Lithuania’s second city and one-time capital during the interwar years was founded in the 1300s. It fell into and out of Polish, German and Russian hands throughout the centuries and was destroyed 13 times before the later assaults of World War II.
Now a sprawling industrial and university city, it prizes a picturesque Old Town that dates from the heyday of the 1500s. As a successful river port, it was part of the Hanseatic League.
The intriguing red-brick and gothic House of Perkunas dates to the time of the league, who it is thought built and maintained the riverside palace as a meeting place.
Now a Jesuit monastery (with modern school behind it) the building is named after the Lithuanian God of Thunder whose image was found in a wall cavity, a nod to the country’s pagan past.
Nearby, the riverside Vytautas Church is named in honour of the Lithuanian Grand Duke who defeated the Teutonic Knights at the legendary Battle of Grunwald in 1410.
Forming an alliance with his Polish cousin, the famous Wladyslaw II Jagiello of Poland (Lithuanian but married to Jadwiga, crown princess of Poland), their military success established a harmonious partnership of both countries which lasted 400 years until Lithuania fell squarely into the Russian Tsar’s hands.
The heart of the Old Town is its wide, airy central square lined with attractive 15th and 16th century German merchants’ houses. In the middle squats the ‘white swan’, a 17th century Town Hall.
Having a chequered history as an administrative centre, theatre, brothel, arsenal and prison (with Napoleon to thank for that) it is now a museum and a popular wedding venue. We enjoyed a few quiet moments as the hot sun spilled bright light on its white plastered walls and tower.
Napoleon launched his disastrous campaign of 1812 against Russia from a hill above Kaunas, appropriating its churches and public buildings for his army and arsenal.
Following Napoleon’s defeat Tsarist authorities clamped down hard, imposing Russian Orthodoxy. After the end of the first world war, when Lithuania was occupied by Germany, the republican Lithuanian government declared independence and whilst the Red Army occupied Vilnius, it fled to Kaunas on 31 December 1918.
When Poland annexed the country’s capital Vilnius in 1920, Kaunas became Lithuania’s new capital and wilfully embraced modernist theatre, jazz, cabaret and architecture as its new culture.
Nestling between gabled merchants’ houses are examples of striking modernist buildings. We pondered on their distinctive linear and functional grey concrete looks, wondering what it would be like to be shocked by their sudden emergence, only to then live through the authoritarian concrete architecture of communism in later 20th century years.
Crossing the ugly and traffic-filled concrete bridge across the wide-flowing Nemunas River we hitched a free ride on one of the city’s two funiculars. Built in 1935 the Aleksotas Funicular travels 133 steep meters up Mount Aleksotas where we found a construction crew toiling at shoring up the steep hillside following a landslide from recent, violent summer storms.
Researching later, we discovered several £multi-million architectural projects underway in the city. These include a new pedestrian and cycle bridge across the Nemunas (hurrah!), a new science and innovation park, and a new concert hall.
Construction was evident all through the New Town. Walking the length of its famous pedestrian tree-lined thoroughfare, Laisves Boulevard, we dodged diggers and pneumatic drills busy at work replacing paving and underground drainage.
On a hot and humid day the dust and noise felt overwhelming and people hastily took refuge in designer clothes outlets, pastry shops and bars.
Reaching the dilapidated but lovely St Michael the Archangel at the end of the boulevard, we ducked gratefully down a side street to sample a cold beer at one of the city’s famous locals’ bars. It was disappointingly shuttered up and padlocked.
We found a newly opened and larger sister bar back in the Old Town but by then the humidity at 30 degrees was such that we gratefully headed back on an air-conditioned bus to the campsite, to cool showers and bowls of cold beetroot soup.
Heavily laced with sour cream and dill, this is a delicious dish at any time of the day!
We watched the amateurish acrobatic antics of our neighbouring Swedish campers with amusement. The sun eventually dipped down behind the noisy A1 motorway just after 10pm. Not only are we getting used to being two hours ahead of Blighty, but also the very long summer days.
As we sampled our first Lithuanian Vodka to toast the setting sun, we agreed that Kaunas is a city to be marked down for a future visit as its star is in the ascendancy.