On February 14, 1408, Kaunas was granted Magdeburg Law, which meant the city could govern itself. Kaunas immediately began to expand and became an increasingly important trading centre and port for Western Europe. In, 1398 traders’ guild with close ties to Hanseatic league (a commercial and defensive confederation of merchant guilds and their market towns in 10 countries itself established in Lübeck in 1280) appeared in Kaunas. The with the league was signed in 1441 and its main office was located in House of Perkūnas, now an important historical monument, for a hundred years.
House of Perkūnas. Photo from www.perkunonamas.lt
By the late 16th century, the League had imploded and could no longer deal with internal and external struggles. Only nine members out of 160 attended the last formal meeting in 1669 in Lübeck. The League was finally demised in 1862 when the German Empire was created. In 1980, the former Hanseatic League members established a ‘new Hanse’ in Zwolle. Kaunas is the member of the new international organisation consisting of 187 cities from 16 countries since 1991.
One of our closest Hanseatic neighbours is Kuldīga, a town in the Kurzeme region of Latvia that joined the Hanseatic League in 1368. That's why we met with Artis Gustovskis, president of Kurzeme Tourism Association, during his stay in Kaunas where he took part in an international workshop aimed at the Hanseatic tourism routes.
The tourism expert had some great ideas on how the Hanseatic heritage could be intertwined with today’s tourist demands - and how it could actually increase tourist numbers in both Lithuania and Latvia.
Artis Gustovskis in Kaunas. It's #Kaunastic!
Is Kaunas interesting for people from Kurzeme, and vice versa? ‘Sure. It’s very important to get to know your neighbours! I, for example, am a big fan of the Kaunas city symphony orchestra. I loved it when I heard it for the first time! I always buy some chocolate when I’m here, also some handicrafts. I think Lithuanian folk artists are really special. Of course, Kaunas is very special to begin with, as it’s situated on the confluence of two rivers and you can still visit a medieval castle - it’s not very common these days’, says our interviewee who believes package tours that include a stay in a hotel, a dinner and some local activities are a great way to cultivate ‘neighbour tourism’. Of course, it's very convenient to offer packages that include both Lithuania and Latvia, too.
Sculpture of Vytautas the Great (c. 1350 – October 27, 1430), one of the most famous rulers of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Photo by Artis Gustovskis
‘Food plays an important role here, too - I think it’s great Lithuanians have preserved a handful of traditional recipes’, adds Artis who’s a fan of the Lithuanian soup served in a bread bowl. One of his favourite spots for that is Bernelių užeiga (M. Valančiaus g. 9).
Artis also stated that the Hanseatic approach is interesting to Scandinavians, too. The island of Gotland (Sweden) which is quite close to both Lithuania and Latvia, used to be a key spot for this part of Europe in the Medieval times. It was used as a storage place, among other reasons. Visby in Sweden and Bergen in Norway are both also Hanseatic cities. There's a direct flight from Bergen to Kaunas, by the way!
The tourism information centre in Kaunas has published a great booklet on all things Hansa, including medieval food recipes and a lot of interesting facts. You can download the English-language PDF version here or grab a free copy in one of the tourism information centres.
Old vs new: A street art work by the Nykoka festival in the Old town of Kaunas. Photo by Artis Gustovskis
You’re also welcome to visit Kaunas during the annual Hanseatic days – that’s when the actual birthday of our city is celebrated. It’s one of the most significant cultural events in the region. The medieval theme and intense program of the annual celebration spreads beyond the limits of the Old Town. In 2017, the party is scheduled for May 19-21th.
Hanseatic days in 2016. Photo from www.kaunas.lt
A postcard from Kuldīga