Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Kaunas

Coastal bike path
In Lithuania I had to make a last route decision. Originally I had planned to cycle to Klaipeda and from there along the river Nemunas to Kaunas where I wanted to finish the trip. But the weather forecast for the coast  was so abominable that I decided to do this route in reverse - although I dislike taking public transportation during a trip. But wether I take the train from Kaunas to Klaipeda at the end of the trip or the train from Klaipeda to Kaunas now and cycle back later doesn't make much difference.

But it wasn't only the forecasted strong headwind that made me flee the coast: it was just too crowded here! Almost directly after the border a fantastic bike only trail starts following the coast line all the way to Klaipeda. But unfortunately I wasn't the only one who knew about this bike path. Virtually everybody and their mother plus the kitchen sink was out here cycling. There were so many people (and inexperienced cyclists) that it was downright dangerous. Several times I had to stop for kids going ever which way and the worst were groups in bike draisines. There were bike rental places everywhere - and dozens of stands for drinks, snacks and general souvenir trash were lining the streets. This was a veritable zoo  and I just wanted to get out of it before I was run over by a toddler on a tricycle.

Baltic Sea Coast
When I thought that the worst was over road chaos reached an even higher degree: I came across a dissolving music festival on the beach which caused a huge traffic jam. Teenagers with huge backpacks were everywhere trying to hitch a ride back home. The festival campsite was completely trashed and due to the heavy rains everyone was wearing mud boots and looked like a pig in a pigsty. When I reached Klaipeda train station parts of the festival crowd had already reached it. The station hall was full of dirty teenagers applauding to impromptu concerts. I was wondering wether taking the train today was really such a good idea.... But I was still sold a ticket and a seat reservation for my bicycle and myself so the train was not fully booked when I arrived one hour before departure time.

My bike on a Lithuanian train
I inspected the train and was shocked to see how high up the narrow compartment door was. How would I ever get my bicycle up there? Luckily there was another cyclist and I decided to just follow his example. I needn't have worried: Soviet customs still rule the Lithuanian train system. When the train finally opened a conductor appeared at every single door! You couldn't just enter the train - first you had to pass the conductor for ticket inspection. And of course the bike compartment had its designated conductor as well. I just had to unload my bike and lift it up to the conductor who placed it on a bike rack. Then I had to grab my panniers, walk to the next door, pass a second ticket inspection and find my reserved seat. The train filled up to the brim and kids lying around on the floor or depositing their wet tents in the aisles drove the conductors crazy.

Kedainai
I just wondered how I would get out of this zoo in one piece with all my belongings. Again, I needn't have worried. The conductor took care of my bike and handed it to me. The train route doesn't pass through Kaunas and therefore I got off at the nearest town Kedainai which was described as a pretty provincial town in my guidebook. As I arrived close to sunset I had booked myself into a hotel. 29 € got me a veritable luxury abode. A hotel of that class would have cost me at least three times as much in Germany. The fantastic hotel was a bit of a consolation for the rather disappointing town.

From Kedainai it was still 53 km to Kaunas and a strong headwind made me fight for every single one of it. But getting into Kaunas was the very worst. Big roads in disrepair with no shoulder or bike path but heavy traffic made me cycle for my dear life. Then whole roads were closed for construction and the sidewalk in such a bad shape that even pushing the bike was hard work. I was so exhausted when I reached my hotel that I just collapsed in my bed and stayed there till next morning.


Kaunas market square
After this traumatic experience I decided to leave the bike in the hotel next day. Kaunas itself was quite a nice city with a remarkable old town. There is the usual share of old churches and houses and a 1,6 km long pedestrian street. The houses there had all been built under the Czar and were uniformly only two stories high, but have later been Sovietized. All this creates an interesting and charmingly shabby atmosphere. I walked the whole long street several times because I had discovered a vegetarian restaurant at one end. The place had the exact same menu as the vegetarian place in Vilnius where I had eaten several months ago and was obviously run by Hare Krishnas as well. Lithuania seems to be a good hunting ground for all sorts of missionaries: not only did I see various Hare Krishnas, but also plenty of Mormon missionaries. Anyway, the Hare Krishna food was excellent and I ate there twice.

Next day didn't start good: I wanted to see a Holocaust museum and memorial and because there were only a few buses going there I had the stupid idea to cycle there. After 45 minutes I had carried my bike up and down several flights of stairs, risked my life in two construction sites and had faced several pot holed bike paths that ended in Nirwana - and wasn't even half way there yet. Frustrated I just gave in and cycled back to my hotel and took the bus to the Hare Krishna restaurant for a little bit of consolation.

My new haircut
Thus fortified I now wanted to tackle the open air museum which is located 25 km outside Kaunas. On the way to the bus station I came across a hairdresser. I urgently needed a haircut and for several weeks I had been looking for a good opportunity. I mustered up all my courage and entered the place. One of the ladies spoke English but the one assigned to me seemed to know only Russian. It wasn't exactly confidence inducing that I had to explain in sign language what sort of haircut I wanted. I am almost blind without glasses and as I had to take them off while she worked on me I had no idea what sort of surprise she was producing. The procedure took forever and it dawned on me that I was at a real hairdresser. Normally I go to places like "Hair Factory" where you draw a number, your haircut doesn't take longer than 15 minutes and you have to blow dry your hair yourself. Here the "stylist" was working on me for over an hour, put several lotions and what not into my hair and was even blow drying it.

Kaunas Orthodox cathedral
The result exceeded my wildest expectations! It only remotely resembled the haircut I had wanted - it was 10 times better. In fact, this was the best haircut I've had in the last 7 years. If you put me in business clothes instead of a torn T-shirt and dirty bike shorts I would even pass for the serious business woman I once was! The whole thing cost me even less than a German "Factory" hair cut: only 10 €.   I was so delighted with this unexpected professional haircut that I added a generous tip.

Unfortunately I had now very little time left for the open air museum but I decided to still give it a try. You have to take a microbus or long distance bus to get there - and of course the tourist information didn't havea schedule. I arrived two hours before closing and had to hurry a bit which was a shame: this was the nicest open air museum I have seen in this trip. Not only were there dozens of old farm houses but an exhibition about Lithuanians who had been deported to Sibiria under Stalin.

Kaunas open air museum
The whole place was in a beautiful location but also in the middle of nowhere. The time table in the bus stop was so old that it was illegible and museum staff only had an old time table. I was now wondering if and how I would ever get away from here. But miracle of miracles right on time according to "old" schedule a minibus appeared and transported me back to Kaunas.

Bottom line: Kaunas is a really nice place but it definitely wins the price for the most bike UNfriendly place on this whole trip. Also this place does not cater very well for tourists. Outlying attractions are very difficult to reach by public transport (or bike) and tourist authorities are not very well organised.

2 comments:

Andreas said...

Hi Christine,
have you been to this open air museum at the Nemunas reservoir? I´ve forgotten its name. I was there in 1988. Our host
family brought us (two young east germans, trying, but failed to explore soviet union at own pace) there. We liked it a lot, just as Kaunas (very well kept old towm, compared to our rotten and slowly dying saxon smalltown), we visited the same sunny summer day.
To our miss favour, our hosts did not let us do a single step alone. Although they were no KGB or so, but hardcore lithuanian nationalists (like most lithuanians we met).
Last time i was in Kaunas was in 2000. Backpacking through Lithuania with my son. The weather was bad and the town looked rotten itself. EU Membership was far away and all was in a state of wild capitalism. Old Town Conservation had to step back in favour of wild advertising. And not at least, Moscow time has been changed to the opposite (EET or so, pretty early sunset). Summer evenings there where light and very long. In the past, everything was better (even the weather) ;-).
But in Klaipeda we met very friendly people, who let us camp in there garden. In 2000, tourist infrastructure was as good as not existing. So they saved us (my purse ;-)) from an extreme expensive hotel stay. The "Kurische Nehrung" and Nida was a real highlight.
All the best for your coming tours,
your blog is a constant open tab in my browser.

Andreas

German Tourist said...

Andreas, the museum you are talking about is the open air museum described at the end of my post. A really nice place. It must have been great to visit the Baltic States when you did....