All photos © A. Aleksandravicius
It must be hard playing second fiddle to a bigger and on the surface more vibrant and appealing city. But often it is the smaller places which have more to offer and where you discover unexpected gems and real warmth from the locals.
Kaunas in Lithuania is a classic example. Between 1920 and 1939, it became the country’s temporary capital after Vilnius was seized by Poland. But when the fighting stopped, Vilnius regained its status as top dog and today is the main port of call for tourists visiting Lithuania.
As one local told me, “People head for Vilnius and the countryside, and only stop off in Kaunas if they have time for lunch.’’
Now though, change could be on the cards. In 2017 Kaunas was awarded the title of European Capital of Culture in 2022, bringing with it, all the opportunities the title should bring including investment, new life and more visitors.
There are mixed feelings about this in the city. Many hope it will put Kaunas and the country on the map and, as well as bring in visitors, it will help stem the outflow of the young. After low-cost university education – Kaunas is respected worldwide for its medical and technical teaching – many take advantage of the European Union’s free movement and head abroad to seek their fame and fortune.
But then there are those, who like Kaunas just the way it is. And why not? It has the longest and possibly the most beautiful pedestrianised street, Laisvės Avenue, in Eastern Europe. It is spotlessly clean, has good facilities and is culturally rich, with tickets for the local philharmonic orchestra and theatres sold out in minutes.
The Kaunas 2022 organisers have a tricky job of providing a good balance of fame and character. Three years after being awarded the status, the team are well on their way. In the trendy 2022 office, the clever branding of “It’s Kaunastic’’ with a cute cat as its symbol is everywhere, from the coffee cups to the official beer. And there is real excitement from the team to unlock the city’s potential.
The last three years has seen a series of cultural events build up in the city to get the locals involved and buzzing, and ready for the big tourist party in 2022. The city’s interwar architecture is regarded as among the finest examples of European Art Deco; Kaunas was the first city in Central and Eastern Europe to be designated as the UNESCO City of Design.
Kaunas boasts the world’s only devil museum, which has to be seen to be believed. The collection of 3,000 devils was put together by Lithuanian painter and professor Antanas Žmuidzinavičius, and boy there are some quirky figurines!
Street art is big too, with imagery from pink elephants to a wise old man smoking a pipe adorning walls across the city. Basketball is like a religion, with Žalgiris Kaunas the city team already off to winning ways this year and marking Lithuania’s Independence Day on February 16th by winning the Lithuanian King Mindaugas Cup.
But as they say, it is people who make a place and Kaunas has a real warmth to it, from the restaurant owners keen for you to try the staple diet of delicious potato pancakes, to the shop keepers proudly showing off the country’s jewel, the amber stone. They clearly love their city and want to embrace the opportunities of 2022, but at the same time, keep their easy going and relaxed way of life. Who can blame them?!