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  • 179 - the logo again.jpg

Kaunas 

  
  - darkometer rating:  4 -
   
Lithuania's second city and one-time capital, namely when (in the inter-war years) the current capital Vilnius was still part of Poland until the end of WWII. The dark sites here mostly relate to either the Holocaust during the occupation by Germany or the Soviet times, and as if all that wasn't grim enough there is also an unrelated, totally unique little gem of a museum in Kaunas that is dedicated to … wait for it: the devil!  
      
What there is to see: In terms of general tourism Kaunas may play second fiddle to Vilnius, but as far as dark-tourism attractions are concerned it can compete quite well. Three particular places are given separate entries here: 
  
  
  
  
  
In addition, Kaunas has a number of dark-history-related memorials/monuments that are worth a look: 
  
Right on the main street, Laisvės Alėja (allegedly Eastern Europe's longest pedestrianized street!), by the square in front of the theatre is the so-called Aukos Laukas, or 'sacrifice field'. This was the site where student Romas Kalanta set himself on fire as an act of civil resistance against Soviet repression on 14 May 1972 (cf. also 9th Fort). The monument was unveiled exactly thirty years later – obviously during Soviet times the case was not officially commemorated. The design of the monument is rather subtle: it consists of metal plates set into the pavement that state the name and year plus a set of scorched-looking blocks that appear to be made from raw cast iron on the side of a lawn. There's also a small bilingual (Lithuanian and English) information panel nearby that explains the history of the spot. 
  
Trickier to find is the small memorial stone commemorating one of the grimmest episodes during the Holocaust in Kaunas: the so-called garage massacre(s) monument. On this spot, rounded-up Jews from Kaunas were publicly tortured and murdered on at least one occasion (possibly several on different days) in June 1941 during the time of occupation by Nazi Germany. Both the perpetrators of the atrocity and the onlookers were, however, Lithuanians, not Germans. Controversially, some of the perpetrators were later recognized as Lithuanian “heroes” in the fight against the Soviets. The memorial stone at the site is of a simple classic design, hidden behind a low fir tree, in the courtyard next to the Europa Royale Hotel on Miško gatve.
  
Behind the Choral Synagogue at 13, E. Ožeškienės gatve, a simple general Holocaust memorial can be found, this time a modern metal design with a pair of hands balancing on fingertips at the top, and with symbolic etchings on the front.   
  
A less “difficult” monument is the Freedom Monument (a simple bronze-angel-on-a-square-granite-column design), which forms part of a whole set of sculptures, memorial stones etc. on the square outside the War Museum on Vienybės Aikštė square. Also to be found here is a still-burning eternal flame (otherwise a rarity these days in the former Eastern Bloc).
  
Yet more memorials and sculptures can be found dotted around Ramybės Parkas, a medium-sized park on the eastern edge of the inner city centre that was once a cemetery (only a couple of crosses remain). Some of the modern sculptures are quite striking … I especially liked the copper angel! The meaning of the various monuments as well as the history of the former cemetery are explained on a bilingual (Lithuanian and English) information panel near the resistance museum (see below). In the north-eastern corner of this park stands an unexpected type of building (for this part of the world): the mosque of Kaunas, built by assimilated Tatars in the 1930s, appropriated and re-used by the Soviets, and currently undergoing some revitalization.  
  
Another odd sight is the bright-red model plane on a stick in the square in front of the new city hall on Laisvės Alėja. It is a scale model of the "Lituanica", the plane flown across the Atlantic by Darius & Girėnas in 1933. Tragically, it crashed just before reaching Kaunas and both pilots perished. The wreck of the real plane can be seen in the War Museum (more info on this story there).
  
Furthermore, there are a few sights of dark-tourism relevance which due to restricted opening hours and my limited time during my April 2014 Baltics trip I did not manage to check out for myself, but which should appeal to some dark tourists:
  
Firstly, there is the Sugihara House, the former home of Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese Vice Consul in Kaunas during the early stages of WWII. In 1940 he became a kind of Lithuanian equivalent to Raoul Wallenberg (see Budapest, Hungary), saving thousands of Jews from the approaching Holocaust by providing them with transit visas that allowed them to flee to Japan (against orders, i.e. thus risking his own life). He is honoured as one of the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem, Israel.  His former consulate building is now a house museum, with a reconstructed consular office and various displays relating to Sugihara's heroism. The museum is located to the east of the city centre at No. 30, Vaižganto gatve. Open weekdays only in winter from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; from May to October 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends. Admission used to be 10 litas, but as the museum's website wasn't working when I last checked, I can't say what they charge now in euros.   
  
Secondly, those particularly interested in Lithuanian resistance against the Soviets may want to check out the small Deportation and Resistance Museum in Kaunas (also going by the names “Rezistencijos ir Tremties Skyrius/Muziejus” or 'Exiles & Political Prisoners Exhibition'). Exhibits are said to include a gulag bunk bed from Siberia. Descriptive texts are in Lithuanian only. Find it at 46 Vytauto prospektas on the western side of Ramybės Parkas (see above). Information about opening times varies quite a bit but it should be at least Tuesday to Friday 10 a.m. (possibly from 9 a.m.) to 5 p.m., and to 3 or 4 p.m. on Saturdays. Admission used to be 4 Lts (so ca. 1 EUR), but some online sources now say 6 Lts/1.74 EUR. 
  
Moreover, one site that I couldn't check out myself yet because it only opened after my 2014 visit to Kaunas, but that should be of interest to those into the Soviet legacy and the Cold War, is the so-called “KGB Atomic Bunker” on the western edge of town south of the 9th Fort (address: Raudondvario pl. 164A). Visits are by guided tour and by appointment only (see atominisbunkeris.lt/en) and cost 6 EUR per person, plus 20 EUR per group for the guide. On display inside the former fallout shelter 6m below ground is, for instance, surveillance technology used by the NKVD and KGB, as well as a huge collection of gas masks.  
   
Perhaps also of interest to some (those really into icky medical tourism) may be the Medicine & Pharmacy History Museum. It's on Rotušės 28 in the Old Town, opening times: Tuesday to Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; admission ca. 1 euro (used to be 4 litas).  
  
Likewise of only special interest is the Lithuanian Aviation Museum at an airfield in the south of Kaunas (at Veiverių 132) – the very spot where Darius & Girėnas were supposed to land their "Lituanica" plane after their epic transatlantic flight (see above and War Museum). The museum has some rusting old Soviet flying machines (including a MiG-21) and a flight simulator. Open Monday to Saturday 9 a.m. To 5 p.m.; admission: 1.60 EUR (you have to pay extra for guided tours, the flight simulator, plus ridiculously exorbitant fees for photography – charged per shot! The USSR really is still alive here!). Outside is a bizarre Soviet-era air force memorial. 
  
Finally, north of the city centre (and Tvirtoves al.) there's the 7th Fort – another remnant of the former ring of fortifications around Kaunas – see under 9th Fort (>dark combinations).
  
  
Location: roughly in the centre of the southern half of Lithuania, some 70 miles (100 km) north-west of Vilnius
 
Google map references: 
 
City centre (ex-Orthodox church):  [54.897, 23.921]
 
Square with Aukos Laukas (south) and “Lituanica” model:  [54.8977, 23.9057]
 
Garage massacre memorial stone: [54.893348, 23.922986]
 
Choral Synagogue and monument:  [54.8989, 23.9033]
 
Sugihara House:  [54.8927, 23.9331]
 
Resistance & Deportation Museum and Ramybės Park: [54.893, 23.925]
 
KGB Atomic Bunker: [54.9139, 23.8419]
 
Medical Museum:  [54.8973, 23.8875]
 
Lithuanian Aviation Museum: [54.878, 23.891]
 
7th Fort:  [54.916, 23.928]
 
Christ's Resurrection Church:  [54.90285, 23.91738]
    
  
Access and costs: quite easy to get to; inexpensive 
  
Details: Kaunas has become one of those “new” budget airline destinations, but even if you're not flying straight in, Kaunas is easy to reach overland, most likely either from Vilnius to the south-east or from the north and east (including from Latvia). 
  
If you don't have your own vehicle, trains and buses provide regular and affordable connections to Vilnius or (somewhat less conveniently) to Klaipeda on the Baltic Sea coast (from where ferries offer international connections). 
  
For accommodation, Kaunas has in store some real bargains of good quality, my wife and I stayed in the charming Metropolis Hotel right in the centre for (in April 2014) as little as 36 euros (plus breakfast and parking fee at 6 euros each). There are countless further options at similarly affordable rates. 
  
With regard to food & drink, Kaunas can be cheap and cheerful as well, including some rustic restaurants serving typical, i.e. mostly stodgy, traditional Lithuanian fare (and beer – see under Lithuania!). 
  
  
Time required: at a push, all the dark sites given their own separate entries here can be done in a single day, though Kaunas certainly deserves more time than that. Especially if you want to take things in at a more leisurely pace and exhaust every aspect the place has to offer, you can easily spend three or four days here before getting bored.
  
  
Combinations with other dark destinations: The main highway running through Lithuania in the north-west to south direction (A1/E85) takes you straight down to Vilnius in just a bit over an hour, so that city has to be the most obvious combination, and also the most rewarding overall. 
  
Take the same road in the opposite direction (i.e. heading north-east) for a similar distance and you get to Raseiniai with its small prison museum.
  
Quite a bit further away on the northern edge of the country close to the border with Latvia, is Lithuania's most stunning Cold-War-era dark-tourism site: the former Soviet nuclear missile silo base of Plokstine
  
  
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Kaunas has plenty to offer in a non-dark touristy way too: a pretty old town with narrow cobbled streets and a picturesque market square that tick all the right boxes in the quaint old Europe department. Just beyond the Old Town to the west is the confluence of the Nemunas and Neris Rivers and the remnants of the old 13th century 'Kaunas Castle', whose bastions are partly restored to a rather little too “new” looking state. 
  
There are several pretty churches, both in the Old Town and in the more modern downtown to the east, including a massive white domed church that looks like an Orthodox cathedral. That is what it used to be when Lithuania was part of the Russian empire – today, however, it is a Roman Catholic church under the name of St Michael the Archangel. 
  
Towering above the eastern centre of the city is a rather more modern, but exceptionally impressive religious edifice: the massive and blindingly white Christ's Resurrection Church. This was begun in the 1930s but only finished in 2004.  For a small fee, you can go halfway up the tower and walk around on top of the church's flat roof, which doubles up as the city's best viewing platform, affording a splendid panorama of all of Kaunas. To get to the top of the hillside that the church sits on you can get a quaint old funicular from near Putvinskio gatve below. 
  
For such a comparatively small city, Kaunas boasts an astounding number of museums too, ranging from various art museums/galleries to rather eccentric specialist museums (e.g. ceramics, communications, pedagogy, folk music, etc.). 
  
  
  • Kaunas 01 - city centre squareKaunas 01 - city centre square
  • Kaunas 02 - lots of monumentsKaunas 02 - lots of monuments
  • Kaunas 03 - even a still burning eternal flameKaunas 03 - even a still burning eternal flame
  • Kaunas 04 - collection of crossesKaunas 04 - collection of crosses
  • Kaunas 05 - funicularKaunas 05 - funicular
  • Kaunas 06 - to the lofty Christ Resurrection ChurchKaunas 06 - to the lofty Christ Resurrection Church
  • Kaunas 07 - insideKaunas 07 - inside
  • Kaunas 08 - viewing platformKaunas 08 - viewing platform
  • Kaunas 09 - view over the cityKaunas 09 - view over the city
  • Kaunas 11 - orthodox cathedralKaunas 11 - orthodox cathedral
  • Kaunas 12 - modern buildingKaunas 12 - modern building
  • Kaunas 13 - old dilapidated buildingKaunas 13 - old dilapidated building
  • Kaunas 14 - typical Eastern kioskKaunas 14 - typical Eastern kiosk
  • Kaunas 15 - garage massacre memorialKaunas 15 - garage massacre memorial
  • Kaunas 16 - hard to find in a courtyardKaunas 16 - hard to find in a courtyard
  • Kaunas 17 - metal angelKaunas 17 - metal angel
  • Kaunas 18 - spiky monumentKaunas 18 - spiky monument
  • Kaunas 19 - crossesKaunas 19 - crosses
  • Kaunas 20 - mosqueKaunas 20 - mosque
  • Kaunas 21 - long pedestrianized streetKaunas 21 - long pedestrianized street
  • Kaunas 22 - theatreKaunas 22 - theatre
  • Kaunas 23 - model of the Lituanica planeKaunas 23 - model of the Lituanica plane
  • Kaunas 24 - art galleryKaunas 24 - art gallery
  • Kaunas 25 - into the old townKaunas 25 - into the old town
  • Kaunas 26 - old townKaunas 26 - old town
  • Kaunas 27 - old castleKaunas 27 - old castle
  • Kaunas 28 - heavy-handedly reconstructedKaunas 28 - heavy-handedly reconstructed
  • Kaunas 29 - semi-refurbished churchKaunas 29 - semi-refurbished church
  • Kaunas 30 - non-refurbished buildingKaunas 30 - non-refurbished building
  • Kaunas 31 - synagogueKaunas 31 - synagogue
  • Kaunas 32 - Jewish memorial behind the synagogueKaunas 32 - Jewish memorial behind the synagogue
  • Kaunas 33 - Aukos LaukasKaunas 33 - Aukos Laukas
  • Kaunas 34 - resistance museumKaunas 34 - resistance museum
  
   
  
  
  
  
  
  
  

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