Kaunas and birthday boy
11th July 2016
The big day out. We were off to Kaunas for the day. Once out of town the drive looked straightforward enough and I had organised my tablet’s GPS with the maps for Lithuania. It was charged and ready to go.
Our street was one-way, down the hill so we invariably had the down and then back up again syndrome pretty much whichever way we were going. What I was not prepared for was the turn left in order to come up around the railway station. This is in the centre of a city and the road looked like a cobbled two lane farm track that was used by heavy agricultural machinery on a regular basis.
Except that farm tracks rarely have drains sticking up in the middle of them. Thankfully there was nobody following me (because they know a better street ?) so I was able to take my time trying not to ground the car or rip the underside out of it. Frankly, we found country lanes, that were little more than dirt tracks, that were in a better state of repair than some of these streets in Vilnius.
In a short while we were out on the main road, bound for Kaunas. Traffic was light and we were able to make steady progress. I remembered Vytautas saying that none of the traffic cameras ever worked but the other drivers appeared to be keeping far closer to the speed limits than I recall in years gone-bye.
An hour and a bit down the road and we were approaching Kaunas and back working with the GPS. I had set it to take us to the Castle from where I reckoned we could walk to most places. Much to my surprise the journey was very straightforward and we followed along the banks of the Neris River directly to the car park.
The weather was not brilliant and our first discovery was that, being a Monday, a number of places were closed, the castle included. Actually, there does not appear to be a great deal to look at so we wandered around it, through the park, as far as St George’s Church.
As the guide books say, the church has lived through interesting times. Ruined three times by fires, subjected to the Tsar’s army in the wars against Russia, Napoleon had it used as a store as did the Soviet occupiers. The attached convent was at one time being used by the Russians as a prison. It was finally returned to its former use in 1993. Renovation as they say, is an ongoing process but photos on display showed how it used to look.
Carrying on up the street we reached the town hall square and then Vilniaus gatvė, which was evidently the tourist street of the old town and it wasn’t long before we had found ourselves a coffee and bun stop.
It was getting warm and sitting outside was much more comfortable than indoors and offered a chance to watch the world go past. Refreshed and ready for the off I consulted my guide and maps and we continued on our way, along the street. Many of the souvenir shops belonged to chains that we had seen in Vilnius though prices seemed a little cheaper.
There were a lot of women’s clothing boutiques along the way but very little for men. My mother remarked that the women were all very fashionably dressed though we saw few of the girls wearing the topless bottomless straps that Gabrielle had suggested were favoured by Kaunas girls.
The temperature had now gone beyond warm and as we entered into the main thoroughfare of the town, Laisvės alėja (which I would translate as Avenue) it was positively hot. We really liked the street. Completely pedestrianised and where it crossed other roads all traffic simply had to give way to us footsloggers. The central pathway was double lined with trees and there were benches galore to sit on. Something I noted wherever we went, the benches always seemed to be clean. Either the towns employ a lot of staff or the birds refrain from adding their own touch of local colour.
The gardeners were out weeding and dead-heading the plants whilst trying to clear out the fallen leaves as well — a lost cause with the strong breeze that was blowing. At the far end of the Avenue was a large church which lent a Taj Mahal aspect to the view. It seemed quite a long way off and a few pauses were required on the way down. It’s a church, so surely it won’t be shut on a Monday ?
We came to the rather grand statue of Vytautas the Great and alongside it a flower bed and panel showing the towns twinned with Kaunas. We assumed that those squares that had been greyed out were pre-Brexit British Cities !
For a moment we thought it had started to rain but the water turned out to be from the fountain blowing in the wind. We were now into the home straight as we reached the end of the refurbished avenue and crossed onto the remaining few hundred metres which was in the throws of being dug up and paved.
Thankfully the Church of St. Michael the Archangel was open and the coolness of the interior was a welcome relief from the sun outside. Like the town itself the church has a chequered history. Originally designed as an Orthodox cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul for the Russian garrison it was opened in 1895. Twenty years later when Germany invaded Russia they seized the town and took the bells back to Germany (no doubt as cannon fodder). With the creation of Lithuania after the war the church remained a garrison church but now a Roman Catholic one for the Lithuanian servicemen. Come the Soviet era the building was reduced to being an art gallery.
With more pillars than you could shake a stick at the neo-Byzantine structure is imposing and it seems odd that a hundred years ago the locals thought of knocking it down as it had no architectural value. From the central dome three large single coloured flags hang down. Viewed from the front they form the national flag.
Time was pushing on a wee bit and we began our leisurely two kilometre walk back towards the old town. We paused at a bar for a large glass of orange juice before picking up the few items that I wanted to buy. Tonight we were eating with more friends and it was Vaidis’s birthday on the morrow (a Twelfth baby !). What to buy as a present for somebody who doesn’t drink, doesn’t eat meat, doesn’t have a car and obviously spends far too much of his time staying fit ?
Whilst looking for ideas I spotted something that I hoped would be suitable.
According to my guide one of the buildings now used by the University had been used by Napoleon on his way through the town. We found the location but by now it was raining quite heavily, so we were unable to explore better. Just across the street though was an interesting block proclaiming the fact that it celebrated nothing at all.
It was now chucking it down and we made the dash to reach the Kaunas Cathedral Basilica (Sts Peter and Paul). At 84 m long, 28 m high and 34 m wide, it is the largest Gothic church in Lithuania and dates back to the 15th Century. The interior is stunning with a baroque high altar alongside some renaissance touches that were acquired during renovations. We had plenty of time to take it all in because the rain was still thundering down outside.
When it eventually eased I wanted to go and have a look at the longest bridge in the world. At 256 metres long, the Vytautas the Great Bridge spans the Nemunas River. Although the current version is Soviet there has been a bridge here for centuries. At the turn of the 19th Century the old town was in Russia whilst the southern bank was in either Prussia or Warsaw. With the difference between the Julian and Gregorian calendars it took twelve days to cross from one bank to the other !
The river is known in English as the Neman and Napoleon’s crossing of it near Kaunas on 24th June 1812 is depicted in Lev Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
Arriving back in the square we found (as rather expected) that the Town Hall museum was closed. Out front was a wax furnace and the town is famous for its candles. We hadn’t seen a single place selling them !
Calling it a day we decided to head back to the car and wend our way back to Vilnius. Alongside the square there is a statue to Ladislas Starevich who had lived in Kaunas. Considered one of the innovators of stop-motion film the statue represents the two protagonists of his animated film : The Grasshopper and the Ant, for which he was decorated by Tsar Nicholas II. Fleeing to France during the Revolution he died there in 1965 having created a large catalogue of works known throughout the world.
Thus, we left Kaunas slightly earlier than we had planned to and had an uneventful trip back to our apartment. How lucky we were. It rained a wee bit as we reached Vilnius but the black clouds were not long in catching us up. From our window we could usually see the towers of the Church of the Holy Spirit. Not this evening. The trees were being blown about and the rain didn’t so much fall as simply materialise by the bucket load at ground level as the thunder crashed and the lightning cut through the sudden darkness.
Inside life was much brighter, as Mother and I had a glass of cream liqueur and listened to music. Dad was on his I-pad, or at least he was alongside it. A while later he came in and asked if it had been raining.
Great minds think alike and in proposing a suitable restaurant Vaidis had suggested that we meet him and Viktoras at the Belmontas Mill, the very same place that we had been considering now that we had the car. Down the hill we went, back up the other hill we came and then along the back road to the restaurant. It wasn’t far and we arrived just before our friends. What was quite evident was that the place was shut ! How can this be asked Vaidis on his arrival. I telephoned them this morning and they gave me a booking.
They may have given him a booking in the restaurant but in fact the only part of the complex that was open was the Waterfalls outdoor café. You couldn’t get any more open than that but we decided that, although it might get a bit chilly later on, we were there so we might as well go for it. We were seated and soon being waited upon by a young chap who had no hesitation in telling my mother that her choice was somewhat boring and if she wanted chicken then she should go for the other dish. He was right as well.
I had noticed on the trip to Vytautas’s wedding in Germany that bow-ties seemed to be the in thing these days. I had also noticed that Vaidis hadn’t worn one but that could now be rectified by our trip to Kaunas where I had seen one that I thought would suit him. And it was Lithuanian (Though that could be the name of a town just outside Beijing these days. Where do souvenirs bought in China get made? Croydon ?).
I am of the opinion that trying to fit a clip on bow-tie by yourself is possibly trickier than trying to tie one. It is hard to get the two ends to actually slot into each other. Come on Viktoras do your bit.
Over the meal Vaidis was asking about just where I lived so out came the tablet with my maps on it. He then got his phone out and went on line to Street View the house. It would appear that I haven’t cut the hedge in seven years. Nearly two thousand kilometres to Vilnius but almost all of it on autoroutes. Still take you the best part of two days driving.
Like Gabrielle the pair of them seemed surprised as to just how much ground us old folks had managed to cover. We were averaging a good eight plus kilometres of walking a day. Once we get those wheelchairs into fifth gear there’s no stopping us.
Our waiter kept us amused and was attentive without being obtrusive (as were most of the staff wherever we went — if there were staff that is). It began to get chilly and my parents were immediately offered blankets which they declined as we knew that we would be leaving quite soon. Our waiter was quite insistent and it was only when Dad made it quite clear — by slapping his wrists — that he didn’t want one that the part was ceded.
I will admit now, that the alcohol free beer that I had been drinking was OK. Nothing to write home about but then most Lithuanian mass market beers are pretty boring and don’t taste of much anyway. Our evening came to an end and we walked back to the car park in the mizzle that had continued to fall throughout most of the evening. We said our farewells and wished Vaidis a fun weekend as he celebrated his birthday with friends and family.
A few minutes later and we were back at the apartment. A glass of something more interesting than alcohol free beer and we were ready for bed. Tomorrow we were heading out into the countryside.
Posted : 11 July 2016