This was our last full day in Lithuania, in fact, our last full day in the Baltic region. The following day we were scheduled to drive to Klaipėda, the old harbor town on the Baltic Sea coast once called Memel, where we were booked on the evening ferry to Kiel, Germany.
We dedicated this last day to explore the castle of Kaunas, once a formidable fortified outpost protecting the upriver country from hostile incursions, mostly by the monk-crusaders of the Teutonic Order. The streets leading toward the castle were more funky than pretty but definitely good for a smile.
And there it was, Kaunas Castle, consisting today of one original 14th-century stone tower base, part of a bastion and a stretch of a defense wall foundation.
It appeared, there might not be much left to impress the casual visitor. But let’s not judge too quickly!
The castle is quite popular and groups are keen to take the offered tours. The stone gentleman on the right, by the way, is ponas Kanklės, Mister Chordophone. Kanklės are traditional, zither-like instruments. Under a variety of names, the stringed instruments are popular across the entire Baltic region, Russia, and Finland.
Although it isn’t known when the castle was built, we do know that the Teutonic Order sent out spies in 1361 to gather information about the castle, specifically the thickness of its stone walls, in preparation for a planned assault which happened the following year. For the next 50 years or so, the possession of Kaunas Castle switched back and forth between the crusaders of the Teutonic Order and the Lithuanian defenders, until the united forces of the Polish King Władysław II Jagiełło and his cousin Grand Duke Vytautas the Great, both grandsons of Lithuanian dynastic founder Gediminas, joined forces and defeated the Order and their “Guest Crusaders”, random Catholic knights invited to join the battle on the side of the Teutonic Knights, in the 1410 epic Battle of Grunwald [Grünfelde], also called the First Battle of Tannenberg and Battle of Žalgiris.
And speaking of battles, before we entered the castle, we swung through the adjacent parking lot to visit with modern warriors assembled there on a kind of NATO Open Day.
Finally, inside the castle, we started to explore the multiple levels of the round tower.
Vaidotas, son of Grand Duke Kęstutis and elder brother of Vytautas, was in command during the Teutonic Order’s three-week siege of Kaunas Castle in 1362. When the Knights finally breached the walls and stormed the castle, only 36 of the 400-strong defense force survived the onslaught of crusaders. Why no relief arrived from Vilnius during the Order’s assault on Kaunas Castle remains a mystery.
Following the Lithuanian-Polish victory in 1410, the Teutonic Order was no longer a serious threat and Kaunas Castle lost its strategic importance. Grand Duke Vytautas used it as a convenient residence, otherwise, it became an administrative center for the Grand Duchy. During the 16th century, the Bastion was updated with a firing gallery for the new age of artillery warfare, but past the mid-17th century, Kaunas Castle no longer served as a military installation. The ravages of time, general warfare, repeated flooding, and encroaching urban development led to near-complete disrepair of the abandoned fortification. Between 1930 and 2011, during short bursts of archeological activities interspersed with long periods of inactivity, the artillery Bastion was excavated nearly intact and sections of the foundation of the original defensive wall were found as well. The walls, artillery bastion, and the remaining tower were preserved and the original portions restored, but without attempting to achieve their original height.
The gothic-style church of Saint George the Martyr was finished in 1502. The complex of church, monastery, and, since 2011, a dormitory for pilgrims called “Domus Pacis”, the Peace House, has always snuggled close to the defensive structures of the castle.
Back in the deep dungeons of the castle tower, we were surprised by the antics of a grim medieval warrior. This awesome, holographic swordsman, dancer, and even ball-dribbler was so entertaining that I almost forgot to take pictures 😁
A few floors up, we were introduced to the ducal living quarters with fun props and exhibits.
The above image isn’t a painting in the traditional sense. Rather, it is a 3-D reconstruction of the siege of Kaunas Castle in 1362 based on archeological records. It was created in 2011 by the archeologist Algirdas Žalnierius, the artist Antanas Vaičekauskas, the graphic artist Vilius Petrauskas, and Darius Galinis who built the 3-D models.
From the top floor of the castle, one can enjoy sweeping views across Kaunas and beyond.
Upon leaving the castle,
we approached the newest landmark in Kaunas, the Freedom Warrior or Laisvės karys, a statue of the esteemed Vytis. This monumental sculpture by Arūnas Sakalauskas was unveiled in 2018 and has since become a favorite with visitors.
And sometimes they give direction! Without hesitation, Vytis led us directly to the prettiest coffee shop/salon de thé in Kaunas, Kavos Klubas.
After our refreshment, we enjoyed a leisurely walk home to do laundry and start packing our cases.
In the evening, we enjoyed our last Baltic meal at our most favorite restaurant of the entire trip, the Ieti. It is quite unusual for us to go to the same restaurant twice in two days, but chef and owner Inga Turminienė had created such a unique place in Old Town Kaunas that it was impossible to resist.
Chef Inga joined us after dinner and we had a fun chat with her about food and associated subjects. She is the most exceptional professional who has proven herself during internships in some of the most famous restaurants in the world, for example at the outstanding Danish restaurant Geranium. She has also been active in competitions where she was chosen to represent her country. Her greatest desire for her own place, the Ieti, is to make her guests happy with the freshest, tastiest, and most creative foods Lithuania has to offer, while still staying true to her grandmothers’ traditional cooking which first triggered her obsession with food preparations.
It had gotten late and most of her other guests had long since departed when Inga introduced us to a local herbal spirit,
Čiobrelių troškinys su medumi ir šafranas, in other words, a very, very potent [42% ABV] extract of thyme, sweetened with linden honey and flavored with saffron. There are quite a number of flavors available in these Lithuanian potable bitters, among them Beetroot with truffles and Artemisia Vulgaris or lemon wormwood. Making Inga’s acquaintance and being introduced to some of her beloved country’s culinary secrets made for an exceptional and memorable last evening in Lithuania. We must have indulged quite a bit with Inga because I swear, I saw the German flag fly at the Town Hall on our way home …