Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, is, for understandable reasons, attracting visitors in growing numbers (it is very, very beautiful), but Kaunas remains a little off-the-beaten-track.
The old town of Kaunas, located on land between the Neris and the Nemunas rivers west of the new town, developed to the east and the south of the castle. The castle was founded in the 11th century and was an important link in the defensive chain that lay along Lithuania’s western border. A reconstructed tower, a section of wall and part of a moat are all that remain today, but the castle looks very attractive because of its slightly elevated but isolated situation.
Large Rotuses Aikste is, without question, Kaunas’s architectural highlight. The centre of the square is occupied by the tall white baroque Town Hall, which is now the Palace of Weddings, a function that dates from the Soviet era. A ceramics’ museum occupies part of the building. The south side of the square is dominated by a twin-towered Jesuit church, college and monastery dating from the 17th century. Many 15th, 16th and 17th century merchants’ houses encircle the square. Nowadays, many of the houses have bars, cafes or restaurants at ground level, but their beauty and diversity of design are still easy to appreciate.
In the south-west corner of the square is the statue of Maironis (1862 – 1932), a Roman Catholic priest called Jonas Maciulis who was the most famous and most widely respected poet of Lithuania’s late 19th and early 20th century nationalist revival. His tomb stands outside the south wall of the cathedral. To the north and the west of the statue are attractive buildings, some belonging to the Roman Catholic Church and others housing museums and archives. All the buildings benefit from restoration of a very sensitive nature, but restoration proceeds slowly in Lithuania because the country is short of money for such projects. A small open space not far from a large but derelict church has a tall wooden cross. We saw many similar crosses on our return to Kaunas, and in Vilnius and Trakai. I was reminded of Romania where people also love carved wood for devotional purposes.
There are many notable buildings around Rotuses Aikste and in the side streets leading from the square. Aleksotas Gatve has two of the most interesting buildings, the House of Perkunas and Vytautas Church. In common with a number of other important structures in the old town, the House of Perkunas and Vytautas Church are built of brick. Consequently, the old town is littered with structures with a distinctly Hanseatic appearance, something that did not altogether surprise us because the Baltic is only 150 kms to the west, and many of Kaunas’s merchants had been German in origin. The House of Perkunas dates from the 16th century and is said to occupy the site of a former temple to the Lithuanian thunder god, Perkunas (Lithuania’s gradual conversion to Christianity began after 1200, but the new faith’s predominance was not assured until the beginning of the 15th century, by which time bloody religious wars, crusades included, had cowered the overwhelmingly Pagan population into submission. Roman Catholicism may have triumphed, but at enormous human cost).