Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Kaunas, Lithuania March 2014

I had no intention of adding annual leave onto the St. Patrick’s public holiday weekend, so I wanted somewhere to pop to for two nights. With this in mind, I played around the websites of Aer Lingus and Ryanair to see where I could fly over to on the Saturday and return from on the Monday. My intention was to see somewhere new to me, and Kaunas emerged as the only candidate and the air fare was within reason. I must confess I didn’t know too much about Lithuanias’s second city except that I remember having picked up some brochures at the Holiday World exhibition as well as from a lonely Lithuanian tourist board stand at Farmleigh courtyard. I remember saying to the girl who manned it that I would definitely go there one day, but just as I walked away I confided to the person in my company that Lithuania has the highest murder rate in Europe and I was a tad nervous about the idea of a solo trip there.
Still, without thinking too much, I booked my flight and followed up by checking out Tripadvisor for a suitable hotel. There was a selection to choose from, but the one that stood out for me was the 4 star 48 roomed Daugirdas Hotel, pretty much the only option located in the Old Town. It offered single rooms with breakfast for €50 per night, using the Trivago website. I could have chosen cheaper and equally recommended options in the new town but my heart set on this conversion of an old town house with modern comforts.
Boarding at Dublin Airport, it seemed that I was the only Irish person on the flight, the remaining were part of the huge Lithuanian diaspora who live in Ireland. It happened that the taxi driver bringing me to the airport was Lithuanian, and he told me how much he hates the climate of his home country and that he would never settle back because of the cold. He loves the relative mildness of Ireland and spends his summer holidays back home where his Irish earned money goes a very long way. The flight took exactly 3 hours. All the sleeping babies on board woke up during the turbulent approach to Kaunas in gale force winds, with the mother beside me trying to make a fun game out of the lurches as if it were a fairground ride. All clapped at the perfect touchdown, which was quickly drowned out by Michael O’Leary’s traditional “on-time” bugle.
One of the first things I observed travelling into the city by taxi was the unique sequence of the traffic lights. Red – orange – flashing green – green. The taxi came to a stop on the orange. The countries of old “Eastern Europe” (bear in mind Lithuania is really a central European country) have had a bad traffic accident rate, and I have been terrified travelling by car in Poland, but I felt perfectly at ease in Lithuania. Maybe it’s because I’ve been in the likes of India in the meantime!
The hotel website had advertised the single rooms as being small, so I was pleasantly surprised at how spacious my room was. My high ceilinged first floor room (201) had two side windows overlooking the atrium where the reception is located and a window at the end looking out onto a lane. The bathroom had a heated floor with non-slip tiles that dried out minutes after getting wet. The bed was very comfortable indeed and the very quiet location made for a great night’s sleep. One can drink the tap water without any problem and it is quite palatable, and a separate waste water system is used in this hotel to fill the toilet cisterns, hence the yellow water as if one had failed to flush. Breakfast had the usual cereals, pastries, fruit etc. as well as bacon, eggs, sausage and tomato.
Essentially, I had Sunday to explore Kaunas (pronounced like ice-cream “cone” with “ass” as in donkey tagged on), so I had researched my walking route with reference to places of interest open on Sunday. Naturally I had to exclude quite a number of places located outside the city centre, such as the notable Pazaislis Monastery. I was greeted by snow, and indeed this was followed by hail, strong winds, sunshine, mist, rain, cold and relative warmth, all seasons in a day. First, I strolled through the Old Town, and my route brought me through the old town square where the Old Town Hall is the centrepiece, known locally as the “white swan”. It serves as the marriage registry office. Lithuania is a predominantly Roman Catholic country as people were busy heading to the local church services. As I strolled past the red round turret of Kaunas Castle a local girl walked her Irish Setter on a long lead in the grassy moat. I headed down Vilniaus Street, the main pedestrianised avenue of the old town, and took a look inside the Cathedral with its magnificent statuary and relief work around the altar area. Lots of individualistic buildings in the area commanded attention, including the medieval House of Thunder, named after the pagan god Perkunas. Lithuania was the last country in Europe to have a non-pagan religion. The Old Town has a distinctly village feel with nearly all buildings elevated no more than two stories. Some lovely pubs, cafe-bars and restaurants line the streets, and two historic telephone kiosks stand near the cathedral.
The far end of Vilniaus Street meets the main thoroughfare of the modern city, Laisves Boulevard, which is also a pedestrian only area. Now I could describe Kaunas as a walkers paradise, and indeed it would be except for the fact that a large number of paving slabs are half uprooted by the vicious icy winters, and there are all sorts of holes and pitfalls for the pedestrian to all into or trip over. I had to keep my eyes glued on the pavement, which to some extent spoilt my enjoyment of the beautiful street scenes. There is a fair bit of graffiti, yet the streets are immaculately litter-free thanks to both the inclination of locals to use litter and recycling bins, and street cleaners vigorously in pursuit of the slightest slip of paper being blown about in the high winds.
Being Sunday, this meant that a lot of places of interest would be closed, yet I was surprised and delighted to find a lively Sunday market adorning the long length of Laisves Boulevard. Splendid wicker furniture was the product of a few stands, some of it adult sized, some fashioned especially for children. Woodwork featured at many stalls, with bird houses appearing to be a national obsession with miniature ones for dolls’ houses, as well as cheese boards, spoons, and even elaborate children’s swings which were there for the testing. Many other crafts were represented, including elaborations on the dried flowers theme, pottery, national motifs, and a host of products produced with the aid of bees. Bee-keeping is a venerable ancient tradition of Lithuania, and of course honey, cosmetics, mead and beeswax candles featured large in the market. Food products were omnipresent, with an abundance of charcuterie, cuts of dark rye bread, smoked fish from Palanga, sausages, stews, Cornish-pasty like pies, stuffed cabbage leaves and all sorts of heavenly aromatic savoury delights cooking over charcoals. Stall-holders did all they could to stop the high winds from blowing over their canopies, but everyone, including passers-by stepped in to help. Many stands served delightful beer, including hot heated brews to warm the cockles. It reminded me of a German Christmas market, with benches and tables to sit at whilst consuming the consumables. I enjoyed a lovely simple potato delight, a potato cut into a thin spiral and deep fried as one potato crisp.
Children delighted at the candy-floss stands, and enjoyed petting the impeccably behaved and manicured Shetland pony which was available for rides. I passed a fashion shop with had in its window display a toy “stuffed” Lithuanian Hound which resembles a hound crossed with a Doberman Pinscher. I didn’t see a real life native breed, but there were pugs, poodles, Siberian Huskies, Yorkshire Terriers and a West Highland terrier in show trim, which rendered him rather vulnerable to the cold. I saw an enormous advert for cat food, but I reckon all the cats must have been warming themselves indoors.
Diverting off the principal streets I took one of the city’s two short funicular railways up to the Christ’s Resurrection Church which was founded in 1918 as a thanks to God for the independence of Lithuania in the city which was the then capital. A stark white building, not quite my cup of tea, yet it is beloved of the citizens.
From the sacred to the demonic, I paid a visit to the Devils Museum, the only such one in the world. A large collection of devil figurines and masks from Lithuania and much further afield, it was initiated by the landscape artist Žmuidzinavičius. Part of the museum is the house where he lived and on display are his pastoral scenes and his studio. I love his impressionistic style and I found it interesting that he depicted scenes of women with enormous hands working on the land with men portrayed in a rather servile role.
Returning to the Old Town I called into the modestly sized Presidential Palace which houses part of the city’s Curlionis Art Collection, and is also a museum of how a well-to-do family typically lived in pre Soviet Lithuania. The building is still used for civic receptions.
At dinner time I tried out my hotel’s cellar restaurant. I chose the salmon poached in veal stock, served with a caramel and orange reduction, accompanied by boiled potato rectangles and courgette spaghetti. It came presented as a work of art on a rectangular plate. Wine was out of range of my pocket, and without the option of a single glass or half bottle, so I chose to have a sensibly priced glass of Martini. My desert was delightful and quite unique; a chocolate fondant deep fried in a chocolate drop scone mixture and served with drops of raspberry coulis and a sprig of mint. It came in three teardrop shaped pieces with long crispy tails, the most mouth watering sweet I have ever had the pleasure to consume.
My flight home from Kaunas arrived in Dublin fifteen minutes early, and I was gobsmacked at the flight crew’s failure to blow the “on time” Ryanair bugle, having braced my ears for its reverberation. A sacking offence, I guess, in Michael O’Leary’s books.

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