Written by Owen Lipsett on 04 Dec, 2004
Like the Old Town, Kaunas’ New Town has a main square (Nepriklausomybes aikste), centered on a striking building, the Church of St. Michael the Archangel. Fortunately, you won’t have to twist your tongue asking for directions since the neo-Byzantine Church, erected in 1891-3 to serve…Read More
Like the Old Town, Kaunas’ New Town has a main square (Nepriklausomybes aikste), centered on a striking building, the Church of St. Michael the Archangel. Fortunately, you won’t have to twist your tongue asking for directions since the neo-Byzantine Church, erected in 1891-3 to serve the local Russian garrison (and stress Russian hegemony) is quite tall. Ironically, it was converted into a Catholic church after Soviet occupation ended, and upon Lithuania’s entry into NATO, became the country’s official "NATO church," which flags inside attest to. The church’s interior is interesting, and it affords an excellent view over Laisves aleja, the tree-lined pedestrian artery of the New Town.
Taking the parallelism with the Old Town still further, across the square, a controversial sculpture stands in front of the Mykolas Zilinskas Art Museum. However, rather than politics, the gigantic male nude’s prominent, well, maleness, is what has set tongues wagging. The museum itself holds the country’s most interesting temporary art exhibitions of international contemporary artists, but its permanent collection is quite disappointing. Its spacious front courtyard offers an excellent vantage point on the square.
The superb MK Ciurlionis State Museum has a far better collection of both Lithuanian art in general and the art of the eponymous painter, Lithuania’s most famous, in particular. A special wing, which has recently been refurbished and rivals newly refurbished galleries anywhere else in the European Union, contains most of the master’s works, arranged chronologically under soft light because of their fragile nature. Ciurlionis, also Lithuania’s greatest modern composer, typically painted his highly mystical works, many of which have musical titles, directly onto cardboard. Photography is forbidden inside and regrettably no books of his works were sold at the time of my visit to the museum. For a selection of his paintings click here. The museum’s exhibition on the traditional Lithuanian art of wooden cross-carving is also outstanding.
Across the street is Kaunas’ other true must-see, the delightful Devil Museum, the first of its kind at its founding in 1966. Its original contents came from the collection of Ciurlionis’ friend and fellow painter Antanas Zmuidzinavicius, who had amassed 260 (that’s 13 devil dozens) of the creatures on his death. The collection now apparently numbers in the thousands – with the first two floors devoted to devil figures from Lithuania and the top floor to examples from around the world. The sheer number of variations on the same theme is overwhelming, entertaining, and even educational.
If you have time, you may want to step inside the Vytautas the Great War Museum, the huge concrete edifice dominating Vienybes aikste, a square which contains the administration buildings of the city’s two universities. Despite the name, the museum covers history as well as war, and its archaeological exhibitions are its finest point. The military collections are fairly uninteresting and the sewn-together flight jackets of Steponas Darius and Stanislovas Girenas, a pair of local heroes who died attempting the longest non-stop trans-Atlantic flight, is downright gruesome. The Freedom Monument in front honors heroes of Lithuania’s independence movement with an eternal flame that had to be hidden during the fifty-year Soviet occupation.
If you have time, and are traveling with children or nature lovers, visit the Tadas Ivanauskas Zoological Museum, which reputedly had the Soviet Union’s largest collection of stuffed animals. Children will also probably appreciate a ride up the Zvaliakalnio Funicular. If you happen to be interested in modern art, visit the Kaunas Picture Gallery, which has good temporary exhibitions and a permanent display honoring Jurgis Maciunas, a Lithuanian expatriate who founded the Fluxus movement.
Rotuses aikste (Town Hall Square) forms the heart of the Old Town. It’s a pleasant place to sit and to look at the buildings. The area’s baroque character testifies to the prosperity the city enjoyed during the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, the largest (and at times most…Read More
Rotuses aikste (Town Hall Square) forms the heart of the Old Town. It’s a pleasant place to sit and to look at the buildings. The area’s baroque character testifies to the prosperity the city enjoyed during the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, the largest (and at times most powerful) country in Europe after the Thirty Years War – the mansions lining the square were home to successful merchants.
The White Swan. Take a few minutes to examine the old town hall which was built in 1522 but did not receive the distinctive tapering tower that provides its nickname until 1780. Having served various as an Orthodox church, artillery warehouse, and residence for the czar, it functions today as a "Palace of Weddings," which are celebrated on Fridays and Saturdays – although I did not have the pleasure of witnessing one on my visit.
The statue of Maironis (just off the square) is worth examining. Maironis is the pen name of the priest Jonas Maciulus (1862-1932), a key figure in the Lithuanian national revival regarded by many as the greatest poet in the Lithuanian language. Naturally, honoring a clergyman (and Lithuanian nationalist) would have been strictly forbidden under Soviet occupation, so the sculptor did not name the piece and placed Maironis’ hand on his neck, thus hiding his clerical collar.
The immense single-towered brick Cathedral dedicated to St. Peter and St. Paul is Lithuania’s largest Gothic church – it’s worth stepping off the Square and inside to both appreciate its size and the Baroque furnishings. The twin-towered church on the square itself is dedicated to St. Francis Xavier and once formed part of a Jesuit monastery. It was turned into an Orthodox cathedral under Russian rule and subsequently returned to its original purpose, after serving as a sports hall under the Soviets.
The delightful but little-visited Lithuanian Folk Instruments Museum is the finest in the Old Town. Several comprehensive displays depict the wide variety of materials Lithuanians have turned into instruments – wind instruments made with animal horns being apparently the most common and the somewhat scratchy recordings of the instruments being played enhance the effect. An annex depicts instruments donated by visitors from around the world – given how friendly the older women who staff the place are, it’s little wonder they assembled such a bountiful collection!
By the Nemunas River, the so-called "Vytautas Church" (formerly part of a Franciscan monastery) is well worth a look around. According to legend (depicted in modern paintings inside), it was founded by the Lithuanian Grand Duke of the same name in thanks for his deliverance after a defeat by the Tartars in 1398. Whether or not the story is true, the church does date to about that time. Across the road is the Perkunas House, so named because it is widely believed to sit atop a temple dedicated to the Lithuanian thunder god – in any case it’s extremely impressive to look at.
If you have time, cross the Aleksoto Bridge and climb the hill of the same name on the other side (by foot or funicular) for an impressive view over the Old Town and city. If you have even more time, walk along the bank of the Nemunas beside the Old Town to the confluence of the Nemunas and Neris, then walk back by the Neris. You’ll see the remains of Kaunas’ defensive castle at the end of your journey.
Written by marif on 20 Dec, 2004
The small attractive historical heart of Kaunas bordered from the south by the Nemunas River and from the north by the Neris River is ideal for hours of sightseeing. Unlike the Old Town, the city's cultural soul centred around the Vytautas Magnas University and the…Read More
The small attractive historical heart of Kaunas bordered from the south by the Nemunas River and from the north by the Neris River is ideal for hours of sightseeing. Unlike the Old Town, the city's cultural soul centred around the Vytautas Magnas University and the adjacent Technical University is an area of modern architecture, shops, art galleries and museums.
Rotuses aikste, the Town Hall square is a good starting point. Ringed by restored 15th- and 16th-century burgher houses, this pretty square is dominated by an 18th-century Baroque Town Hall which has replaced a former 16th-century Gothic building. Nicknamed 'The White Swan', it is used nowadays as a Palace of Weddings. Be here on a Friday or a Saturday evening and you will have the opportunity to see how Lithuanians celebrate their weddings. Surrounding the square, numerous buildings that have been meticulously restored are now occupied by restaurants, bars, cafes and Lithuanian folk art souvenir shops. The twin-belfry church you see on the south side of the square is the Jesuit Church that opens daily for Mass at 6pm. The big statue along the west corner of the square is the monument to Maironis, the writer-priest whose works were censored during the Communist era but who is nowadays Lithuania's national poet. The restored building behind the statue is the house where Maironis lived for more than 20 years. Today it houses the small Lithuanian Literary Museum which displays various original scripts by Maironis himself and other Lithuanian writers. Much better is the Museum of the History of Lithuanian Medicine and Pharmacy. Housed in a restored building dating back to the 16th-century at Rotuses aikste 28, this museum contains an excellent collection of personal items, furniture, medical implements and documents donated by Lithuanian doctors and pharmacists over the years. The unusual 'officina' or prescription room contains fascinating drugs used during the Middle Ages while the 'Coctoria' houses an exposition of medical equipment collected from various drug stores scattered around Lithuania. Don't miss the laboratory where various medical preparations, balsams and drugs were manufactured.
The northeast corner of Rotuses aikste is dominated by the city's majestic cathedral, a huge red-brick structure with a single tower. What you see today is an 18th-century Baroque reconstruction that has replaced several of the original Gothic features though some still remain. From behind the cathedral, walk west on Sv.Gertrudos gatve until you reach the ruins of the city's 14th-century castle. There's little to see here but the castle's grounds offer an excellent view over the Neris River.
From the Town Hall square, a short walk along Aleksotas gatve leads towards the House of Pekunas, an unusual Gothic brick structure built on a site which was formerly occupied by a temple dedicated to the Lithuanian god of thunder. The huge church that overlooks the Nemunas River is the Vytautas Church, an original building that dates back to 1402. There are no significant artistic works inside but the interior structure itself is a masterpiece of 15th-century Gothic architecture.
The area east of the Old Town is a city on the move. Numerous shops, restaurants, offices, banks, museums and educational institutions are ample proof that Kaunas has been transformed into a city of business and culture. It's enough to consider the university population which has been increasing steadily year by year to reach over 21 thousand students in the year 2001.
Unity Square in front of the University area adjoins a pretty park with trees and paved walkways. This garden museum is the place where you can see the Freedom Monument dated 16th February 1918, the day Lithuania declared independence. Designed by J. Zikaras and erected here for a second time on 16th February 1989 after being hidden during the Communist era, it is a monument dedicated to 'those who perished for Lithuania's freedom'. On the north side of the park at Donelaicio gatve 64, the Military Museum of Vytautas the Great is more a history museum than anything else. Nearby at Putvinskio gatve 55, the Chiurlionis Art Museum houses a vast collection of paintings by the outstanding Lithuanian composer and artist Mikalojus Konstantinas Chiurlionis. Across the street at Putvinskio gatve 64, the Devil Museum houses an unusual collection of artistic and not-so-artistic statues and paintings which depict the devil as the ugliest, the most mischievous or the most cunning creature. Don't miss it; you'll never see anything of this sort elsewhere.
Written by dangaroo on 13 Jan, 2009
About 90km north of the Polish border, 100km west of Vilnius and slightly further from the Lithuanian coast lies Kaunas in the heart of Lithuania. Kaunas is an industrial city, less artier than its capital cousin. The bigger city in the so-called triangle of hell…Read More
About 90km north of the Polish border, 100km west of Vilnius and slightly further from the Lithuanian coast lies Kaunas in the heart of Lithuania. Kaunas is an industrial city, less artier than its capital cousin. The bigger city in the so-called triangle of hell (mostly known for it's chavs/unfriendly youths consists of Panevezys, Kaunas and Siauliai) but in recent years many of those young lads have left to work in the UK or Ireland and are barely noticeable now.Kaunas is a city that I have been to no less than twenty times and in recent years, I've actually started to grow to like it. The main street is impressive, the cobbled streets of the old town are cute and it's less visited than Vilnius. Whilst I wouldn't want to live there or spend a long time there, it's certainly worth a visit if you are on your way between Vilnius and the coast or Latvia and Poland. It's also predictably cheaper than Vilnius or the coast and you will find that a beer costs you 4 or 5lt.An enormous shopping centre called Mega has popped up fairly recently, this describes itself as "The Heart of Lithuania" and has all manner of fashionable shops, restaurants, bars and an aquarium with sharks in. They then run various competitions and the lucky winner, gets to go scuba diving in the tank with the sharks (who don't look the least bit scary)Close
Written by Owen Lipsett on 05 Dec, 2004
"Two days in Kaunas-that's too much"
The Lithuanian Airlines agent wanted to help me, but I forgot his comments amid the wonderful time I had in Vilnius, at least until I arrived in Kaunas on St. John’s Day. I mention the date because it had…Read More
"Two days in Kaunas-that's too much"
The Lithuanian Airlines agent wanted to help me, but I forgot his comments amid the wonderful time I had in Vilnius, at least until I arrived in Kaunas on St. John’s Day. I mention the date because it had just been designated as a national holiday and even the normally omniscient people at Litinterp in Vilnius had no idea to what extent it would be observed. Arriving in the rain, I found my answer in the closed storefronts and an uncharacteristically curt woman at the tourist office who told me (incorrectly) that even the city’s internet cafés were closed.
My intention had been to take a side-trip from Kaunas to the nearby Countryside Museum in Rumsiskes, but neither the tourist office nor the bus station could inform me whether it was open or buses were running to it. Consequently, I resigned myself to performing a more thorough version of meandering walks I like to take whenever I reach a new city, as well as poking my head into whichever of the city’s historic churches that were not holding services (which turned out to be all of them save the cathedral.)
Much of what I encountered seemed to confirm the agent’s comments. Many buildings at the edges of the New Town and Old Town alike were crumbling, and the Old Town itself couldn’t compare with Vilnius’ (then again, few places can.) But predictably, after a hearty late lunch, the rain began to abate and I noticed that the internet café was open after all. Walking back along Laisves aleja to ride the Zakalnis funicular and examine the Freedom Monument, I noticed its outdoor cafés beginning to fill with people. The scene was compelling enough that I chose to retrace my steps exactly, returning to the Old Town.
That evening, noticing that the triangular tongue of land between the Old Town and the confluence of the Nemunas and Neris was completely ignored by both of my guidebooks, I joined numerous locals in tracing it. It wasn’t the most stunning or interesting walk I took during my time in Lithuania, but the June air had some of the coolness that comes after a rain, and so it was the most pleasant. Having completed the circuit, I crossed the Nemunas in the hopes of ascending the city’s other funicular, but instead found myself ascending the stairs beside it. At the crest of the hill, I was hardly alone in enjoying the view over the city it afforded.
With only a day to enjoy Kaunas’ museums, I went about my task with military precision, arriving at the MK Ciurlionis Museum before it opened. I therefore had the superb section devoted to the painter entirely to myself–and the rest of the museum as well, save for several friendly staff members mounting a new exhibition. I was the only visitor at the Devil Museum and Kaunas Picture Gallery as well, and I enjoyed an extended conversation with the guard at the latter. I had rather more company at the Zilinskas Museum, but given the quality of the temporary exhibitions, that was quite understandable. When I concluded my exhaustive tour at the Musical Instruments Museum, I was once again alone, and after a friendly conversation that consisted of rather more hand gestures than words, the generous older woman at the desk presented me with a catalogue, explaining "is a gift."
Only the most ardent local advocate would claim that Kaunas’ charms equal those of Vilnius or Lithuania’s coast. Indeed it’s quite possible to visit its best sights (the Ciurlionis Museum, Devil Museum, and the buildings in the general vicinity of the Old Town Square, in that order) en route between the two. Given the paucity of budget accommodation, if you’re short on time, I’d advise doing so. But its quirky and decidedly Lithuanian charm takes more time to appreciate, and I’m glad to have done so, since it greatly enhanced my enjoyment of the rest of the country. Either way, you’ll most likely have the majority of the sights to yourself.