Where: Kaunas and Siauliai, Lithuania
When: February 2013
Why: We went to Kaunas when we travelled through the Baltic countries in February 2013. Kaunas is the second city of Lithuania and we primarily went here as it was a stepping stone between Druskininkai and Siauliai, where the Hill of Crosses is located.
Also on this trip we visited Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, Trakai for Trakai Island Castle, Riga and Sigulda in Latvia and Tallinn in Estonia.
Kaunas is the second city in Lithuania. We stayed here for one afternoon and one night in between Druskininkai and Siauliai.
Kaunas has a nice medieval centre, and there are lots of things to do here, though we only had one snowy afternoon, so we didn’t see a huge amount. There are lots of small museums (including a devil, a pharmacy and a ceramics museum), loads of churches, festivals, sights galore, bars, restaurants. There’s a funicular and islands in the river where you can go play.
Kaunas felt like a university town, with many funky, cheap bars and restaurants. It didn’t seem to be a huge tourist destination, it was more a city that people live and work in, though there are many interesting things to see for a day or so.
We visited Siauliai on our way from Kaunas to Riga. We only went here as we wanted to visit the Hill of Crosses. Siauliai is a large town located near to the Latvian border, and the Hill of Crosses is located about 10km out of town. The Hill of Crosses is one of the key tourist sites in Lithuania, a unique tribute to prayer, life, love, and remembrance, and it is well worth a visit.
We caught the bus from Druskininkai to Kaunas. It cost 30LT/£7 and the journey took about three hours. We bought our tickets from the bus station, on the morning of our departure.
The journey was very prettily boring, as we just travelled through flat lands, forests and through small towns and villages. Take a book – or do what I did and use the free wi-fi on the bus to download one to your Kindle.
We also caught a bus from Kaunas to Siauliai. This cost 32LT/£7.50 and took about three hours. We caught this from Kaunas bus station and this dropped us off at the bus station in Siauliai, which is underneath a huge shopping centre.
The Hill of Crosses is located about 10km out of Siauliai. To get to the Hill of Crosses, we took a local bus from Siauliai bus station to the village of Domantai and then we walked 2km down a side road to the hill. We were worried we would miss the turn off, but there is a sign saying Kryžiu Kalnas (Hill of Crosses) at the side of the road.
A very nice lady at the bus station gave us a bus timetable for the Hill of Crosses, and we caught the bus from platform 12. We caught the bus at 12.15, then went to catch the 15.02 back. The bus ticket cost 2.70LT (about 50p).
There are a number of buses to Riga, some are huge coaches and some are little mini-buses (like ours). The bus from Siauliai to Riga cost us 40LT/£10. We paid the driver on the bus and the journey took about two and a half hours.
You can find domestic and international bus times and prices, and book tickets (in English) at www.autobusubilietai.lt and www.iticket.lt.
What we did on our holiday
What we did in Kaunas
We caught the bus from the bus station to the old town (bus 6 or 7). It took about ten minutes to get to the old town and cost 2LT/50p.
The old town has a nice pedestrianised street (Vilniaus Gatve), with lots of bars and restaurants on either side, some interesting medieval churches and some nice looking old buildings. We spent some time drooling through the restaurant windows, looking for somewhere to eat.
At the end of Vilniaus Gatve is Rotuses Aikste Square (see above), which I guess is the center of the old town. Here you can see the ornate, white Town Hall and the ornate, white St Francis Church. There were people having snow ball fights in the square when we were there.
All around the outside of the square were pretty, old buildings. We walked through an archway off the square and we found Skliautas restaurant, a small, dark, cosy, candle lit restaurant where we had afternoon local beers and wines and a nommy lunch.
After lunch, we walked through the old town to the 13th Century castle. This was located in a park at the edge of town, by the river. When we were there, it was mid-February and it had been snowing solidly for three days, so the snow was about two feet deep – but we ploughed on through to the little, red castle and we went for an explore.
The castle is kind of strange as we had to go up and up some steps to get to the entrance – and then from there I think you descend into the castle for the visit. It was kind of closing up when we got there, so we just spent some time exploring the bastions and looking around the walls at the bottom. They charged to visit the exhibit, but you could walk around the outside of the castle for free.
It was too cold and snowy to really explore the castle though, so after this we wandered back into the old town and walked back along Vilniaus Gatve (below), which turned into another pedestrianised street (Laisves Aleja) in the new town. Laisves Aleja is the heart of the city and this is where most of the entertainment and shops are. We had a lovely walk, in the snow, through the modern town center, stopping for coffee and popping into delis on the way.
At the end of Laisves Aleja was a beautiful domed church, St Michael and the Archangel Church. It was very dark and spooky in the cold, snowy night.
Next to the church was the modern art museum and outside there was a statue of Man. Apparently this was controversial because it shows his nekid bits, and the locals were a bit shocked by it. We went to see him for a giggle.
Finally, we ended the day at the huge Akropolis shopping centre, where they have a 3X Maxima supermarket (the only XXX store we saw). We bought a bed-nik here and had a little potter around the shops, before going back to the hotel to watch TV.
We stopped at Siauliai en-route to Riga. We stopped here solely to see the Hill of Crosses.
The Hill of Crosses
One of the key sites to visit in Lithuania, and one of the highlights listed in all the guidebooks, is the Hill of Crosses (Kryžiu Kalna). It’s a little bit out of the way, but it is well worth the visit, if you can go.
The Hill of Crosses is a small hill covered in crosses and crucifixes. The Hill of Crosses was probably founded in 1831, after an uprising. Over the years, more and more crosses have been added, in remembrance, in love, in prayer and in thanks, until now there are thought to be over 100,000 crosses and crucifixes, icons and effigies, all draped in Catholic rosaries.
The Hill of Crosses became a symbol of defiance in the Soviet years, when the secular Soviets tried to take down all of the crosses – but people kept putting them back up. In one night in 1961, the Soviets removed all of the crosses, and built ramparts around the hill. The next morning, three crosses had reappeared. It ended up with the Soviets having to destroy about 500 crosses each year – each one a symbol of peaceful resistance.
We visited the Hill of Crosses at the end of winter – in two feet of snow. We could tell by the footprints that we were the first people to visit on foot in the last few days (nobody else was crazy-stupid enough).
The Hill of Crosses is located about 10km out of Siauliai – a large town located between Kaunas and Riga. To get to the Hill of Crosses, we took a local bus from Siauliai bus station. A very nice lady at the bus station gave us a bus timetable and we caught the bus from platform 12. We caught the bus at 12.15, then went to catch the 15.02 back. The bus ticket cost 2.70LT (about 50p).
We got off the bus at the village of Domantai. We wondered if we would know where to get off the bus, but we kept an eye out and saw the road sign for Kryziu Kalna on the right hand side of the road. From here, we had to walk 2km down a small side road. In summer, this would be a lovely walk. In minus-20 biting winds and two feet of snow, it hurt.
Luckily for us, there was a nice warm information centre next to the HoC, with toilets (1LT) and hot drinks machines etc. I think they were a bit surprised to see us emerging from the snow drifts.
The actual hill is just beautiful. It is sad and uplifting and marvellous. I’m not religious at all, but I could appreciate all of the emotion that these crosses and crucifixes symbolise: all the prayers, please, thank yous and remembrance. There were crosses with people’s photos on them, crosses that had been planted on people’s wedding days. Apparently there are crosses to remember those who died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. There were beautiful statues of saints and many forms and interpretations of Jesus. And the blanket of snow just made all of the statues more evocative.
There was a man at the site, obviously on a pilgrimage of some sort. He sat on his knees in front of the pivotal crucifix for a long time, lost in prayer, then he crawled on his knees, in the deep snow, up the stairs to the top of the hill. I don’t know what he was praying for, but I hope whatever it was, he got it.
There was only us, this man, and one other at the site. So we had the whole place to ourselves, lost in the banked quiet of the snow. It was so peaceful.
The other man turned out to be a lovely Lithuanian called Matteaus, who saw us at the bus stop waiting to go back to Siauliai, and who offered us a lift. Like most Lithuanians we met, he was very kind and sweet, and we really appreciate the help that he gave us. Thanks Matteaus.
The Hill of Crosses is free to visit. There is parking next to the site.
There is a shopping centre next to the bus station in Siauliai, and after we had visited the Hill of Crosses, we went in here for some food and to wait for our bus to Riga.
There are a number of buses to Riga, some are huge coaches and some are little mini-buses (like ours). The bus from Siauliai to Riga cost 40LT/£10. We paid the driver on the bus and the journey took about three hours.
Where we stayed
We booked this hotel because it was opposite the bus station, and we thought it would be a good base for getting in and out of the city quickly. We also thought that if we stayed by the bus station, we wouldn’t have to carry our bags very far.
The Magnus Hotel was a cheap, business hotel. It was OK, but there were a few things about the hotel that bugged us, like the rooms weren’t very well designed (Jeff nearly knocked himself out on the tele), to use the free wi-fi I had to sit in the corridor and the reception staff were a little bit rude.
However, it was cheap (£25) and they had English channels on the tele, so it was OK.
Kaunas Tourist Information homepage (in English) – www.kaunastic.lt.
Please note, some, if not much of this information may not be correct, or may be out of date. All these articles show is how we found these places when we visited and what we personally thought of each place. Where possible I will include links to site which will contain more up-to-date info. All of this is our own work and any opinion expressed is that of the author only.
All photos copyright of J Clemo-Halpenny. If you would like to copy or reproduce any of these images, please email me to ask permission.