Call of The North: Lithuania, Kaunas – Around Town Hall Square

When I opened my archives to select the photos for this post, the first two images I found for Kaunas showed food rather than scenery. Considering that it takes less than 90 minutes to drive from Vilnius to Kaunas we must have skipped breakfast before setting off!

As if drawn by some inborn foody instincts, within moments of having established ourselves in our apartment, we picked the most innovative restaurant on the main square in Old Town Kaunas for our lunch, the Ieti. I’ll tell you more about this exceptional and fun restaurant later, for now, I just want to mention their kindness. During lunch, we went gaga over their moist, yeasty, dark bread, apparently making such a fuss that the chef sent a to-go-parcel with her bread to our table.

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A lovely care package we enjoyed that very evening at our kitchen table with the Finnish butter we had carried with us from AirBnB to AirBnB across the Baltic regions. Our place was located just off Town Hall Square, Rotušės aikštė, the very center of Old Town Kaunas with its memorable town hall, in easy walking distance to the rivers Nemunas and Neris, as well as the historical grounds of some of Lithuanian’s most important history.

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The square is surrounded by three churches, two museums, and a multitude of stores, restaurants, and bars in 15th and 16th-century former German merchant houses mixed with modern and period construction. From right to left in the picture above,  we see the Aplinkos apsaugos departamentas prie Aplinkos ministerijos also known as the Kaunas Department of Environmental Protection governed through the Ministry of Environmental Protection of Lithuania. The new construction blends in quite nicely with its neighbor, the pretty neo-baroque building housing the offices of the Notaries of Kaunas City. Its pink and yellow façade stands in stark contrast to the black finish of the restaurant Medžiotojų užeiga, the Hunter’s Inn next door. Between the game meats and the lawyers is a narrow alley leading to a courtyard behind the restaurant. That’s where we found our apartment and parking space. Our place was actually one floor up over a paint & art supply chain store called Meno Mūza which means something like “Art Muse”. You can see the store’s green wall on the far side of the restaurant. Next to it extents the vast complex of the Jesuit Church of Saint Francis Xavier with its monastery and senior highschool. Our apartment windows overlooked the beautiful, creamy yellow high school building across a small side street, rather than the square itself. You can see it here:

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Jesuits on the left, our windows one floor up on the right. At the end of the block, the street turns into the Vytautas the Great bridge crossing the Nemunas river.

When you slowly travel through Finland and the Baltic Countries, as we did, one recognizes many historical commonalities, however, strong patriotic feelings in each separate region soon became apparent also. The people’s sense of national pride is most strongly conveyed through the arts. Aside from the preservation of folk art and crafts, it is music and poetry, in particular, which have demonstrated since the early 19th century the desire for a true homeland during the deliberate suppression of national identities in times of political upheaval and military occupation. In Latvia, for example, we first encountered the all-important Song Festival, while here in Lithuania the yearning for national identity utilized the old adage that the word is mightier than the sword.

Around the perimeter of Kaunas’ Town Hall Square, we encountered two revered representatives of the Lithuanian National Revival movement on our first afternoon in town, both of them were priests, and both of them wielded a mighty pen. As soon as we entered the square, we came across the impressive granite statue of Jonas Mačiulis, called Maironis, patriot, poet, priest, and professor, quietly contemplating the State of the Nation in his fly-away soutane. The memorial is positioned in front of his former home, now the Maironis Lithuanian Literature Museum. Maironis is considered to be the Bard of the Lithuanian National Revival, the one who expressed in his poetry his people’s anguish, but also their hopes and aspirations during their struggle for freedom. I’ve tried in vain to figure out why he was called Maironis. It might be quite obvious for Lithuanians, so there are no explanations to be found on the internet. Maironas seems to mean Myron, but that’s not exactly helpful 😳  

The other national hero was Bishop Motiejus Valančius, his statue is positioned in front of the Kaunas Theological Seminary, which was his home for 25 years under strict imperial Russian supervision.

The bishop wrote the first comprehensive history of the diocese in the Lithuanian language during a time when only Polish and Russian was customary among educated Lithuanians. He established primary schools with a Lithuanian curriculum and strengthened the Catholic Church against forced encroachment of the Russian Orthodox Church by building a strong contingent of Lithuanian priests devoted to his mission. Until he was put under house arrest in Kaunas, he visited farming communities tirelessly. To countermand the Tsarist regime’s efforts to keep the Lithuanian peasantry perpetually drunk and thus pliable, Bishop Valančius initiated a successful temperance movement that was eventually embraced by half the population. His most outstanding actions occurred after the collapse of the 1863 Lithuanian uprising against the Tsarist Empire. In retaliation, the Tsar decreed that it was forbidden to use the Latin alphabet in any Lithuanian publication, including school books and even newspapers. In an effort for total Russification, this Cyrillic-only edict remained in effect for the next 40 years. To preserve a Lithuanian identity for future generations in this hostile atmosphere, the Bishop created a network of underground village schools where the lessons were taught in Lithuanian and he directed and even paid for Lithuanian books to be printed in the Latin alphabet outside of the Russian power sphere. These books were brought back to Lithuania by Book Smugglers or Lietuvos knygnešiai. Smuggling printed material into the country was a highly dangerous activity, punishable by fines, imprisonment, exile to the Russian gulags, or execution. Some smugglers caught at the borders were shot on the spot, even priests. The London Book Fair in 2018 had a special celebration in the memory of the Lithuanian Book Smugglers. I added four hyperlinks to my comments which is a little excessive, I know, especially the long essay about Bishop Valančius who was a veritable genius in defying the Russian edicts issued to break the Lithuanian spirit. However, I would like very much to bring the centuries’ long oppression of the Baltic Nations to the forefront of your understanding of these somewhat unknown European regions.

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Our alleyway between restaurant and notary offices, just a dirt lane with humongous potholes. It was agony to drive through it with my cracked ribs!

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Town Hall aka the white swan

Like most older buildings, the Town Hall went through many manifestations since its beginning as a modest one-story meeting hall in 1542. Currently, it serves as a welcome venue for official visits to the City of Kaunas, but it is mainly a wedding registry and the square is crowded with bridal parties every Saturday morning. The hall has seen tsars, princes, and celebrities, it served as a Russian theatre, an ammunition depot, a prison, a museum, … innumerable changes!

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Wedding Hall on the left, Jesuit Church of St. Francis Xavier opposite.

Behind the white swan, along the northern perimeter of the square, one finds Bishop Valančius’ Church of the Holy Trinity and the Seminary cheek by jowl with the Mojo Lounge nightclub.

Also in this block, we noticed the offices of Adform and Adform Yard Kaunas, a hip Danish advertising technology company and event venue. Along the wall of their offices, which used to be a stagecoach inn in former times, we fund some large insects,

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with a commemorative plaque dedicated to Vladislavas Starevičius, or Ladislas Starevich [1881-1965] who was a world-famous, admired and respected Lithuanian/Polish/Russian/French pioneer of puppet animation, held in the highest esteem throughout the industry. He created the first puppet animation movie ever right here in Kaunas in 1910. He later lived and worked in France. Low and behold, there were a few more animals just a few feet over, regal Great Danes (?) guarding a water fountain.

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When you hang out in countries with mostly incomprehensible languages, you constantly wonder about the meaning of things you hear or read. Case in point, the mysterious inscription of Geriamas Vanduo around the spout, in copper, no less. Well, as it turned out, it means “Potable Water”. Certainly an important directive from a hygienic point of view – a letdown nevertheless 🙃

The NE corner of the square is dominated by the majestic bulk of the Cathedral Basilica of the Apostles St. Peter and St. Paul. It is one of Lithuania’s oldest and largest gothic-style sanctuaries.

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Several businesses and museums, among them the funky Museum of the History of Lithuanian Medicine & Pharmacy, complete the northern aspects of the square, while the entire eastern perimeter was given over to restaurants, bars, and cafés.

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Eventually, we meandered down toward the Nemunas river, passing yet another church, the modest Vytautas the Great Church of the Accession of the Holy Virgin Mary or Vytauto Didžiojo bažnyčia for short, built in the early 1400s to serve Franciscan monks and German merchants. Grand Duke Vytautas the Great funded the building of the church to give thanks after he nearly died in his ill-fated Battle of the Vorskla River against the Golden Horde in 1399. The church, like so many others, saw some transmogrification over the centuries, like serving as an Orthodox sanctuary at times or as a storehouse for Napoleonic ammunitions. The tower was added sometime later and may have been used as a beacon to aid river traffic.

Across the street from the church, another 15th-century gothic-style brick building caught our eye. It was the Hanseatic League merchant house called House of Perkūnas or Perkūno namas. It was used by the Hanseatic League from 1440 to 1532, after which time it was sold to the Jesuits next door who used it as a chapel for a while. Later on, the house served as an art school and it also became the first dramatic theatre in Kaunas. The Lithuanian Romantic poet Adomas Mickevičius attended school there and the Jesuits currently maintain a small museum dedicated to his work in Perkūno namas.

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The name Perkūnas refers to the Lithuanian Pagan Deity of the sky, thunder, lightning, fire, storms, rain, war, law, fertility, mountains, and oak trees. Let’s just say, he was or possibly still is, one heck of a busy guy. During a renovation, an image was found hidden within a wall that was interpreted as representing Perkūnas. Naturally, a whole slew of legends began to grow around the old house.

We took a few more steps toward the riverbank, admiring the fast-flowing Nemunas,

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Looking back to the Vytautas the Great bridge.

then we followed the footpath along the river toward the Nemuno ir Neries santaka, the confluence of the rivers Nemunas and Neris.

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We didn’t make it all the way to the tip, it’s quite a large park and we were getting tired. Instead, we returned to town for a little grocery shopping to enhance our Lithuanian-bread-with-Finnish-butter dinner.

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Stasys Šilingas 1885 – 1962

“In this house, from 1919 to 1941, lived the Chairman of the State Council, a member of the Seimas [Parliament], Minister of Justice, a Siberian martyr”

If you can bear yet another link to someone else’s narrative, I found a biography written by Stasys Šilingas’ granddaughter, the Honorary Consul from the State of Alaska to the Republic of Lithuania, Svaja Vansaukas Worthington, who is a naturalized American citizen. The segment “Wolf at the door” describes the day in 1941 when the family was ripped apart by Soviet forces during mass deportations of Lithuanians. Stasys, his wife Emilija, and one of their nine daughters, Raminta, were arrested, immediately separated and imprisoned in the Siberian arctic. Both women died within three years, while Šilingas suffered through twenty years in the gulags.

With the possible exception of Vladas Pūtvis, the four gentlemen mentioned as note-worthy Lithuanians, žymūs lietuviai, on the second plaque were honored for their artistic endeavors rather than political activism. Mentioned were:

Joną Garalevičių [1871-1943] who was a Master of Lithuanian musical instruments, builder and restorer of organs and string instruments. Oddly, he also built the first glider in Lithuania in 1911 in Kaunas. Paulius Galaunė [1890-1988] was an art historian, museum curator, and graphic artist. Vladas Putvinskis or Pūtvis [1873-1929] was a staunch supporter of Lithuanian language & literature, Book Smuggler, Lithuanian Rifleman and a pioneer of aquaculture. Juozas Tallat-Kelpša [1889-1949] was a celebrated conductor, composer, and producer of opera, as well as a music educator, who established music classes in Lithuanian public schools.

Across the street from our notable Lithuanians, we observed some archeological activity – or, much less romantic, just a construction site.

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The excavations showed how the street levels changed dramatically over time.
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The façade still needs care, but the windows are already newly installed.

We followed the balloon home …

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After some refreshments in a quiet bar,

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we did our shopping along Vilniaus gatvė, then walked back toward Town Hall Square for a quiet evening at home.

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KARTU UZ KLIMATA! TOGETHER FOR THE CLIMATE

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