As some of you might know, Lithuania has only had one king through the centuries, and that’s Mindaugas, who was crowned in 1253. Lithuanians celebrate his coronation day as the Statehood day on July 6th - this is when millions of us around the world sing our national anthem at 9 pm Lithuanian time.
During the time of the First Republic, between 1918 and 1940, however, Mindaugas wasn’t considered that critical among Lithuanians. The focus was on the Grand Duke Vytautas, also known as Vytautas the Great, who, after expanding the country’s territory all the way to the Black Sea almost became the king of Lithuania on September 8th, 1430. His colleagues and enemies had different ideas. His crown was seized while on the way to the ceremony, and just a few weeks later, Vytautas died.
There are quite a few objects of interest in Kaunas (even more in Lithuania!) that remind us of the brave and noble man meant to be the king, as the 500 year anniversary of his death happened to be commemorated in 1930. Visiting them all on September 8th, the day he was supposed to be crowned, would definitely be an excellent route for history and nature lovers. Interested? Let’s go!
The best - and quickest - way to find out how much and for how long Lithuanians had to struggle to live in a free country finally is to visit this museum. Full of historical artefacts and impressive small-scale models of battles and settlements, it offers a dynamic contact with history - a contact that is neither dull nor tiring. Almost every weekend the museum staff provide a new topic that’s touched and explored from many angles. Oh, and don’t forget to take a picture with the lions at the museum gate - every Kaunasian has one in his family album. There’s a historic sculpture and monument garden next to the museum, as well as a carillon tower with an impressive 49-bell instrument.
Vytautas the Great Bridge
This one’s been featured in dozens of pub quizzes in and outside of Lithuania! The question goes something like this: “Why does it take two weeks to cross the Vytautas the Great bridge in Kaunas?”. Well, for quite some time one side of Nemunas river was part of the Prussian empire, and the other one was part of the Russian one. One side used the Gregorian calendar, the other one used the Julian one… Anyway, the bridge - rebuilt and reconstructed, apparently - is one of the iconic symbols of Kaunas and is featured in many of the most liked and favourited pictures of our city.
Vytautas Magnus University
S. Daukanto g. 28
V. Putvinskio g. 23
(other locations, too)
The university was founded in 1922 as the University of Lithuania, but in 1930 it was renamed to Vytautas Magnus University. Shut down by the Soviets, it was reborn in 1989 and quickly became one of the leading universities of Lithuania. It focuses on 360 education and offers a wide array of fantastic study programmes that attract both Lithuanians and foreign students. It’s also home to various science and culture institutes. We just love its new building on V. Putvinskio street (designed by Gražina Janulytė).
The university also owns the Kaunas botanical garden which bears the same name and is a lovely place for a date or a long autumn walk.
The legend says the hill on which the park is situated was where Vytautas, then an underage nobleman, was riding around thinking about how to help out his cousin, Vaidotas, ruler of Kaunas Castle, then attacked by the Crusaders. In the times of the Russian empire, a park was designed here - and called “Petrovka”. The name was changed in 1919. Today, it’s still one of the most peaceful spots in Kaunas, part of the bigger Oak Grove park. It’s also home to a vintage amusement park - just ask any of the parents watching their kids if they had the same amount of fun here some 30 years ago. There’s a hip cafe called “O kodėl ne?” (“Why not?” right in the park. Expect electronic music when the night falls.
Formerly known as Michailovskyi prospect and Deutscher Ringstrasse, the 1,3 km long street connecting the railway station and the centre of Kaunas received its noble name in 1919. It took eleven years to turn the busy yet bumpy road into a new prospect matching the name of Vytautas the Great. The prospect was opened in 1930, on the 500th anniversary of the duke’s death.
Built around 1400, the Church of the Assumption of the Holy Virgin Mary, better known as Church of Vytautas the Great (Aleksoto g. 3), is considered the oldest in Kaunas. It was funded by Vytautas the Great, the ruler of Lithuania, and designated for Franciscan monks and foreign merchants. Its cross-shaped layout is unique for Gothic churches in Lithuania. Located on the bank of Nemunas, the biggest river in Lithuania, the church was flooded numerous times. In 1812, it was burned down by troops of Napoleon. In the late 19th century, it was rebuilt as an Orthodox church; the building was also used as barracks and warehouse. It was returned to the Catholic community 99 years ago.
Statue of Vytautas the Great
There are dozens of monuments of Vytautas in Lithuania; a lot of them were built in 1930. The story of this one, located in the heart of Kaunas, is somewhat complicated. Designed by Vincas Grybas, the monument was intended to celebrate the greatness of Lithuania. Therefore, Vytautas was depicted standing above the representatives of nations he and his army had defeated - a Russian, a Pole, a Tatar and a German. The project lacked funding, but the monument was finally erected in 1932 in Panemunė district, near army barracks. It was demolished in Soviet times and rebuilt in 1990. The monument’s idea was recently questioned as part of Kaunas Biennial - a local artist Vytenis Jakas believes expressing power and defeat in such ways is not a correct artistic approach in the 21st century.
Yet another object dedicated to the 500th anniversary of Vytautas’ death is the only brick mosque in the Baltics. Islam in Lithuania has a pretty long history – in fact, longer than in some countries in Western Europe. Almost 600 years ago, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania stretched all the way to the Black Sea – and the inhabitants of its Southern lands were invited to the territory of today’s Lithuania by - you guessed it right - Vytautas the Great. The people that moved to Lithuania were Crimean Tatars – over the centuries, they assimilated and became Lithuanian Tatars. Before the brick building was erected in 1930, a wooden mosque used by the Kaunas Tatar community was standing in its place since the middle of 19th century. The new one was designed by Vaclovas Michnevičius and Adolfas Netyksas – the architects were apparently inspired by the mosques in northern Africa.
As faith and religion were not accepted under the Soviet occupation (most churches were turned into warehouses or something similarly uninspiring), the Kaunas mosque was also closed down. At first, the building was used as a circus, later as a library and then as a storage space of National M. K. Čiurlionis Museum of Art. After reinstating our independence, the mosque was given back to the local Tatar community, and the worship was held again in 1991.
Today, the mosque welcomes not only local Tatars but foreign students of the Muslim faith that come to Kaunas. Significant holidays usually attract so many people just a small percentage of them can fit inside – it’s quite a tiny mosque, really. It’s now undergoing renovation, but there’s a lovely new highlight next to it - a kid’s trampoline by street artist Morfai.