IT’S a fair old way to Lithuania when you’re six foot two, 105kg, and crammed into the middle seat between two armrest hoggers for almost three hours, all on a no frills airline. It’s not terribly cheap to fly either, but keep an eye on the Ryanair website for upcoming deals – they’ve just opened up a direct route from Dublin.
The good news? Kaunas is certainly worth the journey, with no shortage of cool sights and activities – and great prices on the ground too.
Forget everything you thought you knew about the former Soviet Baltic state. It’s not cold, it’s not grim, the food is good and the people of the relatively small university city of Kaunas (population 297,000, Belfast by comparison has 333,000) are bright, young and cheerful, and ready to party.
Temperatures average well into the mid-20s this time of year and skies are blue and sunny over the battered but tidy-looking, low-rise downtown as we arrived last week and checked in to the four-star Best Baltic Hotel, with its quirky but functional split-level bedrooms.
The nearby old town, all within walking distance, has a distinct medieval feel, not quite Bruges – not as touristic or ruined by big brands either – but with open squares joined by small pedestrian streets that link impressive cathedrals with rooftop viewing over ancient guild halls and merchant houses.
Successive occupiers have all left their stamp, though the great churches, made Orthodox by Czars, then into factories and warehouses by the Soviets, have returned to the Catholics – and at least one underground bomb bunker is now a fascinating museum of Cold War oddities (more on that anon).
Some of the medieval merchant houses, dating way back to the 14th and 15th centuries when wax and linen gave the city considerable pull, have tours and demonstrations where you can dress up, dance like a peasant and make candles, all for a couple of euros. We did it and it’s a genuine hoot.
If churches and cathedrals aren’t your thing, another surprise is just how in touch Lithuanians are with their pagan roots. A statue to the god of thunder overlooks the city at the top of a funicular tram ride, a stone alter to the god of love is much visited where the city’s two rivers conjoin.
Lithuanian crosses, highly decorated and made from wood, are UNESCO listed and date back to pre-Christian times when the cross, as the handle of a great sword plunged into the ground, symbolised heaven meeting earth, the intricately carved rays of sun gods emanating from their centre.
And at the Devil Museum, thousands of horned demons fill almost three floors, the first of these occupied by a thousand Lithuanian devil carvings, donated by superstitious homesteaders who, when faced with various disasters, donated the carvings in order to cast the devil from their homes.
The highlight of our entire stay? A trip down six flights of stairs to a bomb bunker given a new lease on life as a KGB Spy Museum, where giant metal hatches embossed with huge hammer and sickles revealed vast collections of secret radios, spy cameras and pens that fired bullets, all real and used.
It’s thirsty work, deciding which of almost 50 museums, castles and exhibits to explore. Thankfully, the bars and restaurants of Kaunas serve a typically varied array of European beers, quite a few of them local, mostly not much more than two euro a pint, perfect for washing down venison, mash and mushrooms at tongue-tripping Medziotoju Uzeiga, a posh but inexpensive game restaurant.
You might want to wait to fill up though, and travel just 10 minutes up river to the wooded Lampedis Lake Entertainment Park to climb through the canopy and zip wire down – or freefall and swing from the 100-foot high treetop ‘Elephant Drop’, which I feel may have been named entirely for me.
Then steady your nerves, as we did, with a tour of the renowned Stumbros vodka factory, where just €12 per person gets you the full factory floor, vodka museum and six-shot tasting masterclass.
“It is funny,” smiled our tasting host as we weaved our way back out into the sun afterwards, “everyone seems to leave our tour ‘giggling’.” Yes, hmm, that – and laden down with bags of 100ml gifts, vodkas of every flavour, the perfect size for the carry-on luggage.
That night, as the warm evening darkened to deep, royal blue on the balmy, cobbled streets of Kaunas old town, where we nibbled finger-food and drank good, cheap, strong beer, we asked someone how to say ‘cheers’ here.
‘Why, Sláinte, of course,’ they said. Now if that’s not a welcome, I don’t know what is.
I travelled with Ryanair, Dublin direct to Kaunas, prices vary – www.ryanair.com – and stayed at the Best Baltic (Daniela) Hotel www.danielahotel.lt. For more information on Kaunas amenities and attractions check out www.visit.kaunas.lt