, 2005
Trip End Aug 27, 2005

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

My next destination in Lithuania was Kaunas, second city of the country in size. In places like Lithuania nothing is too far, so it took me less then two hours on a not too crowded bus to reach Kaunas. Today it was another sunny, clear and warm day, and gradually I was getting used to the fact that even in Lithuania they had a real summer. And in the beginning I had almost doubted it.
There's a "Litinterp" Kaunas, as well. I had no booking with them, but I nevertheless decided to give it a try and look for an accommodation there. Its address was in Gedimino gatvė, relatively close to the bus terminal, so I first checked it out. I mean, I checked it as soon as I had informed myself on the bus timetable and bought myself a ticket for the onward journey. I planned to move on to Rîga on the next day. Anyway, "Litinterp" was in one of the single-storey houses, in a street with a lot of greenery and it was obvious I was not in the city centre.
They had no free beds. Everything was fully booked. However, one of the two girls working there told me I could have a private accommodation if I wanted it. As I am not someone who spends much time where I sleep anyway, I deemed it a waste of money to splurge on a luxury I wouldn't use. Private accommodation in Kaunas seemed a good and cheap option for me.
"No problem," I said.
Thereupon she took to the phone and started dialling some numbers. I think the other one hardly knew English at all. I was sitting there while a conversation in Lithuanian unfolded on the phone, and I didn't understand a single word. It all took a few minutes and then the girl finally addressed me in English, in that somewhat distant Lithuanian way:
"There is a room with shower and toilet in the town centre for eighty litas, breakfast included."
I nodded:
She got briefly back on the phone and soon the matter was closed.
"How do I get there?" I asked.
"Someone will come here to pick you up," she answered.
Oh, fine.
"May I wait here?"
"Sure," she said. And that was it. She focused back on her work, and the other one never lifted her head off of it. I looked around a bit, going through the motions of having a keen interest in interior room decoration, and I knew occasions when time had passed faster. I think we would have all been more at ease if I had not been there. They would have worked more freely, and I would've been doing whatever I would've been doing. This way, we could all hardly wait for this flipping car to show up. As for me, I decided to refuse to be bothered by silence. After all, I wasn't to blame for it.
But after a long and awkward while they obviously seemed to start thinking something had to be done about it. So like out of the blue, the one speaking English asked me:
"Where are you from?"
I stopped inspecting walls and ceiling and answered:
"How did you decide to come to Lithuania?"
"Actually, I am a musician. I played on a festival in Visaginas with my band last weekend."
"I think I heard about that festival," she said.
"It is possible. In any case, television covered it, so if you stumble upon it, you will know that's it."
"Which instrument do you play?" she asked even if I was not sure whether there was much more than a sheer courtesy in that question.
"Have you ever been here before?"
"No, never. This is my first time. That's why, now that the festival is over, I have stayed here to travel a bit over Baltic countries."
And so we started talking. At the end I realised the girl was not cold and insufficiently friendly at all, but she had only been rather nervous around a stranger, who on top of it all was a foreigner, too, and who could with her converse only in English. Soon enough she seemed to feel at ease enough to tell me how she had arrived in Kaunas in order to move away from her parents' home and enjoy greater freedom. She wanted to live without having to always be called to account by someone, and it seemed that life in a big city where no one knew anything about her was what she needed. She had been in the city for a few months only, since she had finished her studies and graduated.
Every once in a while both of us checked the clock, for the car was not arriving yet, but the wait wasn't that embarrassing any more. At least not to me. Maybe neither to her. And even the other girl showed occasional hints of understanding what the two of us were talking about, so her head was no more constantly immersed in her papers or glued to the computer screen. It seemed as if she too tried to follow the thread of our conversation.
The car did show up eventually. A guy of roughly my age emerged from it. If I had understood it correctly, I was to get an accommodation at his mother's place. I said bye to girls, picked up my luggage and got in the car.
We were driving for a while down the wide town road along the Nemunas river, the biggest one flowing through Lithuania, and one of the two that Kaunas was lying on. I later found out it was Karaliaus Mindaugo prospektas and it was visible from everything that in Kaunas, too, streets were named after usual suspects, the sods of the Gediminas, Mindaugas and Vytautas variety.
Soon we found ourselves in the Old Town, in an enclosed yard, and I was taken to a first-floor apartment of one of adjacent buildings where the room for the night was waiting for me. An elderly lady opened the door. We said hello to each other and a usual procedure of explaining began in broken English of where what was, when the breakfast would be and so on. While we were handling practical details, another bloke appeared, his age somewhere between the landlady's and mine. When that one popped up, the son - if he was son - left. The new one was a neighbour, obviously a rather cheerful and communicative creature. They asked me about my plans in Kaunas.
"I am leaving tomorrow," I said.
"He will take you to the bus terminal tomorrow morning," the landlady told me.
"But I am leaving very early. I must be at the terminal already at six."
"No problem," they assured me.
It seemed sure. Just in case, I decided to fix an appointment with the neighbour early enough, so if he should sleep in or for any other reason "forget" our deal, I would still have time to get there by taxi. After that I paid, took over the keys and went out.
It turned out I would sleep only a few metres away from the elegant, cobbled Vilniaus gatvė, the Old Town's main vein, I would say. And a very pretty and neat old town at that. It was a place like I was fond of visiting, in the mould of true European traditions. For starters I jumped into the nearest Hansa Bank branch, exchanged some euros into litas and then kicked my sightseeing off.
Kaunas itself is with some 400 thousand inhabitants second biggest and one of the most significant cities of Lithuania. On one hand it is a city of old traditions, but on the other also a large centre of business and industry. And in addition to it all, it lays claim to being a city of young people with over 35,000 students studying at one of the seven local universities. For a while it was even the capital of Lithuania when turbulent history moved Vilnius from country to country. It's been six centuries now since the old bloke Vytautas the Great granted it the town rights and after this Kaunas began to grow at a fairly lively pace, accumulating hundreds of years of cultural heritage in historical and architectural monuments, museums, theatres, art galleries and churches along the way. Of course, so it won't appear that it all was just an easy ride through history, here too the dearest regional friends, the Russians, came calling from time to time. And so that they wouldn't be the only ones, the Swedes, the plague, the fires and Napoleon stopped by, as well. As everyone knows, there are friends who cause happiness on their arrival and those who do it on their departure. It somehow appeared to me that all those mentioned here belonged in the latter category.
But Kaunas saw them all off, just as it saw off two world wars and survived through Soviet occupation, and none of those prevented it from being today one of the most Lithuanian of all Lithuanian towns with 93% of Lithuanians as its population. So much so that it is seen by many Lithuanians as the true heart of their country.
But then again, once you enter Kaunas, it is pretty obvious it is not the capital. Seems there's no difference anywhere in the world in that sense. Capitals are where the money goes and where the money is. Just about everything here was on a smaller scale. By any standards, though, Kaunas too has a very charming and elegant old town and although it may lack some of the gloss of Vinius, this town core actually felt warmer to me precisely for the very lack of it.
Vilniaus gatvė stretched westwards towards the Rotuses aikstė, i.e. Town Hall Square, and eastwards towards the newer town section. To start it off, I headed into the history. Walking like that on this wonderful early afternoon, I realised it was the most beautiful street in entire Lithuania I had seen as of yet. At least to me. With the majority of the buildings along the either side of this street dating back to the 16th century, and with all those in need of reconstruction dutifully brought back to its original glory, this was easily the most pleasant spot for me in the country so far. Soviets could've walked on their eyelashes for all the good it would do them, but settlements like Visaginas didn't deserve to make it into as much as the same book as this fine, elegant and warm pedestrian street.
Rotuses aikstė wasn't far away. It is a handsome square on a spur of land between the Neris and the Nemunas, two biggest Lithuanian rivers, which meet here. The square itself is lined with some fine houses built in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries by German merchants, but that's not nearly all. During the Middle Ages, the Town Hall was the centre of Kaunas with the main Market Place, which meant that the most significant churches of that time were also there. Of course, here too Soviets had their thing about how to improve on obsolete concepts of decadent, capitalist history, so someone of their revolutionary minds had this idea that it was the most appropriate to bulldoze a highway right through this central square and send churches to heaven. But for some reason the plans got stuck in some drawer in some party committee table, so yet I had an opportunity now to look at all those features of Gothic, Baroque and early Classical architecture with my own eyes, while my privilege of a motorway ride through these parts ended up sidetracked in some parallel universe.
At any rate, at the very end of the Vilniaus gatvė, or at its beginning, if you will, there is the apparently austere red-brick Kaunas Cathedral. Or St. Peter and St. Paul's Cathedral. It dates back to the reign of Vytautas the Great and on the face of it you'd say that the old bloke was on a shoestring when getting its construction off to a start. But step inside and your jaw will drop. After the rather plain exterior, when you see the lavish gilt and marble interior with the large, statue-adorned Baroque high altar, you'll know better. OK, it is also true that the Cathedral, same as everything else in Lithuania, took its beating by friendly historical passers-by and elements, so every now and then it had to undergo a face-lifting or even full restoration. And it changed its appearance somewhat every time. And probably added up a bit on it. So most of what I could see was from the 18th century. The church itself was promoted to cathedral status only in 1895 and received the Basilica title in 1921. Today it is the largest Gothic church in Lithuania
However, two main eye-catchers on the square, at least looking from the outside, are the magnificent Town Hall with its graceful tower and the seventeenth century twin-towered St. Francis Church, college and Jesuit monastery complex on the southern side. In 1825 the Russians handed it over to the Orthodox Church, and later the Soviets turned it into a trade school. But today I believe it's once more back in catholic hands. And as for the Town Hall, it became the Wedding Palace with the Ceramics museum in its basement to boot. Just in case.
Only a bit further down, just off the Rotuses aikstė and by the Nemunas river, there is the early Gothic Vytautas Church, or Vytauto baznyčia in Lithuanian, or the Church of Taking Holy Virgin Mary into the Heaven, as they also call it. There. Built in the 15th century, it first belonged to Franciscan monks. Then Napoleon the Believer popped up and elevated the church to the lofty status of ammunition storage during Napoleonic wars. In order not to let him go one up, the Russians turned it into a Orthodox Cathedral after that and as such it stayed in function for more than hundred years. Today it's again in the hands of Franciscan monks.
All in all, it was an interesting and picturesque spot. Certainly, as we were in the twenty first century, now there were mandatory shops, cafés and restaurants there, too. As well as an odd tourist with a camera here and there, like me, who diligently took photos of it all. Having taken photos of everything I deemed interesting, I headed north-west, passed by the St. George's Church, another one in a row around the square, and reached the Kaunas Castle.
In its heyday, the castle was a major obstacle to invaders, mostly Crusaders. It was the first defence bastion in Lithuania, serving as a strategic outpost and guarding nearby cities as well as trade routes. It most certainly played a significant role in the Kaunas defence system. However, when Kaunas was granted city rights, it lost its significance as all city life moved to the Market place - or Town Hall - Square. So today all that's left is a little more than a couple of sections of wall and moat, and a restored tower. The rest was washed away by the Neris river.
But all that was left was today surrounded by greenery, grass and trees, just as befitting such a green country like Lithuania. So it was not weird that entire locality attracted some youngsters, as well, probably students who laid their bicycles around, sprawled on the grass, occasionally read and generally rested. After all, except for a dippy tourist, who else would bother to walk around in such a heat? Yes, it got very hot.
Having seen what there was to see of the castle, I returned to the Vilniaus gatvė and headed east, in the direction of the new part of the town. I enjoyed walking down this fine street once again and so I just took my time. But Vilniaus gatvė doesn't stretch out forever. In fact, it's not even too long, so at one point I found myself at the beginning of Savanorių prospektas, the street that didn't run exactly into the town centre, but since I was there already, why not see it, as well?
As soon as my climb started, on my right I saw the synagogue. Same as entire Lithuania, Kaunas had throughout the history had a lively and vibrant Jewish community which had fared the same as the rest of the Jewish population. Kaunas was said to have thirty six synagogues in all. What I didn't know was whether those thirty six synagogues at one time had stood together or it was just their cumulative number through the history. Which seemed more plausible to me. However, this one, built in 1871, was the only one today.
Savanorių prospektas offered nothing more worth mentioning and soon I climbed onto Zemaičių gatvė, a leafy street with an air of suburb even if almost only a stone throw away from the downtown. With wooden houses built in a manner that didn't belong to anything called twentieth or twenty first century, it was a charming place to see. There were houses there which were almost like out of the Grimm brothers' fairy tales, with wooden stairs leading up to the first floor because the ground floor - could not be entered at all. Or there were houses whose walls didn't even join under the right angle. It all created an atmosphere of just a larger village. And in this hot and lazy summer afternoon there was almost no one in the street. As a bow to modern age, at the bottom of Zemaičių gatvė I found a complex that couldn't be more different, consisting of a petrol station and a low-rise shopping centre. I entered to buy an ice-cream and something to drink and then continued on my way.
From that point I couldn't possibly miss the Christ's Resurrection Church any more, or Kauno Paminklinė Kristaus Prisikėlimo baznyčia as locals call it. Such edifices usually don't elicit too much of an interest in a tourist like me and I don't necessarily count them among the landmarks of a locality. But this one was an exception. At first I thought it was a protestant church, but I was in Lithuania after all. What to me looked like something protestant was in fact only modern. Nothing else. And next thing that immediately strikes you, right after the modern design, is its height. According to some sources the church tower is 70 metres tall, and according to some other as much as 82. What I didn't know, and I am sorry that I did not, was that you could go up to the church roof and have view of the city. If I had known it, I would have entered. This way, I just skipped it as I don't view those modern churches as something you should in no way miss. Gone are the times when tons of money and tens of years were lavished on inner and outer decorations of churches. Nowadays it's not like that any more. Today you enter one of those churches, see walls painted white with possibly just an odd painting of a saint or stations of the Christ's Way of the Cross here or there, and that's all.
Christ's Resurrection Church was going to be a symbol of gratitude to God for the independence and freedom that Lithuania regained in 1918. As Vilnius was occupied by the Poles at the time, the City of Kaunas was chosen as its site. But it took them fifteen years to get the design fully on paper and approved. The first cornerstone for the church was brought all the way from Jerusalem's Mount Olive as far back as 1934. But enter the Nazis and the World War II, and then Stalin and the Soviets right on their heels, and you'll know why the church was consecrated only one year before my visit there.
Not knowing that I had missed out on the city panorama, I started descending in the downtown direction. And straight away I saw yet another spectacular sight. Between the street buildings, above the tree-tops, another behemoth stood out - St. Michael the Archangel Church. It seemed almost within the reach of my hand. Or its sheer size gave out an impression that it was right there.
And yet, I didn't go for it right away. Instead, I climbed down to Putvinskio gatvė which roughly run parallel with the streets I had walked previously, only below, i.e. closer to the city centre. I turned in the direction I had come from and soon came across a true Kaunas peculiarity, the only Lithuanian funicular. OK, it was not the only Lithuanian funicular. Kaunas itself had several of them, but no other Lithuanian town had any. Zaliakalnis funicular slowly ascended to Zaliakalnis or Green Hill in translation, and I went on.
Not far away from the funicular, in the same street, there was the Antanas Zmuidzinavičius Art Museum. So formally and officially spelled out, it could mean anything, but I had known in advance that in fact it was one of the quirkiest museums I had ever heard of. Better known as the Devil's Museum, it houses a vast collection of devil things put together by the old Antanas Zmuidzinavičius, a late Lithuanian painter and art collector. I had to see that.
I went on in to buy myself an entrance ticket. Other than the woman in the window, there was no one inside. Seeing this forlornness and feeling a total silence, the first logical question that came to my mind was whether anyone ever came in here. I had an impression that a place like this easily put spots like the Gobi desert or Siberian tundra to shame. In any case, it couldn't be accused of being too crowded. Undaunted, I purchased my ticket and started climbing up the stairs to the first floor. And at that point, just to squash all my doubts about the justification of existence of such a museum, a young French couple dropped by, with two kids most certainly younger than ten, who brought noise and life into the museum and increased the number of visitors fivefold.
Which in fact was no right math at all. The noise-and-life thing was all right. But on one of the upper floors I saw another couple, so all told, there were seven of us inside the building. Not counting the ticket seller. Roughly the same number of people as outside on the Putvinskio gatvė.
The museum itself was dippy, but fun. A collection of drawings, paintings, figures, masks and sculptures of the devil on three levels from all over the world, it was entertaining whichever way you turn it. My favourite - and I assume most of visitors shared my opinion - was a sinister representation of Hitler and Stalin as devils frolicking on a Lithuania composed of skulls.
Out of the museum again, I went down almost directly to Vienybės aikstė, a square which according to some sources is in translation called Unity Square, and according to others Solidarity Square. Whatever its real translation, every source agrees with what I saw, and that is that there was the graceful Freedom Sculpture there, an original memorial to the Independence of Lithuania, boasting an eternal flame flanked by traditional wooden crosses. Likewise, there were a few stone-relief slabs around, maybe to indicate that there were a few more museums nearby. But I had no intention to jump from one museum into another, so I went on down the K.Donelačio gatvė.
St. Michael the Archangel Church, that monumental edifice was even more visible now. The closer I got to it, the most imposing and larger it grew. But it was not the time to go right up there yet. Instead, I entered Vytauto prospektas and came to the Ramybės parkas, or Serenity Park. The park itself was home to the Old City Cemetery until the Soviets tore up all the graves in the 1960s. Lithuanians obviously had a hard time accepting the friendly care of gentle Soviets, so there were those who couldn't come to terms with it until well after the World War II ended. Fighting continued all the way into the 1954 when the last freedom fighter hiding in Lithuanian forests was shot. Today in Ramybės parkas there is the Memorial to Lithuanians who died in those wars of independence
Also, in Ramybės park I found Kaunas' two Orthodox cathedrals, at an arm's-length distance from each other, next to the exquisite white mosque. In the shade of tall park trees, it seemed as if they too sought to hide from the strong sun.
And then, up the Gedimino gatvė, and I finally came to St. Michael the Archangel Church. It is located on the Nepriklausomybės aikstė, or Independence Square, and the way I saw it, it was the most impressive of all Kaunas buildings I had seen as yet. You stop before it and get dwarfed to the size of a midget straight away. Sv.Mykolo Arkangelo baznyčia is a Roman-Catholic church, but it was designed by Russian architects, so in its Neo-Byzantine style it's got all architectural traits of Orthodox sanctuary. If you don't know for sure that it's Roman Catholic, you'd be easily deceived by its looks. As it was constructed for Kaunas Military Garrison, it is also known as Kauno Įgulos katalikų baznyčia or the Kaunas Garrison Catholic Church. But for all those names, the Lithuanians found another one and the church is among locals best known as Soboras, or White Church.
Naturally, even for it the Soviets found an additional purpose, so for a while it served as an Art Gallery. But now it was again what it had been built for in the first place - a Catholic Church.
I circled it and noticed that I was not the only one there. As opposed to the most part of Kaunas I had seen until then, there were quite a few people there. The explanation was simple. Nepriklausomybės aikstė and St. Michael the Archangel Church marked the beginning of the Laisvės alėja, the longest and most popular pedestrian street in town. This Freedom Avenue, as its name in English goes, stretched all the way to the Vilniaus gatvė beginning and in its length of just under two kilometres made a long double row of shops, restaurants and cafés. Right down the middle of it there is this picturesque strip of two long, parallel lines of linden trees with garden plots with flowers and benches to sit on. Many people hid into the shadow, walking between the rows of trees or sitting on benches. I passed there, too, doing my favourite sightseeing bit along the way, i.e. watching Lithuanian girls in their summer outfit. With all due respect to all the churches, museums and castles, the way I saw it, they were the biggest Lithuanian asset. Of course, everyone is fully entitled to their own opinion, but this was mine. And with every new stroll up and down Lithuanian streets, my conviction got additionally strengthened.
Pedestrian zone was not only Laisvės alėja. It encompassed several streets, and Laisvės alėja was only the most famous of all. So I turned left into Daukanto gatvė, one of those others, and came to the Nemunas riverbank again. I reached Mindaugo prospektas, the same one I had earlier passed in the car on my way to my room for this evening. But this time around I was on foot, so I decided to hoof it up along the river a bit. And so I reached the Aleksoto tiltas or Aleksotas bridge.
Aleksotas is the southern part of Kaunas and it is located below the Nemunas river. Today it's only one administrative unit within the city, or a so-called eldership. That's what they call them here. However, up until World War I Aleksotas and Kaunas often belonged to different countries since Nemunas was usually the border within all those geopolitical divisions. And they not only belonged in different countries, but were also in different calendars. One of them in Julian time count and the other one in Gregorian, there was a running joke claiming that it took a walker twelve days to cross the bridge.
Certainly, today's bridge was not that first wooden one built. It too, same as most of the things Lithuanian, was destroyed and rebuilt more than once throughout the years, so I stepped only on its most recent incarnation. As in 1915 they abolished that time warp, so the crossing didn't take twelve days any more, I saw no need to go across. Therefore I just got on it, made a few photos and then returned to Mindaugo prospektas and further to Laisvės alėja.
My gradual return to the place where I would sleep began.
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