As Lithuania is overwhelmed with medals from FIBA U18 Women’s European Championship and the World and Europe Swimming Championships, this weekend or in the nearest future, we invite you to take a walk along the roads of athletes and their victories in Kaunas. We promise that this walk in Lithuania’s sports capital will be just the beginning of the road to further achievements. And now it’s time to find out where the historical sports places in Kaunas are and what’s hot news.
The most curious people have already had a chance to visit the new building in the newly renovated (and, of course, sports-friendly) Santaka Park - the Lithuanian House of Basketball. It was the venue of the Aura Dance Festival and the Kaunas Biennial exhibition. However, the building was designed for basketball, and we can finally invite everyone to an exhibition dedicated to the centenary of this sport in Lithuania.
Basketball fans (and the friends they bring along - don’t talk back!) will be attracted by the display of trophies and the famous Lithuanian Fans’ Flag, flown in many of the world’s most famous arenas. Keep your eyes open - the most significant Lithuanian achievements, fan paraphernalia, and a collection of actual balls are here for your enjoyment.
The big highlights are a silver plate, a prize founded by Latvian President Kārlis Ulmanis in 1937 from the 2nd European Men’s Basketball Championship in Riga, and a marble and bronze sculpture of the Roman Wolf, a reminder of the women’s achievements at the European Basketball Championships, brought back from Italy in 1938 as the vice-champions. The exhibition programme includes a film from the TV3 documentary series “House of Basketball”, a unique 20-minute journey through the most important and exciting basketball events.
Photos by the House of Basketball
You can visit the House of Basketball on your own or with a guide, and special educational tours are available for children. At the end of the tour, a surprise for everyone is a selfie with your favourite basketball player! If you get hungry, there is a bar called “Overtime” right here. Great name, right?
One more stop at the courtyard before we stroll further. After all, basketball is not just Lithuania’s “borrowed” second religion; our country is also linked to the sport’s birth. Did you know that after James Naismith published the rules of the game in 1891, the first women’s basketball game was played a year later and that it was organised by Senda Valvrojenska Berenson Abbott, the author of the rules of women’s basketball, who was originally from the Alytus region in Lithuania? You will find Senda’s sculpture in her home town, and in Kaunas, James Naismith himself is greeting the curious with the rules in his hands. His sculpture is by Lukas Šiupšinskas.
Just a couple of hundred metres, and we are in another sports mecca. Medals, trophies, diplomas, shoes, spears, bicycles, balls - thousands of trophies and personal belongings won by Lithuania’s best athletes make up the collections and exhibitions of a small museum founded and still run by former athlete Pranas Majauskas. The idea of establishing a Sports Museum was born in interwar Lithuania, but the war and occupation prevented it.
However, in 1982, the current Vytautas the Great War Museum started to collect sports-related exhibits, together with other similar institution. The current museum was founded based on the items collected by the War Museum staff and donated by veterans and was officially opened on 2 August 1991, during the 4th World Lithuanian Sports Games. In a separate room, there is also an exposition of the history of the Lithuanian circus. In this museum, Valdas Adamkus (who won medals at the 1948 Olympic Games of the Enslaved Nations) announced that he would run for the office of President of Lithuania.
We can no longer imagine the skyline of Kaunas city centre without the Žalgirio Arena, which was opened on the island of Nemunas in 2011 and designed by Eugenijus Miliūnas. It is still the most modern and largest multifunctional arena in the Baltic States, the home of the Žalgiris basketball team and thousands of fans. It is where attendance records are broken, the most significant victories are won, and the support is at its peak. This is witnessed by the sports fans who flock from all over Lithuania and by Kaunas guests from abroad watching the matches for the first time. The arena also hosts regular concerts by Lithuanian and foreign performers and many other events of all kinds.
The hottest (or rather, pleasantly cooling) news is the Olympic-size swimming pool with a spa area and a space for a sports club, which was built on the island of Nemunas in less than two years. The multifunctional aquatics centre, managed by the Žalgirio Arena team, is scheduled to open in September.
When the reconstruction is officially completed soon, Kaunas will be proud to have a stadium of the highest UEFA category 4 and a major attraction for the city. At least 15 events are expected to occur here every year, and at least 10 will be on the calendar of sports federations.
And now for some history. The stadium was first opened on the marshy site of Oak Grove in 1925. Soon after, it was reconstructed, and in 1936, the first football match between Lithuania and Estonia was played here, with Lithuania winning 2-0. In 1938, the first National Olympics were held here. It has hosted the Lithuanian World Games, the Lithuanian World Song and Dance Festival, the Baltic Sea Sports Games, the European Athletics Championships, the welcoming ceremony of Pope John Paul II, the European U-19 Football Championship, the French and Spanish national teams, and the match between FBK Kaunas and Glasgow Rangers.
It’s time to stop by the Kaunas Sports Hall, where the builders are also spending their last days. It was in this arena, built in a record six months and opened for the 1939 European Basketball Championship (designed by the engineer Anatolijus Rozenbliumas, after the refusal of many famous architects due to lack of time), that the most crucial basketball victories of the First Republic and the years of Soviet occupation were achieved. The legend of Žalgiris was born here.
The search for the new joint manager of the hall and stadium has already started. We will be sure to announce the opening events at total volume.
As we are in the heart of Kaunas sports, we cannot miss the Lithuanian Sports University. It is hard to count the number of Lithuanian champions and their coaches who have graduated from this historic institution, housed in the Palace of Physical Education, designed by Vytautas Landsbergis-Žemkalnis in 1934. Institute, academy, university - the names keep changing, but the graduates’ achievements are not affected. By the way, LSU also owns the athletics arena in Žaliakalnis, next to the ice arena.
And now, after seeing the architectural highlights, it’s time for some outdoor sports. Cycling, walking and jogging trails, fitness equipment for young and old, and many other opportunities to exercise and support athletes can be found in one of Europe’s oldest oak forests. And the Oak Grove has just been comfortably renovated, making it even more fun to spend time there. By the way, the park also hides another exciting sports-and-arts highlight. In 1938, in the run-up to the first National Olympics, a sculpture of a man sitting in the park was erected to promote an athletic body and a healthy lifestyle. It was created by Viktoras Palys and posed by basketball player Petras Jankus (you can find the sculpture near Vydūnas Avenue).
Well, we must follow in the footsteps of the champions and visit the small part of the Oak Garden called Vytautas Park. And maybe even kneel down! After all, on 13 July 1919, the park was the site of the first celebration of sport - athletics, to be precise. In 2015, on the initiative of the Director of the Lithuanian Sports Museum, Pranas Majauskas, a memorial stone marked its location. The park was also the venue for the first basketball training and matches - women’s basketball, by the way - in independent Lithuania. Football, too!
The historic ice arena Baltų Ainiai on Aušros street in Žaliakalnis was the starting point for the careers of many ice dancers and ice hockey players who later became famous. Now, dozens of children who want to become stars train here, and curling is also played.
By the aforementioned Girstutis pool, the new Kaunas Ice Palace will open in 2022 - though it was a vaccination centre for a while after it was built. But as times have improved, now the two rinks are for mass skating, and both men’s and women’s hockey teams train here, as well as figure skaters. If you get cold, you can even play badminton here!
We have already invited you to see some of the sites and objects related to the sport’s history, but there are many more such symbols in Kaunas, and new ones are constantly popping up. More than one artist finds inspiration in the victories and personalities of athletes. Take the recently renovated Santaka Park, where you will find the “Svarstis” (Weight) sculpture by Tadas Vosylius. A little more than half a metre tall, it weighs a tonne - don’t even try to take it home. Another work by T. Vosilius is best seen when turning around the Castle Ring. When the sculptor proposed the idea of circling horsemen for the Kaunas Highlights competition, he said that the ring often resembles a race track. Just don’t speed, okay?
The entrance to the National Football Academy in Žaliakalnis is marked by the sculpture “Lithuanian Footballer” by Džiugas Jurkūnas, erected in 2009. The sketch was inspired by the Lithuanian press of 1934, which is what the young players looked like then. One more football symbol awaits on Jonava street. Not far from where the Jewish sports and gymnastics union Makabi opened a stadium 100 years ago, a sculpture by artist Gediminas Pašvenskas was unveiled in 2020. It replicates a footballer’s shoe in the running phase.
There is a little more Makabi history in the Old Town, on the façade of the A. Martinaitis Art School. The lovely building in the Old Town, dating back to the 18th century, has seen it all over the past few hundred years, and in March 1927, it was the beginning of the history of Lithuanian table tennis. The first competitions were organised here by Makabi, and there is a memorial plaque on the façade.
A tree can also be a memorial. Just two weeks after the then 15-year-old Rūta Meilutytė won gold at the 2012 London Olympics, a lime tree was planted in her honour by the people of Kaunas on Laisvės Avenue in front of the Vytautas the Great monument. The tree is marked with a special plaque. And we cannot congratulate Rūta enough for winning gold at the World Championship in June and the European Championship in August 2022!
You will also find sports-related symbols by looking down. Arvydas Sabonis, Modestas Paulauskas, Tanoka Beard, Edgaras Ulanovas - these are just a few of the dozens of Žalgiris players from different generations who have already left their handprints on Lithuania’s only basketball walk of fame. The first imprints were made by the McDonald’s restaurant at 321 Savanorių avenue back in 2004.
Perhaps the most painful fragment of Kaunas history, the Holocaust, is commemorated by the brass plaque for Isakas Anolikas by the international initiative “Memorial Stones”. The idea of the stumbling stones (stolpersteine) was conceived by the German artist Gunter Demnig, who has already laid more than 50,000 symbols commemorating the victims of the Holocaust throughout Europe. One of several such stones in Kaunas is located at the beginning of Laisvės Alėja, not far from the velodrome where the first Lithuanian Olympian, I. Anolikas, trained. He was killed in the Ninth Fort in Kaunas.
One more about the first Olympics with Lithuania represented. In 1924, athletes returning from the debut Paris games planted an oak tree in the Šančiai neighbourhood. 84 years later, the memory of the athletes who did not win any medals but instead opened the way for future generations is commemorated here. The memorial stone in A. Juozapavičiaus ave. (near house #87) was designed by Arvydas Rymeikis.
In Kaunas, you can exercise at any time of the year and even at any time of day. Initiatives such as “Six Thirty” wake up those who like to exercise early, while the city’s gift to residents, “Move Healthy”, invites them to free workouts in a wide range of sports. And then there’s the annual Kaunas Marathon, the Rio volleyball arena with natural sand open year-round, the new Tennis Space for racquet lovers, the “Like Bike” initiative to encourage cycling, and the open-air gyms found in every park. The key is to take a step out of the house. And... make sure you wear the proper footwear and clothing!
The City of Champions route and dozens of other illustrated guides to Kaunas can be found at www.kaunastika.lt or in PDF format at this link. More ideas for a kaunastic time await in the Kaunas IN Tourist Information Centre at Laisvės al. 36.