I had been in Vilnius, capital of Lithuania, for a full week. It was the dead of winter; the days were frigid, with intermittent snow (the sort that melts as soon as it lands on your clothes), along with bursts of frozen rain, thick fog, and bitterly cold wind. I needed a break. What better place to go than Kaunas: the most Lithuanian city in Lithuania?
Does Kaunas have a more temperate climate than Vilnius? Hard to say definitively. It is closer to the coast, and it was raining, rather than snowing, when I arrived. It might have been slightly warmer in Kaunas than in Vilnius, but it was raining so heavily, and I became so wet that I was colder there than I ever was in the capital. 😀
The founding of Kaunas
There has been a settlement in the location of Kaunas since at least the 10th Century CE. The settlement was strategically located, as it sat behind the confluence of two large rivers – the Nemunas and Neris Rivers – and was thus perfectly situated for trade.
No one knows precisely when Kaunas Castle was built, but it must have been some time before 1361 CE, because in that year the castle was besieged by the Teutonic Knights – a crusading military order working on behalf of the Catholic Church. After a three-week siege the knights broke through the walls and captured the castle. It was one of the Teutonic Knights most successful victories.
The castle is currently utilised as an art gallery.
Old Town, Kaunas
Old Town is the centre of medieval Kaunas – and it is now an attractive pedestrian mall. This is the part of Kaunas people are referencing when they describe it as the most Lithuanian city in Lithuania.
In 1441 the city joined the Hanseatic League – a confederation of merchant guilds that started with the German cities of Lübeck and Hamburg, and succeeded in spreading across the Baltic Sea trade route, encompassing cities such as Visby (Sweden), Bergen (Norway), Tallinn (Estonia), Novgorod (Russia), Riga (Latvia), and Gdańsk (Poland).
Kaunas developed into a successful trade city, by the 16th Century it was one of the richest, largest, and most developed cities in Lithuania.
Town Hall, Kaunas
The first iteration of the town hall was built in 1542 – it was just a single storey structure at the time.
Many, many facelifts have been given to the building since. The tower is now 53-metres high – the tallest in the city.
Church of Saint Michael the Archangel
In 1795 the city was taken over by the Russian Empire. Napoleon’s armies sacked the city twice in the ensuing Franco-Russian wars.
The Church of Saint Michael the Archangel was built in 1895. It was originally an Orthodox Church, intended for use by Russian troops, but was converted into a Catholic Church during the Interwar period.
You can reach Kaunas from the capital, Vilnius, via bus or train. The distance between the two cities is 90 kilometres. The trip time is roughly 1.5 – 2 hours.
The Interwar architecture in Kaunus is on the tentative list for UNESCO World Heritage listing.