Devil knows how they make Kaunas so peculiar
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“What the devil?” was the cry as young Ruaridh and Flossie raced into the quirkiest museum they have ever stepped into.
Welcome to Kaunas, Lithuania’s hidden gem where the unusual is the usual. To greet us were 3000 devils of all shapes and sizes at the world’s only museum dedicated to the little creatures.
Initiated in the 1900s by prominent Lithuanian painter, public activist and professor Antanas Zmuidzinavicius, it started off as a challenge to collect 12 and once word spread, so did models and statues of devils from across the world, resulting in a collection of 260.
In 1966, the devils were handed over to the state and became so popular that today the museum has 3000 from Lithuania and 70 different countries across the world.
It is a fascinating way to spend a few hours, with the three-storey building divided into different sections, showing you the professor’s private collection and the ones sent in by his followers.
So popular it is with visitors, that people bring their own devil to the museum, which makes it all so much more fun.
And fun is what sums up this friendly little city which has fought for years to fight off competition from the capital Vilnius and become the number one stop for tourists.
The city has now been handed the chance to do just that after being awarded European Capital of Culture status in 2022 and is determined to exploit its history and impressive cultural links. The enthusiastic team behind the campaign have come up with the catchy slogan “It’s Kaunastic,’’ featuring a cute and colourful cat as its emblem and slowly, but surely the momentum is building up ready for the big party.
Low-cost carriers fly into the tiny airport from Scotland and a short bus ride for just one euro each will find you in the heart of the city – and, in our case, at our home for the three nights, The Park Inn by Radisson.
Just off the tree-lined and majestic LaisvėsAvenue, the longest pedestrianised street in Eastern Europe, it is in an ideal location for using your feet and the children were impressed to know that they were staying in a hotel previously occupied by such greats as Robbie Williams and Sting, as well as various famous basketball teams. The sport is number one in these parts with Lithuania’s famous players mostly hailing from Kaunas.
The hotel was our first chance to experience the Kaunas hospitality and the staff at the reception were lovely and efficient and had us in our modern comforts room within minutes of our arrival. With a small spa, handy restaurant and sumptuous buffet breakfasts, we were content and ready to explore.
Between 1920 and 1939, Kaunas became the country’s temporary capital after Vilnius was seized by Poland. But when the fighting stopped, Vilnius regained its status as top dog.
But Kaunas has so much to offer and is already well known in the country for selling out concerts at its philharmonic orchestra and other cultural delights. It is a city immersed in its own heritage.
The interwar architecture is regarded as among the finest examples of European Art Deco and Kaunas was the first city in Central and Eastern Europe to be designated as the Unesco City of Design.
A heritage trail of 68 buildings dotted around the city gives the visitor a glimpse of the architecture on offer. Some are in bad repair, but others have been lovingly looked after and the trail is fascinating, taking you from buildings such as the only brick mosque in The Baltics, known as The Tartar to the police headquarters, as well as some distinguished residential apartment blocks.
For many years, Kaunas was occupied by the Soviets and locals let off steam by daubing graffiti on the walls of buildings. This inspired artists to add drawing to the text and one of the city’s most famous is Vytenis Jakas, who set up his own yard gallery and started drawing pictures of the daily goings on of Jewish families who lived in the same courtyard as he did.
Jakas is famous for The Pink Elephant mural, inspired by the words “love conquers all’’ and this, along with 36 others including a huge caricature of the Wise Old Man, which was drawn on the side of a former footwear factory and can be seen for miles around, forms another trail.
There are also 13 statues or objects on the trail,including the Insects of Ladislas Starevich, a stag beetle, ant and grasshopper all together to mark the career of the pioneer of puppet animation, Zenonas Baranauskas.
The city also boasts two old style funiculars to afford excellent views and there are museums aplenty. The Zoological is one of the oldest in the country and the only one of its type in the Baltics; it is full of well-preserved stuffed animals and birds, shown in their native scenes.
Ruaridh and Flossie especially loved the fabulous Lithuanian folk music history museum and spent their time trying out traditional instruments of all shapes, sizes and materials, listened to the country’s music and even had the chance to try out a beat box and make their own songs.
Lithuania’s most famous composer and painter MK Ciurlionis, known for his abstract art, is celebrated in Kaunas’s national art museum with an exhibition of his finest works. Particularly impressive are his takes on the signs of the zodiac.
The old part of town has some stunning buildings and is close to the river which divides the city. Rotuses Square is a lovely open space with fine architecture and the best place to find traditional Lithuanian restaurants. Etno Dvaras has been officially certified by the Lithuanian Culinary Heritage Fund and specialises in hearty dishes such as potato dumplings and pancakes as well as delicious beetroot soup and tree cake, a sponge cooked over an open fire. The fruit teas and local beers are great too.
Just up from the square is the Lithuanian Pub Entry, which has devoted itself to reviving and fostering the traditions of interwar Lithuania.
The building is decked out in art deco and there is a special interwar menu where you can sample such delights as zander soup with crayfish tails and Pojarsky cutlet, chopped chicken rolled in ground pastry and served with peas, carrots and fries.
In the run up to 2022, organisers from the Kaunas team are organising many events to gel their community together and get ready for the influx of tourists.
They hope to bring in 150,000 visitors from abroad to each of their events which includes the Fluxus Festival that made its debut last year.
People are invited to climb Pardos Hill in Fluxus style, which basically means the weirdest way, backwards, upside down, carrying your uncle or your pet goldfish. A mythical beast has been created to appear at the centre of the celebrations and young and old alike are invited to tame it.
Like the city of Kaunas, all very strange, but strangely fascinating!
Need to know
The Park Inn by Radisson is an ideal hotel to base yourself in as it is in the heart of the city and close to all the attractions. It deserves its four-star rating for the very friendly and helpful staff, clean and modern room and excellent buffet breakfast. www.radissonhotels.com/en-us/hotels/park-inn-kaunas
Traditional Lithuanian food is served at the delightful Etno Dvaras restaurant, where the fruit teas are also worth a try. http://etnodvaras.lt
A special “interwar’’ menu serving specialities from the period between the end of the First World War and the start of the Second, is a great addition to the classically decorated Lithuanian Pub Entry. https://lithuanianpub.lt
The locals are very friendly and Kaunas is easy to get around.