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Clare
Clare

Day 2: Kaunas

Yesterday was rather tiring so we didn't make a terribly early start to today, not heading out to explore Kaunas until nearly 10am. Luckily this didn't really matter, because the old town is literally right on our doorstep. The main street looked beautiful in the morning sunshine and today looked like it was going to be a much warmer day than yesterday.

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It turns out that this red-brick building which we walked past yesterday evening and assumed was just a normal church is actually Kaunas's cathedral!

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This church which we thought last night was the cathedral (purely on the basis that it was in the main square near the town hall and had the word "Dom" written on the front!)...

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...actually turned out to be the church of St Francis Xavier. It appears to have had rather a chequered past, being originally built by the Jesuits in the seventeenth century, then converted into an Orthodox church under the Tsarist rule of the nineteenth century but returned to the Jesuits following Lithuania's independence in the 1920s, before being used as a technical school and a sports hall(!) during the Soviet years and finally returning to the Jesuits in 1989.

In comparison, the actual cathedral doesn't seem anywhere near as exciting, although the guidebook says that it does have the honour of being the oldest Gothic church in Lithuania.

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Slightly more exciting (to me at least!) were the floral displays of ladybirds outside the town hall :)

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We walked round the corner from the main square...

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...and found a rather strange sculpture of giant insects. One disadvantage of being in Lithuania is that it's pretty must impossible to understand any of the explanatory plaques on the monuments, so we have absolutely no idea what these were for!

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Round the corner we found a less disturbing statue of the Lithuanian poet Maironis, who lived in Kaunas.

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At the edge of the old town is Kaunas castle, believed to first have been constructed in the mid fourteenth century.

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This was the only place where we really found any evidence of other tourists in Kaunas; there was a coach party of elderly Germans listening to what sounded like a very dull lecture on the history of Lithuanian fortifications from their tour guide.

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There was another rather strange monument here, but we couldn't work out what it was commemorating. The flag in the background is the city flag of Kaunas.

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The castle is set in attractive grounds, and so we were able to escape the (admittedly small number of) other tourists and wander through a shady park overlooking the river.

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From there we were able to continue onto a riverside path beside the river Nemunas, passing on the way the church of Vytautas the Great. This is another one which has had a turbulent past, having been first built by Vytautas (a leader of medieval Lithuania) in the fifteenth century, and subsequently destroyed by floods, burned down by French troops in 1812, temporarily reopened as an Orthodox church in the nineteenth century, then used as a barracks and a warehouse in the twentieth century before finally being returned to the Catholic church.

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We walked along the river for quite some way, because I wanted to find a different church which I had caught a glimpse of yesterday on the bus from the airport to the railway station.

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This is the church of St Michael the Archangel, unfortunately slightly obscured by some ongoing road works, but nevertheless rather stunning.

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It was built in 1891, when Kaunas was part of the Russian empire, as a Russian Orthodox church for the use of Russian soldiers who were stationed at a nearby fortress. It was also supposed to symbolise the Russification of the city. It was converted into a Catholic church, which it remains today, during the interwar years, albeit having had a spell as an art gallery under the Soviets.

Just outside the church is the start of one of the longest streets in Kaunas, Laisvės alėja (Liberty Avenue), which runs for 2km back towards the old town. The entire street is lined with trees, which makes it a nice shady walk on a sunny day, and there were some beautiful views back towards the church.

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This is the new part of town, where a lot of the buildings were constructed during the 1920s. Lithuania regained independence after the first world war, but was in the unfortunate position of having lost Vilnius as its capital, with that city first being occupied by the Bolsheviks and then annexed by Poland. Kaunas was therefore declared the "temporary capital of Lithuania" until Vilnius could be liberated. This presented Kaunas with a few practical problems, as it didn't possess all of the infrastructure which would be expected of a capital city. A big programme of building was undertaken to construct new government and administrative buildings, as well as a sewage system and a public transport network.

Today Laisvės alėja is full of shops and restaurants, which was fortunate for us because we were absolutely starving. We managed to find a pizza restaurant whose menu had useful pictures, and settled down to eat with a nice view of the avenue.

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Tim had a chicken burger with a side order of sweetcorn, I had a hawaiian pizza and between us we had three drinks... which came to the startling price of €14, or about £10. Wow.

After lunch we explored some of the streets parallel to the main avenue, finding a monument ot Vytautos the Great...

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...as well as Unity Square, where there is an unusual war memorial.

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We had seen in the guidebook that behind this square there was a funicular running to the top of a small hill, where there was another interesting church. Lithuania is a predominantly flat country, so the guidebook did warn that the hill hardly seemed worth building a funicular up and that the authorities had considered closing the steps up the hill after the funicular opened to encourage people to use it! Just by chance we found the steps leading upwards before we found the funicular entrance, so we decided to try walking. It only took five minutes before we got our first glimpse of the church of Christ's Resurrection.

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This rather unusual-looking church was designed after 1918, when Lithuania wanted to build a new church to express its gratitude for independence. Kaunas was chosen as the location for the church in its role as temporary capital. Due to various difficulties with the funding and the construction work, the church was not substantially completed until 1940. This was rather unfortunate, as it was just on time for the Nazis to use it as a storeroom and Stalin to declare it should be used as a factory. Following the re-establishment of Lithuanian independence in the 1990s, work on the church continued and was finally consecrated in 2004.

It's a truly enormous structure and difficult to fit all of it into one photo!

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The area around the church seems to be an affluent suburb, with lots of pretty wooden houses. We wandered around it for a while, looking for a park which we had seen on the map. It proved to be rather elusive and when we did get there it turned out to be more of a forest than a park.

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It was nice to walk under the trees for a bit though, and we did find a memorial to the Lithuanian aviators Darius and Girenas, who tried to fly non-stop from New York to Kaunas in 1933. They successfully crossed the Atlantic Ocean, but crashed and died in Poland, just short of their destination.

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We were getting tired by this point and had walked 10 miles, so decided to head back to our apartment for a rest.

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Kaunas is an attractive city with a really pleasant atmosphere and we would definitely come back. Tomorrow, however, we are heading to Ignalina, a small town northeastern Lithuania near one of the country's national parks :)




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