European Capital of Culture 2022
Kaunas continues to make an exhibition of itself
Kaunas along with Novi Sad in Serbia and Esch-sur-Alzette in Luxembourg are the trio of European culture capitals for 2022, and The Budapest Times was fortunate to return to the Lithuanian promotional city this August, to observe acclaimed local and international performing arts, exhibitions and more.
It’s the second time that Lithuania has hosted a European Capital of Culture after the country joined the European Union in 2004, with its capital, Vilnius, being awarded the accolade in 2009. Remarkably, between world wars Kaunas served briefly as the capital, from 1919 to 1939, when Vilnius was occupied by Poland.
Throughout the last century, Kaunas with its compelling but also troubled past was famed for its rich cultural and academic life, fashion, café culture and architecture. The construction of many Art Deco and distinctive Lithuanian National Romanticism architectural-style buildings, interior designs and elegant furniture continue to astound as they prevail throughout the city.
Much of the local architecture is, although splendid, more dimensional and practical rather than stylish and fanciful, as something similar to Art Nouveau. If you like Art Deco and colourful cubism, then make your way to Kaunas, a modernist hub with many fine examples to be found throughout the city centre.
The result is a European Heritage Label, and this contributes to Kaunas being named as the first city in Northern Europe to be a designated UNESCO City of Design. Kaunas is also located at the confluence of the Nemunas and Neris rivers and is near the Kaunas Reservoir, the largest body of water in Lithuania.
The official 2022 cultural programme includes more than 600 projects, 1000 events, 40 festivals, 60 exhibitions and 250-plus performing art events, of which more than 50 are premieres. Local and international artists alike will offer over 250 concerts, and overall the year is requiring 150 foreign partners, 2000 artists and 1000 volunteers. Then there is the “Mythical Beast of Kaunas”, which is also creating a unifying narrative throughout the year.
With much to see in the shortness of time, a direct flight from Budapest got me there. I was grateful for being booked in at the cheerful Radisson Hotel, which has hosted the still-popular former President Dalia Grybauskaitė alongside popular artists and musicians such as Placido Domingo, Jean-Michel Jarre and various others in recent memory.
From this landmark, it’s easy to orientate oneself to all the important landmarks. It’s a light 10-minute walk to the St. Michael the Archangel Church, the inner city’s main feature. Originally this outstanding building was a Russian Orthodox place of worship, which relates to when Lithuania was part of the Russian Empire. But now this Neo-Byzantine structure with its impressive dome has been converted into a Roman Catholic house of prayer and makes a most obvious meeting point. Also it is in a convenient line of sight from the official Tourist Information bureau.
St. Michael’s sits at one end of the idyllic “Laisvés aléja”, which translates as “Liberty Avenue”. This is the main pedestrian street and it runs for 1.6 kilometres, with impressive lines of well-kept linden trees. Then further on while walking along this promenade it’s easy to see the enchanting tower tops of the Old Town, while taking to the cobblestoned “Vilniaus gatv”, a minor road and walkway that comes with a splendour of churches, upmarket bars and restaurants, and vintage buildings. Here are the atmospheric Cathedral-Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul, Church of the Holy Trinity, St. Francis Xavier Church, Kaunas Town Hall and so forth.
During this time there is a central Summer Stage in the heart of the Old Town Square, dedicated to theatre and concerts. In my case I saw “The Wedding”, a play directed by the respected Oskarus Korsunovas and which touches on the latest social and political affairs, to much critical acclaim from tourists and locals alike on this particular glorious summer evening.
Beyond this immediate area is the impressive coned-topped Kaunas Castle with its distinct medieval setting, and the rivers.
Certainly both these delightful and easy-going walkway proms, with their abundance of shops and street art – and remarkably a doughnut shop from former regime times – also come with a strong sense of patriotism. The symbolic yellow, green and red Lithuanian flag flies everywhere, often alongside the equally distinct blue and yellow Ukrainian flags that are in full flow too. Support for Ukraine is most apparent in the Baltic states, and understandably so.
Also within these confines is a poignant memorial to the 19-year-old local legend and martyr Romas Kalante, who after proclaiming “Freedom for Lithuania!” set himself alight on May 14, 1972, in protest at Soviet occupation. This “political disruption” as sensed by the former militsiya and KGB duly led to the “Kaunas Spring” uprising. Protests took off as thousands of people took to the streets to stand up to the oppressors and to remember their lost son.
Today things have changed. Alongside my many meetings with officials and volunteers alike came the exhibitions. First, Daiva Jeremičienė, the Kaunas 2022 Coordinator of International Relations, prepared me with progress reports about tourism in the city as well as dealing with outside relations, such as Hungary. In return I briefed her about Veszprém-Balaton, which will be a European Capital of Culture in 2023.
One sightseeing venture with the informative Marija Pulokaitė took me out of town to “The Villa”, a ritzy, deluxe place that epitomises the elegance of early 20th-century artworks and aesthetics. Expect the unexpected as this splendid locale could easily pass as a timely Jeeves and Wooster or Agatha Christie Poirot stage set.
Later that day, a classic architecture tour prevailed before me. The central theme for this “Modernism for the Future” talk was hosted by expert scholar Žilvinas Rinkšelis, as he took me on a plenteous tour. Afterwards, it made me wonder where would Kaunas be without its characteristic “turn of the century” and general Art Deco structures? Finally, I met my host and organiser, Eglė Rytmetytė, who took me to the CulturEUkraine Centre.
The following day I made it to the Christ’s Resurrection Church at Žemaičių Road. This unmissable “icing sugar-esque” and totally whitewashed modern-day building overlooks the city, as clearly seen from afar. During Soviet times it was a factory. You will be rewarded with outstanding panoramas, so proceed to the olde-worlde Žaliakalnis funicular railway that makes its way uphill through parkland to the church at the end stop.
After, I met with the instructive Daiva Price who took me to the excelling “1972” exhibition, which is hosted at the former Post Office, another striking architectural juncture. This relates mainly to local “rebellious” freedom-searching hippies, rockers and young people alike, all searching for ways out of the former political system.
This powerful “Breaking Through the Wall” exhibition recalls the rise of “forbidden” popular music and other defining events that finally led up to 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet system and Lithuanian independence in 1991.
This led to the most commendable, distressing but purposeful “Out of the Darkness”, an interactive Holocaust exhibition by Jenny Kagan at Gimnazijos Street. She uses photographs, music and visual projections to share the love and tragedy her parents endured during the Holocaust. Kagan invites visitors to explore their own ways around this subject matter by using her own family’s story as the main feature.
A ride to nearby woodlands and suburbs followed with the willing and attentive Aistė Paukštė and Monika Valentukonytė to observe the various “Fluxus Labs” community programmes relating to forestry, carpet making and a fun-loving “bubble show” for local children. The evening rounded off with a German modern-day “Umme Block” rock concert.
The following day Goda San led me to an all-too-familiar urban tower block neighbourhood and a “70s Apartment” – just like Budapest, really. Should you have affinities for that era, then book yourself in for the real thing. If not, turn the other way.
Perhaps the most famous event in Kaunas is the Yoko Ono “EX IT” display at Maironio Street. The symbolism of the show speaks for itself as the crossovers between old and new, dead and alive, past and present are very clear. Nearby is the compelling William Kentridge “That which We Do Not Remember” exhibition at the National Museum of Art in Putvinskio Street.
My final duty was to return to the “CulturEUkraine” centre and meet Kseniia Nezhyva, the manager and also a refugee from Dnipro, eastern Ukraine. She and more than 60,000 others from Ukraine in the Kaunas area have very similar stories. All had to flee their homeland and make new lives elsewhere. In her case she and her daughter travelled to Lviv then on to Warsaw before finding their way to Kaunas.
This commendable culture centre provides information and all relevant amenities with a play centre for the children. It also hosts exhibitions, mainly drawings and paintings by the youngsters to give their impressions of the Russian invasion. This also gives a chance for people to walk in and offer help. But what is abundantly clear is the uncertain matter of where the Ukrainians will go after this unsettling time?
On my last day, I made a request to see some old-style wooden houses, as I personally associate these unique earthy structures with the Baltic States. This was granted by expert local tour guide Sandra Anta, and a visit to the green and shady Žaliakalnis suburb rounded off my marvellous and memorable time in Kaunas most eloquently.