Posted by: Mary | March 3, 2011

Trakai and Kaunas

The bus or train to Kaunus takes between 1.25 – 1.75 hours, depending on whether or not it is an “express” bus or train. Because of this, I planned to catch one of the two (the stations are next to each other) between 8:30am – 9:00am, to make the most of my time. I was up around 5:15am and at breakfast at 7am. I did a quick check of my email, planning to let my former Director know that I was unsuccessful in connecting with her cousin the night before, when I received a message from her with a cell number asking me to please call him. Because I didn’t want to call too early, I waited until 7:30am, knowing this would make my start a little later than planned. However, when I reached him, he insisted on picking me up in Vilnius (a little over an hour away from Kaunus by car) and taking me to Trakai Castle before heading to Vilnius, since it is on the way. Due to the fog, he (Darius) said he would meet me at the hotel at 10am.

Since I had some time before he was due to arrive, I decided to walk down to see St. Anne’s Church (above). Legend has it that when Napoleon was in Vilnius, he found it so beautiful that he wanted to take it back to Paris. The outside of the church was beautiful, but unfortunately, it was closed, so I was unable to see the interior. Perhaps I will have a chance before I leave. Next door is Bernardine Church, which is currently under renovation inside, but the grounds on the outside were very pretty. While I was here, snow flurries started, which left a number of white spots on my photos. I continued along and saw several other churches and was able to go inside a small Russian Orthodox Church before heading back to ensure that I was at the hotel before 10am.

Darius arrived just after 10am and was full of suggestions of things that he could show me. His mother is my Director’s cousin and he is about my age. (His brother and mother met up with us later, but I did not have the opportunity to meet their families on this short visit.) He spoke English very well and was full of information about Lithuania and about the sites that we were to visit. He has an interest in history, which made him a perfect tour guide!

Our first stop was Trakai Castle, which is on a small island in a lake, about 30 minutes from Vilnius. It was restored in the 1960’s and there is a museum of its history and the restoration efforts in the interior. During the summer, Darius said that you can snorkel in the lake surrounding the castle or take a boat to one of the small islands for a picnic. When we arrived, there was no lake. It’s frozen over now and covered in snow. Instead of taking the bridge, I chose to walk across the frozen lake. After all, when will I get a chance to walk on water like that again? There are places where people have brushed away the snow so you can see the frozen lake underneath. They say that some of the fish freeze in the ice, but do not die, and come back to life when it thaws. (True or not?)

The interior of the castle makes you feel like you have stepped back in time, especially this time of year when hardly anyone is there. I can imagine what it would be like to visit in the summer. Although the weather would be much better, I think the crowds would take away from the experience. We visited the museum, where most of the exhibits had English translations. Then we walked back to Trakai town via the bridge for a different view and a great photo opportunity of the castle (see photo above).  Concerts are also held in the castle (even this time of year) and it would be great to attend one sometime.  Whenever I get back to Lithuania, I will definitely make an overnight stop and plan to time is for one of those concerts.

From Trakai, we headed to Kaunus and just before entering the city, we stopped at a monastery, which is under renovation. According to Darius, this project has been going on for some time and has a long way to go. I assume it is due to a lack of funds, but don’t know for sure. The church inside the monastery was very pretty and worth the stop.

We arrived in Kaunus and started our visit outside the Old Town, and headed for Darius’ family church. It is a strange-looking church because it is a very large, new-looking, white rectangle with a single square tower. Inside is somewhat plain compared to all of the other churches, with the exception of a very large photograph of the Hill of Crosses behind the altar. It is almost floor-to-ceiling in its size. Apparently, the church was used as a television factory during WWII and for some time afterward. The attraction of this church is that it has an elevator that takes you to the roof “terrace” (see photo above) where you can get a view of Kaunus (mostly the new parts).

Next to the church is a funicular that took us down the hill to the main street in Kaunus. It is said to be the oldest operating funicular in Europe. We walked the main street to a church that Darius wanted me to see, but when we walked around it, all four doors were closed and there were no signs. Normally, you can take a lift to the top of the tower for another great view, but not that day. Instead, we headed to the war museum that had an extensive collection of swords, armor, guns, cannons, etc. Unfortunately, none of the exhibits had an English translation but Darius told me a bit about what was inside the museum, and the exhibits were interesting.  If you don’t have an English-speaking guide who knows the museum, I don’t think you can get the full value of what is there without understanding what is written about the exhibits.

From here, we drove to the Old Town, where we met up with Darius’ mother. I could see a family resemblance to my former Director and she was a very sweet woman. Her English was very limited and I speak no Lithuanian, but we were able to communicate a bit. We started our walk in the Town Square and she pointed out the yellow house where her aunt was born, and another house where she had lived as a child. She also explained that people get married at City Hall, which is a beautiful building that I first mistook as another church. We wandered Kaunus and stopped at a couple of churches, then walked along the river to the Kaunus Castle ruins for some photos. Near here is where Pope John Paul II said mass when he visited and they showed me the area before heading back to the town square.

Here, we met Paulius, Darius’ brother, and he took us to a restaurant that translates to “The Beehive”. Bees are very important in Lithuanian (and Latvian) culture and many things are made with honey (medus). They wanted me to try Lithuanian cuisine and beer made with honey. The beer was very good, although I couldn’t taste the honey. I tried a dish of chicken baked in a pastry dough, which was not “traditional” Lithuanian food, but was good.  After dinner, we drove across the river to a point on the hill where we could get a view of the old town lit up. Not much turned out to be lit up this time of year and Darius commented that the City was more concerned about the electric costs than tourism.  Since I believe in energy conservation and can see that there are very few tourists this time of year, I certainly understood the City’s position, but could tell that they had hoped I might get a view like they have in the summer.

We took a couple of photos and then I said goodbye to Darius and their mother. Paulius drove me back to Vilnius, which was very nice of him since it was late and would be over two hours round trip for him…on a work night.  I arrived back at my hotel at around 10pm and knew that I would not have an early morning the next day. I was exhausted, but happy. It was a great day for sightseeing and I really enjoyed meeting my former Director’s family and the conversations I had with them.  It was wonderful getting the perspective of people who live here about what is important to see, and also what life is like in Lithuania today.

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Responses

  1. Mary – reads well – glad you had a positive stay in LT and in Kaunas…the city is indeed so very different in the summer and well worth a visit during these months. – cheers – James

    • Thank you, James. I appreciate you stopping by. I loved LT and will definitely need to come back one summer. There’s so much more to see!


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