Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Lithuania 1 – Biržai to Kaunas

Boy did it rain during our first few days in Lithuania. The Indian summer was well and truly over and our impression of that time is of driving across a flat brown landscape under a low dark sky in one long downpour. Still, the roads were much better than in Latvia, so at least we could hold conversations again.

Our first stop after arriving from Latvia was the town of Biržai, and we shouldn’t even have been there, only we had set Garmintrude to the wrong destination, so that she was directing us to some tiny Šiauliai some 200km away instead of the flipping great town of the same name that was almost on our doorstep. We parked up and set off to experience Lithuania, and first impressions were good, as we found a canteen-style restaurant serving up local meat-and-two-veg style cooking for next to nothing. We were language-less again, but pointing and a tiny bit of Russian got us soup and goulash, and some delicious meat-stuffed dumplings in the shape of tiny rugby balls, and called cepelinai – get it? Say the first bit slowly….

Old bus in Biržai and old dog in repose

Finally we reached the right Šiauliai, but our real destination was some 10km further north and just off the Riga road. The Hill of Crosses, or Kryžių Kalnas, is a small knoll on which people have been placing crosses since at least the 1950s and maybe much longer. It is a sign of the strength of popular Catholicism in Lithuania, which it shares with neighbouring Poland. The communist authorities disliked, but ultimately tolerated it, and Pope John Paul II, himself from Poland, put it firmly on the pilgrimage map after a visit here in 1993. In any case, today the hill and its approaches, bristle with many thousands of crosses, almost all made of wood, and measuring from a few centimetres to a couple of metres in height. It is an eerie sight. Older crosses rot away and are overlaid by new crosses. Rosary beads are hung on crosses, and wooden effigies of a suffering Jesus lurk here and there amongst them. Whatever one’s own feelings about matters of religion, the devotion of the enormous numbers who have come here and left their names and their thoughts pinned to these wooden frames is striking.

Hill of Crosses

Šiauliai itself is a post-war city, having been flattened in 1944. Despite that it is a surprisingly appealing place today, rebuilt, as it was, with a city centre of sturdy stone buildings with just enough ornamentation to give the place character. Although some features of the ‘Stalinist’ styles can be discerned, it was essentially a conservative rebuild that recreated a conventional town centre, and to judge from Šiauliai in 2010 it worked very well. I am sure that a lot of renovation has occurred in the last few decades, and the presence of attractive shops and cafes certainly helps, but the basic material must have been sound to start with. We spent rather too much time in one of these cafes, and it was not only raining but getting dark as we left. Šiauliai’s tourist bumph calls it ‘the city of the sun’, and goes on to explain that it did not get its name ‘because of the sun rolling along the ground of the first pedestrian boulevard in Lithuania’. Oh well, that’s one popular misconception dispelled then.

Russian war memorial at Baisogale

We found a small guesthouse with camping on the outskirts of Šiauliai and stayed there for too long on Tuesday morning, leaving about midday to head, once again, on long, straight roads, in the heavy rain. After a while, boredom of driving along the featureless road hit Rob and we stopped to park up for lunch in the small village of Baisogale. Somehow on leaving we managed to reverse into a lamp post, damaging our cycle rack and creating a small ding in the back door. Unhappy times! Not long after this, and still in driving rain, we began looking for a place to stop for the night, and just before Kėdainiai noticed a brown sign to the Geographical Centre of Lithuania, about a kilometre off the main road. We found a tiny carpark by an inscribed stone, and surrounded by endless, flat, ploughed farmland. With the wind whistling, and the rain beating down, it was a really bleak spot, but we shut ourselves in and managed to relax and sleep well. At least there was no reason for us to linger in the morning and we were away by 9:30 a.m., which must be a record for us.

Geographical Centre of Lithuania

The small town of Kėdainiai was our next brief stop-off point. It had a curious connection with Scotland in the 17th century, when a number of Scots Calvinists settled here at the invitation of the local ruler, a member of a branch of the Radvila family (better known by their Polish name of Radziwiłł) who crop up widely in the history of these parts. The settlers built a number of stone townhouses that still stand, and a chap called Arnett rose to be mayor. The old town also houses three synagogue buildings, now put to other uses. However, Kėdainiai’s historic quarter today comes over as rather irrelevant to the town, whose commercial life has shifted a few blocks away, and few people were passing through the two old squares on a rain-swept autumn day. It didn’t detain us that long.


Kaunas, on the other hand, held us longer than we expected it to. We were not even going to go there at one point, but are so glad that we changed our plans. It’s a big place, with a large and attractive centre, and after spending a rainy afternoon there on Wednesday, we were drawn back to see some of the sights again in the bright, autumnal sunshine that returned on Thursday morning. Kaunas in the rain and Kaunas in the sun were two incredibly different places. In the rain it still had appeal, but sunshine brought it to life.

Kaunas - Laisvės Alėje in the rain and the sun

The city centre consists of a mediaeval old town, and a new town built up around the turn of the 20th century. The heart of the old town is Town Hall Square (Ratošės Aikšte), an elegant and spacious affair with the Baroque, church-like, town hall standing in its centre. The many cafes and restaurants open around the edges of the square attest to its tourist pull, and it must be very busy at the height of the summer season.

Kaunas town hall & old town

A number of church towers dot the Kaunas skyline, white-painted baroque and red-brick gothic structures which date from the 15th to 17th centuries. The styles of buildings here reminded us strongly of Poland, which is hardly surprising as the two countries were united in a commonwealth for all of this period and developed almost as one. To the east, a long, tree-lined pedestrianised thoroughfare, Laisvės Alėje, leads through the so-called New Town, a late 19th century creation of square buildings on a grid of streets, and the modern heart of Kaunas. One end is dominated by the whitewashed Baroque dome church of St Michael the Archangel, built originally as the Orthodox church for the Russian garrison in the 1890s, and after several incarnations it now serves as the Catholic church for the Lithuanian army.

Kaunas – St Michael the Archangel and the Basilica Cathedral

Our favourite spot in Kaunas was the Church of the Resurrection, conspicuously located on a hill above the New Town. It is an eye-catching white building with clean, straight lines of 1930s design. In the bright morning sunshine the whole building gleamed and sparkled, with polished marble floors, shining chrome handrails and pristine white walls. The nave, with its tall, slender Art Nouveaux columns and gracefully arched windows, allows the light to play about the interior, creating awe and wonder aplenty. An elevator takes you up to a rooftop terrace, where you are further wowed by the striking appearance and the fabulous views over the city below.

Kaunas Church of the Resurrection

Eventually we had to leave Kaunas though, and we decided to head east to the village of Trakai – another tourist hotspot.

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