“What strange phenomena we find in a great city, all we need do is stroll about with our eyes open. Life swarms with innocent monsters.”
– Charles Baudelaire
There is a strong difference between Kaunas and Vilnius. Kaunas is a well organized city. Most of the city center’s public spaces are freshly renovated. Everything looks new and extremely well taken care of. No waste on the streets, no degradation, it is cleaner than in a crocodile’s mouth. – I just made that up – Whereas Vilnius feels more alternative so to speak. Everything isn’t so neat and organized but it looks more lively. Its urban structure is also diverse. Where Kaunas districts are much alike, in Vilnius it can be very different from one neighborhood to the other.
European capital of culture
No matter how long I stay in a country, I always try to be immersed into its culture. It takes time and a lot of energy but understanding the context is essential to me. Usually, I start off with a museum or a free walking tour (alternative if possible). There’s no better way to get around than a local showing you around with a lot of anecdotes revolving around History. In Kaunas I’ve learn a lot in the war history museum. What struck me, but didn’t really surprise me, was the constant open conflicts with the Russian empire. Baltic countries were colonized back and forth for centuries.
Kaunas is the European capital of culture this year. So the public spaces are completely being rebuild. Asphalt roads are remplaced by stones pavement all over the old town. In two years or so the public spaces will be of incredible facture. But for now it’s a giant construction yard. Not one street in the old town was spared. Which is a very good thing for the city.
By the way, if you ever go to Lithuania, take scouters to move around. They’re really cheap and effective (13cts a minute). Also the Bus will get you anywhere for 1€. No matter the distance it’s a fixed rate. Overall public transports are what they should be in any country according to me : effective and cheap.
If you want to explore as much as possible, without being too tired, those little devils are just what you need. It is such a relief not to care about how you’ll come back later. Also when your legs are sore and your feel tired to your bones, it’s a good alternative to the good old walking.
A failed adventure
On a clear and -extremely- sunny day, I took a bus to go to Dubrava reserve. It was supposed to be one of those places where you walk on wooden pathways over small ponds. So I took a bus from the city center. From which I had to get out because it was impossible to buy a ticket without cash. One hour later I took the next one, and 45 minutes later, I was there. Turned out it was a swamp.. in summer.. with a temperature exceeding 30. Do you see where I’m going ? Worst idea I ever had since I tried to make a swimming pool in my parent’s garden. Digging with my own hands. So I had to walk one hour near the marsh just to get out. I was literally followed by clouds of mosquitos.
My point is, if you ever wonder in the nature in the Baltic states, you better have a strong lotion because these relentless ladies are out for fresh blood. And they recognize a walking and sighing dinner when they see one. They’re even in Neman and Neris Confluence Park, located at the tip of the city. Although since the place is more crowded, they spread onto different preys.
From Kaunas a one hour ride will lead you to Vilnius. In contrast with its rival sister, Vilnius is located on a hilly landscape and is much more disorganized. Or at least she seems to be at first sight. The train station is on the upper side of the city. After a thirty minutes walk downhill, crossing all kind of sinusoidal urban landscape I made it to the hostel. The place was a bit of a mess but incredibly well located. It was in front of a park, next to the medieval fortress. Which gave an incredible vantage point over the city. A perfect spot to explore one district at a time.
After an early arrival I started my first day in the MO museum, where two exhibitions were displayed. BAXT and moving mountains. The first on a local photographer. the second on the rivalry and friendships between Kaunas and Vilnius. BAXT was definitely better though. Baxt means « fate, fortune » in Roma. The photographer took photos of the same people in a twenty years time frame. The portraits were then put on display on wooden doors. Same doors that belonged – now demolished – to the wooden house from the Roma people who were then expelled.
The independent state of Uzypius
The next morning after an early walk I decided to explore east. I’ve heard about an independent district by the Vilnia river, in the very heart of the city. The place is called Uzypius, which literally means beyond the river in Lithuanian. This part of Vilnius is held by many artists and has its own constitution. Which states in line n°12 that “a dog has the right to be a dog”. The Dalaï Lama even came twice to the place and planted a tree in the Tibetan square. Cool right ? It is supposed to be kind of serious. Even though their national day is on the 1st of April.
If I had to choose between the two cities, I’d choose Vilnius. Without a second thought. The city is way more active and young. As for the art scene, from what I can tell it is also incredibly alive and kicking. I visited four museums, all of them had interesting exhibitions. The fact that Uzypius is also hosting a good chunk of artists, also add a thick layer of animation in the city.
A day in Trakai
Trakai is definitely worth going for a one day trip. If you like small villages surrounded by water, that is. A train can take you there in 30 minute. If you are on a good sunny day, just strolling around is a bliss. The small wooden colored houses and the lakes are a marvel. But whatever you do, bring your mosquito repulsive.
Other than that, there’s a medieval castle on one of the islands. A monument that was rebuild from sparse ruins over 50 years. You can get inside for a fee, but it’s interesting for the architecure only. Even though they have a good collection of artefacts, the pieces aren’t related to the castle. Or even to medieval history for that matter. There’s a little bit of everything. Including Chinas from the renaissance, Japanese fans, and other various pieces. A bit like your grandmother’s attic if you will.