‘Kaunastic’ is the word for city in continental spotlight

International entertainers of the calibre of Muse, Blue, Robbie Williams, Tom Jones, Sting, Placido Domingo, Nickelback, Bryan Adams, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Prodigy and Scooter have put up at the Radisson Hotel Kaunas, and it is also the hotel of choice for the organisers of this European Capital of Culture 2022 when they bring in media to observe an important moment in the ongoing festivities.

If any of these are return visitors to the upscale Radisson they will likely notice changes, because renovations have been carried out at this largest hotel in Lithuania’s second-biggest city, and the 206 rooms are now described as Scandinavian-style. This means that they offer light, clean colours and wooden details for what it is expected will be a comfortable and calm stay.

From the window of The Budapest Times’ room, over at an angle can be seen the impressive Neo-Byzantine-style domed roof and upper half of St. Michael the Archangel’s Church, now Roman Catholic affiliated but consecrated in 1895 as Russian Orthodox.

The church took four years to build and is also known as the Garrison Church, as it dates from when Kaunas was part of the Russian empire and was largely for the use of the Russian Orthodox garrison of Kaunas Fortress.

The church sits imposingly at the eastern end of  Laisvės alėja, the main pedestrian street that stretches for 1.6 kilometres, almost exactly a mile, and is the longest pedestrian street in Eastern Europe. Laisvės alėja translates as Liberty Boulevard or Liberty Avenue. It is less than a five-minute walk from the Radisson, and anyone out for a stroll will find the street separated into two walkways by a median strip lined with linden trees. There is plenty of seating, a fountain and tulip beds.

Vehicles can cross at only a couple of places and the wide way allows al fresco people-watching at a range of cool restaurants and cafés. Here and nearby are found an abundance of the notable Modernist buildings that make Kaunas stand out in the region. Many of these were created in the Interwar period, when Kaunas served as Lithuania’s capital. See such important places as the former Central Post Office, Kaunas City Municipality, Milk Centre, Romuva Cinema, Officers’ Club and more.

A particularly poignant memorial is a commemorative tablet and fresh flowers recalling 19-year-old Romas Kalanta, who set himself on fire on May 14, 1972, with the events that followed leading to the birth of the so-called “Kaunas Spring” anti-Soviet protests that involved thousands of people and took place mainly in Laisvės alėja. Next to the street there are 19 rocks in a park, one for each year of Kalanta’s life.

Kaunas and its Radisson are busy this May as the European Capital of Culture program enters an important phase. “Kaunastic” is the buzzword going around the city these 12 months while it has the continental spotlight, shared with two others, Esch-sur-Alzette in Luxembourg and Novi Sad in Serbia, Serbia being a candidate country to join the European Union.

Now, a couple of dozen journalists from the neighbouring Baltic states of Estonia and Latvia and other countries such as Poland, Germany, the UK, Denmark, Croatia, Finland and Hungary have been invited to Kaunas to experience the second of three particularly big events on this “one big stage for Europe”.

The guests are staying at the Radisson, which has an on-site casino, restaurant, gym to keep up their fitness routine, spa and sauna. Saulėja SPA promises exceptional peace for everyone who wants to escape from the hustle and bustle (though Kaunas is a pretty relaxed sort of place) via a list of treatments, rituals and beauty procedures. And in the Olympic Casino you can… well, win or lose money. Or, this May, watch the exciting denouement of the English Premier League football season, as the gambling room doubles as a sports bar.

Business guests at the hotel find one of the largest meeting and event centres in the area, catering for up to 1200 people and featuring state-of-the-art technical equipment. In the 206 bedrooms, all have tea- and coffee-making facilities, comfy beds with soft linen and a large television with Chromecast. This latter feature is a technology that lets you stream your favourite entertainment and apps from your phone, tablet or laptop right to your TV.

Statistics don’t necessarily paint a full picture but in Kaunas they’re difficult to ignore. The city’s big year encompasses more than 1000 events, with 40-plus festivals, 60 exhibitions, 250 performing arts events of which 50-plus are premieres, and more than 250 concerts. Kaunas 2022’s team comprises some 500 people, alongside 80 local and 150 foreign partners. At the cutting edge of what it’s all about, some 2000 artists and 1000 volunteers are involved.

They are particularly busy during the three weekends of The Contemporary Myth of Kaunas Trilogy. Act One was “The Confusion”, which opened the year of culture from January 19-23, Act II has been “The Confluence” this May 20-22 and Act III will bring down the curtain on the year with “The Contract” from November 25-27.

The Confluence refers to the fact that Kaunas sits in the embrace of two rivers, the Nemunas and the Neris. Here nearby are Kaunas Town Hall Square, Santaka Park and Kaunas Castle at the heart of the Old Town. Metal gateways and portes cocheres lead into unseen courtyards while Kaunas is also a place of modern-day trappings – giant side-of-building street murals, dropped-off scooters, bike-for-hire stations, coffee shops galore and, lately, plenty of yellow-and-blue flags and other symbols showing unity with under-attack Ukraine.

“The Confluence” weekend featured labyrinths, high-wire acrobatics, the Kaunas State Puppet Theatre, a traditional fair, concerts on two stages, a kite festival and of course art spaces.

The European Capital of Culture program continues throughout the year in Kaunas and the Kaunas region, with hundreds of traditional and debut events including exhibitions, festivals, performances and other activities created by local and international artists and Kaunas communities.

The whole place is going berserk with culture. You better believe it. For what’s on and what’s coming, see the complete Kaunas 2022 program here.

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