“Sorry Denise, I won’t be able to send that out for you tomorrow, I’m on annual leave”. “Where am I off you say?” “Kaunas... Lithuania”. “I said, Lithuania”. “Why? Because... because I have a friend out there.” “Really, I do.”
Now friends, the real response to this should have been, “Well, why the bloody hell not?” Lithuania lies to the east of Poland, just south of Latvia, and furthermore, is right on our doorsteps... after a three hour flight that is. Three hours?! Nothing, right? Truth be known, the reason for my escapade to Lithuania wasindeed to see a friend. She moved over to Kaunas, the second biggest town in Lithuania and has been working there for a few months. Admittedly, I didn’t know an awful lot about Lithuania. I knew their flag was yellow, green and red. I knew they’d only been an independent country for a couple of decades; but mainly I knew of Lithuania because that’s where Francis’ assistant was from in Made in Chelsea.
Flights to Lithuania are mainly with Ryan Air (£74), but you can also fly with the Hungarian airline, ‘Wizz Air’. I flew to the capital of Lithuania, Vilnius, which is only separated from Kaunas by an hour and half train journey. When I looked at my fellow passengers who would be sharing my plane ride to Vilnius, I have to admit I was a tad unnerved; the majority of passengers looked like the cast from the Eastern European episodes of Banged up Abroad. What a fool was I. While these people sat quietly, and politely interacted with the Ryan Air staff, I was terribly embarrassed by the Scouse stag party that had also boarded the plane. No I don’t want to smell booze, fags, and un-brushed teeth at 7am; and I certainly don’t want to hear your group rendition of Vengaboys’ ‘We’re Going to Ibiza’. Put aside the fact that it was incredibly annoying, it also had me pondering, “Am I on the right flight here?”At first, I was baffled as to why a stag party would pick somewhere like Lithuania for a boozed up holiday; but then again, with pints for the equivalent of £1.50 - £2.00, Lithuania made a great deal more sense than anywhere currently dealing in the Euro.
When my plane touched down in Vilnius, I won’t lie; my first thought was ‘bleak… very bleak’. But it was raining, and airports are renowned for being plonked in bleak locations. But once I was aboard the double-decker train (!) I was introduced to the Polish-resembling Lithuanian countryside. There’s something very tranquil about the sparseness of their country in between towns; and yet at other moments, incredibly eerie. Either way, there is a timelessness about their landscape – it appears untouched. When entering the cities, however, this ‘untouched’ feeling tends to become more negative than when describing the country.
Dotted around Kaunas are quite literally unfinished buildings. After the breaking up of the Soviet Union when Lithuania became independent (the first country to declare independence, may I add; well done Lith!), there were a lot of buildings under construction that never got finished; the site of such buildings, to me, just seems like a constant reminder of the past. Lithuanians have a fantastic optimism about the future of their country, and so it just seems baffling to me that these unfinished buildings either aren’t completed, or demolished. Furthermore, it simply looks depressing. My poor friend works across the street from one of these bleak constructions, and it is her only view. Poor soul.
Anyway, enough of that, urgh… Let’s talk about what’s good to do; I stayed at my friends flat during my visit to Kaunas which was situated at the bottom end of Laisvės alėja, a 2km pedestrianised street full of shops, bars, restaurants, and even a casino. This road (if you can manage to resist all the lights and enticingly delicious smells from the restaurants, and reach the end, it eventually runs into Kaunas’ old town. Kaunas old town is beautiful and everything you would expect from a traditional European old town. In the old town you’ll find a myriad of museums and churches, but also Kaunas City Hall, and if you venture further Kaunas has its very own castle, which is open for tourism and holds festivals throughout the year... I say this, and know this, but I didn’t actually get as far as the castle. It was December, and far too cold. But my friend assured me, that it was a perfectly lovely castle. If you’re not quite as lucky as me, and don’t have any friends living in Kaunas to stay with, then never fear; Kaunas has plenty of reasonably priced hotels.
The Park Inn is recommended for being comfortable, reasonable and accessible – you’ll find it just off Laisvės alėja, and double rooms work out at roughly £44 a night. Close by to Laisvės alėja is really where you want to be. Although reasonably quiet throughout the day, in the evening the street comes to life, most of it occupied by young people (there is a local university nearby that brings a great deal of youth to the city). The bars and restaurants here are great. There is no tack, no pretence, and no trouble. Not once did I see a fight or a squabble of any sort – Lithuanians generally seem to be pretty chilled-out, delightful people. What you’ll find most of these lovely Lithuanians drinking is the heavily favoured local lager in Kaunas, ‘Svyturys’, a crisp, fresh tasting beer. But be careful of your pronunciation when ordering this one, my friend once got served a Brandy instead, which apparently sounds very similar.
On to sport… One thing Lithuanians love? Basketball. Yes, that’s right. Were you surprised? Because I was a little. They go crazy for it. The Kaunas’ home team is one of the oldest teams in the Euroleague. BC Zalgiris play their home games at Zalgiris Arena which is situated in Kaunas’ New Town, on an island situated on the Nemanus River. If you visit Kaunas, I reckon it’s definitely worth getting tickets to go to one of their games. I watched a game in a bar rammed full of fans and from the noise they were making, you would have thought it was the football world cup. The fans are what makes watching this team great – there is a great passion for the sport; and the fans, cheerleaders and atmosphere only add to the exhilarating game.
Eating and drinking in Kaunas was probably the best part of my trip. There’s such a selection of great places to eat and drink, that you’re likely to spend most of an evening deciding which place looks best. One thing you will find on most menus in Kaunas is what the Lithuanians call, užkandžiai prie alaus, or ‘snacks to beer’. Now the only other tradition I’m aware of that does this is America, where you’d expect nachos, crisps, chicken wings etc, right? Well, Lithuanians do things a little differently, you’re more likely to find smoked pigs tongue amongst the favourites here; but the all-time favourite Lithuanian bar snack (and the most appetizing by my palette) is the fried bread with cheese. Sounds rather bland but I can assure you it’s actually a perfect ‘snack to (drink) beer (with)’. Bread is fried and crispy and ready to dip away in a gooey garlicky cheese. A must have for all Kaunas folk.
For all you movers and shakers, there’s actually a fair few places to have a boogie in Kaunas. The atmosphere in most of these places is really cool and trendy; and my favourite thing about clubs (and indeed bars too), is that you do not have to pay to check your coat. That’s right! You needn’t worry about freezing yourself stupid just to save that extra pound; in Kaunas the bars and clubs want you all warm and toasty. What a lovely bunch. I will warn you though, please don’t expect much from the music you’re likely to hear. At times, it can feel like you’re at a Eurovision launch party – then again, now that Gangam Style is pretty much universal (the Lithuanian’s LOVE IT), at times, it may feel like you’re right back home. I’m not too sure if that’s a good thing or not; but at least you can join in with the sing-song.
All in all, Kaunas is definitely worth a visit. It’s fun, cheap and has the right amount of quirkiness about it for you to still enjoy yourself. So go ahead. Give it a go, and party with those lovely Lithuanians for a weekend… Gangam style.
Stay: The Park Inn, K. Donelaicio Str. 27, Kaunas, Lithuania - £44 per night for double room
Eat: Avilys, Vilniaus gatve 34, Kaunas, Lithuania - £10 - £20 main meals, locally brewed ale, cosy atmosphere.
Drink: Republic Pub, Laisvės alėja 57, Kaunas 44305, Lithuania, Great drinks selection, good bar food, shows all BC Zalgiris’ games.
Dance: G-Loft, Rotušės a. 3, Kaunas - Very trendy, modern bar with an entire cove dedicated to dancing. Regular DJ’s.