Cultural city of Kaunas

Sunday 3 to Tuesday 5 September

Our last stop in Lithuania was at Kaunas, which boasts the longest pedestrianized street in Europe. Laisvės Alėja is lined with trees and cafes. It travels through the new town and meanders down to Kaunas Old Town near the confluence of the Neris and Nemunas Rivers. These major rivers of Lithuania provided an important trade route, which was guarded by Kaunas Castle.

We arrived late in the day, so filled the afternoon with a visit to the Great War Museum. The new museum was opened in 1930 and on the 500th anniversary of Vytautas the Great, Grand Duke of Lithuania, the namesake of the museum and considered a national hero.

During the interwar period, Kaunas was the capital of Lithuania, and countless Art Deco buildings were constructed, which resulted in Kaunas being named a UNESCO City of Design. The Bank of Lithuania which was next to our hotel was one of the grand designs. Another was the Central Post Office.

At the eastern, or new town end of the Laisvės Alėja pedestrian street is the St Michael Archangel (or Lithuanian Military Forces) Church. It is the only building that exceeded the 2 floor limit when the New Town was laid out in the 19th century. The Russian Orthodox church was built for the officers of the military forces, but became a Roman Catholic church when Lithuania gained independence in 1918.

We wandered down the very long pedestrianised street, to the old town and visited the early 15th century Kaunas Cathedral Basilica and the 16th century Town Hall.

We stopped for lunch beside the remnants of Kaunas Castle and overlooking the ‘Wise Old Man’. This mural on the façade of the abandoned Lituanica factory depicts an old man who smokes a cosmic pipe decorated with constellations. Both an old man and a pipe are the symbols of wisdom. The mural was readily accepted in Kaunas and inspired further murals to be made.

The park around the castle was delightful and we wandered down to the river’s edge and then towards the bridge over the Nemunas River and past the Church of Vysutas Magnus (The Great).

Across the bridge we found the Aleksotas Funicular Railway. It was opened in December 1935 and has remained unchanged since then with authentic traction equipment and genuine pre-war wagons with wooden seats. It only travels 142 m up a gradient of 29.5 degrees. There were few passengers on the train, so there was no waiting time, the conductor set the train in motion as soon as we boarded it.

We drove out of Lithuania with a wonderful appreciation of the Baltic states. We loved learning about the history, the constant conflicts and the beautiful castles that were built for their defence. We were horrified by the impact of the Soviet occupation until 1990 but marvelled at the regrowth that is now occurring.

And to make our journey better – it is an area that is not overrun by tourists. Sometimes that made our lack of language difficult, but it certainly made the journey far more interesting and enjoyable.