Monday, August 4, 2014

DAY 43 – 28 July 2014; Riga to Kaunas

Lal and I spent extra time over breakfast in the Maritim Hotel in Riga – it was a feast. The coffee was great too. The restaurant was filled to overflowing. Large tourist groups patronise the hotel, which is located within striking distance of the Old Town. With breakfast done, in royal style, both of us affixed green stickers to Latvia before loading luggage into the car. Next we approached the travel desk for directions to leave the city and hit the road to Kaunas. The young chap at the Concierge desk was most helpful and he suggested a route that did not seem very complicated. Within 10 minutes of leaving the hotel I was on the A7 to Kaunas, Lithuania, the 10th country on our journey.
The road condition was good almost all along the way and the road signs as clear as ever. I did not feel the absence of an electronic device to guide me. Having only stopped for fuel and a few photographs at the Latvia-Lithuania border (there is hardly any border control activity visible in the place) we were at the outskirts of Kaunas City by noon. Not wanting to repeat the experience of Riga while searching out the hotel I spoke to the hotel desk, where a comely voice told me that the hotel is in the Centrum. To find the Centrum was the next task. I moved further on and stopped at a bus stand behind a taxi with the intention of seeking directions to the hotel. While talking to the driver it became clear that trying to find the place on my own would be a waste of time. I requested him to lead me to the hotel, which he did for Euro 10, even though he had asked for 50 Litas. Euros can be exchanged in Lithuania but the currency in use is the Lita, which is 3.5 to a Euro and 2.5 to a USD. The hotel check in was done in quick time after the car was parked in a secure parking lot. Later when I came down to collect a few things from the car I found a young family admiring the branding of the journey on the car. I further explained to them what we had done so far and gave them a couple of bookmarks as souvenir. Their young daughter did a remarkably quick and efficient job in affixing the green sticker on Lithuania.
After dealing with some documentation for a while I dropped on the cot for a short nap. That nap nearly ruined the available time in Kaunas. Nearly three hours went by. Fortunately, the major sights in Kaunas were a short distance from the Kaunas Hotel. The front entrance of the hotel is from the promenade that runs to the Old City. The area was mostly built up between the 14th and 17th centuries; the buildings are in Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture. Open spaces, parks, and places of interest are in a compact area of the Old Town of Kaunas and I was told at the hotel reception that a walking tour is the best way to explore it.
The tree lined promenade, the Laisvės Alėja, with wide walkways on either side of it and a cycle track is meant to take life easy. A short walk from the hotel brought us to a Park with a fountain that had an Asian sculpture in the centre of it. As I was moving slowly through the park I came across the bust of a person with an inscription by the side. I was moved by the historical significance of it. It was that of Romas Kalanta, a high school student, who became well known for his act of public self-immolation protesting the Soviet occupation of Lithuania. On May 14 (strangely, my birthday too!) 1972 he poured gasoline and set himself on fire in the square adjoining the Laisvės Alėja in front of the Kaunas Musical Theatre. R. Kalanta' death provoked the largest post-war riots in Lithuania. Demonstrations spread to other cities as well. Romas Kalanta became a symbol of the Lithuanian resistance throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
The Kaunas City Hall is in the main square of the Old Town and is surrounded by buildings with lots of restaurants, bars, coffee-houses, museums, art galleries and hotels nearby. It was built in the middle of the 16th century when Kaunas was a flourishing city of merchants and is a fine example of renaissance architecture in Kaunas. The locals call it The White Swan. In 1836 the City Hall was reconstructed and was converted as the residence for Russian tzars.
Kaunas was an important center of wax trade in the Middle Ages. The wax stones (each weighing nearly 16 kg) were melted in 9 stoves of Kaunas and later stamped with a Coat of Arms of Kaunas for export to Europe. The unique exposure of the 15th century wax melting stove near the Tower entrance of the City Hall was opened in 2002 to give an idea of the wax melting process. By the side of this is the Kaunas Arch-cathedral, the largest Gothic (with Renaissance and Baroque elements inside) church in Lithuania. It is said that the church is mentioned in documents dating back to 1413. The Perkunas' House is one of the most beautiful Gothic buildings in the Old Town. It is called the House of Thunder because of the "flaming”. The building presently belongs to the Jesuit order of priests and houses a small museum of the poet Adam Mickewicz.
We walked further in the direction of the Kaunas Castle. The Kaunas Castle was built in the middle of the 15th century and is the oldest building in Kaunas. The imposing round tower of the Kaunas Castle today houses an art gallery. The castle also hosts festivals occasionally.  Near the Kaunas castle is the serene Santakos park, which is set at the confluence of the two largest rivers of Lithuania - the Nemunas and Neris.
The St. George Church is located near Kaunas Castle. The Church's Gothic walls have survived despite frequent fires. The Church and the adjoining monastery were built in the 15th century. It is a medieval Gothic monument with unique façades and the interior is a pleasant mix of valuable Renaissance and Gothic elements. Complex is under renovation at the moment. The saintly priest seated at the entrance to the church took pains to explain that the renovation process is slow due to paucity of funds; how the roof and windows were done first and how the frescoes are being touched up now. He proudly pointed out to the paintings contributed by school children and the statue of St George made of straw! He blessed us as we took leave of him; it was a calming experience.
The Laisvės alėja is Kaunas' most famous walking street, which is only meant for pedestrians. It runs for almost 2 kms from the Old Town to the Church of St. Michael the Archangel. Two lines of Linden trees, bench seating and flower beds run the length of the avenue. There is a good assortment of shops, banks, supermarkets, restaurants, a cinema, casinos, nightclubs and museums on either side of the peaceful walkway. I felt as if I would be able to spend the rest of my stay in Kaunas in the Laisves Aleja and not get bored. It is lively and clean. It is to one of the restaurants lining the avenue that we settled for dinner. The Retro Bordo promise great steaks and a variety of drinks. We ordered a glass each of the local favourites - Svyturys and Kalnapilis beer. The huge portions of beef and lamb steaks did take its time appearing on the table. But when they did, they were classic. I also had a pancake with ice cream to wind up dinner.

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